SURVIVOR: GASLIGHT ISLAND

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Survivor viewers, let me be frank at the top.  You have been gaslighted and you should not be happy about it. For those who don’t know what that means, let me clarify.  Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and/or sanity. You may not realize it, but in my opinion, that’s exactly what has happened to you.


Now, I feel a disclaimer is important here.  I’m about to walk through what Dan Spilo, a cast member on Survivor Season 39, actually did on this show and as I do, he will be my focus.  I’m intentionally writing this with a focus on Dan to help people see how I believe team Probst has misled them.  In no way am I sanctioning inappropriate touching on anyone.  What Kellee felt about Dan in this show is a valid feeling for her.  Her discomfort with touching is real and should not be dismissed.  I am not invalidating her experience.  I’m actually not talking about her at all.  There is a lot on the internet focusing on her and what she felt.  Google her name if that’s the article you want to read. I respect her courage. 

Recently, I stood up and revealed my disgust and anger over the latest season of Survivor: Island of the Idols.  It’s not something I do often.  In fact, after my last appearance on the show, where I outed transgender contestant Zeke Smith, I rarely watch because they gaslighted you then, too. But after Jeff Probst’s latest attempt at winning an Emmy, at what I believe is at the expense of Dan’s life and livelihood, and the women’s lives who used false accusations to help their game (and Dan’s by the way), more than 100 messages of shock, anger and outrage filled all my mailboxes with “did you watch?” “OMG, can you believe what just happened?”  “What I just saw reminded me of you.”

I tuned in to see what all the fuss was about and it wasn’t long before I realized I’m looking at something eerily similar to what I went through in Survivor: Game Changers when, after my almost 20 years as part of the Survivor contestant family, Jeff Probst threw me to the wolves like trash discarded on a beautiful Fiji beach, presenting me to America with an edit I believe misled you into believing you were watching something you actually weren’t. And so now, in Season 39, I believe Probst has a new tool in his march to pacifying his insecurity and shallow need for accolades, and his name is Dan Spilo.


Maybe Dan is a man we all know in someway.  Every circle of friends, every business, every classroom has that guy, who with the best of intentions, invades space a bit more than we’re comfortable with.  Touch is his love language.  It’s how he connects and shows affection.  Is this even true of Dan in real life, or was this something that simply hurt him here?  I can’t know.  But as I say later, even in the horrible business he is in, I have not found one single claim online that any woman ever has seconded anything like this about him. But the touching lesson is hugely important for him to understand, and, based on his apologies, I assume he now knows, that in what is about to be 2020, it’s someone you just can’t freely be.  Ever.  For better or worse, the only solution is no contact. It’s the only safe choice. That’s the world we live in now.

In this latest Survivor, yes, Dan invaded space in a way that was taken as inappropriate, instantly making his love language part of his Survivor identity and giving the other players a “flaw” that they thought they could weaponize.    Contestant Kellee Kim didn’t like it. But her issue with it, as loud as it is now, (louder than during the show, actually) paled in comparison to how the internet seized the moment, with Tweeters going so far as to compare Dan to horrible people who have been accused of horrible crimes like Harvey Weinstein.

Harvey Weinstein is accused of molesting, harassing, abusing and even raping more than 80 women in hundreds of incidents.  Dan Spilo is accused of touching hair a couple of times and asking to rest his head on a knee instead of the uncomfortable bamboo.  Apparently on Day 35, he was booted for grabbing a crew member’s leg to get his balance as he slipped on the floor of a wet boat.  A wet boat, to be even clearer, that was floating in water. It’s day 35 after a physical challenge. He had to have been weak, dehydrated and exhausted.  Ask any contestant about trying to get on and off these boats while standing in waist-high waves. You aren’t merely stepping on a boat that is docked.

 

Weinstein’s alleged behavior is aggressive, widespread, violent, sexual and criminal.  Spilo’s is something that Kellee called inappropriate, unwanted and annoying during the taping of the show. Yet, in my opinion, watching producers gaslight this, and seeing the Twitterverse respond, you’d think we’d lost the ability to tell the difference, talk about it rationally and understand what might really be going on here.


So I wanted to walk through this season of Survivor to see for myself not only what Dan did, but how producers decided to portray the situation.  I believe I have been a victim of this production team’s manipulation.  I’ve seen it firsthand.  I’ve lived it.  And after I did, I didn’t speak about it publicly for a few reasons.  But feeling like I’m  watching what happened to me now happening to Dan, I can’t quietly sit here and allow it to happen again unchecked.

So walk with me through this season.  Together, let’s remove the emotion, drop the agendas and bring this back down to basic facts. This is a game that people were playing.  I’ve played it three times, so understand I’m taking you along on this walk with a perspective unlike most, and knowledge the typical viewer doesn’t have.  Sexual predator?  Serial abuser?  Survivor’s Harvey Weinstein?  

 

Let’s stop the madness, shall we?

Episode One
The viewer sees Kellee uncomfortable with Dan’s contact.  When you first land on the island, you are working hard to find your place, see where you stand and figure out who you’re going to move forward with to get deeper into the game.  Apparently from this game’s launch, you see the women bonding over what they say is a discomfort from Dan.  But what exactly did Dan do that producers are actually showing us?

  1. Dan lays back in the shelter placing his head on Kellee’s leg.  She says, “ooh gross. You’re sweaty.” She’s not comfortable.  That’s clear.
  2. Dan cracks Janet’s back, with Janet’s permission.  She’s actually laying there showing gratitude as the discs pop on camera.  Molly smiles and says he’s “really good.”
  3. Dan rubs Kelle’s back/neck, then asks her if it’s ok.  She says no. He stops.
  4. Dan and Kellee are on the beach discussing the inappropriate touching.  She admits she understands his love language is touch.  She admits hers is not.  It is clear the message she is sending (don’t touch me) and it is clear he hears her.  He repeats back what she says.  He explains what he’s learned.  Their conversation is comfortable.  They are smiling and it appears to be a positive exchange.  He is a man who does what I believe men should do in this situation, despite the fact that they are in the middle of playing a game of lies and deceptions.  He listens, reflects, digests what she is saying and makes an obvious attempt to understand her boundary. And Kellee does the brave thing by actually pulling him aside to talk to him. To me, this is the moment all men and women should pay attention to and learn from. It’s the moment that should be highlighted. But instead, I fear it’s the moment that producers exploited for drama and ultimately damage. 


Now at this point, in the game you are finding your footing with an alliance.  And Kellee, though she seems comfortable bonding with the women, has made her decision to instead align with Dan. They are partners and working together.  At this point, you do not see a situation where she appears angry or emotionally uncomfortable or demanding that Dan be removed.  And while you do see Dan cross boundaries inappropriately with her (and only her), you see them working through it and moving forward as partners. The viewers cannot ignore this pivotal moment.

Episodes 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7
Six weeks of episodes go by, and it’s clear that Dan has listened.  The tribes have swapped, and Dan and Kellee have been separated, but we do not see inappropriate touching of anyone.  We do not see Kellee or anyone complaining about touching.  You hear zero confessionals discussing that Dan is a problem and there are no votes against him in any of the tribal councils.  To the viewer, this topic is over.  

Then comes the merge.

Episode 8, 9
This two-hour double episode is obviously confusing for me, the audience and especially Dan. I don’t like what I see from many angles.  Here is where I believe you see producers playing some dirty pool.  Before I break it down, let me make a couple of points here. 

  • Merge dynamics are important.  Two tribes come together as one and now everybody is living in the same space for the first time.  The game is to find out where you stand, and when you do, craft a strategy to make sure you’re in the majority and strong players are eliminated. It’s a heated couple of days where the lies and the deception hit an elevated level.
  • I have been in television news for almost two decades.  I have a list of awards and two Emmy nominations of my own. I understand how to create a narrative mixing sound and video that don’t naturally go together.  You can create anything in an editing booth, and those good at it can pull it off without the average eye knowing they’ve been fooled. 

In this episode, we see the topic of the inappropriate touching come back to the forefront.  The narrative presented to us uses confessionals, side conversations and what appears to be raw video to help illustrate a point.  It also, from my own conversations with people who were there, eliminates some specific footage to help the producers craft the narrative that they seem to want you to buy.

Let’s walk through this by first addressing what I believe you don’t really see in full context.  Dan is in an alliance with Kellee, Tommy, Lauren, and Janet.  Not in this main alliance (but still working with Dan) is Elaine, Missy and Elizabeth, who devise a plan to get themselves into the majority and eliminate the threat they see in Kellee.  They craft a strategy to persuade players onto their side and make Kellee feel comfortable that she is in the majority and safe from the vote.  This is a tactic we Survivor players use to set the “vote target” up for the blindside they don’t see coming.  If they’re comfortable that they’re staying in the game, they won’t make any risky moves, and they won’t play an idol when given the chance.

Unfortunately for all involved, Missy and Elizabeth’s strategy to throw Kellee off the scent of her impending elimination involved taking advantage of Kellee’s discomfort with Dan’s touching that occurred earlier in the season.  They set out to make Kellee believe they too feel as she did, that he is not only inappropriately touching her, but others as well. 

My view of that episode is that we saw a little of the setup of the strategy, and a little of it being relayed to other women.  But I believe we see less of the plot planning and more of the execution, which I think is problematic and manipulative. Here’s what we see in this episode.

  • Missy is walking with Kellee on the beach sharing how uncomfortable Dan makes her feel.  To the viewer you see a woman stepping up to a woman with a legitimate discomfort to say #metoo.  But in reality, Missy is lying to Kellee to make her feel comfortable.  Dan’s early-game mistake with Kellee is Missy’s tool.  This allows the viewer to believe Dan is touching others inappropriately, and all the women are in agreement that he must go.
  • Kellee is extremely emotional as she buys into this lie.  After several weeks of Dan not being an issue for her or anyone else, she suddenly is understanding that what she experienced in the early days is shared by the other women.  Her emotion is real as she appears to step away from the game to make sense of it all.

    “Like, this isn’t just one person it’s a f-ing pattern,” she says as she begins to get emotional.  “It takes five people to be like man, like (starts to cry) the way that I’m feeling about this is like, actually real.  It’s like not in my head, I’m like not overreacting to it. … he literally has done these things to like 5 different women in this game.”
  • The video used to cover most of the above two points shows Dan appearing to pull something out of Kellee’s hair and place the strand over her ear as she listens to whatever he is saying.  It shows her talking about the sand in her hair as he lifts it to see if it’s as bad as she said.  It shows him laying on the ground pointing at something as if he’s reaching to touch African-American Missy’s toe (even though the leg shown in that scene is a white woman’s leg).  It does not show him touching Missy at all, nor does it show Missy feeling a touch and looking to see what it is.  That’s it.  Nothing more. But clearly something the producers spliced together for you to see.

The plot Missy and Elizabeth set loose, as unsavory and sick as it is, has worked.  Kellee has dropped her game face and is living in her emotion and is onboard the fake plan to eliminate Dan.  By not showing that the full context of this plotting situation is actually a lie concocted by two players trying to sway the game, producers have effectively created a false narrative, in my opinion, that manipulates the viewer into believing this situation is something it’s actually not.  

 

Add to that their warning on the screen, and it’s clear that it’s an effort, I believe, to capitalize on the #MeToo movement and elevate Survivor as a powerful cultural influence that proves the show is relevant and still as important in our society as it ever was.  The problem is that it’s built on a lie– a misleading narrative that exploits a woman’s legitimate discomfort with inappropriate touching and saddles an innocent man with labels that reach far beyond innocently making one uncomfortable.


Missy and Elizabeth’s plot worked.  Kellee went to tribal with two idols in her pocket and felt incredibly comfortable after the sinister effort to make her feel as if she’s safe.  Missy and Elizabeth succeeded as Kellee was voted out.  Not Dan.  Kellee.  The women the show wants you to think are uncomfortable with Dan, vote out the woman who accused him.  That’s a very telling move that seems out of place given the narrative producers are providing. 

After that elimination, all the women come clean.  They admit they lied.  They apologize to Dan. They made every effort it appears to assure him that he does not make them uncomfortable.  To be super clear, Missy says, “Dan, the only thing we can say about that is that if we truly, truly felt that, did we not have the power to vote you out tonight?… [We slept next to you every night in the bungalow] We don’t want to sleep anywhere else.”

Elizabeth says: “I have never felt uncomfortable. I know what people are talking about, but it’s more in a joking way, and maybe that’s where we’re on the wrong [side] of it, because we shouldn’t be joking about it. But no one has come to me with legitimate life concerns. It was little baby snippets here and there that snowballed into something bigger than it ever should have been.”

Lauren says:  “Voting Dan out for the reasons people want to vote him out, I’m not comfortable with…. All I know is my story, and what Dan and I experienced.  For me it wasn’t an issue.”

Janet was emotional and troubled by these accusations as she too says she likes Dan and thinks he is well-intended.   She is devastated that she was lied too, but immediately goes back to align with Dan.

Now let me point out what I believe are some other attempts at creating a false narrative.  Survivor claimed on a full screen title card that producers spoke individually to each player and asked them if they were safe and comfortable, and based on those discussions the game continued.  I don’t find it a coincidence that after that title card is shown, we start seeing contestants tell Dan they feel safe and comfortable.  

 

I wonder when producers had this “discussion” if they asked the right questions in the right way. Who knows, but by leaving out the clear fact that Team Probst felt nothing needed to happen because everyone said they were ok, that’s when I feel they gaslighted the issue again to sow doubt and fear.


In the scenes after, they seemed to put it to bed.  The topic is done and they move on.  But Jeff Probst is not about to allow that to happen.  At the episode 9 tribal council he pushes this cast (for several hours, according to cast members) into discussing the subject they’ve already moved past in their daily dealings with each other. By hook or crook, he is going to get the conclusion to the narrative he wants.  He even goes so far as to admit he will never let this go – a promise he kept as Dan offered what I believed was a well-delivered and heartfelt apology.

 

Episode 10, 11, 12, 13
The season marched on as we continued to watch a tribe who loved Dan.  There is no drama around the issue.  No touching.  The women are fine with Dan and all that drama, once again, is over.  In fact let’s remember Janet who risked her game when she believed the merge episode lie.  She is moral. She will do what is right.  She continued to align with Dan.  She continued to sleep next to him at night, as all the remaining women did. Following Janet’s lead, there is no problem with Dan Spilo. So surely, we are done with this situation, right?


Yeah, no!  Not by a long shot. Out of nowhere Jeff shows up with the news that Dan had been removed from the game.  To the tribe who loved him and didn’t feel uncomfortable with him, that’s all they got.  He’s gone.  However, the viewer got a little more information delivered in a way that sent me over the edge.

The viewers at home were then presented with another full screen title card that basically said Dan did it again, and this time with someone not on the cast.  It was so vaguely worded, it irresponsibly empowered the viewer to envision the worst possible violent sexual assault there is, and project it onto this man.  Why was he removed suddenly? 

 

Sources reveal what I’ve already discussed.  Dan was removed because he slipped as he stepped onto a wet boat and accidentally grabbed a female producer’s leg to get his balance.  He was removed for an accident that was portrayed to viewers at home as if something much more sinister took place.  As a viewer, I felt cheated, manipulated and lied to.  As a former contestant who believes he experienced these producers crafting a false narrative to make a point, I felt triggered and angry at the notion that another human life is being discarded in a grab for a sexy storyline and cultural relevance. 


The Finale
As this pre-taped-for-the-first-time finale is about to be aired, I’m nauseous at how Jeff Probst, and the deep insecurity he admits he feels to be viewed in Hollywood as a relevant storyteller, has failed his contestants, his network, and the millions of viewers who tune in each week to escape life for an hour.  By downplaying Missy’s lie that all the women felt uncomfortable in the merge episode, he set Kellee up to look like a liar when those same women came forward to deny they felt uncomfortable later.  And that in itself is not helpful to the movement I believe he tried to capitalize on.  In fact, I believe, it is damaging to it.

I also believe he created this unfair image of Dan Spilo that not only endangers Dan’s life, his family and his business, but it defames him.  These people out in the internet calling Dan “Survivor’s Weinstein” are not doing that because they know Dan.  They’re not doing that because he touched a woman’s hair.  They’re not doing that because more than 80 women have come forward saying “me too.”  I’ve scoured the internet for anything I can find, and I don’t see one person, male or female, ever seconding this feeling about Dan from any experience with him. No one.  The cast has not stepped forward to say “yes, he’s a predator.” Noura and Janet stated publicly today that they adore Dan and all is cool. The public, I believe, is running with all the wrong perceptions because of the choices production made in trying to appear culturally relevant, and at all costs.

 

You, Survivor friends, have been misled in my opinion, and in a way that has many of us questioning everything they’ve ever believed about this show.  When they edited the merge episode like a horror movie, it made everyone feel bad, sad and dirty.  

 

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s the very definition of gaslighting, and it ensured that how we felt outweighed what we actually saw, framing everything in a very unfair manner to all involved.


It’s all a shame, really.  

 

But what’s really shameful about it all, is that to pacify an executive producer’s ego to be respected in Hollywood, we have missed another moment we truly need.  We’ve missed the chance to talk about everyday exchanges we all experience that make women uncomfortable.  We’ve missed the opportunity to teach good men what is and is not acceptable in everyday interactions and how to listen. We’ve lost the chance to talk about creating a safe space for conversations like the one we witnessed in Episode One, where a man and a woman can talk through their issues respectfully without fear on either side.

 

We’ve seen the potential ruin of another man’s life.  And we’ve missed the opportunity for true and real healing, something we all know we need.  Hopefully one day, after what I’ve seen as the pure gaslighting of gender identity and now #metoo, Survivor will wake up and realize a sexy TV show and another Emmy is not worth the cost of a human being’s life.

 

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