Where Humans Survive and Animals Die
In an otherwise stale summer-rerun TV season, CBS took a bold leap forward into the new trend of "reality TV" (an interesting oxymoron is there ever was one) and aired the new show "Survivor" which became an instant sensation, even beating the insurmountable "Who Wants To Become a Millionaire" in the ratings race. "Survivor" features 16 contestants dumped on the Pulau Tiga island off Borneo, each competing for a $1 million prize. Every week, after a test of their physical abilities and endurance skills, the group votes one of its members off the island until only one contestant remains to claim the prize. When only two members are left, the entire cast returns to decide who will win. Just think "Lord of the Flies" meets "Gilligan's Island."
The genre of televising intimate details of the lives of ordinary individuals began in the 1970s with the PBS series on the Louds family, and continued in the 1990s with MTV shows "Real World" and "Road Rules." It developed to new heights (or lows) in summer 2000 with "Survivor," "Big Brother," and "1900 House." Many more such shows are in the works, and each has to become more bizarre and extreme to capture the attention of jaded consumers.
Reality TV is part of a disturbing social trend where the boundaries between private and public life erode, as media spectators become ever more voyeuristic. This implosion is most clearly revealed in phenomena such as confessional talk shows; the invasion of the private lives of politicians and celebrities by the papparazzi and tabloids; and webcams that allow individuals to broadcast the most intimate aspects of their lives to a global internet audience.
"Survivor" is a showcase of American values and an allegory of predatory capitalism. Competition, greed, narcissism, and the fetishization of celebrity are blatantly on display. Social Darwinism moves to the foreground as the contestants fight it out each week to outlast both the natural elements and -- far more grueling -- one another. Initially, the team members are split up into "tribes." A bad choice of words, for true tribes are organized around values of cooperation, whereas the pseudo-tribes of CBS practice cutthroat competition and engage in "alliances" only to further their own interests. As in capitalist culture in general, the spirit of cooperation is rarely manifest; rather, a war-of-all-against-all prevails.
Thus, the show does nothing to dispel the illusion that conflict, competition, power, domination, struggle, and scarcity are the eternal order of things, in both the natural and social worlds. Capitalism, thereby, is made perfectly natural and the human condition appears to be nothing but the decaying rump of possibility it is today. As always in the ideology of Social Darwinism, there is a chronic slippage from (what allegedly are) natural conditions to social conditions, and then back again. This oscillation justifies elitism, class hierarchy, and brutal competition in society where the weak and "unfit" are marginalized, cast aside, or allowed to expire -- just as (we are led to believe) occurs in nature.
Yet there are no "losers" on "Survivor." Each of the vanquished get their 15 minutes of fame on news and talk shows, as they receive offers for further media work, to write books about their experience, to be consultant to the contestants of "Survivor2," or even to pose for Playboy. And brace yourself for the coming "Got Milk?" ads featuring the final four. These junk celebrities have fame without achievement. Just as they desire, their ordinariness is negated in the hot light of the media, but in reality TV it is their prosaic being that makes them so extraordinary. They are the Darva Congers of the world -- instant cultural icons, paragons of nothingness. But soon enough the Warholian egg timer will run out and they will plummet back into the banality of everyday life which will seem all the gloomier after their massive inhale of celebrity crack.
There is more simulation than reality in "Survivor." Medical crews are never far away, food often is brought in, the characters are chosen for their videogenic qualities or likelihood to generate conflict, the action is edited for maximum dramatic effect, and the ubiquitous presence of cameras and microphones effects the way contestants talk and act. The spectacle of scarcity and "roughing it" therefore is totally negated, as it certainly was in episodes where contest winners ate pizza flown in from a chopper or dined on a luxury yacht.
Unfortunately, one aspect of "Survivor" is all too real as the contestants frequently kill animals for food. Fish, eels, manta rays, rats, and chickens die on the slaughterbench of CBS profits and the vanities of celebrity wanna-bes. Some very disturbing scenes depicted the castaways laughing while trying to club rats to death, and chopping the head off a frightened chicken and then zestfully devouring its cooked corpse. One of the castaways was kind enough to name the chickens -- "breakfast, lunch, and dinner." Such killing reinforces the widespread public opinion that animals exist as entertainment value for humans -- a tradition some might think expired with the Roman culture, but of course is alive and well in zoos, circuses, rodeos, the entertainment industries, and now reality shows. Moreover, it underscores the ideology that killing animals is natural for human beings, that we still live in a pre-technological food chain where we have to kill to survive. Outside of appeals to the Biblical claim that God created animals as "meat" for humans, this is the most common legitimation for killing animals. Thus, the ideology effect of "Survivor" -- which captivated over one hundred million viewers for its final episode -- is damaging to the movement for vegetarianism and non-violence (ahimsa).
Curiously, there hasn't been much uproar over "Survivor" in the animal rights community. One notable exception is PETA, which was inundated with complaints about show. In a letter to the president of CBS, they emphasized that the show delivered a dangerous message that it's fun to harm animals, a belief our violent and anthropocentric culture certainly does not need reinforced. "Survivor has lightheartedly depicted cruelty that in many U.S. states is considered a felony," PETA wrote, "we urge you to educate future contestants so that they can identify and survive on edible vegetation. Please leave the animals alone."
Columnists such as Marc E. Fisher and Deroy Murdock took great delight in mocking PETA's defense of "rat rights" and reducing all animal rights philosophy to absurd positions such as misanthropy. In his acrimonious caricature of PETA and animal rights, Fisher points out that "rats were responsible for one of the greatest plagues in history in the 14th century when Europe lost between one third and one half of its entire population." I don't think the brave warriors of "Survivor" were endangered at any point by swarms of bubonic rats. The point is not whether rats have rights, but that "Survivor" indulges in gratuitous killing and therefore contributes to violent sensibilities and the lack of empathy for nonhuman species.
While people living in conditions of true scarcity have no choice what to eat, and may have to kill to survive, the world of "Survivor" is a meretricious, manufactured, ultra-contrived simulacrum of pseudo-scarcity. The producers intentionally rigged the show to encourage the islanders to kill fish, rats, and chickens, and the conniving castaways all-too happily obliged. As columnist Mesia Quartano observes, "There is more than enough drama when sixteen people are placed in a difficult situation. Do viewers really want to see unnecessary cruelty to animals?" Quartano rightly argues that the producers could have made the game find the food stash rather than kill an animal. But she misses the point: since violence and killing bring huge ratings in TVland, the profit imperative commands it.
It is instructive to think how different the series would be if one of the contestants were a vegetarian (ideally, a vegan). He or she could educate fellow islanders and the nation alike about the health, environmental, and ethical problems that stem from the Global Meat Culture that itself barely survives on animal products. A vegetarian could discuss how a diet heavy with animal fats predispose one to an array of diseases; how the factory farm system degrades the air, water, land, and forests; how the island terrain would be most efficiently used to grow a plant-based diet; and how animals suffer miserably in cages, boxes, shipping trucks, and slaughterhouses before they land on the cafeteria tray or dinner plate.
But don't hold your breath for the vegetarian equivalent of an "Ellen" to make it to a major network. In the meantime, you can take some action to help prevent reality TV from going the way of crush videos.
Please write to, fax, or call CBS to tell them there is nothing entertaining about killing animals and not to repeat this mistake in future episodes of "Survivor2" (the show's web site says the next contestants will have "to build shelter, catch food and establish a new society").
Les Moonves, President and CEO
CBS Television, Inc.
CBS Television City
7800 Beverly Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036