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Survivor: Thailand - Mom? Dad? Are We a Family?by O'Sean Aieghlans -- 10/31/2002
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Much has been said, and continues to be said, by the Survivor players about 'being a family'. Chuay Gahn is a bunch of strangers in a cave for days on end. Sook Jai is another group of strangers quibbling on the beach for weeks. How could any one of them believe they are a family? And yet time and again, the reference to the teams being a 'family' crops up, making viewers cringe. Yes, Jan might be mom-like in some ways - and Clay might be dad-like - for the Chuay Gahn team; but besides Jake for Sook Jai, who could stand in for a parent? But it must just be so awful out there, in the game, far from friends and family - that they can have no choice but to try to convince themselves they are, indeed, a family. If due to want for anything better to do, at least.
But how could they be a family? After all, a family doesn't kick out a member every couple of days. As much as we might want to kick out a recalcitrant sister or an irritating cousin, we're stuck with them for life. What makes these players cling to other competitors - and yes, even a dead bat - for an assurance that is not only not guaranteed, but not even promised?
I've heard it said that in modern American life there is no more family unity. Mom and Dad might be working very late, or very early, and single-parent families are short on time for the available parental unit. The kids have after school activities, whether playing on a sports team, competing for the cheerleading squad, or just hanging around the school yard. Nobody is around and willing to sit down and eat together for breakfast or dinner anymore. And in our fast food culture, dinner might be caught on the fly or delivered in white cartons with soy sauce packets, taken in front of the television, and consumed without conversation or joy.
But here on Survivor, our intrepid teams not only cook and eat dinner together, every night, with few distractions, but they all also sleep in the same room, just like eskimos did in their igloos. Some go searching for crabs, others boil up the water with leaves in it. Some steal green bananas or pick up dead squid on the beach. But when the time comes, they all eat - or try to.
This living together for better or worse, eating, sleeping, and being together - just might be the culprit that makes the competitors believe that their cohorts are family members. But small communities in the Amazon jungle - the real survivors - do they think like that? Everyone might eat from a single hunt cooked in a single pot. What would actual aborigines or jungle dwellers say in this situation? "Oh gosh, Mom, Dad let the canoe float away with the fishing net in it again - he's got to go"? "Oh, Mom is cooking us clams and mussels with bush leaves and coconut - again - and I'm thinking of voting her out!" I don't think so. Okay, you might feel sorry for the CBS Survivors, all gross and sweaty in the jungle. But that still doesn't make them a family.
In America there is very little community - the one social group that surrounds real families. When is the last time you spoke to your neighbors? When is the last time you brought them a gift or received one in turn? The Survivor contestants are a false community. And thank God they are - can you imagine if your neighbors could vote you off the block?
Interestingly enough, the equation with family brings on powerful emotional impulses. Anyone coming from a large family knows that when you've got a lot of brothers and sisters, someone is always on the outs with mom or dad. Someone is in the doghouse this or that week, and someone else is the angel, and then it all changes around with the next upheaval. This game is, indeed, strangely family-like in this respect, but here everyone is carrying a big stick.
A few psychology courses might help you see that the person getting the parental angst fluctuates with each crisis. First Ghandia goes to Helen and Jan to point out the bad family member. Ghandia was actually being the good daughter in this scenario and enlisting Helen and Jan in her cause. Now Robb takes on Ken about trust. He outright attacks him - but he's really looking for assurance. He's lonely and needs to talk to someone. Thank God Ken is there for him to regain his trust so Ken can vote him out later.
But can it really be that lonely out there? One gets the impression that these people are never alone or without their mobile phones. They are a team; these days in life one doesn't really play on a team very much, and looking at the actions of the players, they have very little sense of what teamwork is. Haven't any of these people done things on their own against great adversity? Maybe not.
And just what is this about it not being personal? Is hypocrisy becoming the defining adjective for American life? Last week Robb voted against Shii Ann. "I can't stand to be around you but it's nothing personal." Who's zoomin' who? Well it looks like Robb is the zoomer and the zoomee this week since he got voted out. Ken said he was being honest with Robb and then Ken voted Robb out. In her vote, Shii Ann said that she knows who the fool is, and he's not wise - but it's nothing personal. I'm getting confused - is this being genuine or being a hypocrite?
Thank God they aren't a family, because if families were like this, we'd be better off dead. Even Jeff got into the act this week. Previously disgusted with Sook Jai, he seems genuinely pleased with their coming together, and loves it when someone makes a life change. Excuse me Jeff, but since when did a campfire epiphany - and perhaps even a drunken one - equal a life change? Jeff seemed a bit peeved when they voted Robb out. Or was he? Just what does Jeff want, anyway? Yet another aloof, non-communicative parent with unrealistic expectations, I'd say.
O'Sean Aieghlans is a critic-at-large of the overall reality television scene. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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