Survivor: A Semiotic/Psychoanalytic Analysis

The camera dips in and out away from the clouds to reveal a tropical island with the distinct sound of a helicopter chirping in the background. The screen cuts away to reveal a helicopter flying over the island dipping and slicing itself right and down off the screen. The scene changes to a massive Hummer vehicle driving across above the camera. The scene switches back to the helicopter which is seen flying over the Hummer zig-zagging its way through the jungle when the familiar voice of Jeff Probst announces, “I’m flying over a remote Polynesian island. Below me are 18 Americans who have already begun the adventure of a lifetime.” The camera cuts to inside the truck bed of the Hummer filled with the various 18 Americans. A perfectly coiffed brown haired boy with a baby face is seen in the very back wearing a sweater over his shoulders, a voice over with a southern lisp indicates, “This is definitely my game. Girls love me! As far as guys, guys aren’t going to see me as a threat.” This continues with several other outlandish characters expressing their points of view about others in the game—especially noting the gender differences. Jeff Probst continues as shots are intercut with confessional scenes from the Survivor contestants, “They think they have Survivor figured out… They think they know the rules… They think they’ve seen everything, but they’re in for a huge surprise. What they don’t know is that this season, they’ll be divided into two tribes and live together on one beach. This is Survivor: One World!” The logo of Survivor: One World spins in a frame of black as Jeff Probst continues while the music picks up and shots of dangerous wildlife cut across the screen, “For the first time ever; two tribes, one camp, no rules. Who will stay true to their tribe? And who will form alliances with the enemy? It is the ultimate adventure. Thirty-nine days. Eight-teen people. One Survivor!” As Jeff Probst says his final words, the camera cuts from various wildlife scenes and images of the Survivor contestants all eyeing each other suspiciously to Jeff hanging outside of the helicopter over the island as it dips down dramatically carrying the host on the side. This is Survivor.

Survivor, or what it is originally known as, Expedition Robinson, was created by British television producer, Charlie Parsons, in 1992. The first format to be aired was in Sweden in 1997 and wouldn’t come to the United States until 2000. In the US format, produced by Mark Burnett and hosted by Jeff Probst, for over twenty-four seasons has lead in Nielsen Ratings continuously and won several Emmy’s since its premiere. The format of the show generally includes two tribes secluded away from each other which are pitted against one another in the form of Reward and Immunity Challenges. Reward Challenges generally occur early on in every episode often giving the winning tribe an advantage over the losing tribe in the form of flint, fishing supplies, specialty food items and other luxuries. While this only gives the winning tribe a slight advantage, this sometimes can be enough for them to come back and win the Immunity Challenge again. An Immunity Challenge indicates that whoever wins this challenge does not have to go to Tribal Council that night and be forced to vote one of their own tribe members off the island. At Tribal Council, Jeff Probst deliberates with the Survivor contestants before they vote someone from their own tribe off the island. As the game progresses and the two tribes numbers dwindle, there is a point in the game where the tribes merge and everyone begins to play individually. This does not change the game in the form of the Reward and Immunity Challenges except that all of the challenges won are solely for the individual unless told otherwise by Jeff Probst in the event of a contestant choosing another to accompany them on a Reward win. In the end, the final nine voted out form a jury and decide on one of the final three people in order to win the one million dollar prize and title of Soul Survivor.

In terms of a Semiotic Analysis Critique of Survivor, I would begin by stating that I’m going to analyze Survivor: One World synchronically focusing on just this single season as opposed to all seasons which would be a diachronic analysis. Since each season can be seen as a stand alone, with no relation of who might win the game against one season from another, which is completely unpredictable determined on a exponential variety of possibilities that could arise in a single season of the game. There have been thirteen men who have won the game and there have been only eleven female winners—so there seems to be no correlation between genders numbers winning the game since it’s almost even in the amount of seasons the show has been on. In Survivor: One World, Kim Spradlin won the twenty-fourth season of the game. In terms of successful seasons of Survivor, syntagmatic analysis shows that there are usual story arcs that are popular among fans of the show which usually form around an underdog trying to outsmart their nemesis, or the story of a couple whose love has blossomed while on the island. Intertextuality is key in the formulation of creating a fan base where the audience can enjoy the narrative structure. Survivor: One World was one of the lowest rated seasons. This is based on the fact that the audience didn’t connect with the contestants, or characters, on the show like they had in the past. Survivor: One World stood out in part because the villain of the show, Colton Cumbie, the flamboyant and surprisingly conservative southern gay man, was evacuated early on in the game because of what was believed to be Appendicitis but what later turned out to be only a bacterial infection. After his evacuation, the big characters of the game which audiences of the show expect to be well-formulated by this point were all voted-out, and the tribes merged which gave the audience the distinct feeling that they had no idea who these people were while it was already mid-way through the game.

Looking to the people who are playing the game, the contestants, who now in Season 24 have been able to study the game for twenty-three seasons— seem to exhibit a sense of hyper-reality which is paradoxical in nature since it’s a reality television show. What’s interesting to think about here is that the show was intriguing to fans to begin with because it was about people who were stranded on a desert island forced to vote each other off one-by-one as if it were Lord of the Flies. The intertextuality gave reason for fans of the show to enjoy themselves vicariously through other people in their own hyper-reality. The original title of the show Expedition Robinson gives reference to the 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe. The intertextuality of the show’s nature has been a fabled hyper-reality for audiences for almost 300 years. But to take things further, which I believe has become somewhat of an American ideology originally coined by Andy Warhol, everyone wants their, “15 minutes of fame.” With reality television, which Survivor is well-known for being one of the most successful reality television shows since reality television’s inception, the line between “15 minutes of fame,” and hyper-reality blur. The contestants on Survivor are now and have been fans of the show for a decade now. They have watched every single episode, studied the game, and dreamed of being on the show for years. Once the game is in progress, the contestants sometimes forget that they are even playing a game, in which the game of Survivor becomes their reality. This is apparent when watching the special Survivor: One World “Life at Ponderosa,” featurette which is shown exclusively on The contestant in question is Kat Edorsson who was the first female jury member. Once she was voted out after a blindside (a code that signifies that someone was voted out of the game without being aware that they were being targeted), she met with a Survivor Psychologist immediately to help her process the loss. In her words, she literally felt betrayed by her tribe-mates and wanted to be back in the game as if it were now really her life. She was visibly flabbergasted and couldn’t formulate speech coherently because of the shock in her demise. Her sense of hyper-reality in the game led to her demise—which is something to note for future contestants not only on Survivor but any other competition reality television show.

In reference to a Psychoanalysis Critique of Survivor, I aim to focus on the relationship between the Id, Ego, and Superego. First, I will explore the relationship between the parts of each episode diachronically since most seasons follow a similar format. The first part of the episode is generally the Reward Challenge. In this part of the episodes, the tribes or individuals are given a challenge in exchange for a reward which could be in the form of food, luxuries, or other prizes. The Reward Challenge in Survivor represents the Id, which is seeking pleasurable fulfillment. If an individual is allowed to share their Reward with another contestant, then the individual must battle their own Id, Ego, and Superego in order to make the right decision because it could affect their game. If they go with their Id, then they risk playing a strategic move which could better their chances in the game. If they go with their Superego, then they could offend their alliance members (a code which signifies that a group of individuals are playing the game together for one common goal). If the individual is lucky enough to share their Reward with two others, and then they are smart enough to reconcile their an Id and Superego’s differences, their Ego will have won out and chosen someone strategically along with someone from their alliance to enjoy the Reward with them.

Next, the Immunity Challenge is played in the middle of the episode representing the Ego, which reconciles the Id’s pleasure from the Reward Challenge to the obtrusive fear of the Superego, Tribal Council. The Immunity Idol signifies that the winner has immunity from being voted out of the game whether it be a tribe or an individual. The Immunity Idol denotes that it’s an idol but it connotes that the winner is safe. While the game is played with tribes pitted against one another, the Immunity Idol is phallic in nature where it’s represented as a totem pole. When the game is played individually, the Immunity Idol is a necklace which is vaginal in nature. This is interesting to note because it could be seen that in the beginning the Immunity Idol signifies a penis which is planting it’s seed within the tribes of where the game is eventually going. Once the tribes have merged, the Immunity Idol signifies a vagina which accepts the seeds prior in the game to help further their chances, or growth, in the game. Ultimately, it could be seen that the winner is in fact producing a baby out of this in the form of one million dollars. To make things more interesting is that the winner isn’t crowned until after about nine months after the players had begun their initial casting process—which is similar to a nine month gestation period. With Survivor: One World in mind, Kim Spradlin dominated the game along with her strong alliance of five females which was arranged on Day One. While her tribe wasn’t nearly as successful in early Immunity Challenges, she won four individual Immunity Idols and also found a Hidden Immunity Idol (an Immunity Idol special in Survivor: One World which was hidden in the jungle that satisfied the Id and Superego since it could be played at any point in the game). Her gameplay was contingent on realizing that early on, the Paternalistic Tribal Immunity Idol would indeed influence the game which she later turned on the men when she and her alliance dominated the rest of the game with her Maternalistic Individual Immunity Idols. This is the first season of Survivor which has had an all female Final Five, while Kim Spradlin holds the record for most individual Immunity Idol wins.

Finally, Tribal Council represents the Superego, which plays an important role in every person’s place in the game of Survivor. Since Tribal Council controls the fate of the players in the game, Jeff Probst can also signify the Superego. This would mean that within Tribal Council which represents the Superego in Survivor overall, there is another dimension of Id, Ego, and Superego representative of the players, the event itself, and the host, Jeff Probst. The players would signify the Id since they are instinctively fighting for their lives in the game. The Tribal Council itself would signify the Ego which reconciles itself from the events that have previously taken place and the questions that the Superego imposes upon the Id’s. Jeff Probst signifies the Superego which imposes questions upon the players, the Id, which they have to take into consideration during Tribal Council, or the Ego. At every Tribal Council, Jeff Probst states that, “Fire represents life,” in the game of Survivor. In terms of psychoanalysis, fire also signifies sexual prowess and domination. When a player is voted out of the game, Jeff Probst asks them to bring him their torch and he snuffs out their flame. This gives rise to the fear of the Superego since Jeff Probst is psychoanalytically speaking, castrating the players in front of their peers and eventually a viewing audience which also plays into the hyper-reality of it all. This is interesting since ultimately, the whole reason of watching the show is to see who is psychoanalytically castrated in a mass-mediated contest.

There is a direct correlation between the Semiotic and Psychoanalytic criticism with the public’s fascination with the series of Survivor, but also reality television in general. While reality television first got its toes wet in 1976 with An American Family and resurfaced again with the advent of Cops (1989) and The Real World in 1992, the definition of reality television wouldn’t make its mark in the United States until Survivor premiered in May 2000. Following the premiere of Survivor, a bevy of other reality shows began to exponentially grow to this day twelve years later where almost every network has at least one reality show airing every night. The popularity of reality television has given rise because of the American public’s increasing ideological fascination with surveillance and voyeurism. Anyone today can live their “15 Minutes of Fame,” as Andy Warhol once said. The process was slow at first for audiences to become aware that they too could be on television just like the stars they had always loved and enjoyed on their television screens previously. I think that because of the advanced technology we have today that we didn’t have twenty years ago when The Real World first premiered says something about the growth of reality television. As technological advancements increase, so do the sense of the American public’s need for their own “15 Minutes of Fame” and that’s where the line begins to blur with hyper-reality. To an extent, anyone can do this now with the advent of Facebook or Youtube—which could be considered Low Art Forms while the popularity of reality television is still evident because there is a certain amount of cache to being on television and receiving a reward prize which could be considered a High Art Form. Since these shows have increased more over time, there is chance that the formats known as reality television will become over-saturated and begin to diminish. I believe that these formats will diminish on the television screens but with the further advancement of technology, reality television will become a cheap, easily produced show for strictly the internet. This can already be seen with the casting process of Survivor which now accepts online video submissions eliminating the potential players hustle and bustle of mailing in a home video tape or DVD. Other reality television shows such as Big Brother already have a component of this with their Live 24/7 Internet Feed which allows those who wish to buy a subscription the opportunity to spy on their favorite contestants anytime they want. Reality television has changed the way American’s live their lives and the way they see themselves. What does this mean for the future? Only with the advancement of technology and time will we be able to tell.

[Originally Written In May 2012]

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