Survivor is often heralded as one of the greatest social experiments. Strangers are deserted on some far remote island to fend for themselves while competing in challenges to test their minds and bodies. The rigorous toll of Survivor is widely known, but one former contestant recently spoke out about how the show “isn't a safe workplace.”
Former contestant Max Dawson of Season 14 revealed in Entertainment Weekly’s Survivor Quarantine Questionnaire that the show doesn't protect and safeguard the players. In fact, Dawson claims that Survivor actively seeks out bad behavior in casting to boost entertainment and doesn't properly provide aftercare from the game’s mental and physical wear and tear. Dawson wrote,
Ah, the question where former contestants complain about there being too many idols or, worse yet, too much food. The real Survivor scandal isn’t dumb twists or calories. It’s how the show treats the contestants. Survivor consistently fails to protect us from one another, from ourselves, and from the disruptive effects of temporary reality TV ‘fame.’ In a sense, we, the contestants, ‘work’ for the show. But Survivor isn’t a safe workplace. It’s time that changed.
Anyone who wishes to play on Survivor must first pass through several psychological assessments and background checks. According to Max Dawson, this is not enough. He claims these tests are designed to “screen in crazy, not screen it out.”
In Max Dawson’s World’s Apart season, many of the cast were accused of bullying. Shirin Oskooi, a member of Dawson's white collar tribe, faced horrendous ridicule for her odd personality and wacky behavior. It culminated in a massive argument at a tribal council where she accused fellow castmate Will Sims of verbally assaulting her. Reflecting on that time, Dawson said,
Based on my cast alone, I’d say that the current system is inadequate. Or maybe it’s designed to fail for maximum entertainment value? Many of the violent outbursts, emotional breakdowns, acts of bullying, and unwanted sexual advances we’ve seen in recent years were avoidable. For that to happen, however, Survivor first needs to stop casting people who are not equipped to handle the stressors of the game.
Max Dawson elaborated in his Survivor questionnaire that a “zero-tolerance policy” should be enacted during the game. Dawson particularly criticized producers, and host Jeff Probst himself, for not intervening before situations get worse.
The game of Survivor has survived in the ratings for two decades due to the bombastic personalities that are forced to coexist. But the rising tide of social change in real life has seen some growing pains on reality television. Notably on Survivor: Island of the Idols, where the show was heavily criticized for allowing player Dan Spilo so many chances after several female castmates accused him of inappropriate touching. CBS made a statement to EW at the time, outlining the ways it would improve safety procedures.
After weeks deprived of food and water, emotional manipulation and physical labor, Max Dawson also believes Survivor doesn't provide enough aftercare resources. He stated that after his stint on the show he received “a circa-2003 handout” for guidance and one session with the show psychologist. Many former contestants have alluded to the mental toll of surviving Survivor. Winner of Survivor: Cambodia, Jeremy Collins, said on the reunion show that it took him a while to get right after playing so long.
When asked about his experiences, Max Dawson summed it up by saying:
I was one of the lucky ones from my season. I got out before things got really ugly. I had good insurance and I was already in therapy. I was going to be OK, no matter what. But probably around 1/3 of my cast is still not OK. Multiply that over 40 seasons. These people deserve better.
Survivor tows a difficult line. Part of its 20 years of success comes from the social dynamics and not knowing what's going to happen next. It also must ensure the safety of its players. Is Survivor, a certified reality institution, in need of change?