New `Survivor' pits men against women

But contestants turn battle of the sexes into battle of the sexists

TVPreview

February 13, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

On tonight's premiere of Survivor: The Amazon - the latest incarnation of the CBS series that started the current wave of madness called reality TV - the men are almost too cocky to believe.

On Day 2, after two "tribes" - one of eight men and one of eight women - are dropped in the Amazon rain forest, the men stand in a circle in front of a shelter they have just built. Machetes raised, they cheer and hoist a banner that says: "Believe in Yourself."

Then Rob, a 24-year-old computer projects coordinator, addresses the camera, saying, "I don't see the women working well together at all. I know that their shelter is not going to be as good as ours. I see them all crying, panicking, trying to build a cell phone so they can call their boyfriends to come over and help them build a shelter.

"Outside of that, I'm sure they have maybe three sticks together. ... I don't think any of them thought they'd be doing any of this on estrogen alone over there in Camp of the Vagina Monologue."

Like most television series that become pop phenomena, Survivor is about more than the surface story line. Just as HBO's The Sopranos is as much about family, capitalism and the middle-aged American male as it is the Mafia, Survivor was always about more than a goofy game of 16 people battling nature and each other for a single prize of $1 million.

Take your pick as to the deeper meanings of one or another of the first five Survivors: back-stabbing and office politics; homophobia (as when contestant Richard Hatch, an openly gay man, became an object of hate); or contestant Jerri Manthey being labeled ""the bitch" for her assertive ways. Survivor is at its most compelling when it taps into - and exploits - deeper currents of conflict in American life.

With shows like ABC's Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People (tonight at 8), upping the ante for reality-TV competition, creator Mark Burnett and CBS are making sure that no one misses the point of conflict in this newest version of Survivor: This is gender warfare.

I'm not talking cutesy battle-of-the-sexes, bicker-bicker/ kiss-kiss stuff, either. Listening to 20-something male contestants like Rob voice outright contempt for their female counterparts, made me wonder if any of the wisdom gained from the women's movement has trickled down to this generation. Based on tonight's episode, Survivor: The Amazon looks as though it could become a complete refutation of the very notion of gender equality.

Initially in this episode, things don't go well for the women. At first, they can't build a shelter, and once they make a fire, some of them immediately boil water so that they can rinse out their underwear, bikini bottoms and Survivor team headscarves. Laundering the headscarves does seem, um, a questionable choice given their lack of food and shelter.

The first team-to-team contest also looks bad for the women until two members of the men's team prove especially inept at navigating an obstacle course. One of those two men is Ryan Aiken, a 23-year-old model and actor from Ellicott City who is called "useless" by one of the leaders of the men's team.

I hate the way gender is manipulated onscreen to exploit viewer emotions. But I have to admit Burnett is really, really good at it.

About 10 minutes into the program, a 24-year-old named Christy explains to her teammates that she is deaf. A short time later, she explains to the camera (in essence, speaking directly to viewers) how isolated she feels at night around the campfire when her teammates are talking, but it is too dark for her to read their lips.

I know who I'm rooting for, and her name isn't Rob.

Premiere

What: Survivor: The Amazon

When: Tonight at 8

Where: WJZ (channel 13)

In brief: Survivor pushes the buttons of gender warfare in an Amazon setting.

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