Monday, September 18, 2006


Hi all,

So the first episode of SURVIVOR: COOK ISLAND has come and gone, and the Earth continues to revolve, pestilence has not descended upon the land, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is not wreaking delicious, gooey destruction through the streets of Gotham. On the other hand, lots of people remain enraged at Mark Burnett's transparently manipulative decision to segregate this season's teams by race.

I'll admit that when I first heard of the plan, I was horrified; wasn't this just a ripe opportunity for the depiction very worst racial stereotypes?

A quick ping around the ol' social network garnered similar reactions.

"The whole idea of races competing for survival in the jungle is very Bell Curve, and promises to play on the worst of stereotypes…speaking of competing for survival, always interesting to see how low networks will stoop."

"Rather than the model of a melting pot, this follows the logic of the baking pan. When you bake a cake, you have to beat all the wet and the dry ingredients separately, before you can put them together."

And, from Carmen Van Kerckhove of the excellent podcast "Addicted to Race": "I think this is horrendous. They're obviously trying to manufacture a situation where people's racist attitudes come out. I'm sure they'll encourage the use of racial slurs all 'in the spirit of competition.'"

But then there were other--and admittedly, equally resonant--voices, saying that while the concept was admittedly exploitative, it was also intriguing...if only because it offered that rare opportunity of seeing a group of Asian Americans, representing as Asian Americans, in a network-televised event. As some people pointed out, when was the last time you saw five Asian Americans, collaborating as a unit, on prime time? And I'm not counting Chinatown gangster brawls on LAW & ORDER, either. The question was whether the inherent cynicism and crassness of the setup would overwhelm any possible entertainment value--or thought-provoking elements--in the program.

Thus, this week's SFGate column--a liveblogging, or plausibly-liveblogging (yay for TiVo timeshifting!) of SURVIVOR: RACE WAR!'s first episode:


We were all prepared for the show to be a horrible nightmare, and parts of it were--but the general conclusion seemed to be that the program is both more, and much less, than it was cracked up to be.

Were possible stereotypes invoked? Sure, but they were invoked by contestants about their own tribes, and the producers carefully gave individuals context to discuss and in some cases dispell or contextualize them. There didn't seem to be any attempt to frame those stereotypes as "anchored in truth." Arguably, the most stereotypical tribe ended up being the so-called Caucasian tribe (more on the awkward issue of racial labels later), who seem poised to be framed as the show's "common enemy"--potentially, a flashpoint that could lead the show to explode.

In some ways, the race-first format actually generated dialogue about issues that otherwise never get discussed on prime time TV. Take, for example, Asian American stereotypes; usually, they're simply presented as part of television reality--they're never commented upon, and certainly never by Asians themselves. It certainly forced that dialogue among those of us watching, though we admittedly also found ourselves falling under the spell of rooting for the "home team." But then again, it was pointed out, people do that anyway. When the Yankees play the Mariners, I want Ichiro to get four hits and the Mariners to lose in a four-hit shutout. I root for Michelle Kwan and Yao Ming and Michelle Wie and I forced myself to watch HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE, even though it looked like butt, just to support John and Kal. Is that wrong? How is it different from this? Perhaps because race is portrayed as a zero-sum circumstance here? Or because race, rather than college affiliation, national origin, region of residence, or all the other ways we blithely divide ourselves for competitive purposes, is forefronted?

One of the biggest problems, it seemed to me, lay in the simplistic nature of the show's racial categories--what defines "Caucasian," for instance? Is a person whose ancestry stems from Spain Caucasian or Latino? How about a black person whose ancestry is Dominican or Puerto Rican? Where do mixed races fall into the mix? Why were three of the largest Asian American ethnicities (Chinese, Japanese, Indian/South Asian) not represented at all on the Asian tribe?

And of course, there's the issue of what the reaction to the show is going to be among those who unironically embrace Rush Limbaugh's enlightened view of race:

Regarding the new Survivor series, Limbaugh also stated that there "are many characteristics ... that you would think would give [the African-American tribe] the lead, and the heads up in terms of skill and athleticism and so forth." He also stated that "our early money" is on "the Hispanic tribe" -- which he said could include "a Cuban," "a Nicaraguan," or "a Mexican or two" -- provided they don't "start fighting for supremacy amongst themselves." Limbaugh added that Hispanics have "probably shown the most survival tactics," that they "have shown a remarkable ability to cross borders" and that they can "do it without water for a long time, they don't get apprehended, and they will do things other people won't do."

Limbaugh also asserted that "the Asian-American tribe" -- whom he called "the brainiacs of the bunch" -- "probably will outsmart everybody," but while "intelligence is one thing ... raw, native understanding of the land -- this is probably why the Native Americans were excluded, because they were at one with the land and they would probably have an unfair advantage."

He added that "the white tribe," "if it behaves as it historically has," will "bring along vials of diseases" and "will wind up oppressing" the other tribes by "deny[ing] them benefits" and "property," but will later "try to put [the other tribes] on some kind of benefit program." He further asserted that if CBS "allows ... cheating" and "oppression," "then of course the white tribe is going to win."For what it's worth, though Limbaugh has proven time and again that he really does have bigoted and repellent views, he's clearly being as tongue-in-cheek here as we were in our Cook Island klatsch. The problem is that his listeners, the accurately labeled "Dittoheads," are more likely than not to take his words at face value.

But are racists going to become more racist because of SURVIVOR: COOK ISLAND? Doubtful. I don't think they'll become more enlightened, either. Still, the show has forced people who otherwise would ignore the issue of media representation and depiction of people of color to at least enter the dialogue. And somehow, that seems like a net positive.

I ultimately found SURVIVOR: COOK ISLAND far less degrading and racially problematic than, say, VH1's stomach-churning FLAVOR OF LOVE, and less annoying than the fact that comedies like THE CLASS--despite being set in Philadelphia, which, as TV critic Doug Elfman aptly notes, is 46 percent white, 44 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic--have uniformly melanin-free ensemble casts. (The show is created by David Crane of FRIENDS and Jeffrey Klarik of MAD ABOUT YOU, if that explains anything.) You mean you can't find a single performer of color talented enough to cast?

It's even more distressing when you note that TV's most popular dramas tend to be fully integrated. There's just no reasonable or plausible explanation, other than low-grade, blanket racism, expressed, excuse the phrase, as the soft bigotry of low expectations. Producers think that their target white, middle-American audiences won't relate to people of color in a sophisticated metropolitan comedy. They may be afraid that romantic subplots could lead to distressingly provocative miscegenation (the kind involving a black or Asian man and a white woman, for instance). Or maybe they just don't figure they can whimsically yet credibly depict friendships between whites and nonwhites. To which I can only say: SCRUBS, beeyotch!

Anyway, enough said about SURVIVOR. There's plenty happening out in popland beyond Mark Burnett's wildly lucrative island fantasies. For instance, RED DOORS, Georgia Lee's quite terrific family dramedy about a man coming to terms with the passage of years, and his family's coming to terms with the ways that relationships evolve over time, is opening in Los Angeles and SF on September 22. I saw it at its New York premiere, and was blown away. Here're the deets if you're in L.A. or the Bay:

Laemmle Music Hall - 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 90211
Fri, Mon-Thu: 5:00, 7:25, 9:55
Sat & Sun: 12:15, 2:35, 5:00, 7:25 & 9:55

Laemmle Playhouse - 673 East Colorado Blvd. Pasadena, 91101
Daily 12:00, 2:20, 4:45, 7:20 & 9:55

Laemmle Town Center - 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, 91316
Daily at 12:00, 2:20, 4:50, 7:20 & 9:55

Landmark Clay Theatre - 2261 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, CA 94115
Daily 12:25, 2:30, 4:35, 7:00 & 9:10 (no 7:00 show on Tues. Sept. 26th)

Also opening the same day, nationwide: Jet Li's last wushu film, FEARLESS--which he sees as the culmination of his efforts to express the true meaning of martial arts, begun in HERO and continued in UNLEASHED. Don't worry, he assures, he'll still kick ass on screen...he just won't be doing it with a message in mind.

More about RED DOORS and FEARLESS next column, which will feature interviews with both Georgia Lee and Jet Li. The two films have some surprising commonalities--you read it here first...

And keep an eye peeled for the premiere of HEROES on September 25; sharp-eyed watchers of Asian Americans on primetime will also note that Ming-Na is one of the two leads in the 24-esque kidnap drama VANISHED on Fox. Suzy Nakamura, soon to be seen in Grace Lee's AMERICAN ZOMBIE, is a regular on the Ted Danson vehicle HELP ME HELP YOU. It ain't all about SURVIVOR, after all.


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