1. Love. Survivor.
I’m not saying this ironically—and there is no hyperbole either: I don’t like Survivor; I love it (a show that, I might add, is currently airing its 36th—yes, 36th—season each Wednesday). I have a fledgling collection of Survivor-related paraphernalia including DVD sets, tribal buffs and a shot glass. I spend many, many hours each week listening to former contestant Rob (“The Rob That Sucks!”) Cesternino break down the latest reality TV RHAPpenings on his Survivor-themed podcast. I can name each season’s winner, runner(s)-up and location.
I think—and have thought—about Survivor more than any other piece of entertainment I’ve come across. And here’s the thing: I’m proud of it. There is no guilt attached to this pleasure, because Survivor makes me think, feel, analyze and debate. I treat it like I was asked to treat any of the texts on a syllabus, yet I do so with more fervor and enthusiasm, for I truly love it. And that makes all the difference.
Look. I recognize that it may not be “high-brow.” Survivor is not “sophisticated” or “intellectual.” It is not what is classically referred to as “art”—but who decides what “art” is, anyway? As I said: the show makes me think, feel, analyze and debate—and isn’t that why we turn to art in the first place?
My partner keeps up with the Kardashians—and as with my Survivor fandom, she feels no shame about this, nor should she. She once explained her Kim allegiance in a way that deeply resonated with my Survivor-supporting soul: “To say you ‘hate’ the Kardashians,” she said, “Is just boring.” It’s so obvious; it’s so easy. There’s little that’s interesting about that opinion. But what is interesting is looking at why Kim Kardashian is the cultural force that she is, and what that says about our world in 2018 and the society we live in. What is interesting is explaining why the Kardashians are worth thinking about. That’s less easy—but it’s far more fun.
This is precisely how I feel about Survivor. Sure, it may not be “intellectual”—but what I love is getting to intellectualize what others deem unworthy of such a pursuit. Which I do: I gladly interrogate the ethical implications of Boston Rob’s blindside on Lex; I enthusiastically defend my thesis about how All-Stars married reality TV with the age of postmodernism; I have still yet to settle my ongoing internal debate about whether Survivor is “a social experiment disguised as a game show” or “a game show disguised as a social experiment” (or, most intriguing—and likely!—of all: a “social experiment disguised as a game show disguised as a social experiment”). I love getting to think smartly about something that appears, on its surface, silly.
And of course, Survivor is not the only piece of pop culture that warrants such critical engagement. I took an English course in my undergrad that was exclusively about Harry Potter, in which books that some might dismiss as “children’s stories” were treated (deservedly so) like serious literature worthy of actual academic examination. Similar courses exist on Game of Thrones, Beyonce and myriad pop culture phenomena. And yes—there’s even been one on Survivor.
This was all to say that I wholeheartedly defend the idea of loving whatever so-called “guilty pleasures” others might try to convince you are unworthy of your time, enthusiasm and care. Anything can be critically engaged with; anything can yield worthwhile discussion; and anything can make you think, feel, analyze and debate. So go ahead: keep up with the Kardashians. It might actually make you smarter.
But seriously, watch Survivor.