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The Contemporary Pacific 19.1 (2007) 162-174

Survivor Vanuatu:
Myths of Matriarchy Revisited
Lamont Lindstrom

Eighteen Americans clamber down off a tourist yacht (the Congoola) into a flotilla of small canoes. One or two fall into the water but they are hoisted aboard again and helpful natives paddle everyone toward the beach. As the Americans step ashore in shallow waters, groups of painted, leafy men in grass skirts run toward them yelling and shaking spears. A rather hefty "chief" appears to welcome the group to Vanuatu, or rather to Survivor Vanuatu: Islands of Fire, the ninth edition of Mark Burnett's popular "reality" television series. The reality, here, was Vanuatu—its flora, its fauna, and its people (ni-Vanuatu)—which served as stage and background for another round of competition to be the "final survivor" and win a million US dollars (figure 1).

Although broadcast in various countries, the show's principal audience is in the United States and its producers stage and edit "reality" in large part to speak to American cultural themes and social fissions. These include tensions between individual and society, self and family, authority and democracy, loyalty and honor, self-discovery and self-transfor­mation, public service and laziness, and—cutting through all these—the Amer­ican identity politics of race, class, age, disability, and gender.

Commentators have noted Burnett's penchant for social Darwinesque hoopla. They find Survivor's survival-of-the-fittest discourse no surprise given the current flush of neoconservativism in US politics. Savages, and all those who fall by the evolutionary wayside, occupy both the wilds and jungles where the survivors compete but also inhabit the American heartland itself: "Burnett's social Darwinism implicitly valorizes the inequities of cultural imperialism and the rise of the corporate elite, a group to which he belongs" (Murray 2001, 44; see also Jervis and Jervis 2000; Miller 2000, 12). Keat Murray sniffs out plenty of this sort of special pleading [End Page 162] in Burnett's first book (2000) and, of course, in the show's celebrated motto "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast" (figure 2). Its narrative structure, too, as weeks go by, evolves from the primitive communism of opposing tribes to the capitalist corporate individualism of all-against-all (Murray 2001, 45).

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Figure 1
Kranki Kona cartoon from Vanuatu Daily Post, July 2004. Reproduced with permission.

Others have criticized the show's primitivism (see, eg, Miller 2000). It situates survivors in jungle, desert, and wilderness, punctuated by chant and jungle-drum music and spliced-in close-ups of animals, exotic plants, and the occasional native. Those ni-Vanuatu hired to meet the incoming cast of Survivor Vanuatu were tarted up in face and body paint, leaves, feathers, and grass skirts. Unknown to most viewers, Survivor Vanuatu's tribal camps, on the beach south of Efate Island's Samoa Point, were located less than an hour's taxi ride away from several four-star tourist hotels in Port Vila. When the show filmed in the Marquesas, the producers bulldozed a local resident's house, dock, and plumbing system "to make the valley look uninhabited" (Riley 2002, 6). Survivor's tribal [End Page 163] locales, thus, are "nostalgically constructed as anachronistic space, as places where one may remember this lost history of simple living. Where, in effect, time has stood still" (Delisle 2003, 44).

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Figure 2
The Yasur tribe flag waves during the first episode of the CBS television reality series Survivor Vanuatu: Islands of Fire, 5 May 2004. Reproduced with permission of CBS/Landov.

And in these spaces, made "authentic" by the removal of plumbing and the redecoration of the locals, the survivors occupy a world of tribes, ritual competitions, hunting-and-gathering, and raw nature. In Survivor Vanuatu, flying foxes hang from trees. Huge spiders spin webs. Sea snakes slither. And the producers constantly cut in shots of Tanna's Yasur volcano (despite the fact that its eruptions are of the mild stromboli type of lava bombs that shoot up and then fall back into...


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