Lesbianism on “Survivor Vanuatu”

Ami CusackScout

The ninth season of CBS’s popular reality show Survivor has finally come to an end, and neither of the show’s two lesbians emerged as the winner—that honor fell to Chris Daugherty, the sole male contestant who survived the women’s alliance. But the show catapulted 59-year-old Scout Cloud Lee and 31-year-old Ami Cusack to temporary stardom as the first openly gay women in nine seasons of Survivor, and the most prominent ones to grace reality TV so far.

An average of 20 million people tuned in to watch each episode of Survivor: Vanuatu, ranking the show consistently in the top ten for both adult and teen viewers. The size of the show’s audience and Ami and Scout’s longevity in the game (Ami made it to the final six, Scout to the final three) in the context of an overall absence of lesbians on network TV this season unwittingly made Survivor: Vanuatu a powerful tool for lesbian visibility.

The fact that lesbians have been almost non-existent on reality shows–and completely absent from the most popular reality shows—means that Ami and Scout, for better or worse, have become the face of lesbianism for millions of viewers.

Which begs the question: how well was lesbianism portrayed on Survivor: Vanuatu?

Scout and Ami, both in committed relationships with women, were introduced as two of the 18 contestants who kicked off Survivor: Vanuatu on September 16th. While Ami and Scout each developed a healthy share of detractors among contestants and viewers as the season progressed, they came across as interesting, dynamic women who don’t adhere neatly to prevailing stereotypes about lesbians. They chopped wood and carried water; they formed friendships and alliances with other (straight) contestants; they occasionally won immunity challenges and more often lost them. They were just as complicated, flawed, likeable, and unlikable, as the other contestants on the show.

In a season when TV lesbians are either confined to minor, two-dimensional storylines or missing entirely, the fact that Ami and Scout were simply given equal visibility and (mostly) equal treatment is an accomplishment. But not content merely to survive, Scout and Ami emerged early in the game as leaders in different ways, and over time, the two women received more visibility than most of the other contestants.

Ami was instrumental from the beginning in helping the women’s tribe win reward and immunity challenges, and the other female contestants routinely took their cue from Ami when deciding who to vote out. On more than one occasion Ami got the women to change their vote without even trying, simply by stating her own intention to vote differently. Ami’s role in shaping the game was so apparent after the first few episodes that it began to be openly acknowledged by the other contestants—particularly some of the male contestants, who immediately recognized her as a threat once the tribes were reshuffled—and when the show began airing, reporters and viewers quickly dubbed Ami the “queen” of the women’s alliance.

The attempt by the show’s editors, a few of the contestants, and many reporters to position Ami as a “man-hater” was disappointing, if predictable. In one episode, Sarge even implied to Twila that Ami’s persuasive abilities had sexual undertones, and the show played up the angle by cutting suggestively to footage of Ami painting a flower on Julie’s stomach.

Slapping the “man-hater” label on any woman who openly supports the advancement of women is a common intimidation tactic, but to Ami’s credit, she consistently laughed off the charge and refused to be cowed, trumpeting “Lady power!” during her post-Survivor interviews and telling host Jeff Probst in last night’s post-finale reunion special that the women’s alliance was formed because “It’s been a long time of women not really standing for each other, for being their best.”