Jeff Probst, Survivor's Mother Goddess
My name is Bane, and I am a Survivor fan.
I was something of a fashionable latecomer to the Survivor party. Well, okay — not so much fashionable as straight-up late. Reality TV seemed like brain-rotting filth, and I was not going to sully my sweet, sweet gray matter by exposing it to the horrors of the first world creating trouble for itself.
I don't even remember how I started watching the show, but I know it was sometime during Survivor's late teens. As I watched people scramble through the muck for a reward challenge, it struck me: if you're actively watching a show such as Survivor, not just passively accepting it like a goober, there's actually a lot to be learned.
I'm going to start with the "narrative" arena. Survivor seasons are typically filmed in a tropical zone, ensuring both that its players will be demoralized by frequent rain, as well as enabling/encouraging them to get nekkid pretty often. They're usually set up on a beach between a jungle and the ocean/some large body of water, forced to make their own shelter, create fire, and fend for themselves (well, sorta) in between immunity and reward challenges.
Here's where we start getting psychological. Beaches are a very narrow strip between land and sea, so they can be seen as liminal zones, realms of transition between the world of the familiar and the so-called "magical" realm. Liminal zones are places where true mental change can occur.
Order is masculine and chaos is feminine (remember?): Dad is scary, but Mom is scarier, because she's rocking the red teeth and claws. Jungles, therefore, are primal - there's no order, only confusion. Oceans also often psychologically code for the unconscious mind; they're both vast and unpredictable, completely able to swallow those who are unschooled in its navigation.
In "abandoning" Survivor "castaways" in ocean- and jungle-proximate zones, therefore, the producers are trying to reduce the survivors to a very primal state. And, as anyone who witnessed that wretched Naonka-steals-your-socks incident will attest, it works pretty darn well.
So now we come to the illustrious Probst, the face of Survivor, and maybe something of a reminder of the outside world. He's a dude, so it would seem like he's the Big Daddy of the show, but really, Probst is the Big Mommy of the Survivor-verse.
The narrative plot structure of Hollywood movies goes like this: the events that are unfolding are the A plot, while the emotional/relationship line is the subsidiary B plot. The B plot informs the A plot, but ultimately we're concerned with John McLane taking down the terrorists, or whether or not our heroes on the wrong side of the Stargate will ever make it home.
In romantic movies, though, this is reversed. The A plot is ancillary to the B plot, because the audience cares about the protagonist fixing their wounded heart and finding love/learning to love again.
The same is true with Survivor. When you're in the thick of it, it seems like the reward and immunity challenges are what drives the castaways' ability to stay on the island, but what's the climax of every episode? A giant snark-fest that culminates with the social ostracism of one of their own. The tribe offers up one of their least-loved or most threatening members, sending them off into the jungle-y darkness to be devoured in the hopes that it'll buy the others just a little more time.
I know what you're saying to yourself: But Bane, what about the tribal council arenas? Aren't those a masculine/structural form?
(It's cool. I only use my powers of omniscience for good.)
It definitely would seem that way, gentle reader, but take a look at those tribal council buildings again. They aren't first-world glass and chrome (at least, not on the surface). They're naturalistic, comprised of timber, and designed to look somewhat janky, as though they were thrown together with just a bit more care than the survivors' own domiciles.
And the purpose of that nice big fire pit in the middle? It isn't a reminder of warmth and civilization - it's to provide the opportunity for fire to be taken away from the survivors when they screw up. Mom's putting you in the corner when you're naughty.
Speaking of omniscience, btw, guess with whom I share that trait? Jeff Probst, of course! I've heard that he reviews tons of tape and has the camera crews keep him up-to-date, so during tribal council he's able to needle away at the secretive parties until they blow up and complete screw themselves over in emotional outbursts.
You know who likes tattling, and forcing emotional conflicts to the surface? It isn't Dad, it's Mom. Check out some of his snark-ridden convos with the castaways if you doubt.
What else does Mom Probst do? S/he doles out food and shelter, but only at your convenience. Barring smooch attacks from overzealous contestants, s/he is also asexual, both heartily nudging and winking at the hookups that transpire in his/her dominion.
Why is Probst always well-groomed? Yes, it's a reminder to the castaways of how far they've fallen in their desperate grab for the million, but it also symbolizes how Probst is at home in that crazy, no-holds-barred world of chaos and backstabbing.
And let's talk about those shirts for a second — or really, that shirt. You know the one: button-down, with pockets, rolled up to the elbows. We see him wearing it most frequently in blue and green, with black and orange only making guest appearances. From a production standpoint, red would probably blow the camera metering out completely, but I think it's really telling we only see the Probstinator in earth tones, as if helping him blend in with his environment.
Mom also bends the rules from time to time, particularly when you've done well by her. Thus do we see the return of players who did well not necessarily in challenges, but in the minds of the audience - people who are good characters. People we can root for to win, like Boston Rob and Malcolm, or against, like Wee Hantz and Secret Agent Phillip.
I could probably go on all day about this, but I think I've made my point. Probst = Mom. And if you're one of the people who still follows Survivor, bow down to the mother goddess and pass the remote, because it's airing tonight, and I'll be watching.
Courier Publications reporter Bane Okholm received her M.F.A. in Screenwriting from U.C.L.A. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @MediaHeathen.