A small group of tribe members gather in a circle around what appears to be the ruins of a Mayan temple. A lit torch casts a dim light on each one of them in such a way that darkness consumes everything but their faces. A man steps forward and says: “Fire still represents life, one of you will have your torch extinguished tonight.” The participants then cast votes to the demise of one of their fellow tribesmen while spells are chanted in the background.
This ritual, which could easily be part of a prehistoric tribal ceremony deep inside the jungle, has actually become quite recognizable to modern civilized man. It appeared on screens across the country on reality television’s greatest success story, Survivor. Although this may seem like harmless make-believe, it is no joke and the tribal mimicry goes much deeper than mere cosmetics.
In fact, reality television is not about reality at all but rather an invitation to fantasy. Modern men and women are immersed in a carefully controlled environment and made to live the scripted dramatic story of twenty-first century noble savages.
Moreover Survivor is not just the story of 16 persons put in the tribal context. It is countless Americans vicariously living the same experience with a message that unceasingly promotes the “values” of tribalism, placing it on the cutting edge of the Cultural Revolution now transforming the country.
How Cultural Revolution Works
Survivor and its genre are prime examples of classical Cultural Revolution. According to Marxist theoretician Antonio Gramsci, cultural expressions, events and ideas pave the way to political and social transformations. Culture communicates ideas and these ideas can have grave consequences.
Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in his masterful work, Revolution and Counter-Revolution explained that the Cultural Revolution targets Christian Civilization. It plays a major role in forming a postmodern society envisioned by Marx himself where total equality and absolute liberty would exist as supreme values.1
He further pointed out that primitive tribalism expresses this Marxist ideal much more that the moribund communist state. Furthermore, cultural fashions and trends can do much more to advance agenda than politics and legislation.
Through “free” love, nudity, and the rejection of logic, man finds absolute liberty. Total equality comes through the abolition of any form of private property and a leadership reduced to the chief or tribal witch doctor.
This radical egalitarianism leads to a strong notion of communal life where individuality almost entirely disappears. Prof. de Oliveira described this in the following terms:
“In this collectivism, the various ‘I’s’ or the individual persons, with their intelligence, will, and sensibility, and consequently with their characteristic and conflictual ways of being, merge and dissolve in the collective personality of the tribe, which generates one thought, one will, and one style of being intensely common to all.”2
Overtones of this primitive tribalism permeate postmodern culture. Indeed, twenty-first century man absorbs a continual flood of tribal imagery that streams from the streets, spouts from computer screens and gushes from television sets almost without perception.
Enter Reality Television
In this context, Survivor, the archetypal reality show, definitely communicates a neotribal message and imagery. Other reality shows also participate in the same spirit since most feature diverse groups of unrelated people — a sort of “neo-tribe” — who live, work and overcome problems together without established rules or leadership.
It is a new medium where contestants are filmed without privacy and their natural defenses fall. They are frequently humiliated by the manufactured circumstances of the show masters. Viewer and contestant are thrown in a fantasy world of the unknown where even meals are uncertain.
In such an atmosphere, the spontaneity of the primary reactions is prized over reasoned logic; fantasy and feelings over the methodical analysis of reality. Security is found not in principled stands but in the universal consensus of the tribe.
A Pervasive Sensuality
One of the most aggressive aspects of reality television is its throwing off the civilizing restraints of morality. There is a pervasive sensuality that works on the imagination and breaks down moral barriers; a disturbing amorality that sidesteps the whole question of decency and virtue.
Richard Hatch, winner of the first season of Survivor, for example, gained early popularity, by running up and down the beach naked, while Kaia from MTV’s The Real World was known to walk around the house topless.
Besides blatant nudity, most – if not all – reality television shows feature scantily clad contestants as attractions to their show. As Jeff Probst, the host of CBS’s Survivor, pointed out when comparing the first and second seasons, “There is a sexuality to this show [Survivor 2: The Australian Outback] that S1 [Survivor’s first season] didn’t have, people chop down trees in bikinis.”3
Other reality shows like Fox’s Temptation Island, The Real World¸ and CBS’s Big Brother go yet farther by insinuating promiscuous relationships between contestants. Some believe that the harm stemming from prime-time fixation on promiscuity is far more profound than the mere infliction of bad taste on mainstream entertainment.
“I have noticed a definite circular pattern in my experience at college,” claims University of Texas law student Joe Marrs. “People watch MTV to calibrate their lifestyle to what is cool. The Real World glamorizes a lifestyle of casual sex. Accordingly, people at school mimic this lifestyle and admire those who attain it. So it is not surprising that MTV continues to meet demand — a demand it has created — with a ready supply.”
In the surreal world of Survivor, there is also an undercurrent that suppresses rules, decorum and manners. Contestants are in their natural state. The taboos imposed upon men by Christian civilization are suspended and the aura of an absolute freedom remains.
A new set of rules is in place dictated by the tribe and the need to survive. Any means, even repugnant and outrageous ones, can be employed. This was evident on Survivor, where eating insects and rats was commonplace. In its first season, Kimmi, a vegetarian, ate a foot-long mangrove worm.
But even more profound is the rule of the jungle. The neo-tribe periodically votes to remove tribesmen until only one victor remains, fostering an anything-goes mentality where loyalties and principles can be sacrificed and alliances made and broken at will in the mad rush to win the million-dollar prize.
Egalitarian and Mystical Structures
Unquestionably, every healthy society recognizes qualities and leadership, which in turn produces hierarchy and individuality. Yet this very natural way of organizing society is notably absent in Survivor and other shows.
At first glance, there is a profound lack of hierarchy among reality television’s neo-tribes. There are no tribe captains or referees to judge fair play.
In fact, superiority or alterity can result in banishment. Commentator David Bloomberg described this well while analyzing a Survivor episode: “Both Gretchen and Greg are taking on leadership roles in Pagong, though of different types – both Gretchen and Greg would be targeted and voted off immediately by the Tagi alliance because of their leadership.”4
Contestants even engage in practices of tribal religion. The rituals of the egalitarian tribal council create a kind of mystical air. Toward the end of Survivor II, for example, each person was assigned “to carve and paint an idol as a gift to the land.” The idol-making fest was a daylong event, where each contestant constructed his idol to reflect his Outback experience.
The Bigger Message
Of course, reality television is not real. It is a contrived reality where every detail is carefully crafted. Hours of film are edited into a storyline where the characters are meticulously sculpted to transcend the drab existence of their daily lives. Each episode is packaged to push the limits of the shocking and outrageous to create drama, suspense …and advertising dollars.
However, reality television undeniably sends a message that coincides with the Cultural Revolution’s assault on Christian civilization. At a time when the family is in dismal condition, reality TV glamorizes sex and promiscuity. When the nation clamors for honor and leadership, viewers feast on backstabbing and scheming. When individuals need to stand up for principles, the message is to meld all principles into a tribal consensus.
Indeed, amid the chaos of a postmodern world, all men struggle to be survivors. However the solution lies in turning to prayer, sacrifice and amendment of life as requested by Our Lady at Fatima, and not to escape to unreality by constructing new idols to be placed on the altars of a neotribal society.
- Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), 1993 Part 1, Chapter VII, Subtitle 3.
- Ibid., p. 158.
- Quoted by James Poniewozik, in “Survivor 2 Back to Reality,” Time, 1/20/2001.
- Bloomberg, David, “Survivor: Episode 4 in Retrospect”, September 21, 2000, http://www.themestream.com/articles/184392.htm.