Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American
Popular Culture (1900 to present) we feature an
interview, or a conversation, with a scholar in the
field of American
popular culture studies.
Christopher J. Wright works in the political
media in Washington D.C. and has research interests in reality
television. In 2006, he published Tribal Warfare: Survivor
and the Political Unconscious of Reality Television (Lexington
Books) in which he uses a “combination of textual analysis
and survey research to demonstrate that Survivor both
operates and resonates as a class discourse.” Recently,
we interviewed Wright to get his thoughts about the show, his research,
and reality television in general.
Were you a fan of Survivor before you wrote this book?
Oh yes. I’ve been watching Survivor since the third episode
of its first season. I got hooked on it right away and hoped against
hope that Richard and his alliance would fail and perky Colleen
would somehow win. Mark Burnett roped me into his editing game
from the get-go.
When did you know you wanted to write
about the show?
By the time the third season started in fall 2001, there were numerous
news websites devoted to reality TV and Survivor in particular.
But few of the articles I read really delved beneath the surface.
They were mostly articles trying to guess who would win, would
so-and-so fall in love. Now and then there were hints of deeper
stuff: Was the second season’s Jerri Manthey really evil
or just “drawn” that way; was the editing fair?
I’d written an article that summer on the Gary Condit mess
for a website called PopPolitics.com, and I wrote the editor to
ask if she’d be interested in a weekly article on the show,
with a sociological grounding (my bachelor’s was in sociology
and journalism). So that’s how I got my start. A year later,
I began graduate school and was delighted that my professors in
Georgetown’s Communication, Culture and Technology program
were supportive of my writing more and more about the show, and
about reality TV as a genre. I think half my term papers were on
it. One of them was published in 2006 in the Journal of American
Culture, and my master’s thesis project became the basis
for Tribal Warfare, which I worked on after I graduated.
you think we need to understand about reality television in American
culture? You call Survivor the “false real.”
Well, a number of scholars (and newspaper writers, too) have documented
how “reality TV” is an ironic term. Sure, what we see
on Survivor and The Real World, etc., isn’t fiction – it
did happen. But it’s a bad idea to assume that things occurred
during filming exactly as we see it on screen, and viewers, myself
included, could get lulled into a false sense of a relative lack
of mediation – like we’re watching a live event, nearly
free of editing. Now, Survivor, The Amazing Race, and maybe one
or two other reality shows are expertly edited – as good,
I’d say, as some adventure/drama/suspense films. Both shows
at their best can be riveting. So we forget about editing, time
compression, the fact that when we see a contestant alone, talking
to the camera, they’re usually responding to interview questions
from a producer.
But the biggest issue may be the potential impact on socialization,
and that’s something I try to hit on repeatedly in my book.
If Survivor and reality TV are seen as “real,” then
the ideologies, stereotypes, and the like presented in them are
all the more believable. In our society, we already stereotype
people left and right – we all do it. This doesn’t
You write, “Tribal Warfare, then, will explore Survivor through the lens of the political unconscious by probing examples
of Jamesonian repression on the show, the intent being to determine
whether it functions as a political allegory reflecting society’s
The goal of my project was to read the show as a political allegory.
On Survivor, they usually tell us at the start of a season
that the contestants are being “forced to create a new society,” and
Mark Burnett even called the first season’s two tribes the “haves
and have-nots” in his book – but from my research,
no one had probed if that was a valid way to describe the program.
My thesis adviser, Matthew Tinkcom, pointed me toward The Political
Unconscious, and I began to look for ways to apply it to the
program. Everything seemed to keep going back to alliances, which
are Survivor’s version of a class system.
In society, we usually think of the “have-nots” as
outnumbering the “haves,” with the former group lacking
the cohesion and will to do much about their situation. This formula
seems to repeat itself on Survivor over and over: a numerical
minority bands together and, through a combination of verbal sleight
hand and luck, votes out enough other contestants to become a controlling
majority. So the narrative of the show often becomes an allegorical
class war. From there, I conducted a survey of more than a thousand
Survivor viewers, and among those who took the survey,
those who considered themselves upper-class or upper-middle class
likely to view contestants in a long-term controlling alliance
more positively. Those who called themselves working-class were
more likely to see outsiders or “underdogs” – those
who must pull themselves up by their allegorical bootstraps to
have any hope to survive – more positively. These patterns
were sustained, to varying degrees, across most of the first ten
of the show.
You write, “Executive Producer Mark Burnett is the mastermind
behind Survivor, so it is not surprising that he was the first
to note his program’s class structure.”
Burnett is a very smart man and has overseen the great editing
and marketing of Survivor. He’s shown from the beginning
that he knows how to latch onto – some would say manipulate – an
audience, through the building of suspense that is often genuine
but occasionally manufactured. The first two seasons of the show,
he and his team seemed to especially enjoy trying to out-spoil
the “spoilers” who watch the show, its advertisements,
etc., very closely to try to determine in advance who will be voted
out and who will win.
What is the future of reality television?
Will audiences continue their obsession or is it a fad?
There was a point soon after the September 11th attacks when it
seemed as if reality TV would be a fleeting fancy. Things were
in flux culturally at that point. Ironically, right after 9/11,
Friends was resurgent and reality TV appeared to be curling
up on the vine. Yet today, sitcoms are hard to find near the top
the Nielsen ratings, but shows like Survivor, Dancing
with the Stars and of course American Idol still
do very well. So the genre has kept going and has sustained itself
to a large degree, despite
its fair share of flops. We’ve got Dancing now,
and seemingly endless makeover programs like What Not to Wear.
So for better or worse, reality TV is here to stay. Its popularity
will wax and
wane, much like serial dramas have resurged after a lengthy down
period, but its low production costs if nothing else will keep
programs like Survivor out there.
What is your next project? Are you working on another book? Will
you continue to research and write on reality television or will
you move on to other interests?
I’m not currently working on another book. I’d be interested,
however, in exploring how The Amazing Race, another top-notch reality
show, represents the culture of “the other” as its
contestants travel around the world. Or maybe someone else could
tackle that. I was also intrigued by the programs Joe Schmoe and
My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancee, both of which featured “real
people” who thought they were taking part in a reality program,
when in fact they were surrounded by actors. This sort of hybrid
would appear to tie things in theoretical knots.
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