So, a long time ago, when the television show Survivor first came out, I watched it and was utterly fascinated. The main thing I loved about it was watching Richard Hatch play a game no one else yet understood was the actual game of the show and (spoiler alert) be rewarded with a million dollars.
If you don’t know the game, the gist is they strand people on an island in two groups and early on, the way you get power is by winning challenges, many of which are physical, which can be a real problem due to (as the show goes on) less and less food being available to you unless you’re good at finding it on your own. There are mental challenges, too, but these get hard given the lack of food as well. The trick is to figure out how to stay healthy physically so you can compete physically and mentally. When there are too few people to have two separate groups, they merge them together and the challenges become individual. If you get “immunity,” the others can’t get rid of you by voting you out, but almost all of the people who are there after the merge then become a jury who decide who wins the million at the end, so if you’re too devious in your scheming, it will cost you. Maybe.
Anyway, when the game first started, the original group had literally no idea what the game was, so it was relatively easy for Hatch to create a core alliance and use it to have an effective voting bloc to ensure that what he thought, strategically, would be the best thing to do, he was able to actually carry out.
Fast-forward to the season I just finished, season 6 (I only really watched the first, some of the celebrity edition, and the all-star season, so I’m watching old ones). I was incensed this season, more than before, and it made me think about the “pretty people” vs. the rest of us and what all this means for society.
I’ve learned, in watching Survivor, through the eyes of a Neurodivergent person, that the young people, particularly the young women who seem to have no discernable talents or puzzle-solving abilities of any kind, nor are they interested in gathering food, water, or contributing to the building of shelter…seem to get way too far in this game. In this particular season (spoiler alert), one of the laziest Survivor players I’d seen yet actually won the freaking million. She did it all by flirting and lying around and showing off her body. Oh, and toward the end (because she hadn’t DONE anything) she had enough energy to manage to win a few vital games on her own, without someone else basically giving the game to her, to get immunity.
In this season, there was also a Deaf woman named Christy. Christy was saying what I (and so many women before me have said): Jenna (the winner) was lazy and Christy hated how she used her body as power. Jenna even had the audacity to say that being pretty was a handicap (seriously?) which Christy called her out on, but then ultimately voted for her to win (which makes no sense to me, even now). Regardless, Christy was saying what I had been thinking the entire show: what the hell is wrong with this society, in which the “pretty people” who do very little who say they work hard, but do absolutely nothing but lie around, prosper?
But then, I watched Jenna and her sidekick Heidi, the other bikini-clad lazy person, swear up and down that everything they did, they did for their friends. They would never, ever, they swore, turn on their friends.
That was interesting.
Judy Blume on Friendship and Survivor Mean Girls
I thought then about all those Judy Blume novels about friendship I read when I was younger (and, to be honest, will reread from time to time). Blume does a great job of explaining school dynamics, even, painfully in Blubber. The novel is about bullying and kids turn on a girl for no real reason other than her appearance and (it is implied) the adults give tacit approval to this bullying since the bullied girl, Linda, brings it upon herself, it seems. When one of the girls half-heartedly refuses to continue bullying past a certain point (keeping in mind, she’s no hero; she’s done plenty of horrible stuff to Linda and would continue to do so happily, but she draws a seemingly arbitrary line in the sand), the tables get turned, nothing really happens. The mean girls turn on the one who balked, and eventually it blows over. Linda, the original one who got bullied, never does really make friends, and somehow this bully-turned-bullied, skates through it after a “rough patch.” Linda is, presumably, left to live her whole life being bullied whenever the popular kids decide to start up again because she deserves it.
Yeah, that’s kids in a nutshell, at least, in a typical school setting.
But I suddenly connected Linda to Christy. Christy in Survivor didn’t do anything wrong; she just didn’t lie around, trying to flaunt her body. And the implication that her body wasn’t fine because she was average-sized (in no way was she unattractive) and beyond that, she was Deaf, so I was seeing considerable ableism thrown in there along with sizeism, was abhorrent. But the pretty people in Survivor, much like the popular, pretty people in Blubber, make the rules and everyone else is expected to do these people’s bidding because nobody will stop them and they will not ever turn on their real friends.
Jenna and Heidi kept talking about never hurting their friends and crying ridiculous tears over that.
But Judy Blume taught me the real reason you don’t turn on your friends in those popular circles: because if you do, they will ruin you. You do what they say or else.
That isn’t friendship.
Implications of “Never Hurting My Friends”
However, the advantage of staying in this kind of bullying relationship cemented by being sexually attracted to each other and/or having common experiences of having scores of men or women worship you for your body (or whatever the kids in Blume’s novel found appealing about each other…maybe just sheer neurotypicality), is that you get ahead. You ensure your friends and people like you succeed, and you gatekeep out those who are not like you and your friends. This extends to race, class, religion, etc., but it is also extremely apparent in the Disability community, where Disabled people have to fight to work at all.
Pretty people take care of their own and are successful in the work and school worlds because of it.
But it all comes at a high price: if you decline to participate later because you feel something is wrong, heaven help you.
I think part of the reason I struggle with neurotypicals is that first, I never really understood this game they’re playing. It’s got all sorts of rules that run counter to the rules I internalized. Not bullying people is a big rule I internalized, but they can flagrantly disregard it and often teachers, bosses, etc. will watch them disregarding it and they don’t say a word about it. Either they are pretty people themselves and figure those who are bullied deserve it, or they are not allowed in the “in-group” and have already seen what happens if you speak up against this cruddy behavior. Whatever the reason, it keeps going on because people are afraid to stop it.
And since realizing that, in addition to being too-fat-for-societal-acceptance, I’m also Disabled, I can’t help but think about what all of this means for people who cannot measure up to the arbitrary standard of beauty necessary for membership in these groups, which gatekeep success to prevent people who they deem unworthy of entering. They sit on every interview committee, and try to determine if you will “fit in” with them, and they run the gossip chains in offices to ensure the people they like get positions of power. Businesses prefer “pretty” people to sell their products and to represent them, because “pretty” people are seen as important.
I think those of us who aren’t “pretty people” (however it is arbitrarily defined) know this, but what struck me is that this is all a game. A game they are playing and we’re not allowed to play it at all. Meanwhile, we are playing a different game: the work hard and better yourself and pull yourself up by the proverbial bootstraps game. We have to work much, much harder in our game, even if we weren’t also Disabled, and they seem to profit from our very existence. It all comes at a very high price for us, and we get minimal profit.
Meanwhile, the pretty people get to lie in the sun while we drag over more wood for the fire and make sure they are fed, watered, and cared for. And that’s why they’re so well-rested when it’s time for a challenge, and we’re exhausted. Sooner or later, one of them will say they’re treated so horribly because of their beauty, which reminds me of white people talking about how bad they have it. Like, look, the world is made for you because you made darned sure it was. If you have a bad day, that’s nothing compared to the people you and your friends crushed to get where you are. But whatever. If I say that, you will crush me, so I have to just think that.
I will say that none of this is very Freire-like. I want to build a new world with the pretty people in it; I really do. But when I was watching the game play out and seeing how these young women got ahead by flaunting their bodies and effectively lying around, expecting people to wait on them, I wonder if they really understand that the game they have all agreed to play comes at a very high price for the rest of us. Sure, they can fall from grace at a moment’s notice, and I get that that is stressful, but how does that justify throwing bodies deemed as imperfect under the bus?
The thing of it is, since realizing I’m Disabled, and that such a thing exists as sizeism, besides, I’m starting to re-examine a lot of the rules I internalized without even realizing, about how society runs. This society that we all just accept since we live in it, is very, very ableist.
This is why I’m excited to read The Right to Live in this World: The Untold Story of Disability in America, which Ari Ne’eman, Autistic advocate, recently sold at auction, to Simon & Schuster (nope; I don’t know yet either when we can pre-order, but stay tuned to Autistic Twitter and our other news outlets, and we should hear more). In a world run by “pretty people,” Disabled people have to fight for their rights to work, to leisure, to be treated as humans and, sadly, to live in this world.
Though now I better appreciate the perspective of the neurotypical from watching Survivor, this is not a game. There are real implications for Disabled people by the perspectives held by the winner of season 6 Survivor and her friends whom she would never betray. We shouldn’t have to fight for the right to exist, nor should we have to work much, much harder to get a job, to keep a job, and so on. And yet, here we are.
And this is why, nearly 28 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, we are still fighting.