Let’s Talk About Colton: Reflections on Stereotypes
I watch Survivor. I have watched this reality TV show since it began, missing only a few seasons. If you have not watched the show, the premise is that a group of men and women are thrown into the wilderness (usually an island) and expected not only to survive but also to vie with each other in a series of competitions. One person is voted off the island every three days. I tell myself that I watch the show as a sociology experiment, but the truth is that I savor the challenging competitions that result in “immunity” for one tribe and the dreaded Tribal Council for the other. I love to predict who will get booted off each week. I understand that the show is very much constructed: The producers and editors pour over hours and hours of film and scale it down to a mere 45 minutes or so every week. They create tension, they make stars, and they give us characters that we love to hate. Colton is one such character. But this was not clear at first.
This season the men and women were separated into two tribes, but in a plot twist they placed both groups on the same beach. Colton, a young white man, immediately came out as gay and bemoaned the fact that he was stuck with a bunch of hyper-masculine men. He often stole over to the women’s tribe and tried to bond with them. But he spent so much time with the women that they became a little bit tired of his complaining. The men began to suspect that he was giving away secrets to the women. I liked him immediately because he seemed like an underdog.
As the season moved forward it became clear that Colton had very few physical attributes that would help him in the competitions and he was notably lazy around camp. His teammates became frustrated with him. But Colton was smart: He picked out a few oddballs in the men’s group – a cranky old surgeon, a small person, and a sushi chef – and united with them. At the same time he built friendships among the women. When the two tribes were broken up and re-divided into two new mixed-sex groups, Colton emerged as a surprise leader. He became arrogant and his mean-streak emerged. But he was powerful and everyone knew it so he got away with his outrageous comments and behavior. At one point he coldly advised a woman he had grown to dislike to either jump in the campfire or retire from the show because she would be kicked off the island next.
He was disrespectful to people he deemed to be inferior – intellectually, culturally, or economically. He seemed to hate poor people. He was snooty and infuriatingly entitled. He did little other than gossip and manipulate but he seemed to be dominating. My kids and I became increasingly frustrated and even furious with this guy.
And then it happened. He started complaining about abdominal pain and the medical team was called to the island. It was his appendix. He had to be transported to a hospital. Suddenly, he was off the show. In his last few moments on the island, writhing in agony, he continued his selfishness by refusing to give one of his teammates the immunity idol that promised at least a little bit of security. He took it with him as a memento.
As soon as they put him on a stretcher and began carting him away my older son Evan said, simply, “karma.” His brother thought about it and replied, “yep.” I thought, too, and said, “yep.”
Karma indeed. This guy got what he deserved: pain and failure. But deep down I knew that it was more complicated. After all, he achieved fame (or infamy).
I find Colton interesting not because he appeared selfish and lazy and mean-spirited. Lots of people on Survivor fit that bill. I suspect the producers search for folks who will raise the ratings with their deeply unlikable personalities. I am writing about Colton because he reminds me that stereotypes are like graham crackers — they break easily. Just when you think you have a good grip as you slather the peanut butter on, it breaks and makes a mess. So frustrating!
Colton initially fed into several gay male stereotypes. He appeared physically weak. He was dramatic and emotional. He gossiped and manipulated. But this was eventually complicated by a new series of character traits that did not fit. I know that we tend to remember stereotype-consistent behavior in people and therefore our convictions about stereotypes are constantly reinforced. If you see a woman by the side of the road with a flat tire waiting for someone to help her, this will likely stick with you. If you see a beefy guy standing by the road waiting for help you are likely to forget that. Seems weird, right? But it’s true. Studies show we ignore behavior that contradicts stereotypes. Colton was a reminder of these truths.
Survivor producers knew that making Colton into a loathsome stereotype would boost ratings and so they knitted together scenes of the young man engaging in gossip, cruelty, and vanity — constructing the character that we all love to hate. But they could not entirely control the image so we also saw glimpses of Colton’s character that were confusing and even contradictory. He was tough and relentless when necessary, he endured pain better than many, he bonded with both men and women. He was hateful toward people based on class — which I found particularly dumbfounding. Why would a person from an oppressed group choose to oppress another group? It just seemed wrong. But of course Colton was also a privileged man who grew up learning his own stereotypes about poor people. So while he bemoaned negative stereotypes about gays he promoted negative stereotypes about the poor.
I still dislike Colton. I’m glad that karma caught up to him. But he reminds me to slow down, think before I make assumptions, and fight those stereotypes. After all, many feminists are funny. Lots of elderly people drive just fine. And not everyone in the Midwest is nice.