30 From 30: #11 – Survivor Amazon Unveils the Themed Season

The Moment:

In the sixth season of Survivor, the Battle of the Sexes introduces a new marketing gimmick to breathe life into future versions of a veteran series.

We’re counting down the 30 Moments That Shaped Survivor, events that happened on the show that helped create and evolve the game and the series that we know and love. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. And since these posts are covering the first thirty seasons of Survivor, there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.

30 from 30- Amazon themed season women tribe

Why It Matters:

After five seasons where sixteen players were shuffled into random tribes, Survivor: The Amazon decided to mix things up. Instead of the simple “16 strangers set in an exotic locale”, they set up much of the pre-merge game as a battle of the sexes: men vs women on separate tribes in order to prove Jeff Probst’s natural biases provide interesting TV. All eight women were placed on Jaburu, with all eight men placed on Tambaqui. Would the girls build a nail salon as their shelter? Would the guys dominate challenges?

Tambaqui: “Bro?” “Bro.” “Bro!”
Jaburu: “That whole side of the beach is going to smell like dude”.

While not as stereotypical, there were tribe dynamics that affected the game. Overconfidence on Tambaqui’s side and quarreling on Jaburu provided a compelling contrast that raised interest in the season. The cast also had several strong characters — and at least one creepy character.

Posting this photo is legally required when discussing Amazon Matt.

Interestingly, after much of Survivor‘s first five seasons followed the basic tenet of forming a core alliance within your initial tribe and then sticking with that alliance after the merge, that dynamic fell apart in The Amazon. Whether it was because of the themed season’s gimmick or not, the original Tambaqui or Jaburu alliances mostly went up in flames after the merge.

Amazon fire at camp thanks Butch
Thanks to Butch for this subtle metaphor about Amazon‘s post-merge alliances.

But perhaps more importantly, the themed season gimmick drew some extra press for the season at a time when the show was starting to come down off its peak viewership. Partly as a latter-year ratings ploy, and partly to mask the fact that Survivor recycled the same few locations for eleven seasons, themes are now a standard element of the game, 24 seasons after they debuted. Not many elements outside of blindsides, hidden idols, and Exile Island have had that kind of longevity.

The Impact:

Blood. Water. Heroes. Villains. Collars of various colors. These days it seems like Survivor relies on the themed season, but there was a time where the only “theme” was the show stranding sixteen Americans for 39 (or, once, 42) days. The popularity of Amazon’s themed season led to the “men versus women” conceit being repeated three times —again in Vanuatu, tweaked in Panama, and with a twist in One World— as well as setting a precedent for multiple future themed seasons.

After you check the gender box, the only way to go is race, class, and family. From Cook Island‘s “race wars” to Fiji‘s “poor wars” to ageism, the show has tried numerous concepts that are either insanely popular or get massive amounts of digital ink.

Nicaragua cast
Occasionally that digital ink is infused with pure hatred.

Aside from tribe assortments on the basis of traits that would cause a marketing research firm to pop champagne, seasons like Heroes vs Villains and Blood vs Water can also be traced to Amazon‘s big idea. While those seasons started as returnee concepts, they still dealt with seeing how like-minded* people interacted in a group before a tribal shuffle.

*Whatever, Probst. David Sampson was not a brain and Courtney is not a villain. She is Island Tyrion.

A fixture for the foreseeable future, themes are one of the most important non-strategy elements to have survived the years. Whether the show will ever get back to the point where the location is the theme remains to be seen, but considering both upcoming Cambodia seasons have already been branded with subtitles, don’t expect Survivor: Siberia to come without a “Coats vs. Igloos vs. Putin’s Tanks” moniker.

What Else Made the List?

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A Survivor fan since the end of season one, Mark hasn’t finished One World, but still thinks Kim is overhyped.

Top 5, Baby: Cambodia, Cagayan, Heroes vs. Villains, Pearl Islands, and Palau.
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10 thoughts on “30 From 30: #11 – Survivor Amazon Unveils the Themed Season

  1. While themes tend to be simple marketing or player organization gimmicks that are undone in the first third of the season, there actually has been some really interesting results that come as a result. For example (as previously discussed in the loved ones’ thread), it does seem like, for the most part, women are only allowed to take full leadership roles and be treated as game controlling alphas is in split gender seasons (Deena, Ami, Kim). Splitting contestants by gender allows us to see different gender roles and dynamics than the standard tropes of flirt, mom, under-the-radar, etc. You can see this in both sexes with players who were planning on structuring their games to accommodate the other gender (think Shawna Mitchell, Ryan Aitken, Colton) and suddenly be thrown for a loop. Or in a player like Rob C, who might be a challenge liability in a tribe where he’s one of 4 males suddenly not being an issue.

    For Race Wars (and its subsequent season Fiji, which was cast to that theme but not run by it), we got to see POCs not having to play as minorities. It’s probably not an accident that the only two POC male winners in the history of the show came from seasons where they weren’t the only POCs on the beach. Yul and Earl were able to establish leadership roles because they were among more people like themselves, instead of being in a situation where no one (or next to no one) shares their cultural heritage.

    So even though the Race Wars concept was quickly dropped after a merge/swap, it still meant that there were more races represented than ever before AND players like Yul and Ozzy were able to establish themselves early on.

    1. Every single point you made is bang on.
      Watching Survivor as a woman can be a very frustrating experience. I remember when people were saying Natalie White was useless in Samoa and I remember that Natalie’s people skills are the only reason that the Galu’s voted out Erik, which is what set up her alliance to get to Final 4. Sophie Clarke was a great winner, one who got her alliance stuck with it and was always at the heart of it’s decision making, she also won two vital immunities to get rid of Whitney and then Ozzie. These women get no respect for their wins, no credit for any moves played as they are viewed as being designed by the men in their alliances. Then we could list the women who’ve made it to FTC with an equal partner and been seen as a goat; Dawn and Becky for example.
      It takes a player like Cirie to really get any respect as a woman who doesn’t win, yet Penner who has never made it near a top 5 is seen as a great, please, he’s a great character but not a player of the game.

      1. I think this dismissal of Sophie and Natalie White is twofold. First of all, their edits are nearly invisible because the editing strategy for Samoa and South Pacific was to show why Russell/Coach lose and not why Natalie White/Sophie win. Also, I think that they were both younger looking woman (although Natalie was in her late twenties in Samoa) who fulfilled two negative female stereotypes: Natalie was the Southern belle while Sophie was a word that rhymes with witch. So, why would the average audience member want someone like Natalie White or Sophie to win when they can get a Russell or a Coach? Because these women were able to show their worth as an individual player.

    2. This is something that I don’t think the show has even fully realized is a benefit to these themed seasons. Seeing players like Yul and Earl take on roles that they very likely otherwise would not be afforded is just interesting, and I don’t know if the show realizes this sometimes.

      1. They definitely don’t, given that it seems pretty clear that Probst is down on both Fiji (understandably) and Earl. Yul doesn’t get celebrated enough either, although that might be more to do with his unwillingness to return.

  2. I would say the previous two seasons had gimmicks to start, or at least catch lines. Marquesas was “this time they get no food!” and Thailand had the schoolyard pick for tribes.

    But yes, this is the first truly themed season. And every season after this will need something to make it different, whether it’s the pirate theme and making people play with the clothes on their backs, or eliminating two people on the first (second?) day of the game, or exile island. Eventually this leads to bad ideas like Race Wars, but you can understand the need for them to go “and this is why you should watch this season!” each time.

    1. As Mark points out, there’s pragmatic reasons for it now. Once they started reusing locations, they couldn’t call every season by its location name. Sometimes they get around that by playing with levels of specificity of the locations (Philippines becomes Caramoan, Nicaragua becomes San Juan del Sur) but other times they need a new name for it and that’s where the theme comes in.

    2. Marquesas also had the whole “back to the beach” theme after the difficult locations of Australian Outback and Africa along with the 9/11 related cancellation of Survivor Arabia.

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