30 from 30: #13 – Rupert and the Birth of the Survivor Hero Edit

The Moment:

Burly tough guy Rupert gives an emotional confessional and becomes the most popular Survivor ever.

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.

Why It Matters:

Let’s try a little experiment. Place yourself in the shoes of a Survivor producer/editor that just returned from filming Pearl Islands. You don’t have to sculpt a villain edit around someone who is mildly annoying after being starved and sleep-deprived; scrawny, goofy-haired Jon Dalton has just willingly embraced and elevated the role of villain, and you’re absolutely giddy about it.

But what good is a villain without a hero to stand against him or her? If Star Wars were just a movie about Darth Vader destroying worlds from the comfort of the Death Star, that would be pretty depressing. Jon Dalton just gave you Survivor‘s version of Darth Vader. You need to find your Luke Skywalker.

With that in mind, you look back at the rest of your cast and what they gave you to work with. Is Lil the hero? On the one hand, she’s an old lady in a boy scout uniform that eventually takes down your villain. On the other hand, this:

lil faceMaybe Sandra could be your hero? She does win the season, so you could conceivably say that she also takes down your villain. Still, a good chunk of your audience is made up of people who love bland, calm, inoffensive people like Ethan. They might not be cool with this:

Sandra can get loud too what the fuck
You can’t see it, but I’m doodling hearts around this gif.

Finally, you stop yourself. Why were you even considering using a woman as a hero? This is Survivor! We don’t do that on this show! Good thing you caught yourself before you ran your ideas past Probst. Obviously, our hero needs to be a guy. Consider your possibilities:

Skinny Ryan? Lol nope.

Osten? Nah. You saw how angry Probst got about his quit, right?

What about one of the members of Handsome Squad?

Pearl Islands Handsome Squad- Ryno Burton Shawn Savage
Let’s flood some basements!

Shawn was a pre-merge boot and gets taken out by Dalton, so he’s out. Burton was technically a pre-merge boot as well, but more importantly he aligned himself with your villain when he came back. That’s unacceptable. If it’s going to be Savage or Ryno, you lean towards Savage since he took the leadership role. But there is one more candidate…

Rupert thumbs up
This will now be my go-to Rupert picture.

Inspired, you run to pitch your idea to the executive producers: “Let’s give Rupert a hero edit!” They look around at each other, confused. You explain that in previous seasons, you’ve had to force someone into the villain role. This time, that script is already written for you. Instead, you could expend your energy forcing someone into a hero role- scrub away (almost) all of his imperfections, make him seem really relatable, and make him into someone the audience will root for. And with Rupert, you have a guy who looks like most of middle America, which is a sizable portion of your audience. This plan can’t fail!

As Pearl Islands airs, your plan seems to be working; people love watching Rupert embrace the pirate theme, steal shoes, and inexplicably swim like a fish. Some early challenges let you show him as a surprisingly strong fat guy, beating out the chiseled man-mountain Osten in tests of strength.


But for the audience to truly love a hero, there has to be some kind of emotional connection. He decides to make a pet out of an injured snake he finds, and when the snake ends up dying, he’s super sad about it. He loves animals, how endearing! When Rupert ends up wearing a skirt instead of his jeans, the audience giggles. Look at that big, burly man dressing like a girl, tee-hee! Rupert laughs at himself, and everyone watching is charmed.

That skirt eventually leads to the apex hero edit moment. Shawn and Burton, the studly alpha males, had laughed about Rupert’s skirt earlier in the season. They’d received their comeuppance when they were both voted out. But in the eighth episode of the season, Burton returns to Rupert’s tribe courtesy of the Outcasts twist. Rupert is unhappy about it. He’s gotta talk it out, and apparently for a really, really long time:

Rupert and Burton talk about Rupert's feelings- daytimesurvivor pearl islands rupert burton night chat

Why is Rupert so upset? You let Rupert tell the story himself in a confessional, accompanied by some sympathetic piano music in the background. You see, Rupert was not always the confident, lovable man-beast that he seems thanks to your selective editing. As a child, he was picked on for being the fat kid. So when stupid, sexy Burton was teasing him, it brought back painful memories of his childhood.

survivor pearl islands rupert fat kid confessional
Sad Rupert

And with that, the hero edit is complete. There is still more season to be aired, and more Rupert to see, but it doesn’t matter. By the time Rupert is voted off, he is the most popular Survivor ever. Idiots People Idiots call CBS and demand that they do the vote over again, unable to grasp that the season is already done and that Rupert was not as beloved by the other players as he was by the audience.

At the reunion, the other players even explicitly state that they were surprised at how Rupert was shown- rough edges sanded away, glowing like a finely polished turd. The audience doesn’t care. Rupert roars, and they lose their shit.

The impact:

The hero edit had a huge impact on Survivor as a show. Narratives became a bigger part of how the show was presented, and character arcs became more pronounced. Eventually, this would have all kinds of effects, from the development of winner edits to the casting of more one-dimensional “characters” to make storytelling easier.

badass drew
Sometimes, there was barely even one dimension.

But although Rupert’s edit is easily the most extreme case, the hero edit itself hasn’t gone away. I could rattle off examples for you, or you could just look at the Heroes tribe from Heroes vs. Villains (which, despite its name, didn’t really feature a hero edit).

If you doubt the power of the hero edit, there is perhaps no greater test case than Stephenie. In Palau, Stephenie was the strong, determined underdog, fighting for a chance to stay in the game and outlasting her entire challenge-inept tribe. When she returned for Guatemala the next season the hero edit was gone, and Stephenie’s popularity plummeted without it.

The edit that Rupert received- and the public reaction it got- really reinforced for the Survivor creators that the way to inspire intense reactions in their audience was to play on our most intense emotions: love and hate. Rupert’s edit gave us someone to love. Of course, they also gave us someone to hate. But we’ll cover that subject in another post.

Burton Pearl Islands
Note: It is not Burton. This picture is merely here for to take your mind off of the repeated Rupert pictures in this post. You’re welcome.

What Else Made the List?

You can view all our 30 from 30 content by clicking here.