Survivor Fan Friction – Denise Stapley

Introducing our latest series of essays where one of our columnists writes an ode to one of their favorite Survivor players, while defending them against any potential naysayers (both real and imagined). This isn’t a place to be fair and balanced. This is a chance to let your fan freak flag fly. Let’s continue with EmandScoutinBK’s response to all the Denise haters out there. Wait… is there such a thing as a Denise hater?

Why She’s Great

“I don’t pray for anything. If anything that’s gonna get me to the end of the game, it’s gonna be me.”

Denise Stapley is a not just a Survivor player that I love. Denise Stapley is a person that I aspire to be. Denise is the type of winner that keeps me watching this show because I truly admire her. It’s no surprise that she’s a therapist (and, yes, Iowa’s only AASECT Certified Sex Therapist as well). Several reactions to Denise’s personality from fellow fans aside include: “I want to marry her”, “I want to be her when I grow up”, “I want her to be my mom”, “I want to hang out with her”, and “I want her to be my therapist.” All of these reactions are valid, and all of them are very telling. This is the primary reason that she won.

Denise showed up in the premiere with her functional cargo green pants and black tank. And despite being, by all appearances, a heterosexual woman, she probably came the closest to representing my soft butch style on the screen as anyone to date (and no, I’m not nearly as buff and would not wear a bikini). And that’s just it about her – I saw myself in her. And that’s probably a very common occurrence for the people around her. Denise has the ability to connect with people on a level that I have not yet seen in other players. Perhaps it’s her training as a therapist, but more likely, she’s a good therapist because of her natural intuition with others and ability to put them at ease.

Look at her thought process regarding Zane, for example:

“I’m really curious about Zane because, at first, you go, G-d, this kid is trouble but then, you look closer and you go, ok, wait a minute; look closer at those tattoos. He’s lost somebody. There’s a death date of somebody on his arm, and he’s got the serenity prayer on his hands. So, part of me is kinda of hoping this guy’s got some story, and if nothing else, I’m curious about his story.”

Her meticulous attention to detail allows her to notice these important pieces of information about Zane early on. And when she says she’s genuinely curious regardless, I believe her. That curiosity likely comes across in her conversations with others and allows her to build strong alliances (or, at least, give the appearance of wanting to do so). Granted, Zane was not the most important person to the season, but she gained some insight into his personality, and it’s telling of her ability to read people.

But as much as she may put people at ease, she doesn’t bullshit them either. Case-in-point: after the merge episode where she votes for Penner, Penner directly asks her if she voted for him. Unlike Jeff Kent, who’s full of excuses, Denise admits it without qualification. When he asks why, she says something to the effect of, “I’ve got my own strategy; I’m playing my own game, and if it blows up in my face, it blows up in my face.” She tells him the truth, and she doesn’t rub it in. Short of some brilliant, undetectable lie that magically explains everything (which Sandra probably could’ve pulled off), it was the perfect thing to say.

Denise may have appeared to play a quiet game, but she dominated the game she was playing. She went to every tribal council but somehow managed never to be truly in danger. The only time she faced any real potential danger was at the final four vote and, even then, she was never actually in danger – Lisa and Skupin were always voting Malcolm. Thus, the alternative timeline where Malcolm agrees to Denise’s proposal of voting Lisa would’ve resulted in a tie between Malcolm and Lisa – not Denise and Lisa, as she had suspected.

And we can’t talk enough about the fact that she is the only contestant ever to attend every single tribal council. She’s the ultimate underdog, and we were rooting for her. Imagine the toll that should have taken on her – the mental and emotional stress it should have put her through, in addition to the physical effects of Survivor. But we never saw it. She barely broke throughout the season – just once due to an insect bite. She toughed it out and became the oldest female winner. She managed to do what contestants like Dawn Meehan couldn’t do – no one held her motherhood against her (and of course, nobody should), which is incredibly difficult and speaks to her ability to shape how the contestants view her. And she certainly didn’t win because of a lack of competition – Lisa Whelchel played a strong second place game.

Speaking of strong…

Haters Gonna Hate

All Time Great?

I mean… Some people may not think she’s one of the best of all time, but YOU’RE ALL WRONG. You’re just wrong. Despite being popular among subsections of fans, she’s never quite gotten the respect she deserves as a winner (which is all of the respect – ALL OF IT). For example: that Hall of Fame is still missing her name. But we don’t have to travel to other parts of the internet to see her get disrespected. For some reason, this site did not vote her ahead of J.T. Thomas in the winners bracket this year, and I will never forgive any of you who contributed to that outcome. J.T. GUYS?! REALLY?! Still think he’s a better winner?! FIGHT ME.

But Abi… and Malcolm!

So let’s discuss potential weaknesses on her season: she has zero chill about Abi-Maria. But then again, who does? And also, she convinced Abi to vote for her at the end and handled her quite well at final tribal council.

Arguably, the only potential mistake that she ever made was not being willing to vote out Malcolm immediately at final four. However, we don’t actually know if she would have voted him out or if she was just proposing a tie vote to him to take the target off of her, a la the Russell vote earlier in the season. We never got to find out because he didn’t agree. However, assuming she meant it, if Malcolm had agreed and Denise never approached Lisa and Skupin for their votes, she could have wound up facing Malcolm in the finals, which would have threatened her victory. Whether she could have beaten him in final tribal council has been a source of contention for years.

The popular theory is that Malcolm takes it with the Petebro contingent, but it’s hard to say in hindsight. Denise rocked her final tribal performance, so if there was anyone on the fence, she certainly had a chance at swaying them. Ultimately, it’s impossible to know, but more likely it wouldn’t have happened. Denise’s interviews suggest that she always intended to vote against Malcolm before final three, save for an immunity necklace around his neck.

Embrace Debate

Denise is an ideal player. She’s physical, she’s brilliant, and she’s emotionally intelligent. She understands every facet of this game. She knows how to listen, and she knows how to talk to people. And yet, while she has this incredible skill to appeal to so many different people within the game, it feels genuine. It’s not a put-on. That genuine quality makes her utterly likeable. This isn’t just who she is in the game – this is who she is outside of it as well: a genuine person willing to engage openly, empathetically, and respectfully with the people around her.

Denise has earned her spot in history, rounding off a trio of strong woman winners after Sophie Clark and Khaleesi Spradlin. But unlike Clark and Spradlin, she was on an actually enjoyable season with undoubtedly strong competition. A disappointing winner (in the eyes of fans) would’ve hurt the season’s reputation greatly (See: Kaoh Rong). And this is certainly not to take anything away from Clark and Spradlin- as they are two of the greatest- but Denise’s win was satisfying in a way that theirs weren’t because Denise was more relatable than both of them.

But it’s not just that. Denise basically looked Survivor in the face, said “Yeah, I got this,” and did it, no matter what obstacle she faced. Losing every challenge? Big deal. Tribe swap? I will make myself integral to the group. Every single goddamn tribal council? I am like iron – you cannot break me.

Because that’s how she rolls. She’s a BAMF and she knows it. After three dark seasons of Survivor, Denise provided us the win we needed that year to give us the combination of entertaining season and a winner that we could love, and it was that very thing that reinvigorated my love for this show. She was the underdog we needed, the badass we needed, and the good guy we needed to root for in the end. Denise represents Survivor at its best because she represents the best of us. I can only hope to see her in an All-Winners season someday where she will almost definitely be underestimated by every single member of the cast. And that’s why she’ll win.