The 40 Most Influential Survivors: Sue Hawk

Sue Hawk

Borneo, All-Stars

To celebrate the 40th season of Survivor, we’re counting down the 40 Most Influential Survivors to ever play the game. Because Survivor is a game, a tv show, and a rabid fandom, we’re taking all forms of influence into consideration for this list. Go here to view the criteria we are using to determine what qualifies for the list. Note: this list is presented in chronological order and there will be spoilers for various Survivor seasons.

Sue Hawk is the 3rd entry in this series.

Pretty much everyone on the first season of Survivor was a character. You had Greg the goofball, Colleen the sweetheart, Gervase the…unfortunately pigeonholed black guy, Rudy the crusty old veteran, Richard the quirky naked guy, and Sue the Midwestern mom who told it like it is. The show was such a massive hit in part because it played up these people for the viewers. Sure, it started off as a survivalist challenge, but when Rich and Sue and the Tagi four turned the game into a real competition, the broad stroke traits of these people became laced with real emotion, like the best TV characters.

At the final four, Rich’s alliance went as far as it could together. But now they faced a decision to vote out on of their own. After the very first tie in what would be many more to come, Kelly and Rudy had to vote between Rich and Sue. Rather than tie again—which would have made this a whole different article about Survivor firsts—Kelly betrayed Sue and voted her out of the game. Sue put on a good game face and turned on that Wisconsin niceness, but two days spent brewing in Ponderosa would lead to a very different Sue come final tribal council.

I think everyone in America knows what happened next. After a Final Tribal Council laced with benign (and downright odd) questions, Sue Hawk comes walking up and delivers the most famous monologue in reality TV history…

No questions, no numbers, just commentary. Very pointed commentary stemming from Kelly’s betrayal. Whether she meant to play for the cameras and the jury or just let off steam, Sue set the stage for two things we now see in the endgame of Survivor: the “bitter jury” and the advocating foreman.

In a game where lying and backstabbing were still seen as deceitful and unsportsmanlike, most jurors were just mad they got bamboozled. Sue took it a step further and infused her straight-talking personality with a sense of real hurt in that speech. Kelly Wigglesworth didn’t lose that 4-3 vote because of a random number. She lost it because of Sue. Sue pled to the jury, and by extension, America that admitting you played a game was better than pretending this was a game of BFFs before F-ing your friends. Because a large chunk of viewers felt like they could relate to Sue (or at least trust her), it carried weight with the audience. Not to mention, these kinds of speeches were great TV and a surefire way to get more airtime.

In the decades to come, bitter juries would define several final jury votes.Michele confessional

Do we remember Reed from San Juan del Sur for anything other than his vamping speech? Whether a betrayed player went back to Ponderosa and vented until their peers agreed, or they used their speech time to pontificate instead of deliberate, Sue arguably set the template for Final Tribal. Especially the “last players voted out process their feelings at FTC instead of in their journal” mode of venting. Some—maybe all—of this was for show, but a finalist taking heat for their moves would be a staple of the next 32 finales

That heat could also be the embarrassment of being dumped.

The other thing Sue did in her speech was to use it to advocate FOR who she thought would be the better winner. The “snakes and rats” part came from this second, less personal half of the speech. While not as common as a bitter monologue, one juror standing up in front of the others and saying “so and so deserves this money you dingbats” is another FTC staple. This is the person who uses their speech to tell everyone else to put aside their friendships and personal feelings and vote for the person who played the best game. (Yes, it’s ironic that the same person who used their personal feelings in a speech also advocated against using personal feelings in their vote). Whether it’s Spencer advocating for Tony, or David Murphy advocating for Rob, there’s often one juror who talks to the jury instead of the players and tries to get their way. And usually, it works! Sue teed this up and years of players ran with it.

Sure, the final tribal format has changed in the last few years to steer away from camera hogs and vendettas (I personally like it, others don’t). But even now, the essence of what Sue Hawk started can be found in that final confrontation before the verdict. And because of that moment, the show’s already skyrocketing popularity took it into the stratosphere during the fall. Without Richard, we may not have had the game of Survivor. But without his cast of friends and frenemies, we may not have had the TV show either. Characters are important, whether they’re written or not.