Earlier this week, Zeke Smith, who was outed as transgender against his will by a desperate competitor (via CBS), was voted off of Survivor. It’s hard to say just how much the outing affected Smith’s longevity in the game, but there’s no doubt it played a role in cutting his time short.
While Survivor contestants vote each other out throughout the season, the ultimate goal (other than winning the million dollar prize) is to make it to the final three (or sometimes two). In the season finale, a jury of their peers who were voted out gets to decide which of the final three deserves to win the million dollars. It makes for a kind of insurance policy that encourages players not to be total pieces of shit to each other throughout the game.
Once you make it to the final three, no amount of puzzle-solving or rock-catapulting will save you, but having a strong backstory can.
Aubry Bracco, the player who orchestrated voting Smith out, did so because he’s a smart and powerful player who was probably planning something big. It’s a classic Survivor move to “strike first” when someone is a potential threat, and Bracco said she felt she couldn’t afford to give him time to “assemble an army.”
As a trans man outed against his will on national television, Smith’s story was a solid, possibly million dollar narrative. It’s not a stretch to assume he had a very strong chance of winning the top prize if he made the final three—something Smith, Survivor host Jeff Probst, and the rest of the cast were well aware of. The combination of being a strong player and having a strong personal narrative rendered Smith too much of a threat. Just last season, fan favorite Adam Klein won because he was a focused, brilliant player who was also driven throughout the grueling competition by his mother, who was suffering from terminal lung cancer (and who tragically passed away two days after the season ended). Without reducing the traumatic nature of a dying parent to “a good backstory,” it certainly contributed the kind of highly emotional and compelling narrative that CBS and Survivor viewers crave.
In an interview with the Daily Beast, Smith indicated he knew he wasn’t long for the show after the outing: “Who’s to say if I would have made it longer? … But I remember waking up the next morning and thinking, ‘I’m toast.’ There was just this cosmic shift in the atmosphere.”
“That’s the name of the game,” he also said. “If I were on the other side, I think I would have treated me the exact same way.”
It’s strange to think that Smith’s opponents grew suspicious of him not because of his gender identity or because of an ex-competitor’s transphobic accusations of deception but because, in their minds, he seemed to have the perfect game-winning underdog story—a patronizing and dehumanizing way to view the lives of LGBTQ people. That thinking also applies an emotional currency to Smith’s experience that he clearly wanted no part of, considering he was outed against his will.
Even if CBS did in fact work with GLAAD to portray the outing as humanely as possible, and even if Smith was completely comfortable with the way his story has been told on TV, and even if the whole ordeal created another platform to discuss trans issues, his outing (which, again, was not on his terms) still has personal consequences for him.
To be fair, the last time Smith was on the show, he only made it one vote further than he did this season. In both competitions, he was known for making bold, almost reckless moves with his alliances, which also obviously played a major role in his eventual unseating.
“I ultimately think I got voted out because I wasn’t really going to sit back,” he told The Daily Beast. “I said to everybody, ‘No, I’m here to play and I’m going to come after you.’ And I think that got me voted out more than my story.”
So Smith, who was by far the most interesting person on Survivor, and whose story is single-handedly responsible for bringing the show back onto our radar, is done (although who knows, maybe he’ll be back for another season!) While he also plans to work with LGBT youth in the near future, his time on Survivor has certainly sparked an interesting discussion about how trans people, who are seldom represented with any nuance in popular media, can drive the gameplay on a beloved legacy show like Survivor.