Alright, Can We Finally Talk About Ben’s Cooked Treatment On Survivor?

ben law australian survivor asian stereotypes

In Survivor Australia: Heroes V Villains, we’ve already seen some revolutionary gameplay. Most notably, episode seven’s tribal council which saw George Mladenov successfully blow up Simon Mee’s game (and that’s putting it lightly).

But while we’ve seen some fresh moves and genius new gameplay, there’s still a constant running through Survivor‘s veins — and that’s covert racism.

Let me explain.

Benjamin Law is a Chinese-Australian author and journalist. He’s campaigned for LGBTIQA+ issues, has called for diversity on our screens, and is a prolific writer and TV presenter.

But according to his tribemates, he’s shifty.

Initially, Ben was branded with the term after he conceived a fun little activity for his tribe — to make a fake idol.

In episode five, Ben devised a plan for the team to create a fake idol together as a team-building exercise, and presumably to use against the villain’s tribe.

“It was something everyone was involved in,” Ben told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

Immediately, he was met with side-eyes from his teammates, including Sam Webb, who said in a confessional, “I don’t know what Benji’s planning with this fake idol.”

“He’s a shifty man, I’m telling you,” he said.

“There’s something shifty about Benji.”

“There’s something shifty about Benji” — Sam Webb, Survivor. Courtesy of Channel 10

Ben’s name was thrown around heavily for elimination thanks to the fake idol. But due to a game twist, he miraculously survived.

First, let me preface. It’s not out of the ordinary for his name to be on the chopping block due to his idol-making hobby. This paranoia is understandable. If you play the game too hard, too early, you’re a walking red flag. Anything out of the ordinary is easy bait for an early-game snuff.

But as the season progressed, Ben was still unable to shake his “shifty” label.

Ben said that despite approaching the first phase of the game as a team player — fetching water for everyone, prepping food, weaving palm fronds and making a fake idol for the team (which he said is something everyone was involved in) — he still wasn’t seen as “Hero strong”.

“I really wanted to demonstrate the loyalty I felt in my heart for the Heroes,” he said.

Yet, he consistently remained the number one target.

Let’s be clear — many contestants on Survivor have the memory of a goldfish. It’s not uncommon for a big strategic threat to be the topic of elimination one night and then never spoken about again, lost into the abyss for the rest of time (or at least for a fair few tribal councils — just look at Hayley Leake).

But Ben wasn’t offered this same privilege.

At every move he made, players constantly assumed that there was an ulterior motive, even if other players make the exact same move.

Just look at his experiences at the auction: when he bid for a hidden item (presumably an advantage), he immediately garnered whispers for being strategic. Sam outbid and no one batted an eyelid.

When Ben was the first to outbid their prearranged limits for another presumed advantage, he was labelled as dangerous, but when several people go on to also put in bids even larger than his, it was acceptable.

“Don’t trust him,” Flick Palmateer said as he went up to claim his prize (a brown onion, but I digress).

After a twist that saw Gerry Geltch return from the Villains tribe and go full nuke mode on the Heroes, calling them out for their hierarchy and essentially telling them he was out, the Heroes were still gunning for Ben. Because of course they were.

Despite his unwavering loyalty to the Heroes, Ben was still perceived as untrustworthy, target #1, “silver-tongued”, a snake, and of course: shifty.

For Ben, it’s almost impossible for him to exist in the game as other players do seamlessly and without being labelled as sneaky, despite doing little to warrant such a label.

“I never heard the word used on the island,” Ben explained.

“I first heard it when the promo of Sam labelling me ‘shifty’ came out.

“Shiftiness ain’t always a bad thing. If you need to be shifty to survive — and especially to defend yourself when you’ve few options left — go for it! Obviously, I did! That’s literally the game.”

But when we consider who else has been labelled sneaky (or an iteration of), the picture begins to become far clearer.

In episode three, the vote was between Mimi Tang and Steve Khouw — two of the four Asian people in the season. Mimi referred to Steve as “sneaky”, whilst Mimi was labelled as “suss” by Jordie Hansen after being caught elbow-deep in a cookie jar, searching for idols. In that same episode, Simon found what was thought to be the idol and he was praised.

Some players are afforded the label of being strategic and smart players, but others are reduced to simple terms. Shifty. Sneaky. Suss.

And it’s not just the Australian iteration that’s showing a clear problem, the US has also seen in too.

In 2002’s US season Survivor: Thailand, Shii Ann Huang — the first Asian player to be on the show — faced relentless bullying and alienation during her season.

In the clusterfuck that was Survivor: Cook Islands, in 2006 we saw tribes separated by their race (which, thankfully, has not been done again). It was a season where Cao Boi, a member of the Asian-American tribe, made self-deprecating racist jokes about Asian stereotypes, including being good at math or having successful careers.

Survivor royalty, Yung “Woo” Hwang was nicknamed “Weasel Woo” for his sly ability in 2014’s Survivor: Cagayan, yet his co-conspirator Tony Vlachos — an American-Italian man — did not cop a similar nickname, despite creating literal spy-shacks.

It’s perfectly reasonable to call someone strategic, cunning, sneaky or shifty (especially in Survivor — the home of backstabbing), but when these labels are constantly applied to Asian people, it’s not just a one-off commentary on their gameplay. It’s a pattern.

When we pick up the microscope and examine it all a little closer, there’s something much more sinister at play. Words and terminology matter and the player’s decision to utilise sneaky or shifty labels tells us one thing: unconscious bias is at play.

There are countless stereotypes that follow Asian bodies, and this “sneaky Asian” trope is one of them.

One of the most talked-about stereotypes is the “Model Minority”, which perceives Asian people as hard-working, docile and submissive, wealthy, and intelligent (especially in mathematics).

But there’s also an additional stereotype that’s complex and fearmongering — “Yellow Peril“— a xenophobic and racist creation developed in the 19th century. Through Yellow Peril, Asian people were perceived as scheming, cunning, and subservient, as well as undesirable and ignorant.

Now, I’m not expecting everyone to be aware of the history of Asian stereotypes or racialised terms. But what is concerning is that so many people have adopted these stereotypes without even realising they have.

In a 2015 study of common Asian stereotypes, people were surveyed as to what traits they believed Asian people to have. And while many believed the traditionally ‘positive’ Model Minority stereotype more, there was also the belief that these two stereotypical groups are intertwined. Researchers argued that successful Asian stereotypes are seen to be the result of upward mobility, propelled by their perceived cunningness.

Through this, we can see that it’s not entirely unreasonable for people like Sam to adopt a shifty stereotype of Ben. That type of unconscious bias is so embedded, it’s unlikely that he even realises he’s propelling harmful narratives.

“Sam’s a lovely, simple, straightforward guy — he wouldn’t have meant harm by it,” Ben said.

But he also admitted that he wasn’t exactly surprised by the label.

“I wasn’t shocked either: it’s a common trope associated with Asian people,” he continued.

“But it’s funny that players call me shifty and untrustworthy right from the outset … while conceding they can’t quite put their finger on why.”

That’s the thing about unconscious bias — it reveals certain social stereotypes that we as a society hold, without an individual really even being aware of it.

Ben said that he could see striking similarities to his own real-life experiences and how he navigates the world as a minority.

“Obviously, as a gay Asian dude, I’m a minority in real life in several ways,” he said.

“There’s not a room I walk into where I’m not outnumbered in some way. So I was well aware of that coming into the game too. The dynamic in the tribe wasn’t exactly unfamiliar to me.

“In terms of race, size and sexuality, I was on the outer — so you become extra vigilant at trying to bridge those differences through humour and helpfulness.”

But he also said that he doesn’t think other contestants built their alliances solely based on whiteness.

“You can also see how people tend to stick with others who are most familiar to — and most like — them,” he said.

“I’m just a really different proposition in a lot of ways.”

It’s therefore of little surprise that Ben himself started buying into these stereotypes as a method of survival, presenting himself as the “obedient little Asian guy around camp”.

“I figured if the contestants were susceptible to racialised tropes like ‘shifty Asian’ – despite my best attempts to demonstrate loyalty – I may as well try another one, but this time consciously,” Ben said.

Since he first set foot on the beach, Ben had to alter his gameplay to appease racial stereotypes. He needed to play into subservient and “team player” roles to mitigate and manage perceptions of him as “shifty”. He had to maintain and monitor his threat level with the knowledge that his actions carry far more actions than his white counterparts.

The odds might be stacked against him in a game that’s clearly not in his favour, but it’s time we really consider who’s rolling the dice.

Benjamin Law, in Survivor memoriam: