Appalachia on ‘Survivor: Ghost Island’

Season 36 of Survivor, which I vowed but two weeks ago to watch casually, has pulled me back into geeky super-fandom.

The reason is twenty-six year old Donathan Hurley from Phelps, Kentucky. Donathan was one of the stand-outs for me on night one of Ghost Island, and I was thrilled to see the self-described “gay hillbilly nerd” narrowly ‘survive’ the first two vote offs.

What’s always drawn me to watching Survivor is the ‘social experiment’ of it all. Sure, the repeated casting of young, fit dudes and bikini babes is hardly staying true to the show’s original premise of gathering people from “all walks of life.”

Still though, each season we do see castaways from various cultures and backgrounds — ones we tend not to fully know or understand. Think season 33 and 34’s Zeke Smith, Survivor’s first transgender contestant.

As mentioned above, Donathan — on his CBS cast bio—shows awareness of how people are likely to perceive him on the island, which he must often overcome if he’s to hack it on the island and not get voted out:

“I already plan on breaking my glasses to help with fire and prove that this little gay hillbilly nerd isn’t afraid of what nature can bring! I really think I will surprise a lot of people.”

Whether we’re talking Survivor or real life, gay, hillbilly, and nerd are three commonly stereotyped social-traits often used to ostracize people.

Because of the day one assumptions someone is likely to make about a ‘gay hillbilly nerd’, Donathan is immediately tasked with making his fellow castaways (and viewers)see beyond these surface level labels.

To that end, these qualities instantly make Donathan stick out like a sore thumb on his tribe — a group filled with beautiful women and chiseled guys. It’s the reason he was nearly voted out at the very first tribal council of Ghost Island.

But he wasn’t, and after six days Donathan’s torch remains lit.

On-paper Donathan clearly veers from the norm, an outlier amongst the entire cast…but it’s his differences that make him the quintessential underdog on season 36.

At present I want to focus on Donathan’s hillbilly-ness, because that’s what reels me in the most. While there has been attention on gay and nerdy castaways, I don’t think the hillbilly type has really been given a lot of notice through 35 seasons of the show.

What is a hillbilly exactly?

The term hillbilly is associated with mostly negative attributes— isolated, filthy, dumb, drunk, backwards, illiterate, mountaineers…and in today’s political climate, hillbilly may also be synonymous with ignorant Trump-supporter.

Hillbilly is an “othering” term, coined in the late 19th century (and further popularized throughout the 20th century) by writers of the local-color movement.

Local-color writers (often magazine journalists) entered Appalachia and depicted mountain folk on-the-whole as isolated and backwards caricatures in order to entertain the American middle-class of the East Coast. Not only did they entertain, but the stories of dumpy Appalachia allowed middle-class whites to feel better and more empowered about themselves.

At the same time, these narratives perpetuated and mythicized the hillbilly stereotype, which in many respects continues today — and continues even outside of Appalachia — with lasting effects.

Donathan is not the first castaway from Appalachia. By my count, Donathan is the 24th contestant from this misunderstood region; but, to my mind, he certainly stands out more than other Appalachian castaways in the past.

Many Appalachians on the show haven’t stood out for the Appalachian-ness, such as Survivor: The Amazon winner Jenna Morasca (Pittsburgh, PA) and Survivor: All-Stars winner Amber Birkich (Beaver, PA). It just never came up as part of their stories.

Castaways like Amber and Jenna receive no mention on the show of their relationship to Appalachia or hillbilly culture. Why should they? They are winners. We don’t associate winning with some of the poorest areas in the country.

Those that do — like “Big Tom” Buchanan or Keith Nale— get painted one-dimensionally with the hillbilly brush. Hillbilly (or redneck) is how we come to know and remember them . That’s their Survivor identity.

Because they don’t win Survivor, castaways like “Big Tom” and Keith are developed into funny characters, whose primary intent via the edited show is to entertain us as they stumble and bumble their way through the game. Or in Keith’s case, spit through the game.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that these are the extreme ends of Appalachians on Survivor. Either you’re a stereotypical hillbilly that likes to drink, or you’re nothing.

There’s so much middle ground — between hillbilly caricature and not hillbilly at all — that we never get to see from castaways hailing from coal country…

With that said, I’m hopeful for Donathan.

I don’t want him to be some caricature of dumb, drunk Appalachian hillbillies. Nor do I want him to be totally distanced from Appalachian culture.

Donathan’s background seems so complex that I can’t imagine his story on the show being so simple or one-dimensional.

From the first episode you learn right away that Donathan is determined, good-hearted and good-natured guy. I’m excited to watch his arch on Ghost Island. I’m excited to see him represent Appalachia in a really positive and nuanced way.

No, I’m not from Appalachia (though I live less than an hour from West Virginia); so I don’t feel a special kinship to Appalachian culture or anything like that.

I am, however, taking a class on Appalachian Folklore. And as already stated, Appalachia is fascinating because it’s so misunderstood. Everything we know or think we know about the culture is a result of stories and myths that perpetuate an unfair stereotype.

What do you think of when you hear Appalachia or West Virginia?

For Survivor fans out there, my simplest hope (even if Appalachia is not mentioned specifically) is that Donathan can represent the underrepresented country or mountain towns you’ve never heard of, or never think to visit, especially well. And I hope he can prove or remind us why social differences should be embraced.

Naturalist + Old Man at Heart

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