“Shipwrecked” Sails Beyond Tokenism

The British reality series Shipwrecked: Battle of the Islands began its new season on Channel 4 two months ago and immediately became mired in controversy. Allegations of racism, classism and homophobia dominated the British media as soon as the first 10 castaways stepped foot on two remote islands in the South Pacific. In the season premiere, 18-year-old Lucy Buchanan announced that she hates ethnic minorities and fat people, is pro-slavery and finds lesbians "sinister."

But the reality series has more than made up for its initial homophobic stumbles by presenting two well-rounded lesbian contestants — Terri Jones and Jo Davis — who are quickly becoming island favorites.

Now in its fifth season, the premise of Shipwrecked is fairly simple. Two teams are placed on different islands and must fend for themselves over a five-month span. Every week a new contestant arrives and spends a few days living with each team, and at the weekly beach party they must decide which team they want to join. By the end of the competition, the team with the most members wins £70,000 in prize money.

Although it is marketed as an adventure reality game, Shipwrecked is really a social experiment with a pretty backdrop. Teams are provided with a wide range of amenities — from building plans and raincoats to barbeque beach parties — and the only competition between the teams is for the loyalties of new contestants (and the occasional luxury prize). This social aspect dominates the series, and the teams — made up entirely of young, attractive, mostly white 20-somethings — resemble an island version of The Real World more than Survivor.

Playing off last year’s success, Channel 4 has changed the format only slightly for this season, starting this year’s game with all-male and all-female teams. What they didn’t anticipate was the controversy their handpicked contestants would cause. The offensive remarks made by Lucy Buchanan, an upper-class boarding-school girl, made it appear as if viewers would be in for a long five months of conservative proselytizing.

Manual laborer Terri, who came out as a lesbian right after stepping onto the all-girl island, bore the brunt of Lucy’s homophobic views. "I’m surprised that I’ve become friends with Terri," Lucy said. "Not only because we come from completely different backgrounds and have completely different values, but she’s a lesbian as well. Not that I don’t like homosexuals; I just don’t like what they do."

Lucy’s comments sparked a deluge of complaints from viewers as well as demands to cancel the show. Reruns of the debut episode, which would have aired throughout the week on digital channel E4, were quickly scrapped in an effort to quell the furor, and the status of the hit show’s international syndication was even in jeopardy. The potential for positive lesbian representation on Shipwrecked looked pretty bleak, as once again the token reality show lesbian seemed to have been cast only to cause controversy.

Surprisingly, however, the real loser in the scandal turned out to be Channel 4. Since the controversial debut episode, Lucy has espoused very different opinions on-camera, and she is now best friends with Terri. This suggests not only that Terri’s presence has normalized homosexuality for the previously sheltered Lucy, but also that the producers might have used selective editing and Lucy’s own naiveté to garner higher ratings for the show’s first episode.

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