Sophie Clarke ’11 takes on ‘Survivor’ … twice

By Hannah Bensen

Courtesy Photo
Sophie Clarke ’11 is pictured with classmates Ashley Quisol ’11 (left) and Casey Mahoney ’11 (right) from their second-year Russian grammar course, along with Russian professor Kevin Moss who taught the course, at their fifth-year reunion in 2016.

Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers about “Survivor” season 40, “Winners at War.”

The popular television show “Survivor,” according to season 23 champion Sophie Clarke ’11, has always been a human experiment. Clarke won season 23 back in 2011 and recently competed on season 40, “Winners at War” — an all-champions season. The season 40 finale aired Wednesday, May 13. 

“For me, when I watch ‘Survivor,’ you see both humanity’s greatest side as well as it’s underbelly,” Clarke said in an interview with The Campus. “I think it also exposes how far people are willing to go to self-preserve. To stay healthy and fed on ‘Survivor,’ but also to win the [money].”

“Survivor” contestants must live off the land and natural resources, providing their own food, shelter and fire. Competitors are taken to a remote location and are divided into two “tribes” that compete against each other in physical and tactical challenges. The winning tribe of each challenge receives prizes such as food and comfort items, as well as immunity for the entire group until the next challenge. The losing tribe, however, must go to “tribal council,” a forum which eventually culminates in voting one of the tribe members off the island. 

Clarke had been an ardent “Survivor” fan since the show premiered in 2000. In the fall of her senior year at Middlebury, Clarke and a friend filmed her audition video in Bicentennial Hall, featuring a lab coat, a ski outfit and an “amp[ed] up” personality. Once Clarke learned she had made the cut, she told her friends she would be leading tours in Russia for the summer after graduation (she was a Russian and Economics double major) and would not be accessible. In reality, Clarke was off competing on — and winning — the 23rd season of “Survivor.” 

During her rookie season, Clarke did not enter the game with a firm strategy. She was placed in a tribe with “a lot of egos.” On the first day of the game, she made a strong alliance with four other players. Clarke was a clear foil to the other strong contenders in her season: while the other frontrunners were generally male, outspoken and visibly making strategic moves, Clarke intentionally stayed under the radar, swaying her tribemates’ votes more subtly. 

“Make everybody else think they can beat you,” Clarke said of her strategy on season 23. “Don’t be too in-your-face. And then when the time is right, pounce.”  

The three final contestants in each season must persuade the jury, comprising the former contestants who were voted off the island, that they deserve to win the game based on their physical, social or strategic game — or some combination of the three. As is typical of the final episode of each “Survivor” season, Clarke learned that she had won the season and the one million dollars live on television. 

Reflecting on her victory, Clarke cites her ability to cooperate with all types of people as one of the reasons for her success. Her experience with “small environment experiences” such as Middlebury and her small hometown in New York helped facilitate strong relationships and alliances in both of her seasons.

“[At Middlebury], you make friends with the people on your hall, the people in your class or the people on your sports teams that might not be like you,” Clarke said. 

In emails to the Campus, Kevin Moss, professor of modern language and literature, speculated that Clarke’s tenacity assisted in her “Survivor” victory. 

“She was persistent — she survived Russian, Russian School, and a semester in Russia! So why not ‘Survivor’ as well?” Moss wrote. 

Almost a decade after she won season 23, Clarke has since finished medical school, decided against pursuing medicine and established a career in healthcare management consulting. After making the cut for this year’s season, Clarke speculated that the season would be a champion’s season to mark the 20th anniversary of the show. She prepared by watching old seasons of the show to investigate the competition, working out and brushing up on her survival skills. 

Season 40 was different from other seasons, and not only because all the players had won the show before. Clarke said that the “Survivor” community is very connected, and many of the champions have established relationships and friendships over the years. Two contestants on Season 40 were actually married, having met on the show; others knew each other from competing on the same season before, or from “Survivor” charity events. 

“It changes [the dynamic] completely,” Clarke said of the pre-existing relationships between contestants. “It was this constant battle of having to gauge what’s happening in the game versus what you know to be true outside of the game. It felt like this web of relationships that you were constantly having to sort through.” 

In season 40, because all the contestants were familiar with the rules and process of the game, they relied more heavily on the strategy part of the game compared to the social or physical components, according to Clarke. 

“In a returning player season, all of those things are seen as threats,” said Clarke. “The strategy is like reverse psychology 30 times over and you’re constantly having to shift [it].”

The biggest trick, Clarke said, was walking the line between appearing powerful enough to garner enough jury votes for the end of the game, and not being so showy that people vote you out of the game. With the constantly shifting web of relationships, one could only hope to avoid the “invisible target that was moving every day.” 

“Survivor is a game of perception,” Clarke said. “[Season 40] was this self-perpetuating story where the more you call yourself a threat, the more you become a threat.”

In season 40, some of the physically bigger, more muscular male contestants branded themselves the “lions” and referred to other seemingly weaker players as the “hyenas,” according to Clarke.  Labels such as these are indicative of a large but sometimes hidden subtext of the show: what strategies or “moves” are seen as impressive by other players as well as the audience. 

“Survivor” has struggled with a gender problem in the last few years, Clarke said. In the first 25 seasons of the show, 13 men and 12 women were crowned the sole Survivor. However, in the last 14 seasons, 11 men and only three women won the show, according to a January Entertainment Weekly article

When asked about the role gender plays in “Survivor,” Clarke said that women tend to play the game differently than men. Women may aim to subtly influence social dynamics, while men are more likely to make bigger, flashier moves. The latter makes for more entertaining TV, Clarke said. 

Gender also influences the actual roles that contestants tend to have around camp. Women are more likely to prepare the rice and be physically close to camp, giving them less opportunities to privately orchestrate bigger moves. Men usually play a larger role in collecting firewood, allowing them to have a legitimate reason to be away from camp longer. This also gives them the opportunity to find hidden immunity idols, a talisman that, when brandished by a contestant during tribal council, prevents the user from being voted off the island. 

However, even once a contestant has a hidden immunity idol, they must be very strategic as to when they play it. Playing the idol may diminish tribe members’ trust in the contestant who plays it and could make them the target during the next tribal council. Clarke knows the should-I-shouldn’t-I psychology of using immunity idols. In episode 11 of season 40, Clarke had an idol in her possession and chose not to play it when she was blindsided — a “Survivor” term that refers to a contestant who didn’t think they would be voted off — by the other contestants.  

“The blindside was definitely out of nowhere and felt like a slap in the face,” Clarke said. “I thought I understood who was on what side, where the alliances were, who was going to vote with me, who was not. And so when that didn’t come to be … it’s like your world is shattered …. You start to question your whole existence and your whole relationships.” 

After returning home from filming both seasons of “Survivor,” Clarke said she experienced “the most culture shock I’ve ever had.” On one occasion, Clarke recalls filling up her coffee cup from a machine, and began to cry at the fact that coffee could come out of a machine and didn’t require a long process to prepare like it had on the show.

The survivor experience also had lingering effects on how Clarke perceived and interacted with people: she found that she was a little more suspicious of people’s motivations in the real world, having been used to cross-checking contestants’ stories on the show. In addition, after the relative deprivation of food on the show, Clarke said she developed a serious eating disorder after the show. 

“95% of our conversations on the island are about food,” Clarke said. “When I first came home this summer, every morning I would want it planned out, like what are we having for lunch, what are we having for dinner. Are we gonna have a snack, where are we getting it?”

Though “Survivor” has complicated psychological aftereffects, the primality of the show is exactly what makes it so different from reality — and why “Survivor” has developed a cult-like fandom over its two-decade run. 

“Because [“Survivor”] strips you down to your core, people are actually able to put aside a lot of things that make them different, that might make them not get along in real life,” Clarke said. “We find that there’s a lot more in common between us than you might have expected.”