My TV

11 August 2017

She Wore the Black Hat: Jerri Manthey & the Legacy of Female Villainy in Reality TV

By // TV

“In the game of Survivor, you’ve gotta switch hats a lot. You gotta wear a white hat part of the time and sometimes you gotta put on the black hat. And that’s the only way you can do good at this game. You gotta be the bad guy sometimes, you’ve gotta be a little bit selfish. But hopefully in the end, you wore a white hat more of the time than you did a black hat.”

–   Colby Donaldson, Survivor: The Australian Outback, 2001.

A roaring fire is reflected in the eyes of eight people who stare down the barrel of their fate, worn but determined. A woman with curly hair and a dark cowboy hat seems to see beyond the flames in the center of the space, her hands folded in her lap. She looks up as the master of revels in the form of Jeff Probst addresses her by name and speaks to her, perhaps more gently than those around her believe she deserves:

“You look at the jury, you got one member over there, you guys now have a one in eight shot at winning a million bucks. Have you surprised yourself out here?”

Jerri Manthey inhales, and her expression alone seems to chip at the veneer that she has crafted for the 27 days she has spent in the Australian Outback. She speaks deliberately, but authentically. There is a resignation in her that we have not seen before.

“Honestly, I had no idea that this was gonna be as tough as it is. And I have woken up in the morning and gone through an entire day wondering who I am. Things come out of my mouth in frustration, and out of hunger, and just… stress, that after they come out I want to suck them back in, ‘cause it’s not something that I would normally say, or act… So yeah, I’ve surprised myself in a lot of ways.”

Her tribemates, including her closest allies and a romantic interest, unanimously write her name on a piece of parchment as part of the ceremony of the bloodthirsty game. No one seems sorry. The following day, the whistled tune of “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” will permeate the camp.

Jerri stands and turns back to her former tribe as her torch is snuffed. “Checkmate. You guys got me. Good game.”

She proceeds to exit the Tribal Council, and the game, and deliver her parting words to the camera for just us at home to hear: “I’ve had a great time, and I’m still up for sitting around with everybody and having a beer and laughing about this whole thing.”

These are the final words of the most hated woman in America in 2001.

Jerri Manthey was a household name back then, synonymous with what was then the pinnacle of a TV bitch. With 40 million people tuning in each week, Survivor was simply inescapable conversation amongst adults, and for many weeks, Jerri was at the center of that conversation. Jerri quibbled with a professional chef about how to cook rice (because he was cooking it terribly). She thought strategically and projected the image that she would cut the throats of her allies (which she never did). She was moody and often too loud, annoying other tribe members and, through their eyes, we saw her as the anathema she was – the black widow who crept into our televisions every Thursday night and spun webs that we feared our heroes, and our innocence as viewers, would get caught in and meet our untimely doom at the fangs of Maneater Manthey. She was a woman both naively romantic and unrestrained in her sexuality, too openly willing to play the game she signed up for yet genuinely attempting to make real relationships. She was complicated and seductive and nasty and sweet. She was the Devil in the Blue Bikini.

Of course, the national attitude toward Jerri Manthey was far more reflective of US cultural conditions and American values than anything about Jerri personally. The existentiality of Jerri is laced with sexual panic, deeply rooted concerns about threats to white masculinity, and, perhaps most importantly, a country that had no idea what reality TV had in store for them. The consensus that Jerri’s behavior – moderate rudeness, stubbornness, and inability to compromise – constituted vile and sickening behavior to our nation, almost uniformly, in 2001, illustrates the deep naivety about what we as a country would stand to tolerate from real people on our televisions. In the coming decades, we would learn to not unanimously disavow abhorrent reality TV villains. We would come up with phrases like “love to hate,” and “guilty pleasure” to give us permission to watch them spar with reasonable people and profit off of their own shamelessness, and to an equal extent, our voyeurism and gullibility. The year after Jerri Manthey hit our screens, we would tune in week after week to watch one British reality TV villain tell aspiring artists that they suck at singing, and soon after watch one tell aspiring chefs they suck at cooking. In 2006, we would begin to hungrily watch a two-headed monster in the form of Speidi make millions off of being professionally hateable. In 2012, we would gawk as a villain got proposed to on national television. In 2016, we would elect one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Jerri Manthey is not like Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsey, Speidi, Courtney Robertson, or the 45th President. We would never elect a Jerri Manthey in this country. Jerri was in a league of her own, at least in 2001. We had never seen her before, and we did not know what to do with her. In large part, this was due to our inclination toward her counterpart who stole America’s hearts and inspired our fantasies. We cannot talk about Jerri Manthey without talking about the first object of her desires and her vitriol, that good ol’ boy Colby Donaldson. Colby was a cowboy from Texas with movie star looks and down-home values. He worked hard around camp, he won five individual immunity challenges, a record that still holds- tied but never beaten- to this day. He was ostensibly moral and upstanding, his accent and his abs perhaps a larger part of his appeal than anything he actually did or said. Jerri would infamously discuss her ultimate fantasy of pouring chocolate all over a dude’s hot bod and having sex with him, heavily implicating Colby as the dude in the scenario. Colby was seemingly universally beloved, and Jerri could not have been a villain without Colby being a hero. They would each go on to play Survivor thrice, never one without the other. They were a package deal. It started with a flirtation between two hot young people, which turned into a bitter rivalry when Colby could no longer tolerate Jerri’s abrasiveness, or so we were led to believe, though the editors never made it clear when exactly it went sour. What was clear was that Jerri was the bad guy and Colby was the good guy, and that was good enough to explain why he dropped Jerri part way through the game to align with the more upstanding Tina.

Despite all culturally ubiquitous opinions at the time, by all standards, and by all dictionary definitions of the term, Colby was a villain. The contentious rivalry that would span three seasons was initiated by Colby alone. Part of the tribe’s, and by extension America’s, distaste for Jerri stemmed from the fact that while Colby and his alliance constantly talked about playing the game morally, with loyalty and integrity for all, Jerri was too willing to cut the throats of her allies, yet she never went through with it. She never even really made a plan to blindside her allies, least of all Colby, who she genuinely wanted to take to the end with her. It was Colby who betrayed Jerri. Colby and the majority rallied to vote against her, probably against their best strategic interest, within the very same episode that Jerri and Colby had shared a romantic reward together. The two had barely gotten the white sand off of their feet from visiting the Great Barrier Reef- which Jerri described as “like a honeymoon, without the sex”- when Colby made his move to turn on her. Colby gave no indication to Jerri that he was not enjoying her company on that reward, at least not that the viewers got to see. To an onlooker, it seemed as though he perhaps was enjoying her company. The two must have had some sort of bond from the beginning of the game when Colby genuinely liked her, after all, and on that reward he was smiling and cheersing as if with an old friend. Yet in confessional Colby was nasty and cutting, criticizing Jerri for her inappropriate words and acting disgusted by her insinuations.

Yet still, Jerri was the object of our hatred because we decided that we loved Colby, that we were on his side, and even though he was the one being nasty; we assumed that because he was our hero, he must be in the right, that his contempt was an appropriate response to a woman who dared be open about her sexuality. Jerri’s behavior must have been so terrible to Colby, and therefore to us, that it warranted his ungentlemanly words and behavior, and that he did not look any the worse for it. He could lure this woman into believing they were in a honeymoon-like state of flirtation, deceive her into believing they had a bond both strategic and emotional, and then turn around and betray her the next day, and still be the hero.

I don’t condemn Colby for this behavior. This is how you play the game, after all. You convince people you’re loyal to them to get further and you dispose of them when they are no longer beneficial to your plan. I commend Colby for being willing to deceive in the first place, the very thing that made so many wary of Jerri herself. Yet I can’t bring myself to give Colby enough credit strategically to believe that his participation in ousting Jerri was anything beyond a personal move. Colby would go on to basically give away a million dollars by winning the final immunity challenge and taking the beloved mom Tina to the final two instead of the completely disrespected chef Keith. Colby would have trounced Keith in the jury vote, but he instead opted to bring Tina out of loyalty and morality. While this may seem heroic, it demands that we re-examine his motives for his behavior surrounding Jerri. Specifically, it makes it glaringly obvious that there was no real strategic benefit to him getting rid of Jerri, someone who was genuinely loyal to him and would vote with his original tribal alliance to oust members of the opposing tribe who had formed a tight coalition. His motivations for getting rid of Jerri were the same as those that he relied on for choosing Tina to bring to the end: He simply believed the best people deserved to be there. And we trust Colby to be the arbiter of who those best people are. In the game of Survivor, the earnest, trustworthy, upstanding leaders always seem to be the men. Despite any actions they demonstrate to the contrary- Colby, Rupert Boneham, Tom Westman, these men will always be regarded with honor that women must either work tirelessly to earn, or are never afforded at all.

Jerri was abrasive. She lacked personal boundaries and at times respect for those around her. But when we examine the behavior of Colby, particularly in his first two appearances on Survivor, we find that our metric for how we judge people on the show, perhaps on TV in general, is warped compared to how we might judge character off of our screens. All of Jerri’s misdeeds were within the context of the game – in Survivor, whatever is most annoying or offensive to your fellow tribe members is the worst sin you can commit, and that’s the lens through which we as the audience will see you. In Jerri’s case, it was abrasiveness and overt and potentially unwelcome flirtation. On the other hand, Colby was deliberately deceptive, and at times, specifically in Survivor: All Stars, rude and even somewhat homophobic. Because at this time such behavior didn’t ostensibly bother his peers, particularly because he was so charismatic and likable, it didn’t bother us as viewers. Maybe it would now. Maybe this was completely a product of the times and it’s unfair to say that we gave Colby a pass on saying legitimately harmful things. But it’s also possible that these comments, which had real-life implications, were let go not because of the times, but instead because of his southern charm, his accent, his legacy from the Outback, his conventional white masculinity with his Texas flag and his tan muscles as shiny as his teeth. Say what you will about Jerri Manthey, but you would be hard-pressed to find an instance where she said anything legitimately controversial outside the context of the game.

This is all to say that perhaps we weren’t ready for Jerri Manthey because we didn’t yet know that women could be villains on TV. Now we know, but we know where they come from: The Bachelor, The Apprentice, Real Housewives, there’s even an entire show dedicated to women behaving badly to the point where they’ve formed some sort of coalition in the form of Bad Girls Club. These women fight, manipulate, and sabotage, usually employing some element of sexuality, and yet we don’t find any individual as famously repulsive as a nation to the point we did with Jerri. Perhaps some of that is simply the variety of women we have to choose from.

Virtually everyone in America with a TV was watching Survivor and talking about Jerri Manthey the next day at the breakfast table or the office. Survivor had a level of respectability that Real Housewives doesn’t have, and having a lack of respectability can preclude a show from being brought up as a conversation point in mixed company. Certainly the plethora of options contributes to the relative obscurity of most of these women. But more importantly, we now have precedent. We didn’t know what to do with Jerri because we had never been presented with a Jerri before. She was a real person, not on the comic book page or the silver screen, but on our televisions, invading our homes every Thursday night, and we had never seen that before, so it scared us. There was no safety in Jerri Manthey. Loving to hate someone didn’t exist yet, we didn’t know how to embrace it, so all we knew was that we felt hatred. She was new and different and scary and as such we wanted her out. Now that Jerri paved the way for scores of hot women to lie cheat and steal their way to whatever prize is waiting for them at the end of their journeys, we are equipped to deal with their schemes. We love to hate them and sometimes loop around even into loving them in earnest because, at the end of the day, most of us just root for good TV. Back in Jerri’s day, we didn’t know what made a reality TV show good or bad. It was just Survivor and The Real World, and you either liked it or you didn’t. Jerri introduced the element of villainy that would elevate future seasons of Survivor itself and come to be a staple of the most dramatic and enticing seasons of other shows such as The Bachelor. Jerri was a martyr; by falling on the sword she gave us the tools we need to deal with more Jerris in the future, and Jerri-types would go on to improve nearly every television show they appeared on.

Jerri’s story obviously goes beyond simply her flirtatious rivalry with Colby in the Outback. She attempted the kind of self-awareness that could potentially redeem her. In Survivor: All Stars, she was meek and accommodating to the best of her ability, almost too obviously attempting to rehabilitate her image. This side of her came off as disingenuous, while she simultaneously exposed the side of her we were familiar with a little too much in pointedly seeking revenge on America’s Hero, Colby, who once again was her foil. Ultimately, she got her personal redemption by outlasting Colby (by one tribal council), but flamed out as she was sacrificed during a larger strategic deal by two male power players in Boston Rob and Lex van den Berghe to save her once-ally in Australia, Amber Brkich, who would go on to win the game as a result of this bargain. In this go around, Jerri was just self-aware enough to come off as manipulative to her audience as she tried to play the nice girl, but still too much herself to fully convince us. Maybe we still had a taste in our mouths from the Australian Outback reunion, in which bumbling host Bryant Gumbel remarked, “Cruella Deville has nothing on you, darling.” But her biggest problem was that she walked the fence, and this does nothing to help villains. Perhaps if she had committed fully to helping Colby, perhaps if she had really sold us on her remorse for the way she behaved in Australia, just maybe we would have been on her side. But I don’t think that would have been the case. Because that’s not how we grow to love villains, especially not female ones. We had enough heroes – our strong men and our meek women – we didn’t need Jerri to become one. We can only grow to love villains when they fully embrace who they are, with all of their messy convictions and warped morality. It took Jerri another 6 years to figure that out.

Amongst remaining super fans of the show, Jerri is regarded highly both for her legacy as creating an enduring archetype in reality TV, and for her latest performance on Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains, which aired in 2009. This time, Jerri showed up to be a villain. It was probably to her benefit that she had no choice. Replacing the usual tribal monikers of each team on Survivor, these tribes were simply called “Heroes” and “Villains.” Jerri showed up with the scars of being booed offstage at the All Stars reunion, mostly as a residual response to her performance in Australia. She knew that unlike many of her peers on this tribe, she was a real villain, one that once inspired genuine hatred in millions of Americans. She was not simply a villain by the game standards, she was once the singular face of feminine evil. This time, she came prepared. She wore villain name literally and figuratively, knowing full-well that America’s Cowboy would once again be standing across from her on a different mat at the beginning of the game, of course sporting the “hero” buff. She showed up in a red bikini and a rocking bod, her signature curls crackling. While Colby Donaldson held his head high underneath his white cowboy hat, as glistening as his teeth, Jerri Manthey wore the black hat, and this time she won us over.

This time, she was milder, but genuine. She had more experience and maturity than her original two iterations, and was naturally more composed than when she debuted as an aspiring actress in 2001. She still had tendencies to flirt, unrequitedly, with Colby, and she still had the capability to be short-tempered, and thus we were able to recognize her as the same Jerri from the days of yore. She came into her own as someone who was willing to backstab for the game, not just to get back at Colby specifically, and didn’t hide her true colors. Sure, she was less abrasive now that she had been around the block a few times and knew that arguing about rice can be a one way ticket home, but she embraced her dark side. She held on to age-old grudges that audiences had long forgotten, and flipped on one of her allies in Boston Rob, likely based on his willingness to sacrifice her to save his girlfriend back in All Stars. Jerri went further than she ever had, ultimately getting cut at the final four, not because people disliked her or because she was a mouse trampled by the elephants fighting, but because her competitors were genuinely afraid that if she made it to the end, she would win. This time around, she had won over her teammates on the jury, and by extension, America. We will always see Jerri through the eyes of her tribe mates, and with Australia a mere memory of a time when 40 million viewers was par for the course, we were ready to see Jerri as she was. When Colby was voted off, once again just one tribal council before Jerri, though this time much deeper in the game, Jerri would shed tears. Their three story arc would come to an end and Jerri would finally be the full-fledged three dimensional character we wanted her to be. She was still hot, still willing to hold grudges, still trying her best, but this time, she wore the black hat, and we applauded her.

Jerri was not booed offstage at the Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains reunion. She had finally figured out what the likes of Omarosa had discovered long before she did: For outspoken women, you have to wear the black hat with confidence in order for America to love you, even if that means that they love to hate you. That’s better than being just hated, and sometimes those are your only two choices. You can’t try to paint the hat white or exchange it for a different style. You just have to wear it. But Jerri had no way of knowing that; she was the first. You can’t pick up on a pattern if you can only see the first symbol, and Jerri was the first in a long and illustrious line of villainous female reality TV symbols.

I keep going back to when Jerri, at the Outback reunion, attempted to explain her behavior on the island by saying (truthfully), “The things that happened out there are so separate from our lives now.” I keep playing that over in my head because I wonder if maybe that was the problem for Jerri. I wonder if maybe the ability for the audience to see separation between Survivor and reality is a privilege only granted to a certain kind of person. Colby was able to get away with anything and everything because we truly believed that what he did was not reflective of who he was in real life. Maybe this was because of his looks or his accent or, but his white masculinity can’t have hurt. Everybody loves a cowboy, maybe so much that we could excuse anything by saying that he was tired, he was hungry, he was playing strategically, that’s not really how he is. But we couldn’t find it in our hearts to say the same or Jerri. For Jerri, everything she did out there was an immediate reflection of who she was, because we had decided it was. She didn’t do enough to earn our excuses.

Colby was wrong about wearing the black hat. It doesn’t matter which hat you wear more often, it matters which hat you wear more proudly. And sometimes you don’t get to choose, sometimes America chooses for you.

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