Hungry jaguars roaming at night. Tiny flies drinking from your eyeballs. Ticks on your junk. Extreme temperatures. Days without eating. And no satellite phone if there’s an overnight emergency. WTF?
If you think I'm describing a horror movie about a tropical holiday gone wrong, I'm not. I'm describing real things people experience on a brutal reality show called Naked and Afraid that's currently in its ninth season. I’m a superfan, but not for the reasons you might think.
Perhaps as an ode to Adam and Eve, the game features one man and one woman who are total strangers and must work together if they are going to survive 21 days in the wilderness without clothes, food or water. Most men and women who volunteer for the show have studied primitive survival skills, have been in the military or are experienced hunters. Despite their preparation, however, many are not able to last the entire three weeks and must "tap out," often to the anger and frustration of their partner.
Not surprisingly, survival in the wilderness requires a lot of hard work. The couple must build a reliable shelter, keep a fire going (they are given a fire starter, but the climate is often so wet, the starter doesn't help), avoid hungry predators, boil water and, if they’re very lucky, find food.
If the personalities of the man and woman clash — and they often do — the discord can seriously threaten their safety. Put into primitive conditions, men and women seem to revert to their primal nature. That's when the fun begins.
While the focus of the show is survival, it’s really about the male-female dynamic under extreme stress, and that's why I love it so much. It's sort of the ultimate version of what men and women go through at home and in the workplace, only every part of the dynamic is exposed because people are not only physically naked but also emotionally naked because of their fear. And that's truly scary.
Here are five things I've learned about getting along with men from watching the show. To get the male perspective, I was lucky enough to chat with Gary Golding, a Naked and Afraid contestant whose episode will air April 1.
It seems like men's testosterone makes them want to take the lead in a survival situation (whether they should or not). I've learned not to take offense to this as long as their ego is kept in check. In a way, it's kind of sweet that they want to guide the woman and keep her safe. Unfortunately, there are many times when the woman should take the lead. To keep productivity high, it seems best to have a dialogue about the pros and cons of who should be in charge of what.
Golding agrees — mostly. "My partner was being really pushy about finding water. She said, 'Come on, let's go!' So, I looked into the camera and said, 'The secret here is to let her think she's in charge.' And then I turned around and said, 'Coming, dear.' I had to let her think she’s the boss, and my ego was willing to allow that. I knew that I was stronger."
Maybe the moral of the story is not to insist on being the leader? Yeah, let's go with that.
I believe men sincerely want the women around them to be happy. In fact, men can't stand it when they aren't, so to make a working relationship stronger, it's good to celebrate successes, no matter how small. So many times on the show, a man will bring home food he's hunted (usually a snake), and the woman will say, "It’s not a very big snake," and the man feels wounded, maybe thinking she's also referring to something else of his that could be bigger. Either way, better to say, "Thank you." If the woman thinks she can kill a bigger snake, then she should go out and do it.
On Golding’s episode, he says his partner wanted to build a shelter in a spot he didn’t think was good. “But I stayed nice and said, ‘You can build yours there and I’ll build mine here,’" he said. "She wanted to sleep up off the ground, but we weren’t in the jungle, we were on the savanna, and it wasn’t necessary.”
According to Gary, his partner gave up on her shelter pretty quickly and they both slept in his. And she never criticized the size of his snake.
Hunger can lead to irritability, especially for big muscle-bound guys who are used to eating tons of protein. But more often than being hangry, the men often get emotional and just start crying. I’ll call it getting “emo-gry.”
Golding claims that didn’t happen to him because he trained himself mentally before the challenge by studying the wisdom of Spartans, the fierce warriors of ancient Greece. “I programmed my brain to enjoy it. I’d think to myself, ‘I get to starve, I don’t have to starve.’ Before I got out there, I programmed my brain to enjoy the pain. If you don’t, it will defeat you.”
Spartan philosophy... interesting. I'm sure I can use some of that. A popular Spartan battle quote is, “We bow down before no man.” Next time I diet, maybe I’ll tweak it to “We bow down before no cheese.”
As women, it’s easy for us to forget all the expectations society puts on men or that men can be scared, too. They’re taught not to acknowledge that fear, but many men can be their own harshest critic. On the show, some men will criticize their partner’s attempt to find food or boil water. It seems more productive for everyone not to take that kind of criticism to heart because it’s not personal. But I’ve also learned to speak up if I feel a man is being too hard on me. Once I’ve said my piece, the criticism becomes his issue.
Golding says he is also very tough on himself because his father trained him to be that way. However, he tried to help his partner by modeling an extreme form of toughness for her when they were plagued by biting flies.
“Any wound you had was the shape of flies — you couldn’t see your wound. The big flies would bite you and make you bleed, and the little flies would lap it up," he said.
“I tried to give her a strong mindset. I walked around, sucked in the flies and ate them, saying, ‘Oh, they’re delicious! I love the flies.’”
According to Golding, his partner never adopted this mindset. Hmm, I wonder why?
Whether it’s the African savanna or a real estate firm, men and women balance each other. Survival, or any type of success, takes a balance of masculine and feminine energy. I’ve seen numerous times on the show when, if the woman taps out or is removed from the game for medical reasons, the man usually taps out shortly thereafter. This tells me that women play a vital role in survival — both literally and figuratively.
Golding agrees. “It seems like the women on prior shows did better than the men. We balance each other out. Sometimes women can be tougher than the men.”
Well, we give birth, so, yeah.
The bottom line is that I won’t be testing my own primitive survival skills anytime soon. I will, however, continue to ponder the perplexing male-female dynamic by letting other men and women starve, battle the elements and fight for dominance on my favorite show, Naked and Afraid. It's a fascinating world that reveals a lot about humanity.
Naked and Afraid airs Sundays at 10/9c on Discovery Channel.
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