The Last Man Standing: Survivor and Gender

Close your eyes and picture a survivalist, fighting against the elements on a deserted island. What do they look like?

Something like this?

Or maybe this:

Or maybe one of these:

The image of a strong (usually white) man using his muscles and wit to weather the wilderness has a unique place in the cultural imagination. The stereotype of the masculine provider still captures affection and attention from across the nation.

I’m a huge Survivor fan. My Youtube recommendations are constantly flooded with content discussing the 20 year old reality show, and I’ve already marked my calendar for the release of Season 42 (March 9th everyone!).

Survivor’s premise is simple – put a bunch of people in a “tribe” with very limited resources, have the contestants vote their fellow tribemates out each week, and give the last one standing a million dollars. It’s an incredible mix of physical and social game, and that’s undoubtedly part of the reason that it has run for over 20 years and over 40 seasons.

But I also think the show’s success has been intertwined with gendered stereotypes. The first four images at the top of the article were the winners of seasons 37-40 of Survivor. Until the most recent season, there were 6 straight male winners. And when Filipina-Canadian competitor Erika Casupanan broke the streak, the public was not happy: one poll estimated 80% of the public believed her competitor Xander Hastings should’ve won instead.

Now it’s possible that Xander really did deserve to win (as a die-hard Erika fan, I’m definitely biased) but it’s undeniable that Xander’s windswept dirty blonde hair fits the traditional image of “survivor” much better than Erika’s purple highlights.

What’s also undeniable are the statistics: only 15 out of the 41 survivor winners have been women, and only 4 of the most recent 15 winners. The numbers don’t lie: Survivor has a gender problem.

There has been lots of speculation as to the source of the gender disparity in Survivor winners, especially in recent years. One cause often pointed to is the re-creation of gender roles within the tribe. Former Survivor players describe how often when it comes to divvying up roles, women are disproportionately left in charge of tending to the fire, cooking the food, and other traditionally feminine roles: leaving them less time to strategize and play the game. For example, one major element of the show is “idols” which are hidden around the island and give the contestants who find them an advantage. Women consistently find idols less often than men, and many speculate that this could be related to the unfair delegation of roles back at camp (as cooking, cleaning, and other chores leave women less time to search for idols).

Another source of gender bias could come from the way gender stereotypes color contestants’ perceptions of each other. At the end of each episode, all remaining contestants vote for which contestant to send home, so contestants’ opinions of each other are extremely important. In a show where the goal is to control where people vote (to ensure you are not voted off), accusations of “over-controlling” are inevitable. But these accusations tend to be disproportionately levied against women. The double standards that exist in the workplace, academia, and in social interactions do not disappear when the reality TV show game begins. Instead, the same double standards find their way into Survivor as well. Women on the show are criticized for being too passive, too controlling, too flirtatious, or too emotional – and while there’s no doubt some of these criticisms are accurate, it’s also likely that many are informed by gender biases. Additionally, when a man and woman work as a pair, the man is almost always given credit for the work of the duo (for example, Parvati and Russell, Christian and Gabby, and Amber and Boston Rob, to name a few).

The most recent season of Survivor featured discussions about race and gender that had been otherwise absent from the show so far, including scenes of contestants discussing how their gender and racial identity affect the way they play the game. Some have criticized the “political” turn the show has taken, arguing that it prevents viewers from “enjoy[ing] the escapism,” Ratings were lower for episodes where issues of race and gender were explicitly addressed, which brings us to a dilemma: what incentive is there for the producers of the show to correct the gender biases?

Even with its flaws, Survivor is still an addictive show. The show in its current state is wildly successful, so why would the producers fix a show that, in their profit-centered eyes, isn’t broken? And while it is undoubtedly a good thing that our government protects free speech and free media so fervently, it also means that our best hope is often to trust producers to regulate themselves.

The other actor with power in this scenario is the consumers, the viewers of the show. While collective action by the viewers could definitely get the producers’ attention, viewers are dispersed nationally and difficult to coordinate. Additionally, the vast majority of viewers would not be willing to give up the show they love (I don’t know if I could resist the temptation to turn on Season 42!), not to mention the viewers that are drawn to the show because of the performance of traditional masculinity.

More moderate action, such as callout by consumers in the media and in literature, have the potential to move the needle slowly. The most recent season’s newfound emphasis on discussions of identity prove that the producers will attempt to mold to the social pressures they find themselves under, and change is not impossible, just slow and difficult.

Survivor may be able to simulate an environment free from modern inventions – from stoves to phones to showers – but patriarchal dynamics are much older than that, and cannot be shed so easily. The real question is whether Survivor was ever an escape from the “real world” in the first place – or do the weight of stereotypes and biases follow us, even to the remote islands of Fiji?

3 thoughts on “The Last Man Standing: Survivor and Gender

  1. I thought that this was a very cool article! My little brother is obsessed with Survivor (as in, he could tell you who won every single season without blinking) and despite haphazardly watching finales with him, I have never realized some of these issues you bring up with the show. It’s so interesting how both the roles that female contestants are expected to take on and societal perceptions of women make it so much harder for them to win. Even further, I would assume that any women that try to defy some of these roles would just be voted out sooner because they’re “too controlling” or “not a team player”. The reversion to patriarchal gender roles is so intriguing. As you bring up, it’s interesting that even when people are placed in an environment so different from the one they live in, they uphold these kinds of values; in some cases, it seems like the lack of technology encourages contestants to revert to these roles even more than we see today. People’s perceptions of the show trying to stay socially relevant are interesting too. I wonder who the target demographic of the show is, as well as how can the show expect to continue to engage with audiences for the next 20 years if they feel like they either have to cater to a new generation of fans who may want more women to win, or an older generation that doesn’t have those same expectations.

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  2. This was a really interesting blog. I definitely feel like the weight of stereotypes and biases exists in the remote islands of Fiji. I think the biggest problem of reality TV or competition shows is that the producers are more focused on making a profit rather than following their moral standards. It is easier for them to neglect biases that are happening and make content about the scene. For example, shows would likely focus more on the fact that a woman is angry and arguing rather than pointing out why she would be feeling that way. Also,
    it’s more eye-capturing for the audience to explain someone as oversensitive and dramatic than righteous or confident. Producers choose the side that grasps the audience. Thus, I believe it is our role as viewers to be reluctant and to disagree with the show. If we viewers do not show action, there is no reason for the producers to change. More noise from us would shift the trend, helping media be free from bias and prejudice.

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  3. Hi Samantha, I really enjoyed this article! As someone who has never watched Survivor, I’ve heard a little bit of chatter and discourse about it, but it’s interesting to consider it from a more critical perspective, and, I would argue, it could definitely be harmful to consume it if not examined through a critical lens as well. One thing your commentary brought to mind, for me, was ideas around “instinct” and “tribal culture,” particularly because the show is set in Fiji. With Fiji being an island in the Pacific many people have heard of but rarely in the context of talking about its Indigenous people and culture, that adds an odd backdrop to the show, especially since many of the Pacific islands still center smaller communities and village governments, of sorts (I’m more educated on my family’s ancestral island of Upolu, but remember that Fiji is somewhat similar). Do outside views about the islanders there being “primitive” color the ways in which the contestants navigate their experience of raw survival? When we strip society and social customs down to the bone, does it produce a more honest, more openly objectionable portrait of problematic social norms? You seem to hint that the answer is yes, and I would definitely like to explore the ways this manifests in the show in greater depth.

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