Is Sexism Killing 'Survivor'?

I’ll be honest: I don’t watch a lot of reality TV. And by “a lot,” I mean “Sometimes when football delays CBS’s Sunday night lineup I accidentally DVR some Amazing Race along with The Good Wife.” But Linda Holmes’ article on sexism in this season of Survivor struck a chord with its description of what she calls “the most distastefully bro-worshiping, wife-fearing season yet.” (Shudder to think of the lesser degrees of bro-worshiping and wife-fearing in previous seasons.) It’s not entirely surprising that a show built around primitive ideas of survival, right down to its goofy tribal councils, would succumb to archaic stereotypes: As Holmes writes, it’s “always been one of the most gendered shows on television.” And it surely doesn’t help that host Jeff Probst openly admits the show’s female characters aren’t as “colorful” or “interesting” as the men, a description that likely has as much to do with how Probst defines those words as the contestants themselves. One response to the show’s (allegedly) thin backlog of interesting female characters would be to cast more men; another would be to give the women more interesting things to do.

But in this season, whose “Blood vs. Water” season pits a group of returning contestants against a tribe of their “loved ones,” the contest has apparently brought out the worst in extant relationships, with Probst happily reinforcing stereotypes about strong, decisive men and weak, bossy women, in some cases practically egging them on. Holmes breaks it down into ten examples. Here’s one:

Candice called out Brad at the Redemption challenge for the fact that as women have been voted out of his tribe, they’ve reported to her that he makes a habit of “shushing the women.” Brad’s response? To ask Candice’s husband whether he shushes the women. You know what would have been more effective? Asking the women from his tribe who were sitting right there whether they feel like he shushes them. Why not just do that? If you don’t do it, why wouldn’t you just ask them? No matter how smart a guy is — even if he’s your husband — he’s not the first choice if you’re trying to get a sense of whether another guy is dismissive toward women who are, again, sitting right there. The first choice would be to ask them.

That’s in addition to the “wallpaper sexism” that’s endemic to the show: the women clad in tiny bikinis, referred to as “girls,” and so on. 

“This season,” Holmes wraps up, “has been almost entirely a story of men being unpleasant to and dismissive of women… You cannot sell, season after season, the idea that it is a coincidence that your show is morphing into a grody love letter not to men, but to bullies.”

From Holmes’ perspective as a longtime Survivor fan, this is a long-simmering problem on the show that has finally grown intolerable. But it’s also part of a broader affliction of reality TV, one that Cheryl Isaac addressed in an article for Forbes called “What Reality TV Is Doing to Women.” She points out that reality shows about men tend to be focused on a common enterprise, where shows that focus on women are built around interpersonal drama, i.e. catfights. (Really, just think of a show called Basketball Wives, whose very title subsumes its subjects to the men they’re married to.) Reality TV thrives on bringing out the worst in people: It’s not surprising sexism is part of that.

Read more: “The Tribe Has Broken: How Sexism Is Silently Killing Survivor.”

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