A Host of Sexist Ideals: How Jeff Probst Supports Male Success
Survivor has many seasons that involve returning players. One possible format is having one returning player on each tribe, with the rest new. Nine contestants have returned to the game in this format; one of them was a woman, and six were white men. When asked about this obvious discrepancy, host of the show, Jeff Probst responded: “There just aren’t as many colorful women characters in Survivor history. For whatever reason, we’re loaded with interesting guys. Maybe that says something about our casting process, or maybe it says something about how men and women behave differently in conflict.” It is certainly reasonable that part of this blame may rest on casting, however, Probst has an enormous role in the game, as the host who can actively interact with and influence the contestants, as well as in his role as showrunner and executive producer, giving him enormous creative control. Probst is undeniably a powerful influencer of the show, and any biases that he may have, he brings into the game.
Setting aside Probst’s creative control over the game, he is an actor on the island itself. Probst directs the conversation right before the vote at tribal council, choosing who gets to speak, prompting them with specific questions, and even leading them to say or do specific things, which can have enormous influence. An obvious example occurred in Survivor: Palau, when fan favorite Stephenie LaGrossa was about to be voted out, although tribemate Janu Tornell was on the verge of quitting. Probst so aggressively interrogated Tornell at Tribal Council that she ended up quitting to save LaGrossa. There are countless examples of Probst directing the game in this way, which make clear that his opinion matters. Additionally, Probst narrates the challenges, which influences the game. If Probst is calling out certain contestants for performing badly, the tribe will remember that at Tribal Council when contestants go to vote. Since Probst has demonstrated preferences for male contestants, his gender bias may inform whom he praises in the challenges, posing yet another barrier to women in the first few votes.
Andy Dehnart, a prominent Survivor journalist, points out an interesting indicator of Probst’s sexism that could influence the game. Each year before filming, Probst does pregame assessments of the cast, explaining whom he thinks will fare well and who will not. These are often unsurprising, almost always favoring men, but the assessment for Survivor: Cambodia was particularly transparent. Probst pointed to five people as having absolutely no chance of winning the game – all were women. This means that he believes that while all 10 male contestants have a good shot at winning, half of the women have no shot at all. Although this may seem innocuous, Dehnart points out that Probst’s ideas are not independent from how the game will play out:
“As Survivor’s showrunner, Jeff Probst is the person who ultimately shapes how the game will go. Not just the themes, challenges, and twists, but the narrative, the edited and condensed version of events [sic]. So his predictions can help us understand the lens through which he will view (or has viewed) the game and its players, and how he will tell the story.”
In reference to the five women that Probst does not believe can win, Dehnart expounds upon the fact that Probst has those preconceived notions when he is interacting with them on the island: “They’re people he already decided cannot win. Will he treat them differently on camera? In the editing room? What kind of storylines will they get now that he’s decided they’re players who cannot win?” If Probst believes they cannot win, he may not give them an equal chance to plead their case at Tribal Councils, or pay attention to them at all when narrating challenges, which could shroud their contributions. He also may influence their edit so that the audience does not see them as viable players. These are all things that influence the game and how we see it, and Probst’s preconceived and possibly sexist ideas are not divorced from the game itself. There is little viable evidence that Probst has the same biases in terms of race, however, his pervading sexism may be a part of why men of color fare better than women of color; though certainly the largest barriers come to those who face the intersection of racism and sexism, sexism alone can also present significant challenges.
Perception is Reality: Respectability and Bias
It is evident that production has a clear hand in the way that racism and sexism is expressed in the game. However, the players have an equally important role in carrying sexism from the real world out on to the island. The most obvious way in which privilege is carried into Survivor is through the common idea that men are simply stronger than women. The idea of male strength and female weakness is expressed in myriad ways in the game, however the most obvious is the male advantage when it comes to being valued in challenges.
Woven into the fabric of the game is an advantage right from the start for men. As stated previously, only 35% of contestants voted out in the first four tribal councils are men. This is primarily due to the fact that tribes need strength to win challenges, and women are viewed as immediately weaker due to the perception in society of women being less athletic than men. This is a well-recognized trait of Survivor. In a commentary about the show leveraging sexism for entertainment, Clementine Ford describes that “The very nature of the game means that alpha males are prioritized and catered to right from the beginning; each tribe relies on physical strength to win challenges, meaning the bigger guys are almost guaranteed a pass straight through the first half of the game.” This bias is tangible to some contestants. When tweeting about her experience going to the first tribal council on Survivor: Worlds Apart, Shirin Oskooi said: “‘We need to keep the team strong, and there’s no ‘vagina’ in ‘team.’’ -> episode 1 mantra 15 years strong.”
As the data in this paper demonstrate, when it is time to vote out a woman at an early Tribal Council, women of color are disproportionately scapegoated for poor challenge performance or dissonance around camp life, which many believes correlates to weak challenge efforts due to lack of teamwork. In his article about Survivor’s problematic depictions of women, Matthew Jent articulates this trend, musing “Time and again, there’s ‘just something about’ the African-American women of Survivor that makes them an early target for being voted out. This ties back to a central theme: The impact of biases toward black women based on the idea of the role they might play as loud and confrontational. Therefore, they are often the first to be pointed to as a liability or a problem to the tribe, sometimes through no fault of their own. A clear example is Francesca Hogi, who was the first person voted out on two seasons, Survivor: Redemption Island, and Survivor: Caramoan, despite the fact that the audience was given no real reason as to why she was voted out either time.
While challenges are a large part of the early advantage that men receive in the game, there are continuing effects of sexism that pervade into the game. An idea that is often brought up in Survivor is that of playing the game with honor and integrity. While many dismiss it as antiquated, as Survivor requires deception, it still returns through every phase of the game. The gender difference in respect is discernible through very common elements on the show, what journalists like Linda Holmes would describe as “wallpaper sexism,” such as referring to women collectively, no matter their ages, as “the girls” in every season, or the fact that women are clothed in bikinis though that is clearly impractical garb for a very physical game (producers generally choose what contestants wear).
Respect is necessary at the beginning of the game in that the respect of your tribe as a leader and a team player makes it less likely that you will be voted out until the merge. Respect at the end of the game means that people will vote for you at Final Tribal Council. Respect, or the idea that one “deserves to be there” at the end of the game, is often highly gendered. Since the dawn of Survivor back in Borneo, the tradition of berating women at Final Tribal Council has held strong. Of course, some men are publicly insulted at Final Tribal Council as well, but the way that women, and mothers in particular, are humiliated takes a specific tone. Mothers are held to a different standard in Survivor, one in which they are chastised far more cruelly for lying or deceiving than any other demographic. A mother is often thrust into the position of role model, even if she did not consent to it, and is therefore blamed far more harshly for playing the game the same as any other. As a result, only one woman over 40 has ever won the game, despite it being fairly common for members of this group to get to the Final Tribal Council.
There are many examples of mothers being completely undermined at Tribal Council, including several seasons in the modern era, Caramoan, Blood vs. Water, San Juan del Sur, and Worlds Apart in which mothers at the end of the game received one or no votes at the Final Tribal Council. These Final Tribal Councils featured the jury hurling insults at the finalists that were mothers, often in a way that condemned their behavior in the game for being either too passive or too manipulative, both of which, as discussed in this paper, are behaviors highly informed by gender in the context of the game; passivity is often a result of women being condemned for playing too aggressively, and manipulation is a necessary element of the game that mothers are disproportionately punished for. This demonstrates a gender bias not reflected in the data: The intersection of ageism and sexism. If older women are able to survive the early tribal councils (at which they are frequently a target), it is very difficult to win, a challenge that older men do not face in the same way. The phenomenon of respect being more elusive to women is not unique to Survivor, and it encompasses race bias as well as gender bias. As John Scalzi described in a famous blog post about sexism in reality TV, “In the role playing game known as The Real World, ‘Straight White Male’ is the lowest difficulty setting there is.”