Considering that there hasn’t been a huge amount of hype about Kaoh Rong, the cast has come as a pleasant surprise for me… barring one noticeable imbalance. Out of nine female players, only two are over 30 (Jennifer at 38 and Debbie at 49).
As it happens, a year ago, I wrote a blog about the gender bias evident in San Juan Del Sur. One of the points I discussed was how casting relies on the younger women demographic to bring sex appeal to the show:
“We end up with a lot of younger women lacking life experience, skillset or even the competitive drive to play aggressively.”
Going by the swimsuit vs. bikini metric I used for San Juan Del Sur, only two Kaoh Rong women were not cast for sex appeal—and the exceptions, Debbie and Aubry, have a MILF and MPDG factor, respectively.
Certainly, men are cast for sex appeal as well. (There can be few camera angles more awkward than Nick’s B-roll.) But you only have to look at the body types of any cast to see that the men are a far more diverse group, even within the ‘sex’ category. And this season, the men’s ages are unusually well spread out from 27 to 72. Out of the nine men, only two are under 30 (Caleb, 28, and Darnell, 27).
N.B. For the purposes of this blog, I am using the ages given in their bios though they were a year younger when they played. Arguably, you could include Nick (30) in the twenties club as well, but either way, he’s the third youngest man, while Aubry, a year his junior, is the third oldest woman. That’s a drastically skewed cast.
This is frustrating on a number of levels. I feel as if the women are being set up to fail, both in the game and as characters on the show. Your typical Survivor twenty-something has recently finished an education they took for granted and is trying to figure out what great things they will do with their newly independent and dependent-less lives. They have ambition, but no story to claim screentime. There are exceptions, of course—immigrant Anna who supports her mother, and ‘grew up as a screw up’ Darnell—but, by and large, young Survivors don’t get featured for their life experience.
On the flipside, those women who do have a story will be competing against their male tribemates for that plotline: Anna is an immigrant from Russia; Tai is a refugee from Vietnam. Debbie has a résumé of crazy life experiences, but so do Joe and Neal. (There’s going to be a lot of one-upmanship around the Brains’ campfire.) Jennifer has survived endometriosis, cancer, and drug addiction and hopes to use her winnings to adopt children. But Darnell also has a troubled past, while bounty hunter Kyle wants to use the money to help his autistic daughter.Is the spotlight on the men or the women?[/caption]
It’s far too early to say which contestants will get their story told, but Survivor has historically favored male storylines over female ones. (As well as my San Juan Del Sur complaints, just look at last season.) My bold prediction is that only one of these three women will get a spotlight, and I think it’s more likely none of them will be featured than two of them.
Of course, how the game pans out is the biggest influence on which contestants are featured in episode, and this is another reason I’m frustrated with the amount of younger women in the cast. Gender aside, age plays a big factor in the game: Get an alliance together, and it’s generally one of the older players calling the shots. Not necessarily the oldest, but between a 25 and 35 year old, you expect the 25 year old to be in the supporting role. Only two women (Debbie and Jennifer) have any male tribemates who are younger than them. On the Beauty tribe, all of the men are older than all of the women. It’s very hard to look at this cast and pick out a group dynamic which might feature a woman as a leader.
Many fans have speculated that Anna will rally the girls on Beauty, but we don’t normally see such young women form a group without an older player driving them—One World’s Alicia (25) is the most recent example I can think of, and even then 29-year-old Kim soon took over. Liz and Aubry, on Brains, are at least in that Survivor sweet spot of late twenties to early thirties, but they’re the youngest of their old-skewing tribe, and it’s more likely that they’ll take a background seat to Neal (38) or Pete (34), while Debbie is so much older at 49 that she’s going to have trouble fitting in. 38-year-old Jennifer comes off best. She is probably in the most influential position on Brawn, but as the voice of common sense in a mishmash of loud personalities, she’s unlikely to be the most visible.
Of course, Survivor isn’t about being fair, and it’s not as if the women are necessarily in a worse position to win the game. However, one of the conclusions I drew in last year’s blog was this:
What we are seeing is a vicious circle. The fans (either gender) of the game are trained to see male players being more dominant, so when they themselves get into the game, they consider the male players as the bigger targets unless proven otherwise. Production edits the game accordingly, and these alpha males are spotlighted for the next generation of fans.
We often forget the ‘build a society’ aspect of Survivor these days, but it still goes on. This season, production have unwittingly ensured a society where women are literally the junior partners. If we do have a female winner this season, will she (can she) be seen getting there on her own merits? Or will she be benefiting from the downfall of a male power player? That’s what’s frustrating me, and that’s what I mean by the women being set up to fail. Jeff has always expressed confusion that the women they cast don’t seem to make as big an impression on screen—How can he not see this situation coming?
What Could Kaoh Right?
Of course, my track record with predictions is not a glowing one, so my fears about this season might prove unfounded. All but two women being under thirty has actually happened three times before: Pearl Islands, China and Gabon. Whether that proves or disproves my theories is open for debate, but those seasons gave us some big female characters—just from a returnee point of view, that’s Sandra, Peih-Gee, Courtney, Amanda, Sugar, and Corinne. China in particular was dominated by a very young group of both genders, with its winner being only 22.
While it’s most noticeable with the women, this is generally a young cast. Two thirds of them are under 35. Only four players have children. The jury is going to be more sympathetic to a youthful, carefree outlook, and once the cast mixes into larger tribes, there should be many options for a younger player to forge an alliance that they can lead.
In that light, who they cast is more important than how old they are, and this is where Kaoh Rong shines compared to recent seasons. When I was complaining about the lack of game in younger women on Survivor, I preceded it with this observation:
A female Survivor contestant in her twenties has as good a chance of being a beauty queen as she does of being a fan—and without running the statistics, I would guess she is more likely to have had breast enhancement than she is to have watched the show before being cast.
There are no beauty queens in this cast (nor any obvious augmentations), yet Anna, Aubry, Julia, and Michele all identify as superfans. Anna is a professional poker player, while Liz makes money in blackjack and stock trading (and achieves a perfect score in Survivor’s IQ test.) Alecia is an adrenalin junkie, Cydney a body builder. Aubry and Michele geek out over Harry Potter as well as Survivor—perhaps not the best sign of competitive drive, but I trust a geek to put a disproportionate amount of thought into their current goals. And Julia… well, I never hold out hope for the teenagers, but this interview is wonderful, particularly her comments about island beauty.
Put any one of these young women on a cast from the past five years, and they could easily have been considered the best of their demographic. In that respect, Kaoh Rong is an embarrassment of riches. It’s not as if young women never make an impact on their first try: At 22, Sophie out-talked two alpha males to win South Pacific. Candice was 23 when she briefly hijacked the entire game in Cook Islands. And with more cynicism than we might have expected from her 26 years, Courtney was TV gold in China.
I do think the odds are in favor of at least one of these young women being a bright new star in Survivor’s firmament, maybe more… but it’s hard to feel like we’re seeing players from all walks of life, when seven of them come from essentially the same demographic. On balance, I’d rather the women of this cast had been spread out across the next couple of seasons instead of clustered into this one. Michele, though very lovely, comes off this season as a poor man’s Aubry. Liz and Anna should have been competing for the same spot; it’s tough to choose between them, but I’d probably defer new recruit Liz who I think could benefit with some time to mull over how the game works. (She seems so fixated on numbers!) Likewise for the other apparent recruits: Cydney’s the only woman of color, so keep her, but perhaps give Alecia another year to become familiar with the show.
As for Julia… Eh, it’s clear from Jeff’s cast assessment that part of her draw is her age. In another five years, she might be a better player, but she’s not going to stand out from the crowd. Still, history tells us that the best case scenario for a Survivor teenager is a wallflower… and the worst is Brandon Hantz. I am only satisfied she’s not a worst case scenario. (I know I’m opening myself up to a lot of ‘I told you so’s with Julia; I assure you I would be ecstatic to accept them.)
I don’t know what kind of selection production had for older women (nor how much effort they put into recruiting from that demographic), but I have said before that Jeff and Co need to have more faith in the older (and/or less attractive) woman’s ability to appeal to an audience. I’d rather they took the gamble on some less conventional women, even if they flame out early. There’s the debate: in terms of social responsibility, is it better to have women who are big characters but shortlived, leaving a male-heavy endgame? Or to have a group of more passive personalities who make it to the jury en masse, if only under male wings.
Clearly, the ideal is for women to be big characters and long-lived—but Survivor still seems to struggle with getting that formula right, even in seasons with a female winner.
A Call to Affirmative Action!
One final observation I made in my blog is that the online fanbase does contribute to the problem (if only involuntarily) by virtue of being dominated by male voices.
As a Survivor fan, take a moment to think of whose blogs and podcasts you take in on a weekly basis and list your top five (or less) contributors, the people whose opinions carry the most weight with you. Is there more than one woman on your list? Is there even one woman on your list? That’s not sexism, that’s just a paucity of female voices in the media.
Most of the Survivor bloggers and podcasters, professional or otherwise, are male, and however insightful they are, that means we’re getting a blinkered point of view. So, this season, why not take some affirmative action and add a(nother) woman to your weekly line up of Survivor analysis?
- RHAP’s own Catherine Lucas does a great, smart blog, looking at Survivor historical precedent for the latest episode.
- The Tribe is one of the more prominent and long-lived Survivor podcasts, and the only one I know of with regular female hosts—not one but three! Check out their recent discussion of gender bias, focused on confessional count.
- Melissa does a light-hearted, snarky recap blog—expect some Aubry bias. If nothing else, visit for her captioned images.
- The Survivor Scholars hangout weekly on Youtube, and are probably best described as the teenage girl version of Dom and Colin. (I know you’re wondering: Alyssa is Dom, and Rachel is Colin.) For the record, even they think Julia is too young for the show.
That’s my attempt at a shortlist with something for all tastes—it is by no means exhaustive! And beyond writing and recording, there are a ton of great women who livetweet the episode, if you like to watch Survivor with Twitter. Please add your recommendations in the comments! The same goes for otherwise diverse voices—I’d love to hear more opinions on Survivor from people of color.
A last disclaimer: I will be forty next year, and I do not take kindly to implications that I am too old for the adventure—whatever that adventure may be. That’s the place this blog is coming from. Those feelings sit quite comfortably alongside the fact that I do like most of this cast on an individual basis and that I’m rooting for men as well as women. (Go Nick, Darnell, and Tai!) Let’s just see how this one turns out, and catch me on Twitter for the “I told you so’s!”