Survivor: San Juan Del Sur

The Cascade of Gender Bias in San Juan del Sur


Disclaimer: For whatever reason, CBS has removed all the secret scenes and ponderosa videos for this season, which means the loss of some information that I referenced in this column. (Most notably Reed and Jon’s Ponderosa videos and a Natalie confessional from episode six.) Regrettably, unless you have a personal memory of the videos in question, you will have to take my word for it.


San Juan Del Sur was a strangely edited season of Survivor. The pre-merge seemed to be going nowhere, while the post-merge spotlighted power-players only for them to be voted off. In part, this was because the end-game was dominated by recruited players who were learning the ropes in the early stages. However, the season also kept to conventional fan wisdom that female winners are under-edited compared to male winners.

The inconvenient truth is that, in modern Survivor, a season with a male winner tells the story of how he won (Tony, Tyson, Cochran, Boston Rob…) while a season with a female winner tells the story of how a man lost. (Malcolm for Denise, Coach for Sophie, Russell for Sandra and Natalie W…) Kim and Fabio are the two exceptions out of ten seasons.

In San Juan Del Sur, with an all female final three, the trope was taken to extremes, as the edit was almost totally focused on How The Men Lost.

JeremyMe The target’s right here[/caption]

This is not necessarily a bad choice. The men were strong enough characters, and the edit had to reflect the game as it was played. Battle lines were drawn at the merge, with one side determined to take out Josh who in turn targeted Jeremy. Never mind the fact that Jeremy had not actually demonstrated any of the power attributed to him—it was Natalie and Missy who had chosen the boot for Hunahpu’s one Tribal Council, over-riding Jeremy’s choice. It was also Natalie and particularly Missy who had successfully drawn in the numbers for their post-merge alliance. But Jeremy was the target.

In my honest opinion, the Josh vs. Jeremy showdown was a fantastic and innovative three episode story arc, but the collateral damage was to minimize Natalie and Missy’s contribution. It was unfortunate; arguably, it was worth it… yet these innocent intentions shed light into how, coming up to its thirtieth season, Survivor still struggles to put dominant female characters and stories on screen. Not through deliberate sexism, but in the little hints of gender bias at every step of production, game and beyond.

Pre-Game: Let’s Talk About Sex

Out of the opposing alliance, Jeremy was the most similar to Josh and Reed themselves: male, some life experience under his belt but not yet in the ‘older’ demographic… and a long term fan of the show, anxious to finally get his chance to play. It’s very likely that his superfan status and not his gender was what caught their attention, but on Survivor gender and fanhood are often linked. The die-hard fans this season (to the best of my knowledge) were Josh and Reed, Jeremy, Wes, and Dale—while Val, Keith and Kelley all knew the show to varying degrees when they agreed to be their relative’s plus one. In other words, there were far more men with a working knowledge of the show to start with.

This is not unusual. One World had a similarly disproportionate ratio of male to female fans, and chances are if you are trying to name off superfan players, you will think of at least three men before a female contestant comes to mind. The most common demographic for female fans is the older woman (this season aside); most of the younger women are recruits rather than applicants.

I’m willing to believe that more men than women apply to be on Survivor, but it’s hardly a coincidence that 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. As Ken Raskoff recently explained, the biggest attributes they look for in any cast member is sex, humor and conflict, and it’s logical that they depend heavily on the younger woman demographic for the ‘sex’.

This is a marketing decision, not an ethical one, but the consequence is that we end up with a lot of younger women lacking life experience, skillset or even the competitive drive to play aggressively—at least at the start of the game. (Most younger women do attempt to make moves after the merge, if only diffidently.)

Natalie's chances are better now that her sister is out of the game.

Best shape of any woman this season

It’s notable that the standout female player this season, Natalie, was not cast for ‘sex’. Male standards of beauty encompass both slender (e.g. Reed) and beefed up (e.g. Jon), but women have to be slender. The Twinnies were in the best physical shape of any women in the game, yet remember John Rocker’s jibe to Natalie about her weight? Natalie and Nadiya have lovely faces and hair, but they were paraded in practical swim gear for their publicity shots—only one other woman was able to skip the bikini and that was (also strong and stocky) Val.

I have long felt that The Amazing Race does a much better job of casting a diverse range of women than Survivor. Had the Twinnies not been cast for that series, would they have been considered for Survivor at all? Even on Cagayan’s Brawn tribe, all three of the women were slender in build. My fear is that there are similarly forceful Survivor fans applying (of both genders!) who are being dismissed for lacking sex appeal.

A recent interview with Jeff Probst revealed another strike against the Twinnies in casting: “I’m always wanting to put likable people on the show, and they weren’t likable on The Amazing Race.” The Twinnies were certainly polarizing on their season of The Amazing Race, but they earned enough fans to get a return. RHAP-wise, both Rob and Jessica loved them on The Amazing Race podcast, and three out of five bloggers were delighted to see them cross over to Survivor.

As Rob theorized in his season wrap up, Jeff’s bias here might have more to do with the rival show than with gender, but it’s ridiculous for him to worry about the Twinnies’ popularity, when in the same interview, he made no such disclaimers to the casting of John Rocker. Certainly, when it comes to the multiple appearances of Russell Hantz and Colton (either of whom could give more malicious confessionals in one episode than the Twinnies managed in their entire TAR career), Jeff has always insisted that he likes polarizing players. How could he have been so uncertain about casting proven TV personalities, especially given his history of complaining that the women on Survivor play games too reserved for good TV?

Speaking of unlikeable, Missy was one of the least popular players among online fans this season, yet when Dom Harvey of the Dom and Colin podcast asked exactly what it was that fans disliked about her, I for one found it hard to answer without bringing up my own gender bias.

The three divorces gave us a lot of mileage for jokes, but as Spencer pointed out, it isn’t really fair to judge her on those with no knowledge of the circumstance. Or did we dislike her because she owned a cheerleading gym instead of something more favorably feminist? I might roll my eyes at cheerleading, but insisting that all women follow my approved life choices is just as sexist as the old-fashioned patriarchy. And yes, the helicopter parenting of Baylor drove me round the bend, but how much time have I spent complaining about women on Survivor being judged by other people’s standards of motherhood?

Perhaps it’s simply that Missy rubs me (and so many other people) up the wrong way. Yet it’s really hard for me to definitively say that this would be the case even if it were ‘Mitch’, a thrice divorced father who owned a cheerleading gym and was super-protective of his daughter in game. Certainly as a bio, my kneejerk reaction to Mitch is much softer than it was to Missy. Does that make Mitch better casting, just by virtue of gender?

We can’t close on casting without the disclaimer that a pair of sisters were med-evaced before the season started. Their inclusion could have created a hugely different dynamic—certainly in the first vote, when the men joined ranks for an easy numbers advantage. If both the MIA sisters were hyper-competitive superfans of the show, we would have had two extra players among our surplus of pawns. It might be that casting did a more balanced job this season than we’ve given them credit for.

The Alpha Male Bump

While I assume the deciding factor in targeting Jeremy was his superfan status, we can’t rule out his gender. If there’s one thing we have learned (whether from Survivor or social conditioning in general), it is that the players will expect a (‘manly’) man to be leading the alliance, and we saw plenty of examples of that in San Juan Del Sur. Remember when Hunahpu blamed Rocker for Nadiya and Val’s boots? Or when Alec, Wes, and Keith figured they could talk strategy to Jon and that would cover their bases with Jaclyn as well?

This Alpha Male bump seems to be why Jon became the default frontrunner once Jeremy was booted. There was no real reason he should be considered the ringleader of that alliance beyond looking the part. Yet Jaclyn planned to lay down her torch because he had a better shot of winning, while Natalie singled Jon out as the person she did not want to sit next to in the finals.

The only concrete argument Jon had against the others was the fact that he had twice found an immunity idol—something that can hold sway with a jury—and even that was an advantage gained through his gender. Twice as many men as women went to Exile Island this season; when faced with choosing an exile, San Juan Del Sur’s cast almost exclusively picked men—the only exception being when Reed tried to send Julie. Val, Jaclyn, and Baylor ended up at Exile by default after losing a duel. Natalie had to volunteer both times she went, but she reaped her reward when she found an idol, despite the vague clue.


Gender Roles

Exiling the men is a nod to chivalry, of course. We’ve seen that repeatedly in this cast, from the reward swapping (usually a man passing the reward to a woman) to the advice against passing gas in front of a lady. It’s mostly nonsense (witness tough cop Tony getting the vapors over the unladylike behavior of his tribe in Cagayan), but it’s important to note that this gender stereotyping is being enforced by the women as well as the men. Missy was just as firm as Jeremy that you shouldn’t fart in front of a woman, while Jaclyn and Baylor both received criticism for letting the men do the heavy work around camp.

This was where Natalie’s social game was at its strongest. She openly went against the gender roles, being the only woman to give up her reward—and the only player to do it twice—donating first to Julie and then to Jon. She was also the most insistent of the Exile Island volunteers, over-riding Reed and Jon’s wishes respectively. She also kept up a strong work ethic around camp, which the men acknowledged, and right from the Drew vote she was notable for being in on the men’s strategy discussions as well as the women’s.

Yet despite these often transparent efforts, nobody gave her credit for her strategic game. While the Twinnies aren’t known for being submissive, she admitted herself that she was deferring to Jeremy’s plans before the merge. It seemed the other players never quite shook this perception of her, and certainly this was something she actively encouraged, openly asking Jon for guidance in the coconut chop challenge. Jon and Missy were fully confident she would fall into line after Jeremy’s boot and believed her statement that she had voted for Alec in error. Even after Jon was blindsided, his first instinct was to credit Keith (Keith!) for the move. Small wonder Missy declared that any guy who reached the end would have won!

She was not being entirely fair to the jury, who did theorize that Missy herself had told Natalie to switch her vote, and after Natalie blindsided Baylor in the flashiest way possible, the jury was ready to believe the résumé she presented them. That said, Josh admitted on Reddit that he might have voted for Keith over Natalie had both reached the end.

The jury’s questions followed Survivor stereotype. Jaclyn, the only finalist with a male team-mate, was repeatedly asked which move she had made ‘on her own’, while Missy had her motherhood thrown at her. Yes, Missy’s daughter had made herself one of the least popular players out there, but the streak of older women being hated by the jury is now up to five seasons straight. Yes, Jaclyn herself acknowledges that Jon was the more social and outgoing of the couple, but I’m hard pressed to think of any tandem on Survivor where the player who least resembled an alpha male didn’t have to prove they weren’t a sheep. (For a same gender example, look at nerdy Stephen vs. athletic J.T. on Tocantins)

Survivor is not played in a vacuum, so there will always be an extenuating circumstance. Nevertheless, when these patterns keep happening, we have to ask if these extenuating circumstances are being (unconsciously) used to rationalize pre-existing biases.

It’s not just women who are the victims here. No man made it to the finals, and that was not the result of a women’s alliance—four men had to be voted out for the women to even have the majority. From the merge through the final six, Jeremy, Josh, Jon, and Reed were the names being thrown around as threats (along with Keith for immunity), while the women were more or less handed a pass to the endgame. Natalie never received a vote against her, and Jaclyn didn’t see her name written down until Jon’s blindside. Of Missy’s three votes, two (Dale, Reed) were spite from the person going home; only one (Keith’s) was because she was seen as a genuine threat.

Baylor had the opposite experience—indeed, she received more votes in a single game than any player in Survivor history who only got voted off once (thank you, Pocket Pitman.) She was the only one of the four women to be targeted by the jury-bound men but because they disliked her rather than because they considered her a threat.

The season started out in exactly the opposite way. On both tribes, the men’s tack on their first visit to Tribal Council was to get one of the women off so that they could secure their majority. The urban legend of the women’s alliance still has a good hold on the minds of fans casual and super alike, but it seems individual women are not considered a threat to your own alliance. (Except for Kelley Wentworth, apparently; clearly Drew Christy is more progressively-minded than we have given him credit for!)


Seemed like a good idea at the time.

The Coyopa men’s option to go the ‘brolliance’ route gave them an easy starting advantage but cost them the game when swing-vote Jaclyn was too insecure to go with them post-swap/merge. Once the co-ed alliance got the upper hand, the opposing one was doomed. Even if Wes, Keith, and Alec were not game threats in the technical sense of the word, Missy, Jon, and Co, could not risk one of them getting to the end: alliances too often vote as a bloc for the winner.

Both sexes should be expanding on Natalie’s precedent: whatever gender roles the tribe establishes, don’t let yourself get swept up in them. Instead, look for ways that you personally can bridge the divide. When it comes to who to vote for, who to Exile, who to reward and who to make your pitch to, make bloody sure that your decisions are based on strategy and that unconscious bias isn’t leaving a vote out in the cold.

Post Game – History is Written by Men

This season gained early notoriety for its edit, as it seemed that either Josh or Jeremy were destined for a coronation storyline—up until they became the first two jurors. That huge mid-game upset was fantastic from a viewer perspective as everything we ‘knew’ about the winner’s edit was turned upside down. Indeed, the biggest characters pre-merge, with the most consistent airtime, were Josh, Jeremy, Jon, Keith, and Baylor, none of whom made the finals. (Special mention to Drew Christy who was really only featured for one episode, but it was easily the funniest of the season.)

That being said, all three finalists had a story to tell. All took very different paths to the end; all took responsibility for getting themselves there. Jaclyn’s game life was hanging by a thread for the first four episodes, but she controlled the vote for six Tribal Councils, then worked through Jon’s blindside to make herself a trustworthy ally for Natalie again, winding up at the Final Tribal Council against the odds.

Jaclyn still has a chance but needs the right final three.

Placeholder for Jon

Yet Jaclyn’s edit was a sad exercise in irony. The editors spotlighted her complaining that her alliance was only interested in Jon… and then proceeded to show her game entirely through Jon’s perspective. Was Jon more camera friendly? Probably, but it’s all too common for Survivor to be shown from the male players’ perspective, and that certainly held true for all the male/female pairs this season.

It was particularly inappropriate when Jaclyn’s MRKH syndrome was introduced with (to paraphrase the editors’ implication): “Isn’t Jon an awesome guy for marrying a woman even though she’s infertile?” Jaclyn managed to talk about her condition briefly at Final Tribal Council, but if we had time to hear about Missy’s three divorces every episode, could we not have had a minute of the premiere for Jaclyn to explain MRKH? Or of the second episode to get her take on her precarious position?

After three seasons in a row where the winner got more confessionals than anybody else, I am not complaining that Natalie was not the main protagonist of the entire season, but I do wonder if her minimal edit was due to Jeff (and possibly others’) perception that she was ‘unlikeable’. The last winner to be so under-edited was Denise, and Jeff admitted while Philippines was airing that he was surprised by how popular she was with fans. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if Survivor wants to have memorable women on the show, they need to have more faith in the ones they cast.

In the early part of the season, as Jaclyn did with Jon, Natalie played second fiddle to Jeremy. RHAP’s resident edit analyst Michel Trudeau noted: “We continually see her as Jeremy’s follower. Every time she says something, Jeremy is there to point out her mistake.” This is, perhaps, the inevitable outcome in a cast when the endgame was controlled by recruits. Premerge, the final seven were still getting a feel for the game… yet that didn’t stop the last two men standing getting big edits. Natalie has at least as big a personality as Jon and Keith!

If there was one Natalie scene that I really wish had made it to episode, it would be the night she and Baylor spent on Exile Island. They needed to show Baylor sharing the clue with her in light of how that turned out, but we should have seen at least a few seconds of how they dealt with the rain that night. Imagine the contrast with Julie, huddling in her soaked hoodie, while Natalie and Baylor stripped down to their bathing suits in an effort to keep their clothes dry for the morning. Not only that, considering how important Baylor and Natalie’s friendship turned out to be for the post-merge game, it is astounding they didn’t show the experience that bonded them together. As it was, we viewers were all caught off-guard when Natalie searched for the idol with Baylor and ‘shared’ it with her.

Of all the finalists, Missy probably had the most consistent edit, and despite her divorces getting more airtime than half of the cast, I feel like she had a well-balanced portrayal—indeed, Michel had her picked to win. Neither she nor Baylor were ever fan favorites, but they made for tepid villains.

If Josh’s reddit AMA is to be believed, the edit could have made Missy look a lot worse, but they cut her moments of homophobia. I would like to stress that we only have Josh’s side of the story on this, although as we know from Jon that Missy was very religious, it’s not unlikely that she might struggle with the concept that you could be gay and an acting Christian.

Assuming Josh’s claims have some foundation in truth, why didn’t CBS show it? Were they wary of making yet another older woman into a villain? Did they remember how the religion on South Pacific went down like a lead balloon with the audience? Or did they just not want to open the Christianity vs. Sexuality can of worms? Regardless, I rather wish they had, if only to provide a more balanced portrayal of attitudes towards homosexuality. It’s all very well to give us warm fuzzies by showing how old southern types like Keith accepted Josh for who he was, but if the editors don’t then show Reed being judged by Missy for his sexuality, they’re burying the viewers’ heads in sand.

On that note, I also want to point out that Reed was, by his own admission, ‘spastic’ in the first few days of the game, and nobody on his original tribe had a good bond with him. While this in no way excuses any homophobia, it’s entirely possible that Missy’s opinion of Reed fed into her personal beliefs rather than the other way around (though more likely it was a two way street). Her views on homosexuality are almost certainly more complicated than ‘gay = evil.’

Even without this subplot, Missy was unpopular with the viewers, and this was never so obvious as when she injured herself. So invested in the game was she that she played through the last week with a foot she couldn’t even walk on, trying to hide the extent of her injury for fear she would be pulled from the game.


No quitters

Yet rather than be credited for her determination, she inspired criticism because she wasn’t med-evaced. Fans grumbled that her non-participation made the challenges less exciting—I’d argue that her non-participation in the votes would have been a far bigger drawback for the season. (Remember the Jon blindside?) If it had been Natalie or Keith getting injured, would anybody have protested their permission to keep playing?

The same applies to gameplay. True, she played that background social game that is so much harder to quantify, but so did Josh, and Missy’s in-game relationships were more successful than his. She might have been kept around as a goat, but at every single Tribal Council, Missy was in a majority that she put together. It was always her relationships that secured the numbers for the strategists—in effect, she pulled off what Parvati did in Micronesia. Many critics have commended Missy for her social game, but she’s received far more attention for what she did wrong.

In contrast, Josh has been consistently lauded through the media as one of the best players of the season. Was Josh’s game better-rounded than Missy’s? It’s fair to say that he had a better head for strategy than she did, and he probably has the better skillset—but that’s all hypothetical. In the hand they were dealt for San Juan Del Sur, Missy was the more influential of the two, yet that’s not how they will be remembered.

And again… Josh is male. So are the vast majority of Survivor commentators. 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.

I’m not worrying about how we reached this point, I’m worrying about the effects of it: just as production tends to be more interested in the male storylines, so is the media. This isn’t to say that women are never popular with male commentators. Rather, we get the entirely expected result that male viewers more readily relate to male players.

Accordingly, it’s not surprising that the edit led to Josh and Jeremy being hailed as the best and/or only players of the season (with Natalie entering that conversation only after the finale). At the time of Josh’s blindside, nearly every podcast and blog talked about the game in terms of what Jeremy had to do, unconsciously relegating the rest of his (mostly female) alliance to Jeremy’s supporting players with no motivations of their own.

(NB: since we’re on the subject of societal prejudice, let’s acknowledge that Josh and Jeremy have both made great strides for their own minorities. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen an African-American man be taken seriously as a strategist, and with Colton being the most prominent gay player in the past ten seasons, it’s refreshing to see the spotlight on a completely different personality-type. This column is highlighting gender bias, but we all have inherent racial and sexuality biases too, so I will not begrudge Josh and Jeremy their time to shine.)

Beyond the Game – Why This Matters

It is entirely possible that Survivor’s fanbase is in fact predominantly male, and accordingly, the show wishes to market itself to the male viewer. Considering the surprising proportion of older female players who are huge fans of the show, I’m not convinced, but I do not have the information on viewer demographics or optimal marketing protocols. I cannot definitively say that Survivor is taking the wrong approach for TV.

Yet 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.

Another circle: For whatever reason, Jeff and/or production don’t believe their female winner will resonate with the audience, so they play her down in the show and talk about other players in the media. Almost seven years after her win, bubbly and beautiful TV personality Parvati is still promoted as the ideal for a female player over such strong winners as Sandra, Sophie, Kim and Denise. (Time will tell if Natalie can topple her, but she certainly hasn’t been promoted so far.) If you look at the biggest female characters in Survivor history, most of them do not come from the bikini beauty group, yet that demographic still makes up at least 20% of the average cast, and Parvati’s enduring, production-endorsed, popularity has a lot to do with that.

The effects on Survivor as a game and a show are disappointing, but the cascade of gender (racial, sexuality, etc.) bias spills over into real life. Like it or not, Survivor is not only a reflection of our patriarchal attitudes but also a small influence in favor of them. We all have defenses for our personal viewpoints, but there’s a very real problem here, as proven by numerous psychological studies, that excuses aren’t helping. Nobody wants to discriminate against the women in their lives, and yet all of us do.

Most of the sexism that pervades society is not a conspiracy. It’s an accident.

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