Women and Idols: A Survivor Player’s Guide

Over 2018, the hottest Survivor statistic was the gender disparity between women and men finding idols. This year alone, thirteen idols were found, twelve of them by men. The lone female finder, Angelina Keeley, brought up the stat herself and the fact that it was included in the show suggests that production are also taking note of this trend.

What nobody is sure about is why this is. Various theories have been floated, but none seem able to account for such a massive difference. Believing that there must be multiple factors contributing to the gender gap, I joined forces with Jeff Pitman to do some research on idols and gender in Survivor. Jeff was one of the first people to bring attention to this issue, and he has been working on more detailed statistics of idol-finds. Look for his results at True Dork Times on Wednesday.

Concerned that we viewers may have a misleading view of camplife and idol-hunting, I reached out to former players (excluding anyone from Edge of Extinction) with some questions about their personal experiences of looking for idols and dealing with gender issues in the game. Eleven players were kind enough to answer, and from those responses, I have attempted to draw up a more detailed picture of what this issue looks like “on the ground.”

Appendix: Questions sent to the players

Nota Bene: Eleven responses is not a comprehensive survey. (Functionally, only ten, as Pearl Islands‘ Christa Hastie, while entirely on brand, didn’t exactly make a data contribution.) For example, I didn’t get a response from anybody who actually found an idol. Responses from before S19, when players waited for a clue to look, may be less relevant today. We don’t have enough of a dataset to look for contrasts between male responses and female responses. For most seasons, I only have one perspective, and another contestant from that season might disagree.

In some places, I have been able to supplement with information from the show and/or post-game interviews, but this should still be viewed as a generalization. Because of this, I have only referred to a respondent by name when I felt that the context was helpful. (Some respondents asked to stay anonymous.) Similarly, a few times I note the gender of the respondent, but for the most part, the point is what was said and not who said it.

What does it take to find an idol?

In short: Time.

I asked players why they thought the person who found the idol succeeded in doing so. The suggested theories (each put forward by at least two people) were that idols were found by: those who spent the most time looking; those who got lucky; those who knew what to look for.

The mechanics of finding an idol (or a clue for one) vary from season to season, but almost all require some time to search. For an exception, see Chris Noble in Ghost Island who was randomly assigned instructions to acquire an idol. It still took time, but that time was in the middle of the night and he was on a schedule fixed by production not himself.

Otherwise, players have to decide how much time they are willing to invest in finding an idol. After Game Changers, Tony claimed that he looked for six days non-stop with no luck—the idol on Mana beach would not be found until day eleven, by Tai, although both Hali and Caleb would also swear they put in the time to look for it.

Time was certainly a common limitation cited by respondents: finding the time to look without being seen. There was a wide variation in how they dealt with this. While Jacob Derwin’s idol-hunting was a focal plotline of the Ghost Island premiere, he estimates that he only did two serious searches, of 30-45 minutes each. A couple of respondents never looked at all. Two respondents looked a lot early on, but less and less over time; another two looked less early on and more later.

There is some correlation with idols being played and rehidden: Michael Snow stopped looking for idols in Caramoan because he assumed (correctly) that they had already been found, but he got voted out before they went back into the game; Alison Raybould only searched for a few minutes at a time at the start of David vs. Goliath, but spent hours looking at night later (in particular, the night both Davie and Nick played idols).

How long does it take to find an idol? How many hours do you have to search to increase your chances of finding one to greater than 50%? As the players I spoke to couldn’t give me an accurate assessment of how much time they spent looking unsuccessfully, this would be a question best asked of somebody in production.

Outside of a direct answer, we have to use basic logic: it’s a big island, and there is a lot of undergrowth to search, even if you only focus on distinctive landmarks. If you’re lucky enough to hit the right spot, you could find the idol in minutes. More realistically, if you want to find an idol, you should expect to put in several hours of searching, possibly over multiple days—at least for the first one.

Certainly, by late in the game, it seems idols are found quicker—within 24 hours of being put back into play. It’s not clear if players get better at searching or if production deliberately makes them easier to find.

How do you search?

We don’t have any conclusive data on the best searching methods. Christian Hubicki’s “breadth-first search” might be the most practical advice for a clueless hunt, but it still requires a vast amount of time and a certain amount of luck. If you know clues are/will be in play, landmarks are a good idea, especially ones that apply to all camps, but an idol is as likely to be buried as it is to be in a hole in a tree.

Knowing what to look for seems to be the best way to reduce your time searching: either by getting a clue or by finding an earlier idol. Tai Trang, Joe Mena and Dan Rengering all found a second idol soon after a tribe swap: Tai and Joe simply looked in the same place they’d found their previous idol, by the well. Dan scouted around for the colored string that only he on Tiva knew to look for.

The merge of David vs. Goliath allowed for a direct comparison of the advantage from a previous find, though with the vote steal rather than an idol (as told in the podcasts with Gabby Pascuzzi and Nick Wilson). The original clue was put out at the merge feast, plainly visible but not obviously a clue. Gabby noticed it, but she couldn’t immediately figure out what it referred to.

A secondary clue was hidden in the jungle at camp. After the merge feast, Davie went out searching for colored string with Nick and they found that second clue: simply a picture of the tree, with no cryptic text. Nick was able to go straight there and collect the advantage. The following morning, Gabby went to the tree herself, but she had lost the race and the advantage was no longer there to be found.

Of course, “Find an idol first” or even “Find a clue first” is not the most practical advice. A little more practical is to look with or follow those who have. It worked for Nick and also for the original idol-finder, Gary Hogeboom, who spied on clue-holder, Judd Sergeant… but not for Alison.

If you haven’t found an idol and don’t know anybody who has? It seems all you can do is put in time and hope.

Making Opportunities

In the premiere of Cambodia, Kelley Wentworth taught us to have a cover story for poking around the jungle. Most respondents took a similarly opportunistic approach: looking whenever they were alone or whenever they were out foraging. One respondent noted two problems with using gathering supplies as an excuse: 1. it’s still rare for such tasks to be done individually rather than in pairs. 2. You have to bring back proportionate quantities for the time that you were out.

Looking with other players was the other most common tactic: either looking individually when everybody else was doing so, as part of a group searching together or using another player as lookout. However almost every respondent who looked spent some time looking alone and in secret.

Night might seem like a good time to look in private (assuming you’re not a heavy sleeper like Alec Merlino.) However one respondent was requested by production to hold off on a night search until a full camera crew was available. While I would not consider this an unreasonable request, it is probably safe to assume that not all players comply—it’s harder to imagine a patient Tony Vlachos than it is to imagine him telling a camera man he’ll do a reshoot later.

Weighing up the Risk: Why not?

Why do players look in secret? As a general rule, the idol is more effective if nobody knows you have it, and this has always been the case. However, since Russell Hantz introduced a more aggressive brand of idol-searching, there’s a stigma on looking whether or not you find it. Boston Rob set the precedent on this when he targeted Kristina Kell, despite helping her look briefly.

Every respondent from the past ten seasons associated looking with a risk of being targeted.

Accordingly, some respondents focused on their social game before seriously looking for the idol. One, whenever joining a new tribe, put off idol hunting until she’d built a majority. (She broke this rule on one tribe when she found herself in the minority.)

Such a strategy risks missing out on early idols and being at a disadvantage to their finders when looking for later ones. However, there’s a successful precedent there: Lauren Rimmer of Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers didn’t look for the idol at all in the first week of the game, yet was able to find one post-merge while propelling herself into a power position on the back of her social game.

On the other hand, you have a player like Davie of David vs. Goliath who effectively isolated himself to find an idol in the first few days but became one of the best-loved players in the game after the merge.

It should be noted that Davie did make an early bond with a few people including Carl who was allegedly a one-man shadowy cabal suggesting the boot targets—sometimes, the trick is making friends with the right person. Gabby said that the tribe “joked” he might have the idol, but saw him as the provider for the camp because he always had an excuse for going off. Perhaps tribes are more willing to forgive suspicious behavior, if it comes from a person who is also demonstrably altruistic.

Taking the Risk: Why?

My most misinterpreted question was “How important did you consider idols to be to your personal game?” which respondents tended to answer based on results rather than what they were thinking at the time. What surprised me was that it appeared nobody—not even the most recent players—viewed them as a necessary point on the résumé to win, despite a now-eleven-seasons-long streak of the winner being the person who played the most idols/advantages. One person did say that they would consider finding one essential if they returned while a couple of others remarked, perhaps defensively, that a good game doesn’t need them.

Instead, six respondents placed the highest importance on idols in terms of saving themselves, with three players saying that they looked harder when they were a target. Two people placed the value on knowing where the idols were, i.e. it was more important to be able to account for them than it was to use them—these were the same two who said they spent less time looking for the idol as the game went on.

Only one person talked about the idol as a social tool, and that was all the way back in China: Leslie Nease felt it would have been a way to convince wishy-washy people to join an alliance by offering protection. While we’re now in the Big Moves era, idols still are used for alliance-building, and I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence or not that none of the more recent players thought to mention it.

Gender Roles at camp

Gender roles putting women at a disadvantage in finding idols was, I believe, first put forward by Aubry Bracco, after the Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers finale. This take is typically met with some skepticism that a culture of sexism could be so strong that women would literally be unable to leave camp to look for idols.

The players can’t provide a clear explanation either. Jessica Lewis of Millennials vs. Gen X didn’t notice any gender roles, observing instead that everybody played to their individual strengths. Yet Alison Raybould of David vs. Goliath was baffled and frustrated by what she perceived as the role of “domestic housewife” despite her efforts to break out of it. It is very likely that this varies from season to season and even tribe to tribe, but most respondents (including every male respondent) did perceive some form of gender roles in camp.

Below, I’ve listed every example I was given of male and female camp roles:

Male: Hunting, Building, Planning/Talking, Gathering, Fire Tending/Starting
Female: Gathering, Washing Up, Cooking, Sewing, Flag painting

You’ll notice “Gathering” appears in both lists: three respondents listed it as a male role, one as a female role, and one respondent distinguished between what men gathered and what women gathered. It’s also important to remember that as I specifically asked for gender roles, respondents didn’t mention tasks that were done by both genders on their season—any given task might be unisex in another player’s experience. Few respondents felt these were hard and fast divisions.

I wasn’t able to talk to anybody from San Juan Del Sur but that was a season with particularly obvious gender divisions at camp. (It’s probably no coincidence that it ended with an all female final three.) I wrote about that at the time, praising Natalie for bridging the gender divide and working alongside the men as well as the women. Back then, I recommended that all female players take this tactic at camp, but it seems this isn’t as straightforward as I assumed. The female respondents who perceived gender roles on their tribe did make attempts to do a male job only to meet with resistance. Either they stopped trying for fear of becoming a target, or they pushed on and felt they were targeted as a result.

This anecdotal evidence can’t tell us conclusively whether or not these women could have been accepted in a “male” role at camp, but on Survivor perception is usually reality. If a player doesn’t feel free to act, then they aren’t free to act, even if there would be no actual consequences. Most respondents did not give me their own theory as to why women don’t find as many idols, but one specifically blamed it on these gender restrictions at camp.

While women who felt they were restricted to fireside-duties had at least some chance to leave camp and look for an idol, we’ve already established that successfully finding an idol takes time. Anyone who has less time to look is at a disadvantage.

Gender Issues in Production

While it’s not true of every female player, frustration with gender issues appears to be a common experience for women on Survivor and one that extends to production as well as camp. One respondent explicitly described Survivor as “inherently misogynistic” with production favoring a male player. Two women cited occasions on their season where the circumstances guaranteed or strongly favored that a particular advantage would go to a man. One felt that the edit was unfair to the women on her season while another believed she played a strong game but had her edit reduced partly because she didn’t find an idol.

To follow up that last point, here’s a quote from a different player’s post-boot interview:

“I think the biggest regret is that day in and day out, I was looking for hidden immunity idols, non-stop. I wanted to find one so badly. I told my dad before I got out there: “I’m going to find one.” I used to go golf-ball hunting with him when I was a little kid. I knew I could find one. I looked non-stop. That would have been a game-changer for me, because last night, instead of my fate being in someone else’s hands, I could have taken charge and put it in my hands.”

That was Ghost Island’s Queen of Sitting, Chelsea Townsend, who appears to have been one idol find away from being an entity on her season.

One longstanding criticism of production is that they often give female players less clothing than male players, making island-life a generally colder experience for a woman and contributing to quits and jacket-envy. This became a more practical problem for Kelley Wentworth when she was planning to retrieve an idol from a challenge that she would typically run in a bikini and realized she would have nowhere to put it once she grabbed it. Kelley’s solution was to lie that she had her period as an excuse to wear shorts. Not an insurmountable hurdle, but still an extra hoop to jump through.

On Game Changers, in a similar situation with no preparation, Sarah Lacina stashed an advantage in her shoes, but this was after the challenge, when she could carry her shoes rather than wear them. Lauren Rimmer had an easier time of it when all she had to do was pick up an ordinary shell, which she could keep in plain sight, pretending it was a souvenir—however, from a television point of view, that also killed all the suspense for the viewer.

Men vs. Women: Gameplay

Men and women may well find that they are treated differently on the show, but do they play differently? Respondents tended to be vaguer on this score than they were about gender roles in camp, but about half of them did make some behavioral distinction between men and women, all of which went along the same theme: men were more dramatic; women were quieter.

“The women were all great and not by any stretch of the means pushovers…but they did not force their personalities and agendas onto the broader group, whereas the men did consistently.” – Male respondent.

Men were generally perceived as being more confident, having more bravado. Two respondents theorized that risk-taking was a factor in the idol-finding gender gap. As one put it, there are more men who either don’t understand or “don’t give a crap” how looking for an idol is perceived.

Notably, the question was mostly answered in terms of men’s games: “Men are more…” with little to no comment on how women behaved—this was true of both male and female respondents. One respondent, a woman, focused only on how the women played with no comment on the men.

Comments specifically about women mostly talked about them being more social. Despite the number of people saying men were more confident, only one person (a man) referred to women as more “cautious.” Two of the women talked about the women’s games in highly positive terms: “strength”, “intelligence”, “social mastermind”.

This plays into something Gabby talked about on her retrospective podcast, where she noted that Angelina played a more typically “male” game and Mike played a more typically “female” one. While she gave Angelina credit for playing an aggressive game, she preferred to celebrate Mike’s game, because that more subtle social game rarely does get recognized for being good gameplay. Feminism is not about letting women do what men do: it’s about acknowledging the value of what women do, instead of defaulting to a masculine ideal.

One respondent made an extra distinction: “The successful men had flashier games and the successful women from our season had more nuanced social games.” I.e. this didn’t necessarily apply to the entire cast. It might not have been consciously intended, but it’s worth bearing in mind that game differences might have exterior influences: men and women who don’t follow the stereotypes are perhaps more likely to be early targets.

(It’s also possible that casting gravitates towards these stereotypes, as fans have theorized before, though in my opinion, Survivor has been making a deliberate effort to cast more aggressive, competitive women over the past ten seasons. I didn’t specifically ask about casting, and none of the respondents brought it up.)


So that’s the player’s perspective. On Wednesday, Jeff Pitman will bring you the numbers, and I’ll be back on Friday with some armchair psychology. In the meantime, I encourage you all to draw your own conclusions.

Special thanks to Alison Raybould, Christa Hastie, Eliza Orlins, Elizabeth Olson, Gabby Pascuzzi, Jacob Derwin, Jessica Lewis, Leslie Nease, Michael Snow and others for answering my questions and also to everybody who helped get them out to former players.

Appendix: The questions sent to the players

  • Please describe your experience in looking for idols. How much time did you spend, what methods did you use and what limitations did you have?
  • Did the other people on your tribe spend more or less time searching than you did? Why do you think the person who found the idol succeeded in doing so?
  • How important did you consider idols to be to your game?
  • What, if any, gender roles / restrictions did you notice at camp? (This includes male gender roles / restrictions.)
  • Did you feel that there was a difference between how men and women played the game in your season(s)? Do you have an opinion as to why?
  • Do you have any other thoughts about idols and gender on Survivor that you would like to share?
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