Survive Her — How Woman Fare On Survivor

[Spoiler warnings are included where applicable in this article]

If you’ve never watched the CBS reality TV show Survivor, the premise is simple, typically 18–20 ‘castaways’ get separated into 2 or 3 ‘tribes’, they live at camps on islands in the middle of the ocean, they compete in challenges, and every episode one castaways is voted out by their tribes.

Reasons for voting castaways out can vary, but the most common ones tend to be the person was the ‘weakest link’, or the person is ‘a huge threat later in the game’ and the tribe opts to knock them out early. Occasionally a particular player will just be too annoying for the tribe to tolerate and that will seal their fate.

Survivor has a huge, global fanbase with many loyalists and diehards, and some of the people who have competed on the show literally grew up watching it. It’s not hard to understand the appeal of the show, despite it being born in the wave of reality TV that many have since derided for lowering the bar on television and entertainment.

Survivor is certainly not without it’s flaws, but it also has its charm. I would love it even more if instead of the show hinging on people being eliminated, it could be more about building people up and recognizing the good they’ve done. Instead the show often comes down to who most consistently screwed other players first, and in my humble opinion, several survivor winners won essentially on the premise of ‘okay yeah you were a huge backstabby jerk, but you played the game and since you backstabbed everyone else first, you technically played it ‘the best’’. That’s not what it should be about, if you ask me.

I watched the first 7 seasons of survivor when they originally aired (2000–2004), but I moved on after that. This year (2021), I got back into the show, and have caught up on almost 10 of the 33 missed seasons. Getting to knock off a season over the course of a week or two vs over 3 months can give some new insight into patterns on the show.

Often in the early game, weak links are the first to go, and this often ends up being either an older castaway (man or woman), or a young woman castaway who is perceived as very physically weak.

I got curious and decided to do some very basic data science.

I went back to the first episode of every season (except season 40 because that season is all returning winner, so spoilers obviously) to record some data. I made note was who the first person voted out in a tribal council each season (medical evacuations and other twists were not counted, the person had to be first voted out at tribal council specifically). I categorized each eliminated player as either old woman, old man, young woman, or young man.

Many seasons have a ‘twist’ of some sort in regards to how tribes are split up. One season had 4 tribes — old men, old women, young men, and young women.

Many seasons have a ‘twist’ of some sort in regards to how tribes are split up. One season had 4 tribes — old men, old women, young men, and young women. Another season had 2 tribes, one all men, the other all women. Which tribe do you think fared best in the early goings?

My hypothesis was that women were most likely voted out first a lot more often (as men do seem to band together very strongly in survivor), and that of the men to be voted out first, they would most likely all be old.

And so I did my tabulating. I did have to make a few judgement calls as I am trying to avoid spoilers so I wasn’t going to go and look up the ages of castaways. If a castaway didn’t look ‘obviously’ young to me, then I categorized them as old. Again, my hypothesis was that more women were voted out first, so age was less critical to get exactly right.

So what were the results?

I’m not putting a spoiler warning on this because first person voted out is a pretty tiny spoiler all considered. And I skipped season 40 which definitely would have been a spoiler.

From season 1 to season 39, and then also counting season 41, women were the first voted out 27 times out of 40. Old women 12 times, young women 15 times. Young men were least often voted out first, only 6 out of 40 times. Between Seasons 17 and 27, only one season featured a man being voted out first.

I have heard talk before of sexism on survivor, and a case can definitely be made. Men have won survivor nearly 2x as often as women have. It is not uncommon for only one woman to make it to the final 3, and sometimes they are taken to the final because they ‘didn’t play a strong game’, or they are considered ‘unlikable’, making it more likely the other person will win.

Women also don’t tend to find hidden immunity idols very often, which has been acknowledged by women survivors in more recent seasons. Men on the show tend to be more aggressive and proactive in going ‘idol hunting’, but since they are often seen as the biggest threats, this makes sense. And this means even more power shifts to the men on the show because they already have the physical advantage in challenges, but then if you know you can’t vote them out, the vote falls back to the ‘weak links’.

Jeff Probst

Host and Executive Producer Jeff Probst also admitted more recently that he had a strong gender bias in early seasons of the show, as likely do many of the male castaways, including when it comes to voting. When Jeff asks questions at tribal council, or follows up on what castaways have said, that bias can also creep out and influence the male players.

“If a woman in this game lies or cheats or steals, she’s fake and phony and a bitch,” a visibly emotional Sarah, 35, explained. “If a guy does it, it’s good gameplay. … It’s a gender bias. It holds me back. It holds other women back from playing the game the way we should be playing the game.”

Other past women castaways have also pointed out some of the issues, whether during ‘confessional’ clips during episodes, at tribal council, or at the end of season reunion shows.

Angelina Keeley is one past woman contestant who has been vocal about the imbalance of the sexes on Survivor.

[MINOR SPOILERS BELOW]

Then there was the season with the Blue Collar vs White Collar vs No Collar split, where the Blue Collar tribe had 3 men on it who were all pretty unapologetically and overtly sexist. And the women just had to put up with it mostly. On another season, there was another particularly harsh and abusive moment with a man castaway making brutal comments to a woman castaway about her personal life and family which led her to cry, and then later lash back out at him and make some similarly harsh comments back. As of the season finale reunion, the two hadn’t mended fences.

[END MINOR SPOILER]
[BIGGER SPOILER BELOW]

Hannah Rimm wrote about two specific incidents of sexism that negatively impacted women castaways:

“The treatment of Kellee Kim. In case you missed season 39 (Island of the Idols), Kim is a brilliant Harvard and Wharton grad; a woman of colour who played a strategic game throughout her short tenure on the show. From the very beginning of her season, Kim voiced her discomfort with the way fellow contestant Dan Spilo was treating her, including, but not limited to, regular, non-consensual physical touch. Kim tried to rally her tribemates to vote him out, citing his sexual harassment as evidence, but instead, they voted her out. A few episodes later, Spilo was removed from the show by producers after another, off-camera incident occurred involving a crew member.”

and

“During his season, Max Dawson quickly aligned himself with Shirin Oskooi, a woman of colour who was called “psychotic” and “sociopathic” by some contestants, simply because she had learned how to kill a chicken before playing the game. After Oskooi was told by another contestant to “just sit there and look pretty” when she offered her opinion about who to vote off next, Dawson and Oskooi created a strategy they called “manslating” in order to play successfully with the rest of the contestants. “Shirin would tell me, and then I would tell the tribe, so they would think it was my idea,” Dawson told me over the phone. “They would listen to me, but if Shirin said the same thing, they would immediately shut it down.”

[END BIG SPOILER]

And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the issues of racism on and in the show, but Hannah does touch on some of those incidents in the article as well. I am not qualified to speak to issues of racism so please use your google skills if you want to learn more there.

Survivor has many sins in its past, and Probst has had to learn some lessons the hard way. Thankfully, positive changes have been happening (better late than never, right?).

Starting with Season 41 (which concludes on Dec 15th), Survivor has made a significant change — the producers have committed to having all future seasons of the show feature a more diverse cast. All future casts will have at least 50% BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Persons of Colour)/BBIMP (Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Melanated Persons). Season 41 has been one of the most diverse casts ever, including multiple queer castaways and it has been a very refreshing change.

If you go back and watch the first 10–15 seasons of the show, it’s somewhat jarring now. Also, as of Season 41, Probst no longer says “Come on in, guys!” before every challenge. He asked the castaways how they felt, and only one person (a queer castaway) said yes they think the ‘guys’ should be dropped for inclusivity.

That all said, this has just been a quick overview. Thank you for reading and if you are a fellow Survivor Fan, feel free to say hello! And if you are a past contestant, please definitely say hello! I would love to talk to a past player.

Lacey Artemis is an author, artist, musician, podcaster, and more. You can find all of her work online at www.artemiscreates.com.

Also:
Hat Collecting (YouTube, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and more)
A book! Music! Twitter |Instagram |TikTok | Patreon

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Lacey Artemis

Lacey Artemis

Perpetually curious, creatively inclined social introvert. Ponder, write, repeat. she/her. www.artemiscreates.com