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Does Tough As Nails rely too much on brute strength?

Does Tough As Nails rely too much on brute strength?
Sarah Burkett competes in the final challenge of Tough As Nails season 2 (Image from Tough As Nails via CBS)

I enjoy your coverage of Tough As Nails. As I finished up season 2 though, I really began to wonder if it has a fatal flaw, namely that given the physicality of the challenges, particularly in the finale, it’s nearly impossible for a woman to win. Or maybe anyone that’s not an alpha-male competitor. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Hubby and I will happily watch season 3, but it feels like this may be a problem it might not be able to get around. They’ve had a some great female contestants. I just find it disappointing watching knowing that they have very little chance to win. Thanks as always for your insights! —Sharon

Thanks for the question, Sharon. I share your love of Tough As Nails, and also your concern.

First, exciting news: Tough As Nails season three started filming Monday at Camp Pendelton, which is between San Diego and Los Angeles, and the new season be paired with Survivor 41yes, that’s its name!—this fall. I’m thrilled about that, because it’s just a great new format, especially for those of us who love competition-focused reality TV.

In a video posted to social media, Phil talked to fans from the beach at Camp Pendelton on day one of production, explaining that the crew had just finished lunch and the contestants had not yet met. But he concluded with: “I promise you it’s going to be bigger and better than ever, and I promise you that everybody on Tough As Nails is…tough as nails.”

The real question is what does that actually mean? And as much as I’ve enjoyed the show’s contestants and challenges, I’m not quite sure Tough As Nails actually knows yet. As I wrote in my initial season 1 review, the show began with annoying and patronizing platitudes, which it thankfully mostly dropped. The contestants aren’t even all from blue collar or trade jobs: Season two’s Merryl is a retired Air Force Colonel who’s now a fitness trainer, Patrick drives a UPS truck, and Celi is a nurse. Basically, what we have here is a Survivor themed season situation: When you try to classify a diverse group of people, you find that categories don’t really work well.

Cyril "Zeus" Ontai III competes in the final overtime challenge on Tough As Nails season 2, which asked the contestants to just climb up an iron beam
Cyril “Zeus” Ontai III competes in the final overtime challenge on Tough As Nails season 2, which asked the contestants to just climb up an iron beam. (Image from Tough As Nails via CBS)

So what does it mean to be “tough” on Tough As Nails? I think it means being able to handle the show’s challenges, and that brings us back to your question. Do its challenges benefit non-alpha males? I’d start by saying that I don’t think challenges that require strength necessarily benefit men over women; after all, I’m a man who’d lose every challenge to any of the women who’ve appeared on the show, and there are plenty of other women who would decimate me in anything related to strength. (I’m having a nightmarish flashback right now about trying to do a pull-up in middle school gym class in front of everyone, probably during the President’s Physical Fitness Torture Fest.)

Yet I think you have a really good point here. Despite the frequent references to the players needing to work smarter, not harder, many challenges incorporated strength, both team and individual. For example, in episode five of season two, the individual challenge asked them to assemble Banc of California Stadium seven stadium seats—and then carry them down into the stands to install them. The fastest contestants also happened to be the biggest guys; the bottom three were all women.

My sense is that the elimination challenges—called Overtime—are supposed to be the equalizers, so that the non-behemoth contestants have a chance. In season two, those Overtime challenges tended to not require strength, but rather emphasized skills like strategy and attention to detail, whether the contestants were constructing a pipe system, untangling ropes, removing parts from an engine, transferring water to a tank, or creating horseshoes. I think season one’s Overtime challenges were definitely more focused on strength and endurance, such as racing down train tracks with a hand car, stacking hay bales, or climbing up and down stairs with a fire hose.

Tara Alverson competes in the first Tough As Nails elimination challenge with an injured hand
Tara Alverson competes in the first Tough As Nails elimination challenge with an injured hand (Image from Tough As Nails via CBS)

But the final overtime challenge in season two was just a climb up an iron beam, meaning that the winner was the person with the most upper-body strength. That felt like lazy challenge design to me.

Tough As Nails’ two winners have both been big, strong men in their 40s. The finalists, two, have all been big, strong men in their 20s and 30s, with the sole exception of third-place Sarah in season two, and she was in last during most of the final challenge. I’m not sure that’s enough data yet to make for a pattern, but it’s getting close.

There seems to have been a slight adjustment in the individual challenges from season one to two, including more individual challenges that did not make strength the deciding factor, and that’s a good step. I hope that continues in season three. And what I really hope the show reconsiders is the very last challenge, making fewer components that reward strength alone, whether that’s smashing a wall with a sledgehammer or carrying lobster traps.

And that doesn’t mean making the challenges easy! After all, the slime eel challenge in season two did not require any kind of strength, yet it was one of the more difficult competitions—difficult and dastardly!

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.


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