Sexism is so baked into CBS’s Survivor that women are forced to wear underwear that causes infections by the producers, who choose everyone’s clothes for them.
So I appreciated that Entertainment Weekly’s Dalton Ross used his access to Survivor showrunner Jeff Probst to ask about the show’s problem with equity.
Specifically, Dalton Ross asks about how, in this post-season 40 alleged “new era,” women have been the target of most of the first four votes; in “seasons 42 through 44, 11 of those 12 contestants have been women,” Ross writes.
That adds to an earlier pattern that Ross summarizes like this:
The 15 seasons encompassing Caramoan to Winners at War featured 12 male winners and only three female champions. Even worse, seasons 35 through 40 featured six consecutive male winners. Not only that, but in that six-season span, men received 62 final Tribal Council votes for the million dollars, while the women sitting next to them got a total of six.
As to the pattern from Survivor 42 to 45, Jeff Probst says, “I don’t feel like four seasons is really enough data for me to make a conclusive decision.”
That’s fair. After all, what matters most are patterns over time, not individual examples. For example, we can’t draw any conclusions on Survivor 45, partly because it just began and partly because the first person out was a woman, but went home because she asked to be voted out.
However, if the same thing keeps happening season after season, year after year, decade after decade, that’s more significant than it happening once or twice.
So, Jeff, how about 40 seasons of data?
Three researchers have already done that, examining data from every season. What they found in Survivor Borneo through Winners at War was definitive “evidence of racial and gender bias at multiple stages” and “a systemic bias in favor of White men, and against women of color.”
Since we’re talking about women being voted out early, here’s what the researchers found in seasons 1 to 40: “women have greater odds of being voted out of their tribe first, lower odds of making it to the individual-competition stage of the game, and lower odds of winning.” (You can read the full study and examine the raw data for yourself.)
By the way, Survivor 41 would seem to be an outlier, right? After all, four of the first five players voted out were men.
But Dr. Erin O’Mara Kunz pointed out that, no, it fits the pattern too! She wrote on Twitter, “if you look at the first person voted out of each tribe in 41, 2/3 people voted out of their tribe first were women. Tribe level vs season level differences are important to pay attention to.”
Is this pattern in recent seasons because of the smaller, six-person tribes, as we’ve had since Survivor 41? Why do we only get three-tribe seasons?
Survivor alum Christian Hubicki did the math, literally, noting that “Simple math is driving Survivor to the 3-tribe format. The reasonable options for a 14-episode season with even-#-member starting tribes are 6-6-6 and 10-10, and it’s impractical to run a 20-person game in 26 days.”
In his answer to Dalton Ross, Probst said being targeted early is “an opportunity” for women:
My advice to anyone who applies to be on the show is figure out how that’s an opportunity, because it’s a crazy assumption to say that it’s always going to be a woman who is the weakest player in a game which has so many layers to it like Survivor.
And Probst also said he’s aware of what’s been happening:
“I’ve definitely heard the discussion and read people’s thoughts about it. And this may be a frustrating answer, but you can’t design the game out of fear, in the same way that you can’t play the game from fear.”
Hmm. Design the game out of fear? Excuse me while I go give myself the Heimlich so I won’t choke to death on the hypocrisy.
Jeff Probst has, for years and years, talked about all the ways he designs the game. More than a decade ago, Probst admitted being bored during Tribal Council and changing his questions as a result.
Last spring, asked by a fan if he’d ever just let Survivor players play the original, twist-free game again, Probst said this in his podcast:
…the reason we have the twists in is to create uncertainty. We don’t have an algorithm; it’s just an approach. And maybe we will look back in 10 years and I’ll say, I didn’t see it, it was too much. But for right now, when we’re in it, we are going to follow our gut, and we’re going to play the game that we’ve designed, and that is about creating uncertainty so that a group of four can simply not just dominate a group of three.”
So there is the showrunner of Survivor admitting they manipulate the structure of the game. The previous week on the podcast, Probst said the not-exactly-universally-beloved final-four firemaking challenge “started with my frustration” that a “likable player might make it all the way to the final five” and be voted out.
On his podcast—and I cite that just because it’s the most-recent trove of data—Probst also admitted things like:
- “I’ll reverse engineer a result—meaning, I’ll imagine a situation I’d like to see happen and then figure out how to achieve it.”
- “As long as the jury decides who the winner is, you can do a lot of things.”
- “I’m forcing new ideas and … I’m not wrong for wanting to do it.”
- There’s been a pattern of women being targeted early.
- Jeff Probst says there’s not enough data to know that’s true.
- There’s 40 seasons of data.
- Jeff Probst insists he doesn’t want to “design the game out of fear”
- Probst designs the game out of fear—of being bored, of boring us, et cetera.
As Ashley’s Dreamboard summarized perfectly on Twitter:
Jeff Probst: we need the most twisty twistedly twist twist twists to keep the players on their toes. Also Jeff Probst: I will not change the same format we’ve run 6 seasons in a row despite its inequities.
Let’s also not forget one of the most unsurprising things Probst admitted on the podcast: “I don’t pay attention to who’s left in the game in terms of age, gender, ethnicity.”
If men were getting purged immediately, season after season, do we think Probst would do anything about it? Oh wait, he did: adding the fire-making challenge to save his bros.
As I’ve written many times before, I genuinely think Jeff Probst wants the best for Survivor, and thinks his producing is helping make a better show. I just wish he’d take a few steps back and notice what his producing is actually doing.