Back in December, Melissa Maerz of EW.com wrote a blog about the Survivor: San Juan del Sur finale and a particular speech made during the last tribal council which involved one of the three finalist, Missy Payne, being called “the wicked stepmother”.
Payne made it to the final three, but when it was her turn to face the jury she was accused of acting unmotherly, even though her own daughter had played the game alongside of her and seemed no worse for the wear. The trouble, as Maerz so eloquently explained, and traced back through past seasons, was that Survivor has a long history of framing female competitors, who also happen to be mothers, in dichotomies. They are either supportive and selfless within their tribe or they’ve abandoned their motherly qualities, putting winning above all else.
It’s a terrible way to characterize female competitors because 1. their motherhood shouldn’t be questioned by their participation in a reality competition, 2. the entire point of the game is to become the sole survivor so you’ve got to be somewhat selfish in order to win, and 3. men are rarely, if ever, scrutinized for how fatherly their actions are.
Ultimately, Maerz better explains why this is all problematic, but what I’m trying to get at, is that Survivor isn’t the only competition-based reality show with this sort of issue. In fact, I distinctly remember reading and discussing this blog with some friends and being like if you thought Survivor had a reductionist approach to depicting women, just watch MTV’s The Challenge.
As a long time viewer of the series, I perpetually struggle to rectify my love for the ongoing reality soap opera + crazy physical challenges with its more troubling treatment of women in all aspects of the game.
The Challenge has gone through many incarnations of themes, games, team groupings, and rules over the years, and for the most part I’d say they’ve come a long way in creating a more equal playing field. I still think Survivor has found a better way to implement coed competitions, but at least we don’t have seasons where every woman is voted off from the get go because the men want to get rid of their team’s “dead weight”.
In an episode of The Gauntlet (Season 7 Ep. 11 “Turntable”), Road Rules alum Adam can be seen strategizing with two of his fellow teammates, as they walk and talk he explains, “We need a team to compete against the Real World and so we can’t let go of a guy right now. They have two less girls than we do, so obviously to even it out we need to get rid of a girl.”
Cut to Adam’s confessional interview and he elaborates that, “The way to win these challenges, is to vote off all the girls.”
A few years later, on The Gauntlet III, the Veteran guys plot to throw a mission in order to force their female competitors into an elimination round. Thier plan was ultimately foiled when Coral got wind of the strategy and confronted them about it. (Season 15 Ep. 7 “What Goes Around”)
Since The Gauntlet III, most challenges have either paired men and women together (Battle of the Exes, Fresh Meat, Battle of the Seasons) or have had side-by-side competitions for each gender (Rivals, Free Agents, The Duel).
And amusingly enough, despite Adam’s insistence that getting rid of the female contestants is the key to success, with the exception of the two Battle of the Sexes seasons, every other winning team has had at least one woman on it.
Another reason I think The Challenge so routinely appears demeaning to women is because each season seems to have a couple of outspoken male contestants that display little to no respect for the their fellow challengers, or even partners in some cases. Sure the show is edited and yes most of the time these people are drunk and are living in completely abnormal circumstances, but you can pretty readily pull an unflattering quote from just about any episode of this long-running series.
This past season, Battle of the Exes II featured this memorable exchange:
Zach: “Women were created from the men. He took a rib…God took a rib out of Adam to create Eve. So they are made to be…
Zach: “Are we supposed to honor them? Yes. These aren’t our wives. These are f**king swamp donkeys. If she’s smarter than you, she would learn how to deal with you…That’s why we’re the greater species.”
(Season 26 Ep. 7 “That’s the Way Love Goes”)
Comparing the female competitors to donkeys didn’t stop there, later in the season when Theresa replaced Nia as Leroy’s partner, Johnny Bananas remarked that it was like replacing “a donkey with a racehorse.”
And here’s a direct quote from a prior season, the second incarnation of the Battle of the Seasons. Alton, who was fed up with Trishelle’s poor challenge performances and string of excuses said, “A woman would at least be quiet and listen to her men.” (Season 23 Episode 9 “The Chronicles of Nanyia”)
Unfortunately these displays aren’t always verbal. Tonya settled a lawsuit with MTV involving Evan and Kenny from the show’s 18th season The Ruins and Vinny was sent home from Battle of the Seasons when he ripped off Mandi’s dress at a nightclub. (Nia was also sent packing on Battle of the Seasons II for sexually harassing Jordan.)
On The Challenge, Johnny Bananas is king, or at least according to himself and MTV. He’s won five of these things and has pretty much mastered the political game creating long-lasting and robust alliances that transcend seasons. In any game, you’re either with him or against him, which is why he’s serious when he makes statements like: “I always say: All is fair in love, war, and Challenges.” (Season 24 Ep. 7 “Crossing Jordan”)
Sarah, who loves puzzles, is considered the resident ‘camp counselor’ and is generally well liked by everyone for her cheerful demeanor. She’s participated in over a half a dozen of these challenges; however, bad luck and a string of flaky partners left her without a win in her first seven appearances.
Both Sarah and Bananas competed on Battle of the Exes II. He was paired with Nany and she was with Jordan. While Bananas considered Sarah to be a part of his alliance, in all eight seasons she’s participated in, they’ve never directly been on the same team.
Tired of always being the nice girl who comes up short, Sarah was really in it to win it this season and Jordan seemed to be the perfect (non-romantic) match. He helped to elevate her physical game, while her people skills kept them from becoming a social target. And that strategy worked, they only had to go into the Dome once and won the last challenge before the final, which not only effectively punched their ticket to the final to compete for the big money but also allowed them to choose who would be going directly to the final with them and who would be battling it out in the Dome against Leroy and Nia for the one remaining spot.
In that short moment of deliberation, Sarah was inspired by a conversation she had with Bananas earlier that episode. In went something like this:
Johnny Bananas: “What everyone wants to say is the heroic thing, like, ‘No, I want to get rid of all the weakest players so the strongest people are here at the end.’ It’s like: Bullsh**.”
Sarah: “I want to get rid of somebody who could beat me in a final.”
(Season 26 Ep. 10 “Lovers In The Dark”)
Despite Jordan’s initial hesitation, they went with it and Sarah threw Johnny Bananas and Nany into the final elimination instead of the remaining rookie team, who had primarily been kept around for that exact occasion.
While rookies Jay and Jenna reveled in their good fortune, Bananas, Nany, and even Nia just absolutely went off on Sarah. The fallout from her decision lasted well into the following episode where seemingly half of it was dedicated to the continued barrage of digs, insults, and questioning of her character.
In the end, the decision paid off. Bananas and Nany were knocked out of the game by Leroy and Nia, Jay and Jenna quit on day-one of the final challenge, and Sarah and Jordan took home the grand prize of $250,000.
In the context of the game I can understand that people would take the decision very personally and be hurt by the perceived betrayal, but even in the After Show and Reunion Show, Bananas and a couple others remained very bitter about the turn of events. Sarah was called everything from “Judas” to a sociopath.
A little later on in the Reunion Show though, when the topic had finally shifted to someone else’s disputes and drama, Sarah interjected to explain that a lot of the lashing out is frustration boiling over and a result of people not communicating in a healthy manner to which everyone clapped and Leroy exclaimed, “That’s the camp counselor Sarah that we love.”
And there it is. Everyone loves Sarah when she’s helping to diffuse tension or coming up with ways to stave off boredom in house with her camp games, but the moment she decides to make a move that would benefit her team, her partnership, herself, in the competition she’s a terrible person. Sound familiar?
In a recent interview with MTV.com, Bananas continued to write-off Sarah saying, “Ultimately, Sarah betrayed not only me, but Leroy as well, by putting him in direct competition with me for a place in the final. I’d have much more respect for her if she just hung her head and admitted she’d made a morally weak decision.”
What!?! It’s absurd to think that Sarah should have to apologize for playing a solid strategic game and really, bringing up morals in regards to an MTV reality show is even more ridiculous. Plus, Bananas kind of betrayed his ally Paula on The Island, so it’s not like his moral compass has always been straight.
Thankfully, Sarah never did apologize and I hope she’s enjoying her well-earned victory.
Ultimately, it’s a bit difficult to not be disappointed that even after a combined 56 seasons of The Challenge and Survivor we still can’t seem to wrap our minds around the fact that women can be caring, cutthroat, strategic, supportive, competitive, a team player, or any combination thereof. I guess all we can do is call bullshit, be more vocal in the need for more nuanced depictions, and hope that female competitors continue to do their thing, because there’s nothing wrong with wanting to win.