At its core, Survivor has always been able to hold a mirror to its viewers, forcing them to closely examine their own values, and at times, the blemishes and biases that drive perception in daily life. This isn’t an entirely new, groundbreaking hypothesis. But in the most recent Survivor saga of David vs. Goliath, an inherent human flaw, bubbled to the surface – implicit gender bias.
Throughout the season, there was a strong undercurrent of feminist commentary, brought up time and time again, in both confessionals and the press. The topic hovered over: the skewed idol statistics that weigh heavily in favor of the men, the continued flaws in the perception of a woman’s social capital, and especially in the decision-making dynamics in the majority alliance of Goliaths at the top of the merge. Even in the Survivor pre-season, there were whispers of the return of the Black Widow Brigade from Alison in First One Out, but unfortunately, the confluence of the female players just wasn’t in the stars.
Swirling at the center of this discussion was Angelina, a polarizing power-player who found herself sitting at final tribal council, flanked by two male counterparts. Angelina sat, squished in the center of this Poor Boy sandwich, in the middle of a discussion surrounding gender dynamics in Survivor. That begs the question, if Angelina was sitting next to women instead of men, would her chances increase? Would her strategic gameplay be more evenly assessed, dismissing the times at which her game lacked self-awareness? If the women were able to strategically slice out the men before final tribal, would implicit biases fade to the background? While the feminist undertones of this season didn’t necessarily directly impact the outcome of this particular season (read: congratulations, Nick Wilson), they are entirely worth noting when analyzing Survivor as a whole.
Some of the most powerfully perceived women in the franchise’s history have gone to the final tribal with only woman, or were the leaders of an infamous “all-girls alliance.” Enter Parvati Shallow, Cirie Fields, Kim Spradlin, and Natalie Anderson – to name a few. The perception of power is much higher when a female player is surrounded by her female peers, rather than a male opposition. A female player, encircling herself with other women, evens the playing field by neutralizing the implicit biases that may exist.
According to the numbers crunched by bloggers Amanda Rabinowitz and Sean Falconer, women have faced men in final tribal council in 27 out of 37 seasons. In a perfect world, with all things being equal, it is expected that women would have won 12 of those seasons. Contrarily, women were only able to convert these final tribal council appearances to just nine wins, performing only 75% as well as expected. This would imply that there is something greater at play, and perhaps a woman who goes to the end with a man, is more likely to have her game unfairly assessed by her peers, allowing gender biases and sexism to creep into the jury’s narrative.
Hannah Shapiro. Chrissy Hofbeck. Angelina Keeley.
All three of these women were the last women standing in their given season, forcing each of them to sit at final tribal next to their male contestants. While playing vastly different strategic, social and physical games, each of these three robbed goddesses had the chops to win, but their praise, credit, and successes were stripped of them before the game’s end. These finalists had strong cases to plead to their respective juries, cases that would eventually be silenced by the underlying whispers of sexism behind jury questioning and analyses. Often, their character was maligned due to the jury’s need to value a woman’s social capital over her strategic prowess, something that is inverted for their male counterparts.
Hannah Shapiro, the last woman standing in Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X, sitting at FTC next to Ken McNickle and winner, Adam Klein. Hannah had arguably one of the best FTC performances in recent years, defending her moves clearly and concisely. She remained even-tempered as the jury poked unnecessary holes in her game, and branded her as a flippant flipper gone rogue. Hannah herself is one of the most self-aware Survivors ever to play the game, and even with her awareness of implicit gender biases going into the season, it wasn’t until she was sitting at FTC that it really revealed itself.
The Season 33 FTC was a head-to-head battle where Adam claimed responsibility for the majority of Hannah’s moves, dismissing Hannah’s role as a strategic mastermind. Hannah, in retrospect, was the true puppetmaster, landing each jury member in their respective spots on the bench, in that order. She is one of the few people, since Kim Spradlin, able to call her shots one by one, landing each castaway on the jury as she demanded. Let it be stated that Hannah was on the right side of the vote at every single tribal council she attended, except for the Michaela vote. Impressive AF.
The most troubling bit of FTC was that Hannah was reprimanded for her seemingly sporadic decision making, something she did an expert job nullifying with counter arguments in her opening statement. Her reasoning, unfortunately, fell on deaf ears as Adam’s gameplay was valued at a higher regard, despite him being on the wrong side of the numbers on several occasions, and those occasions being orchestrated by Hannah herself. Unfortunately, the same jury members that critiqued her game for being too emotional were ironically acting on their own emotions for their final vote. When Hannah turned on people sitting on the jury, they felt more deeply betrayed by her, because of the social relationships she developed. Whereas, when Adam did the same thing, it was perceived as a strong strategic play. Alas, the double standard – a trend of castaways feeling overly hurt by female power players, instead of impressed by their strategic prowess – a red thread that runs through the entire history of the show.
There weren’t a ton of women who made it far in this particular season, so it’s hard to envision a path to the end for Hannah alongside other female castaways. But unfortunately, it was this uncontrollable factor of a dude-heavy post-merge game, combined with the miscalculated implicit perception that marked her downfall.
Chrissy Hofbeck is the official robbed goddess and runner-up of Survivor: Heroes vs. Healers vs. Hustlers. Chrissy marched into final tribal council after four individual immunity wins, alongside long-time ally Ryan Ulrich, and Public Enemy Number One, Ben Driebergen. This season is particularly frustrating as not only did Ben’s hidden immunity idol spree allow him to coast to the final four; he was also given a second chance in a fire making twist, an “advantage” the castaways weren’t aware of going into the season. Chrissy should’ve taken a cue from Dr. Mike and tossed that “advantage” right in the fire.
But before diving into #BENBOMS vs. challenge wins, it’s important to note the incredible game Chrissy played leading up to FTC. Chrissy had an impressive start, battling her way through the first tribal council, with the Super Idol comfortably tucked in her pocket. She whipped the votes against Roark in a huge pre-merge move. She created a diversion to help Ryan sneak away with the hidden immunity idol post-merge, and was able to position herself within the majority alliance. Unfortunately, the power dynamics soon shifted, with Ben as the double-agent. Chrissy then had to play the rest of the game with her back up against the wall. It’s interesting that Ben’s end game is seen as Mike Holloway-esque, when in reality, Chrissy was more of a Holloway finalist with her impressive run in challenges when her game was on the line.
“This woman is a genius.” – Ashley Nolan, on Chrissy’s social game at Survivor HvHvH FTC.
At FTC, Ashley Nolan was a champion of Chrissy’s game, communicating the truly impressive social, strategic and physical game that she played – a holistic triple threat. Despite Chrissy’s 1-on-1 social capital and personal connections, she was still maligned for her social game, her outspoken confidence rubbing people the wrong way. Her strength, strategy, and confidence was not expected from the “mom” character type and was thus perceived in a negative light. Oh, so Ben can drop #BENBOMBS and fumble his entire social game, but Chrissy isn’t allowed to take credit for her gameplay in a rational and articulate way? Hmmm.
In the new FTC open forum format, Chrissy had to battle for time to speak, at one point quite literally asking for permission to answer a question. Her FTC performance was stellar, carefully walking the jury through her multifaceted strategy. She also brought up that 8 out of the 9 individual immunity challenges were won by women, four of those by Chrissy herself. If these powerhouse women were able to mobilize, Survivor HvHvH would have ended very differently, but that’s a Survivor fan fiction for another day. *Sigh* Hypothetically, if Ben’s idols and Chrissy’s immunity wins are off the table, negating each other, and the game is analyzed through the lens of social and strategic gameplay, Chrissy wins in a landslide.
Oh, Angelina Keeley. As a preface, it goes without saying that Angelina’s game, while aggressive and dynamic, was inherently flawed (read: jury pandering and Rice-Gate). While the gender bias described in the coming paragraphs didn’t necessarily make or break her game, they are worth noting as we track the evolution of implicit biases in future seasons. We have Angelina to thank for really putting the idea of sexism in Survivor on the map, forcing even Jeff Probst himself to acknowledge and respect her commentary on gender inequality in the game and in life. Her strength and willingness to speak out about a woman’s perception on the island was brave, and quite frankly, long overdue. Yes, queen.
As previously mentioned, Survivor: David vs. Goliath was riddled with feminist undertones, but unfortunately, the rumblings of an all-girl alliance never came to fruition. Angelina, like Hannah and Chrissy, was the last woman standing in her season, forcing her to sit next to two men at FTC. The post-merge game was packed with female power players, but the ladies had varying agendas, and couldn’t remain on the same side of the numbers. The best shot for Angelina to win the game would have been with her female counterparts, as her social ineptitude may have been perceived as less of a problem, allowing the jury to focus more on what she brought to the table strategically.
Angelina’s skills in negotiation not only helped her get rice for the tribe but really worked to her advantage in FTC. This seems to be a common theme with our robbed goddesses, their FTC performances outshine that of their male competitors, but it isn’t rewarded in the end. She pointedly described her strategy, and her ability to rebuild relationships after the Elizabeth snafu, and highlighting that only 1 in 5 idols are found by women, a statistic she hoped to help change. She was in the pivotal role of deciding who was landing on the jury as the swing, while Nick was blindsided and left out of critical votes.
“I want to bring attention to the fact that women are treated differently in this game. If you are assertive you’re seen as bossy, if you’re emotional you’re seen as hysterical. And so I know you’re up against not only the difficulty of the game but issues that face us outside of the game.” – Gabby Pascuzzi to Angelina in FTC.
Following this statement from Gabby, Angelina owned-up to, at times, over-compensating for the fact that she is a woman, fighting to be heard. Angelina is a prime example of a woman so viscerally aware of the unfairness of gender bias that she inevitably dug her own grave while attempting to uncover a deep-rooted societal issue for the viewers.
Hopefully, Angelina will grace the fanbase with an appearance in a future season. If she can successfully grow from Survivor: David vs. Goliath, improve her self-awareness and adjust her social strategy ever-so-slightly, should could really have a shot at taking this whole thing.
Parvati Shallow. Kim Spradlin. Natalie Anderson.
Parvati Shallow is one of four contestants to play Survivor at least three times, only being voted out once. She appeared on Survivor: Cook Islands, Survivor: Micronesia, and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains. As a self-proclaimed flirt and perceived strategic villainess, in her first returning season, Survivor: Micronesia – Fans vs. Favorites, she was able to reach the final tribal council and ultimately win the title of Sole Survivor. Worth noting that Fans vs. Favorites was the first season where the final four was entirely made-up of the same gender. This was no accident, as Parvati was the founder and leader of the O.G. Black Widow Brigade.
“It’s like the Black Widow Brigade. Like, all the girls are coming together, and we’re spinning the guys around as much as we can. Just spinning them and spinning them until they don’t know which way is up. And then we’re devouring them one at a time.” – Parvati Shallow, Survivor: Micronesia – Fans vs. Favorites.
She led a collection of female power players, cutting the remaining men in the game one by one. Despite ultimately winning the million dollar check in a very close 5-3 vote against Amanda Kimmel, this didn’t stop the jury from maligning her for her character on the show. Even though both Parvati and Amanda were strategic, social, and physical savants, instead of being rewarded for their Survivor prowess, they were dragged by fellow castmates in final tribal council, with questions and speeches coated in sexism.
Natalie Bolton started her speech by saying “You have my respect tonight, woman to women,” but this couldn’t have been further from the truth. She went on to question Parvati’s sex life, both inside and outside the game, and attacked Amanda for being the “zombied, pretty girl, not really knowing what’s going on, pageant queen cliche.”
The most fascinating jury speech of the night came from Ozzy Lusth, who felt deeply hurt by Parvati’s cutthroat ability to play the game strategically. “I am truly to the bottom of my heart hurt by what you did to me…I never thought in a million years you could do that to me, you put a price on our friendship, you threw us away…It really does hurt. How can you say that you’re a role model when you’re willing to discard a valuable friendship like that?”
Similarly to the experience Hannah Shapiro had, this is a prime example of other players feeling genuinely hurt or betrayed by female castaways, instead of respecting the strategic moves needed to get to the end. Ozzy perfectly represents a huge double standard present in the game, where very rarely do we hear words like hurt, betrayed, and broken-hearted thrown around towards male players, they are merely viewed as strategic kingpins.
It is definitely plausible that the only way Parvati had even the slightest shot at the million dollar prize was due to her instinctual strategic move to play the game with other women. Without the protection of her female counterparts in FTC, it’s fair to assume that these jury accusations could have overshadowed the incredible game she played.
Natalie Anderson, winner of Survivor: San Juan del Sur – Blood vs. Water, orchestrated another successful girls-only FTC. Natalie’s impressive run left her tied with Michele Fitzgerald for most combined tribal and individual challenge wins for a female player, with 13 total wins. She is also the first Asian-American woman ever to win Survivor. Despite losing her loved one, sister Nadiya Anderson, after the first vote, Natalie was forced to use this to her advantage, strategically placing herself inside the majority alliance, and laying low until she was able to aggressively assert herself at the right time and dominate the entire end game of the season.
With her sister out of the picture, Natalie became the only woman left in the game who didn’t have a loved one at the formation of the jury. Both Missy and Baylor had each other as the mother-daughter duo, and Jaclyn had support in her boyfriend, Jon. A common trait that is tacked onto women who make it to the final is that they were seen as riding the coattails of another player. For example, Tasha Fox in Survivor: Cambodia, was labeled as a goat (the ba-aaaah-d kind of goat) for riding Jeremy’s coattails. Despite a strong pre-merge game and a dominant social strategy, she ultimately received zero votes at FTC. Natalie was able to avoid Tasha’s fate, by carving her own path to the end, without the perceived help of her loved one. This was paramount in FTC, as both Missy and Jaclyn were faced with backlash over this very topic.
By sitting with both Missy and Jaclyn at the end, Natalie was able to allow her two former allies to absorb the blows, while she left final tribal relatively unscathed. The only exception being Keith, who articulated how “hurt” he was by her lying. Ozzy’s sentiment towards Parvati repeats itself in this instance, another man feeling deeply betrayed by a woman who is simply playing the game, and playing it well. Missy was ripped to shreds by Reed, attacking her for her “wicked stepmother” role, a constant plight of the 40+ women, and a great example of the intersectionality of ageism and gender bias. Jaclyn received some heat from Josh when he asked her “do you think that the reason why you’re here tonight is from, like, the strength of your own merit, or do you think the choices made by stronger players in this game is the reason why you’re sitting here?” Yet another example of a woman being punished for her alliances and being viewed as a strategic freeloader.
The meat shield is constantly discussed on Survivor, perhaps another strategy that should be considered is the idea of a sexism shield, something made incredibly apparent at Natalie’s FTC. If a player can go to the end with other castaways that are different from them strategically but have a mutual sameness in perceived flaws, they are destined for victory. In this particular example, Natalie’s gameplay was able to be fairly assessed, while the other two women took the unfortunate stereotypical blows that women face in FTC. This holds-up for all types of bias, Denise Stapley proving she can defy ageist biases by sitting at the end with two other contestants over 40, ultimately coming away with the title of Sole Survivor. Is the sexism shield the new power couple? Probably not. Onward!
Kim Spradlin, winner of Survivor: One World, was initially forced to play with other women due to the season’s format – tribes divided by gender, living together on the same beach. Kim herself admitted that she wasn’t necessarily thrilled at the prospect of the “girl power” dynamic, but was willing to go with the flow to secure an alliance and gain trust with her peers. She ultimately leaned into her all-female alliance, expertly crafting an army of women and leading the charge against the men. She had one of the most impressive first-time appearances, and victories in the show’s history.
Kim bridged the gap between two alternative majority alliances, but in the end chose a Black Widow Brigade-esque run, concocting the plans to blindside Jonas and Mike. She was a master of the social and strategic game, leading vote after vote in her favor, while still fostering relationships that would get her to the end. This season was the first season in which the final five was comprised of castaways of the same gender, the first season to do so since the all-women final four in Fans vs. Favorites.
Once again in FTC, we have jury members deeply hurt by Kim’s dominant strategy, claiming their individual hurt over their respective blindsides is paramount to Kim’s near-flawless game. Mike claims that Kim took the “blame” for every blindside, causing all of the blood to be on her hands, and placing her in the hot seat. But silly Michael, Kim taking credit for expert maneuverings and calculated strategic plays is not taking the blame, it’s to boost her resume.
The heat continued from Troyzan, Leaf, and Kat, all claiming that they were “destroyed” by Kim and the ladies sitting next to her. Kim wasn’t the only finalist dodging gender bias-based accusations. The opening statement by Jonas focused on the attractiveness of Chelsea, and the likeability of Sabrina over their gameplay. At one point, jury member Cristina calls-out Chelsea asking, “Why do you hate people?” Sabrina was destroyed for her performance in challenges and participation in camp life, while her feat of finding a hidden immunity idol on Day 2 was left entirely out the picture.
Despite the critiques of Kim’s near-perfect game, with bias and bitterness at the core of those arguments, she was still able to secure the W with a 7-2-0 vote at FTC. While the second coming of a Black Widow Brigade wasn’t what Kim intended, she ultimately profited from the season’s format, being placed alongside peers that would help soften the blows of implicit bias. Combining this underlying girl-power “advantage” with Kim’s expertise in the game was a winning combination that has yet been matched.
The allure of Survivor is the commentary on cultural dynamics and the social experiment at its core. Gender is always a factor in the game of Survivor, as is race, sexual orientation, class, ethnicity, religion, and countless other defining characteristics. For example, we can’t ignore that the experience of a contestant who is a woman of color, is entirely different than that of an older motherly figure, or a young Asian woman. As in life, gender is just one piece of the larger implicit bias puzzle, trying to tribute any season’s outcome to one sole hypothesis is doing the show, and its carefully crafted edit, a disservice.
Ultimately, the beauty of this game is that implicit biases present in society are exposed, discussed, and eventually chipped away at, season by season. The fact that gender bias was even talked about on Survivor: David vs. Goliath indicates a small shift in culture, and cognitive awareness of gender roles both inside and outside the game. The acknowledgment, and rise of the power of women in the game of Survivor is encouraging, and hopefully is reflecting what is changing within us as a society.
The good news: implicit bias is perpetually amending itself, and the human brain is forever impressionable. We have the ability to change and evolve with a bit more awareness and self-assessment. In future seasons, hopefully, we begin to see stereotypical biases dissolve, leaving more room for unbiased perceptions and decision making at FTC.
Should future female players scoff at the prospect of creating an alliance with a man? Absolutely not. But should she consider the implicit biases that come into play, should her endgame include male players? Absolutely yes.
*Special thanks to the contributions of Amanda Rabinowitz, Sean Falconer, Angie Caunce. Read their quantitative deep-dive into this topic here.