Something is happening on Survivor. Something, I mean, beyond the terrifyingly ginormous statues of Boston Rob and Sandra Diaz-Twine clearly intended to give Island of the Idols contestants nightmares. And that something is this: Women are no longer winning the game.
A quick look at the numbers shows that a gender gap has definitely emerged on Survivor. And while battles are currently being waged to ensure gender parity in a variety of areas in our society, the disparity on Survivor (which producers like to consider a microcosm of society itself) is only getting larger. It didn’t used to always be that way, though.
In terms of winner distribution, the show’s first 25 seasons could not have been any more even, with 13 men and 12 women taking home the million-dollar prize. But then, something changed. Eleven of the last 14 seasons — including each of the last five — have been won by men. Here is the list:
Survivor: Caramoan winner — John Cochran
Survivor: Blood vs. Water winner — Tyson Apostol
Survivor: Cagayan winner — Tony Vlachos
Survivor: San Juan del Sur winner — Natalie Anderson
Survivor: World Apart winner — Mike Holloway
Survivor: Cambodia winner — Jeremy Collins
Survivor: Kaoh Rong winner – Michele Fitzgerald
Survivor: Millennials vs. Gen X winner – Adam Klein
Survivor: Game Changers winner – Sarah Lacina
Survivor: Heroes v. Healer v. Hustlers winner – Ben Driebergen
Survivor: Ghost Island winner – Wendell Holland
Survivor: David vs. Goliath winner – Nick Wilson
Survivor: Edge of Extinction winner – Chris Underwood
Survivor: Island of the Idols winner – Tommy Sheehan
There have been many theories as to why males have dominated the winner’s circle in the last seven years of the show. Hidden immunity idols play a major role in how far people get and how they are judged at the final Tribal Council, and men have found way more of them than their female counterparts have. There have many theories floated as to why this is, and several female former players have chimed in saying that life around tribe camps often mirrors society in that the men often fall into the gender stereotypes and become the gatherers (making it easier for them to also search for idols), while the women are expected to stay back and tend to camp (thereby losing opportunities to procure idols) .
Vince Moua, who was eliminated on Island of the Idols, referenced this very thing taking place on the Lairo tribe when I spoke with him after his elimination. “The first day that we got onto the beach and we are going to make the shelter — one of the first things that Aaron did was, he started dictating and saying, ‘Okay, the guys are all gonna go gather stuff and the women are gonna stay here and you can prepare this and that,’” said Vince. “And I cut it immediately and said, ‘Nah, like the women can go get the things that they want to gather. Ladies, if you want to gather things, go for it. There’s no need for us to put the gender expectations on people, and the guys can also stay here and clean.’”
The topic of gender disparity in found immunity idols has even made it onto the show itself, with Angelina Keeley and Alison Raybould talking openly in David vs. Goliath about wanting to reverse the trend, and Angelina doing exactly that. Thankfully, more women have been finding more idols since then. Lauren O’Connell, Aubry Bracco, and Kelley Wentworth all found them during the Edge of Extinction season, while Chelsea Walker, Kellee Kim, Janet Carbin, Karishma Patel, and Elaine Stott all found idols during Island of the Idols. But when will those idol finds start translating to wins?
There is also the feeling among many viewers (and former players) that men are rewarded by both tribemates and juries for playing aggressively, while women are punished for the exact same behavior. If you look at the numbers, there is no question that male players have received a disproportionate amount of the jury votes. Forty-one people have made the final three (or final two in the case of Survivor: Cagayan) in the past 14 seasons. Twenty-four of them have been men, while 17 have been women.
But the gender gap in terms of jury votes awarded to male and female players is even greater. Of the 130 jury votes that have been cast (and this includes Laurel’s tie-breaker vote) at a final Tribal Council over the past 14 seasons, 104 have been for male finalists and only 26 for women. So while men make up 58% of the finalists from Survivor: Caramoan until now, they have received a staggering 80% of the jury votes. And while women have made up 42% of the finalists from that same period, they have received only a meager 20% of the votes.
And the discrepancy is only getting worse. Not only have men won the last five seasons, but each season has featured two male finalists and only one female. The starkest example is how the jury voted in those five seasons. Including Laurel’s tiebreaker vote, 50 final votes have been cast for a man to win, while only two have gone to women. Again, 50-2. Chrissy Hofbeck (who finished her season by winning the last three individual immunity competitions) received both of those votes, while Laurel Johnson, Angelina Keeley, Julie Rosenberg, and Noura Salman were all shut-out with zero.
When asked after the season about the gender disparity in winners and final Tribal Council voting, Noura had some pretty insightful thoughts:
“I’ll say this: There’s a job out there and a guy’s like, “Okay. I have 70% of what this job requires and wants. I’m going to apply.” A woman sees that job and says, ‘I’ve got, like, 80 percent. I don’t have enough. I’m not going to apply.’ They might have 85%, 90% and they’ll say, ‘No, I’m going to step away from it.’ That is what happened. You have a Dean and Tommy who think more highly of themselves in their game than it actually was, and they can put on the theatrics that Rob and Sandra said to do that. You know, I didn’t get that amazing lesson that Dean got. And they’re blowing themselves up and talking themselves up, and a woman in her head is talking herself down. She’s saying where she missed the marks, where she’s not doing it and you don’t have to say a word.
“We see it in your body language. A woman, like Sarah, that won, she came in like, ‘Oh, let me tell you.’ Her presence was commanding. Her eye contact, her conviction. That’s what you need. And that’s what these women that you’re seeing, these final three are not doing. When you see my body language, I’m looking down, my shoulders are closed, I’m crying. I’m barely looking at the jury. That is not going to win the game. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman. You need to be compelling and competent. And unfortunately these men are talking themselves up and the women are talking themselves down.
“And the biggest problem is the jury is making you walk into that and you can’t let them do that. I let them do that to me. They looked at me like, ‘Why do you deserve it? Tell us why. Why?’ And you feel at that moment you don’t have any cheerleaders, and now you let them pave the future instead of you taking the reins and saying, ‘No. Let me tell you what’s up right now.’ That’s where we go wrong as women in this game. I’ve got to say, there are other reasons too, but I think that’s what’s happening.”
When EW asked Jeff Probst about the disparity after the Island of the Idols fine, the host seemed surprised. “I did not realize that,” responded Probst. “Wow. I have zero idea. I need to pay more attention! I wonder if you merely pointing it out will impact the future. I’m serious. Sometimes, that is all it takes.”
And we’ll see what the future holds when season 40 — Survivor: Winners at War — premieres Feb. 12 on CBS.
This post was updated after the finale of Survivor: Island of the Idols.