Is Survivor a Man’s Game?


Monday is here once again which means it’s time for another Survivor Oz Feature Article! This week’s article travelled all the way across the Tasman Sea to reach the offices of Survivor Oz. This week, everyone’s favourite Kiwi, Nick Chester, brings to you an article about the role gender plays in Survivor. Nick discusses whether Survivor is a mans game, the stereotype of women on the show and delves into the archives to bring you the statistics about which gender, man or woman, have dominated the end game. It makes for very interesting reading so don’t forget to leave your opinion below!

After watching the Survivor: Caramoan finale and reading and listening to the views of fans, one issue that has come up a few times has been an underlying issue of sexism in the game. In this particular season, the issue was around the way Dawn treated Brenda following a moment “outside the game”, (in itself an illogical statement), and how its no different to the same treachery many men have done to their buddies at the end of the game. The idea that Survivor is a game that favours males is something I have heard a few times but not really ever dived into. Being a white, middle class male I didn’t know what kind of perspective I could have. But I found myself appreciating Dawn’s game during the season and furious at her treatment from the online community of “fans” following her big move. This prompted me to think on the issue. It’s a pretty complex issue, and could be viewed through a lot of different lenses. Someone with a degree in psychology and sociology may find that the treatment of men and women on Survivor is similar to other television shows, and wider life in general; or maybe not. But I don’t have that background, just an opinion based on some facts and figures from past seasons and a good working knowledge of what I have seen on the show. So what do the stats, the casting and the final product itself tell us about the role of gender on Survivor?

The Stats


‘Bottom line is… a lot of girls over there are eye candy. And that’s great to look at. I appreciate looking at them. Thank you for wearing bikinis. But when it comes down to it, you want people that are going to be useful’ Ryan Aiken, Survivor: the Amazon

OK, a few quick facts. Although each season has started out with the same amount of male and female players, (except Fiji), the returning players in seasons twenty-two, twenty-three and twenty-five have meant that slightly more women have played the game than men, 201 to 196. But it’s pretty much even.

Often in Survivor, women get targeted early in the game as physical liabilities to their tribe. Two thirds of first boots are female, and 56% of players voted out pre-merge are women.

The statistics from Day Thirty-nine make for some interesting reading. After twenty-six seasons, there have been sixty-four finalists make it to Day Thirty-nine. Of this group, thirty have been male and thirty-four female, so essentially a fifty/fifty split. We know that on fourteen occasions, a male has come out victorious, and twelve times it’s been a female. Again, statistics that are about fifty/fifty, or close enough considering the small sample size.

An interesting statistic to look at is how the Jury votes. Over the course of twenty-six seasons, there have been one hundred and seven votes cast for men by Juries and ninety-seven for women. So this is again very close to even. But that may be a bit misleading. The finalists have been all men three times, (Thailand, Tocantins and Nicaragua), and all women five times, (Marquesas, Pearl Islands, Guatemala, Micronesia and One World). So if you were to discount these situations where the Jury has no option in which gender they vote for, there suddenly is quite a disparity. In the sixteen seasons with mixed gender finalists, men have gained eighty-four votes compared to women who have gained fifty-nine. As the statistics above show, more women get voted out early which has to mean more men make it to the Jury phase of the game. So how do they vote for a winner? Male Jurors overwhelmingly vote for a fellow man to win the game when they have a choice. Is the same true for women? Far from it. Women tend to give their votes to men in bigger numbers than their fellow females.

What about returning players? Since bringing back two to three returning players to play alongside new cast members has been used, Stephenie is the only female to be included, compared to seven males. Twice as many men have played the game three times as women. Despite this, women average around twenty-nine days on seasons where they are a returning player, where men average only twenty-four. Sixteen men have been voted out before the Merge in seasons where they are a returning player, compared to only ten women. In the four seasons with at least half the cast being returning players, Cochran is the only male to win.

In terms of popularity, men seem to generally be more highly rated than women by fans. In our recent Ozcars, most categories saw men heavily outnumber women in the top twenty-five in terms of greatest players, heroes, villains, and players to have never won. The Survivor Hall of Fame currently has seven male inductees and only four females.

The Game


‘The hardest part, I had to actually give myself permission to play the game, and be willing to use the things in my normal life when I build trust and friendships with people, I don’t exploit them. This is a game for a million dollars and if this was football I have to be willing to tackle.’ – Dawn Meehan, Survivor: Caramoan, Fans vs. Favorites

We have to keep in mind what a sanitised version of the game we see as viewers. A large number of hours are condensed into forty-two minutes and a lot of the subtlety of everyday life has to be cut away. But we do see enough to have an idea on how the role of men and women is different on Survivor. This is not a reference to camp life and duties but more to the strategic element of the game. Over twenty-six seasons, it seems that it is more acceptable and even expected that men will play the game strategically. I’m not qualified to give any reasoning behind this, but it certainly seems to explain why women struggle to get Jury votes at the end of the game. Where men are often congratulated and rewarded for their duplicitous and cut throat behaviour, women are more often scolded for it. I have seen a lot of people comparing Dawn’s actions and behaviour to that of Boston Rob, both in All-Stars and Redemption Island. However, I don’t think this is quite the right comparison as the biggest complaint both the audience and other players had with Dawn was her “emotional instability”, which is not a hallmark of Rob’s game at all. Finding a male who is portrayed as making sound strategic moves while at the same time struggling with the ethics of the game is hard, but I think Dawn’s closest male comparison is Chase Rice. Both Chase and Dawn performed a series of blindsides on good friends within the game after making strong personal connections with them, (strangely, one of them was the same person in Brenda). Both had strong Final Tribal Council performances stating that they understood they were playing a game and had to make big moves. The key difference is that the Nicaragua Jury seemed receptive to Chase’s comments and gave him four votes, just one short of victory. Three of those four votes came from the people he backstabbed the hardest. Compare that to the Caramoan Jury, who gave Dawn next to no credit and no votes.

Women also often find themselves in a no win position. For those that don’t want to take the Dawn approach of playing the game actively and making moves, they can instead support others to make the moves, share in the decision making but ultimately avoid the spotlight as the one responsible for them. This has been an effective strategy for many people, but one that has resulted in wins for a number of women, (Amber, Natalie, Sophie). However, players hat take this road are often labelled as “coat tail riders”, not playing the game actively but letting others make decisions for them. How many men have been labeled as coat tail riders? There are very few.

So are women held to a higher moral standard when playing the game than men? Is it more acceptable for men to lie, cheat and steal than it is for women? Large proportions of the audience loved Russell’s antics in Samoa, but had a woman done this, there is a good chance she would have been the most hated person in the history of the show. Are women both expected to show a caring and emotional side but admonished for letting that side control how they play the game? Expecting Dawn to play the game like Rob or Russell is just madness. Dawn is not that kind of player and has six adopted kids. Expecting Dawn to put all her personality aside and play a cut throat game is nonsensical. She struggled with certain elements of the game but still played it in a strong manner and thought nothing of cutting people she needed to. Yet she is held up to much different expectations than Rob is. Is this fair? One of the great things about Survivor is seeing different types of people with varying backgrounds play the game and sometimes struggle with its ethical implications. Castigating Dawn for playing the game in her own way is not only disrespectful to her but ignores one of the main reasons that the premise of Survivor is so fascinating.




‘There just aren’t as many colourful women characters in Survivor history…for whatever reason, when we look at bringing women back, we are left with saying, if they have to carry the show themselves, are they strong enough?’ Jeff Probst

Central to Survivor is casting. It is one of, if not the most important factor whether a season works or not. It seems to be an area where women are being let down by Survivor production. While Survivor has cast widely for men, finding truly unique people from all walks of life, they have tended to stick with the tried and true formula for women. Although not one hundred percent true, a large proportion of women cast for Survivor fall into one of the following five categories:

  • Young and attractive (eye candy, pageant queen, “flirt” or “temptress”)
  • Older woman who have emotional breakdowns in the game (pioneered by Kathy, perfected by Dawn)
  • Outspoken minority (Sandra, Stacy etc.)
  • Athletic tomboy
  • Tough, take-no-prisoners older woman

Such casting decisions make it hard for women to stand out as memorable characters and get a chance to return in subsequent seasons. The reasons behind this are clear in some regards, but not so much in others. Having women lying on a beach in bikinis is obviously appealing to many viewers, but ultimately adds little to the social and political intrigue of the game itself.

Contrast this with the wide range of male characters that are cast and it is no wonder that Jeff has said that men make more interesting Survivor players. Having cut across a much wider range of society with their casting choices, this is no real surprise.

As many players such as Parvarti and Andrea have shown, looking good in a bathing suit and being a competent strategic player are not mutually exclusive but it doesn’t seem an unreasonable assumption to make that casting choices are made with the first criteria in mind rather than the second. It almost seems that production is less prepared to take risks with female cast members and wants to ensure that if these players don’t make good television from a strategic standpoint, at least they will from an aesthetic one. More risks seem to be taken with male players in this regard.

The casting of returning players also falls into similar problems. All-Stars is an example of players such as Amber and Jenna Lewis making the cut due to their looks more than their game play. Having three tribes and seemingly one “older woman” on each tribe as a maximum meant players with a great strategic mind and high entertainment value such as Helen and Deena didn’t make the cut. I would argue that the season was much worse off for it.

The Show


“Russell’s keeping me around because I’ll never get a single vote. But I don’t know about that….’ – Sandra Diaz-Twine, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains

The role that men and women have in Survivor has evolved and grown over the course of twenty-six seasons and thirteen years and is massively shaped through the way the show is edited and produced, then ultimately viewed and judged by the audience.

Given the sheer amount of material editors have to work with, and prior knowledge of who eventually wins and how each player does in the game, it says something that women are often not given their full due in the game. Sophie in South Pacific is a good example. She clearly had a plan and stuck to it. The confessionals we did see from her were articulate, on point and entertaining. But instead we saw far more of Coach, Ozzy and Cochran. This led to many people calling South Pacific a disappointing season and Sophie a bad winner. It also means she has little chance of returning to play again, apart from in a possible “all winners” season. It is rare that women are shown as in control and decision makers. Editing also makes light of many women’s strategic decisions. Parvarti is considered by many to be the best female, (and possibly best overall), player of the game, and it is commonly attributed to her ability to flirt and charm her way to the end. As such, this has been seen as the most successful strategy for young women, and a large proportion of players list Parvarti as the player they most identify with on their cast bios.

As Survivor has developed, the editing has evolved to be more focused on the blindsides and big moves, validating these as more worthy of viewer’s admiration. Subtlety and smart social interactions are less noticeable and harder to edit into the show so are either relegated to the background or not shown at all. Natalie White is a good example. Listening to interviews from Samoa Juror’s shows that they felt Natalie made a real effort to build bonds and get to know them, but ultimately had to vote them out in her own best interests. Her actions were relegated into the background behind Russell, and even efforts to show her as an active player focused on her being the key part of a big move, (getting Erik voted out), as opposed to her strong social game.

Ultimately of the three “O”s on Survivor, Outwit and Outplay can get you to the end but Outlast, or your ability to make social connections which lead to Jury votes is what gets you the win. It seems a shame that we are not shown more of this, as it may not only make for more satisfying conclusion but a more well rounded understanding of how important this social aspect is. If this was the case, the many women who have played the game well may be better respected.

‘This is no longer a battle of the sexes, but a battle of the weaker versus the stronger’ Deena Bennett, Survivor: The Amazon

So what can we make of all of this? If Survivor is a truly great “social experiment” as it has been described, then the role of gender cannot be ignored. But perhaps as fans of this show, we can consider these issues more closely when we watch the show. Perhaps the male making and breaking alliances and finding Hidden Immunity Idols really isn’t the star of the show. The guy or girl winning Immunity Challenges may be a great physical player, but does this make them worthy of a million dollars? Or is it possible that those making smart social interactions are the ones actually understanding the game the most? Such skills don’t require a person to be of particular gender, but rather a larger understanding of what winning Survivor is ultimately about. If we viewed the game in this way, perhaps many female players would not be considered “underrated” but instead the stars they should be.


Do you agree or disagree with Nick? Leave your thoughts by commenting below!

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5 Comments on Is Survivor a Man’s Game?

  1. It depends which angles you look at the game from. For example, Survivor: Micronesia is often a celebrated season of Survivor and the whole black widow-concept was a big thing in the end game. The women manipulated the men and then made anti-male jokes in the final episode, talking about how men had egos and that if a female chicken were like the women on the island , she’d mate with the rooster but then chop his head off. . would a season of Survivor be celebrated if a group of men made the final four and then started insulting females? I think there’d be a backlash and instead of there being a “Queen Parvati”, the winner of that season would probably be seen as “King Sexist Pig”. So doublle-standards against the way men are viewed are interesting to note too.

  2. Jsjdifjdjeisiskzjssudidjsj // August 20, 2013 at 5:38 pm // Reply

    “‘There just aren’t as many colourful women characters in Survivor history”

    He can’t be serious?

  3. I think this holds a lot of truth,
    Someone like Dawn gets labeled as a “psycho bitch” while Brandon has “deep mental issues”

  4. Great piece. Sexism is alive and well, but it’s a shame that Jeff can’t see that he plays a role in making it worse by how he treats women vs. men. Jeff is an incredible host for the most part, and Survivor wouldn’t exist without him, but I often want to reach through the TV and smack him. I hate it when he (and the fans) forget the show’s theme — “Outwit..” You don’t have to be 26 and be able to scramble up coconut trees to win the game.

    As for “not as many memorable female characters?” HA HA HA!

    The Dawn vs. Brandon example sums the show’s extremely sexist editing perfectly. How Dawn was portrayed compared to any number of men was nuts — not her. (The cuckoos who forced her to close her Twitter account for awhile needed medication, though.)

    Not to suck up as Ben always does (LOL), but if Jeff listened to Survivor Oz, I believe he’d take his comment back. I can’t believe how many players were correctly cast but got kicked off early, and how many players managed to make it on the show in the first place. An example: I’ll take a Twila over an Ozzy any day. She was a hoot, she played hard and got raked for swearing on her son. Hel-lo. I believe that was perfected before her season. Ozzy’s a great athlete, but I find his “game” dull.

    The good news is that both genders are close in the winner category, or I suspect the show wouldn’t still be on. Carry on, Ben and Ozlets, and nice analysis, Nick!

  5. sagel panday // October 8, 2014 at 10:34 pm // Reply

    I think that if they bring strong women back like they did with males in season 22 and 23 I think it would be more intereting to watch. Bringing Jerri/paravati and stephanie L. back as returnee players would be the best thing.

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