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Reality TV’s fresh take on gender in sport
A study of sport in Australian Survivor
Warning: Spoilers for several seasons of Australian Survivor. Major spoilers for season 1 (2016) and minor spoilers for Champions vs Contenders, Champions vs Contenders 2, Brains vs Brawn and Heroes vs Villains.
I have always been fascinated by sport’s principal obsession with gender. Almost every sporting competition in the world is defined by gender through the separation of men’s sport and women’s sport. There are very few sports where athletes of all genders compete together either as teams or individuals.
This design of sport is usually done under the guise of fairness to women. They couldn’t possibly beat any of the men! So they need their own category.
I find it particularly interesting that gender is apparently where most sports draw the line at fairness. Not at any naturally occurring features of the human body with which people are born (for example, their height or limb length) but instead with the presentation of their gender.
Growing up, I always wondered: why don’t female tennis players get to play five sets at grand slams? Why can’t women play AFL at a professional level? Why do some sports at the Winter Olympics only have men competing and not women? If we are constantly separating sport by gender on the basis of fairness to women, why is there still so much discrimination against female athletes?
Reality TV as sport
Fairly recently, an unexpected player has entered the field to revolutionise gender in sport: the reality television show Australian Survivor.
Based on the American franchise, Australian Survivor is a reality competition which mainly revolves around a cast of 24 contestants voting each other off the island one by one until only a single winner remains.
On its face, Australian Survivor is not a sporting competition. It’s a reality TV show about social dynamics between people.
However, throughout the show, there is a series of mostly physical ‘challenges’ which offers immunity to players from being voted off. Contestants compete both as individuals and in groups at different stages of the show. The challenges vary in form: they can involve obstacle courses, feats of endurance, puzzles, memory games and favour lots of different traits including being strong, light, fast, smart, accurate or coordinated.
These immunity challenges are a key part of the show and can often be fundamental in a winner’s journey.
Interestingly, gender is almost never a factor in these physical challenges.
So what does Australian Survivor do differently from ‘traditional’ sports?
No categories for men and women
Australian Survivor is essentially a mixed gender sport. All competitors compete against all other competitors.
There are almost never categories for men and women: there’s just one Sole Survivor left standing at the end of the overall competition and in most challenges, men and women compete together.
In the ‘tribe’ portion of the game, which makes up the first half of the season, contestants compete in large groups against each other. In the ‘merge’ portion of the game, which makes up the second half of the season, contestants compete individually against each other.
Tribes are often asked to put forward particular competitors for particular parts of challenges (e.g. allocating someone as a ‘thrower’ or to solve a puzzle). This is never defined by gender.
Occasionally, there are one-on-one challenges where tribes are asked to put forward competitors based on gender. For example, the host will ask each tribe to put a male competitor forward in one round and then a female competitor in the following round.
However, the show is even starting to shy away from this. The most recent season, Heroes vs Villains, has featured several mixed gender match-ups which have resulted in much more interesting battles than if they were selected on gender alone. This includes watching returnee player frenemies Hayley and George face off against each other on multiple occasions.
Includes people who identify outside the gender binary
One of the biggest and most obvious problems with separating sport into men’s and women’s categories is that it can result in banning or isolating people from outside the gender binary which seems incredibly inconsistent with the idea of fairness for all.
Ditching separate categories for men and women means that the challenges in Australian Survivor are much more accessible to competitors who identify outside the gender binary.
Artist and crochet extraordinaire Phil Ferguson, who was Australian Survivor’s first non-binary contestant, competed in two team challenges in Brains vs Brawn before they were (unjustly) voted out first.
Adjusting by weight
Individual challenges based on strength are often adjusted by weight.
Instead of each contestant having to hold or support the same amount of weight, they will each have a percentage of their body weight instead.
For example, Heroes vs Villains featured an individual immunity challenge where contestants had to hold onto a rope attached to a weighted barrel. Each person’s barrel held 40 per cent of their body’s weight. In the words of host Jonathan LaPaglia, ‘All you gotta do is hold it up longer than anyone else. Doesn’t matter if you’re the smallest in the tribe or the biggest. You’re all faced with the same problem.’ Eventually, former Olympic pole vaulter Liz Parnov was the last person left standing.
Ideally, the best seasons of Australian Survivor have a good variety of challenges to favour lots of different body types, builds and strengths which see lots of different contestants win and the occasional all-rounder dominate everything.
Australian Survivor is known for favouring the physical more than its American predecessor. This is probably due to its comparative lack of puzzles and trend of casting former professional athletes as contestants (particularly Champions vs Contenders 2 in which former professional athletes made up more than a third of the cast).
Australia loves an underdog! And Australian Survivor’s balance of challenges means that we often get to cheer on a spectacular underdog victory.
Highlights include accountant Kristie Bennett’s incredible final immunity challenge win that led to her season 1 victory (after having spent the whole season seen as weak by all her fellow tribemates) and author Wai Chim’s comeback after she fell behind on a long obstacle course only to catch up and take the victory when her athletic tribemates couldn’t solve the anagram puzzle waiting for them at the end.
I think traditional sport could learn a lot from Australian Survivor. It shows that defining sport by gender is not necessary for it to be the kind of sport that we love: exciting, thrilling and entertaining.