"Outwit, Outplay, Outlast": Where are the Jewish Women on "Survivor"?

Collage of various Jewish Survivor contestants by 2020-21 Rising Voices Fellow Judy Goldstein.

“Outwit, outplay, outlast.” Is this the motto of Emmy-award winning television program Survivor, or a summary of the history of the Jewish people? Trick question: it’s both. After all, Survivor is a game of tribes, and the Jews are the most resilient tribe of them all. While I’m a relatively new fan of Survivor (I only started watching it last summer), the beauty of it is hard to deny. Half social experiment, half reality show, it’s completely addicting to watch and has gotten me through a lot of the pandemic. But as much as I adore watching Survivor, I find myself pausing at its choices of Jewish contestants, and wondering—why hasn’t a single Jewish women won the show’s competitions?

When I like a contestant on Survivor, I always find myself googling if they’re Jewish. Believe it or not, they often are. Many of my favorite winners on Survivor have been Jewish. Ethan Zohn won the third season of the show, battling extreme heat and dangerous animals in the plains of Africa. Zohn has been outspoken about how his Jewish upbringing and values helped him battle cancer and compete on three seasons of  Survivor. Adam Klein won the game at the impressively young age of 25. He shared that his motivation came from his love for his mother, who was struggling from cancer while he was competing. His mother’s mother survived Auschwitz. John Cochran competed twice, and won his second season with a unanimous vote, which is fairly hard to accomplish. Survivor host Jeff Probst even declared him to be his favorite winner of all time.

Stephen Fishbach didn’t win the show, but he’s a New York Jew with fantastic gameplay and I want to talk about him, so he gets an honorable mention. Watching Fishbach play on Survivor, I saw a lot of myself onscreen. Namely, during the time he had visceral stomach problems and people made fun of him, but also when he used his intelligence, sense of humor, and connections with fellow players to get ahead in the game.

Klein, Cochran, and Fishbach are all perfect archetypes of the Survivor superfan role. These are contestants who have watched the show for years, overanalyze every move they make, and tend to have very strong strategic and social gameplay. This isn’t an accident on the part of casting: Jews tend to be stereotyped as very erudite, analytical people, and casting purposefully picks contestants who fit stereotypes. While I relate to these characters and love to watch them play, I can’t help but feel as though their Jewish heritage is being tokenized.

Of course, just because my personal favorite Survivor winners have been Jewish, it doesn’t mean that Jews are aplenty on the show. By my count, there have only been 20 Jewish contestants out of 590 participants. Out of 20 Jewish Survivor contestants, only six have been women. And, most notably for me, there has never been a single Jewish woman who has won the show.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been excellent female Jewish contestants. Take, for example, Hannah Shapiro. Hannah was neurotic, clumsy, and used humor to mask her insecurities. In other words, Hannah was my hero. She made what others may see as weaknesses into her greatest Survivor strengths. Hannah used her self-deprecating jokes to make friends (like Adam Klein) and bond with other players. She harnessed her lack of wilderness experience and physical limitations to keep the target off her back. Hannah made it to the final three of her season.

In general, though, women experience a multitude of challenges due to their gender on Survivor. While in the earlier seasons, women won Survivor just as often as men, later seasons have created a gender gap on the show. There have only been fourteen female winners of Survivor, out of 40 winners. Only eight of those winners have been people of color, and only three have been women of color.

So what exactly is preventing women from having the same advantages as their male counterparts? Well, for starters, the first vote-out of each tribe is statistically more likely to be a woman. Maybe it’s because they’re perceived as being weak, talkative, annoying, or any number of adjectives that are more often pinned onto women. When a woman has aggressive gameplay, she’s torn apart by criticism both during and after the game. When a man has aggressive gameplay, he’s lauded as being a Survivor legend.

Hidden immunity idols (an item that keeps players safe from being voted out when used correctly) are also less likely to be found by a female contestant. This is not a result of skill, but a result of the patriarchy (shocker, right?). Women on Survivor are usually forced to stay at camp and prepare the meals, while the men are free to frolic about in the jungle, go fishing, and find idols.

So, of course, when women are already facing roadblocks to winning the game, and Jewish women are disproportionately underrepresented in casting, it’s no surprise that we haven’t yet seen a Jewish woman win Survivor. And representation on Survivor has the capacity to do so much good. It could change how our society views historically oppressed people, but perhaps more importantly, it could change how historically oppressed people view themselves.

While the audience only sees what the editors and producers orchestrate, Survivor is a game played by real people and not characters drawn up in a Hollywood writer’s room. And real people are multi-faceted. Jews are not a monolith, nor are women. We are more than our stereotypes. And what better way to prove that than by highlighting real and diverse Jewish women’s voices on one of the most popular reality game shows ever?

I wish I could say that I plan to get out there and win Survivor myself. But given that I’m not good at swimming, running, or puzzles, and that I hate bugs, I don’t think that’s the most realistic of plans. I do, however, call on the casting team to better represent marginalized groups on Survivor. It may be beneficial for contestants to receive implicit bias training before going on the show.

Like Judaism, Survivor is a constantly evolving force which has the capacity to improve and to better include and center marginalized voices. And while I think Survivor is a great show with a great premise and great competitors, I know it can be better.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

Topics: Television
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How to cite this page

Goldstein, Judy. ""Outwit, Outplay, Outlast": Where are the Jewish Women on "Survivor"?." 19 July 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 24, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/outwit-outplay-outlast-where-are-jewish-women-survivor>.

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