Why Australian Survivor Is The Unlikely Feminist Reality TV Show We Needed

Image courtesy of Channel 10
Australian Survivor: Brains v Brawn winner Hayley Leake
Whether it be portraying women as overly emotional and irrational or as villains throwing wine at each other (ahem, MAFS), a lot of Australian television in recent years has disappointingly represented women in a negative light.
However, Australian Survivor, which returns on Monday, January 31 for its ninth season, is one of the rarer TV gems that has regularly championed female contestants and challenged gender stereotypes.
Of the eight seasons that have been filmed and aired locally, there have been just as many female winners as there have been male – Kristie Bennett (Season 3), Shane Gould (Season 5), Pia Miranda (Season 6) and Hayley Leake (Season 8). Last year's season saw five of the final six contestants being women.
Advertisement
But this isn't simply a show with a history of several women crossing the finish line first. It's the way in which these women get to the end of the competition that's worth celebrating. Australian Survivor depicts how strong, assertive and politically strategic women can be.
Competing on Survivor involves participating in extremely strenuous, physically demanding challenges. As each season kicks off, we often see the more muscular male figures dominating physical tasks that involve lifting heavy objects, swimming long distances or throwing ropes. Yet, Survivor is just as much about playing the social game as it is acing every gruelling hands-on challenge.
Contenders must be adept at solving puzzles and finding immunity idols, and more importantly at building trust and alliances, communicating well and reading other people's body language as they must ultimately make pacts to vote each other off.
According to last year's winner, Hayley Leake, it's these areas where women particularly shine on Survivor, showing Australia that strength and success are beyond picking up a heavy log or winning a tug of war.
"I think Australian Survivor is actually suited really well for women to succeed because it's all about perception, and trying to be really careful about how other people perceive you," Leake tells Refinery29 Australia.
"I think women are always underestimated, especially by men. So in a show like Survivor, men will see each other as threats before they'll see the women as threats. So they'll all start attacking each other, and the women can just sit back and be like, 'Yes, great. Let's get the big strong man out.'"
Advertisement
That's not to say women aren't physically strong. Leake outwitted and outlasted her rivals in challenges involving endurance, balancing on tiny surfaces and even lifting significant weights. She's a pain researcher by day but cleverly didn't reveal to her co-stars she was trained in ballet too.
"Actually in the challenges of Survivor, being a small female is an advantage because lots of them have power to weight ratio," she explains. "So if you're really big and strong, you have to hold up heaps of weight in some challenges where small women won't have to."
In 2018, a then-61-year-old Shane Gould never won a single reward or immunity challenge during her 51 days on the show. She reached the final two alongside criminal barrister Sharn Coombes, then 41, and actually won the whole thing. Coombes on the other hand holds the record for the most challenges (23) won in a single game in Australian Survivor history. Here are two women who played the game so differently, yet climbed to the top, all the while challenging ageist tropes.
While we may see a woman's foul-mouthed rant about a female co-star on The Bachelor, or as mentioned earlier, two women spitefully throwing wine on each other when they disagree on Married At First Sight, any 'conflict' so to speak on Survivor is respectfully part of the game and not toxic.
Advertisement
This forms a great part in the appeal of watching a show like Survivor. "It's like men, they're interesting to watch, but females dominate!" says Leake.
Blindsiding another opponent isn't nasty. It's portrayed as being an incredibly clever, strategic move and reminding us of women's abilities in the real world to forge strong connections, communicate and execute plans, and claim their power. These women are also positive role models for young female viewers.

Sexism In Reality TV

Like most reality shows, Australian Survivor, unfortunately, hasn't existed without some on-air moments showing women treated poorly and we can't just ignore that because women are overall portrayed in a positive light.
In 2018, contestants Zach Kozyrski came under fire for a string of sexist comments he made about female co-stars. In one episode, he undermined women's physical capabilities and perpetuated the stereotype that women are only skilled in domestic duties.
"I think it is highly possible that a woman could beat me in a challenge, but that all depends on what it is," he said. "If it's physical strength, girl, no chance. But if we're looking at a dishwashing challenge, I might be in trouble."
In another incident, he made a comment about co-star Paige Kerin when he walked past, saying, "Dat ass". Following public backlash, Kozyrski issued a so-called apology on Instagram.
Advertisement
"I would like to issue a public apology for the comment I made to Paige on last night's episode of Australian Survivor because some people were clearly offended," he wrote.
"I just want to say, it was all taken completely out of context and I would never actually say something like that to Paige in that way. Because she’s like a 6, and I would only say stuff like that to 8’s and above!"
This behaviour reeks of peak misogyny and toxic masculinity and has no rightful place in society let alone on reality TV. It's been promising to see no repeats of this in subsequent seasons, and hopefully, it stays that way.
In 2019, the American version of Survivor had its #MeToo moment when contestant Dan Spilo was removed from the game after "repeated occurrences of inappropriate and unwanted touching."
"I know the season in America where there was some bad sexual harassment and some player got taken out of the game for it," says Leake. "Nothing I know of in our season came up so there's not much for me to comment on."
She does however acknowledge the support provided by producers and mental health experts before, during and after filming if contestants have concerns about on-set misconduct.
"The support we have is a psychologist, who we touch base with before and after the season, and who we know is also there every day for us to access," she explains.
Advertisement
"After a challenge, we see get seen by medical... so there's a very strong presence on the ground. And then once the show is over and we're out of the game, during the airing period and for quite a long period of time after we have access to a separate person for wellness. So there is support."
Endemol Shine, the company that produces Australian Survivor, had not responded to Refinery29 Australia's request for comment at time of publication.

Fierce Females On Australian Survivor: Blood v Water

The 2022 season of Australian Survivor features 24 contestants competing with a loved one – hence the series title, Australian Survivor: Blood v Water.
It's a season that will particularly highlight the strengths of fierce female contenders, especially with the highly-anticipated inclusion of Sandra Diaz in the cast.
The 47-year-old is the US Survivor's first two-time winner after she won Survivor: Pearl Islands in 2003 and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains in 2010. Her achievements are not only monumental for women in general, but for women of colour who can so often feel sidelined or marginalised on reality TV and beyond.
"She has this excellent way of like, really reading people well, asking nice questions, not being pushy and hinting at things gently and someone else picks it up and thinks, 'Oh, that was my idea'," says Leake, putting her money on Diaz yet again going far in the competition.
"I think again, she like epitomises that well so I think she has such an ability to do well."
Advertisement
Amy Ong is also competing on the show this year alongside older brother, Khanh Ong of MasterChef Australia fame. She affirms Leake's earlier comments that women can hold the power in the game.
"Survivor's one of those shows where you can't ever underestimate anyone. Anyone can win," she tells Refinery29 Australia.
"We've had so many female winners as well. So many girls smash challenges just as much as the boys, so you can't say girls are not as strong as boys, or not as smart."
As we gear up to watch the new Aussie season, yes, we can hope another woman takes out the winning title. But more importantly, we can look forward to a show that draws us in every night with tears, laughs and nail-biting drama, but also diverse, multi-dimensional role models challenging gender stereotypes, proving women can feel their power and rightfully claim it.
Australian Survivor: Blood v Water premieres on Monday, January 31 at 7:30pm on Channel 10 and 10 Play on Demand.

More from TV