Friday, October 28, 2011

Why don't women ever win reality show competitions?

I was recently accused of not being a feminist so I ask the above question not because I broadly feel the world is full of misogyny, although perhaps it is, but because it's been something I've observed lately.

Mainly, I've observed that phenomenon on Top Chef, which is really the only reality show I watch. Bravo's Top Chef: Just Desserts just concluded and the winner was Chris, who was clearly the front-runner from the beginning. Still, two men, Chris and Matt, and a woman, Sally, comprised the final and per usual, a man came out on top. Don't get me wrong, I think Chris deserved the win. He was completely in control of everything he produced for the finale, including his chocolate showpiece, while Sally basically handed construction of her (gorgeous and superior, in my opinion) showpiece over to Orlando, an arrogant but brilliant builder of such whimsical things.

Still, I started wondering: why don't women ever win these things? In Top Chef, season six, Jen was a contender all the way to the end, but by the finale she had fallen apart (a performance she would repeat early in All-Stars). At the end, Michael Voltaggio prevailed over his brother Bryan, while Kevin seemed to have lost his cooking mojo during the two-month break between taping in Las Vegas and the finale in Napa.

And in Top Chef: All-Stars, two women -- Carla (Hall, now starring on ABC's The Chew) and Tiffany -- turned in such a good semi-final performance that for the first time ever the  judges waived the rule and allowed them both to progress to the final. But both women failed to make the cut, and in the end, genius Richard Blais prevailed over upstart Mike Isabella.

Final Top Chef example: in season seven, Kelly Liken made it all the way to the final four and got to go to Singapore, but she didn't make it past that point. Having eaten at her not-so-exciting restaurant in Vail (see above link), I kind of understand why. That season seemed full of lackluster chefs, and the only person in the group who seemed to have any real talent, Angelo, fell ill right at the end so the final was sort of a fail.

I should point out that one woman, Stephanie Izard, has won Top Chef, prevailing over Lisa Fernandez and Blais (somehow) in season four.

OK, that's Top Chef, but what about other reality shows?

Let's start with the granddaddy of them: CBS' Survivor. The only edition of this show that I've watched in full, besides season one, was Survivor: All-Stars, in which Boston Rob Mariano ended up getting the girl - his now wife and mother of his children, Amber Brkich, whose last name lacked vowels -- but losing the game. Amber took home the million dollars, but since she concurrently agreed to marry Rob, it was a win-win for him. The couple went on to run The Amazing Race twice (but not win), and Rob has subsequently been on Survivor two more times, finally winning it all in his last outing, aptly named Survivor: Redemption Island.

So even though Amber beat the odds with her win, did she really? Amber didn't play All-Stars, while Rob did, and Amber has never come back on the show, while Rob is on practically as much as Jeff Probst at this point.

After 22 iterations, however, Survivor seems to come out pretty equal: men have won 13 times, while women have won nine (one woman, Sandra Diaz-Twine, has won twice).

Fox's American  Idol also comes out nearly equal, with women four times and men winning five. A woman has  not won since the show's sixth season, when Jordin Sparks was declared the victor.

Finally, women have won more rounds of Lifetime's Project Runway, with women taking home the trophy five times in nine seasons.

So, maybe I should pose a more specific question: Why don't women ever win Top Chef? Or maybe it's less about women and reality show competitions and more about women as chefs. Professional kitchens are notoriously male-dominated places, and the lack of well-known female chefs is a topic of frequent conversation in the food world. Maybe the question is really: why don't women prevail when it comes to cooking?