Why Are We Scared Of All-Women Alliances On Reality TV?

By Nadya Sarah Domingo

Those who love reality competition shows may be familiar with a certain trend.

On Survivor: Cambodia — Second Chance, when Monica Padilla tried to form an all-woman alliance, she was quickly labeled a loose canon, a liability, and “a snake in the grass.” When her tribe mates found out about her plan, they voted her off the Survivor island, suddenly viewing her as an untrustworthy player.

On Big Brother 16, when a few male contestants learned about Joey Van Pelt’s idea to start an all-girls alliance, the plan to get her out of the house was set in stone. “Sharpen your blades, boys,” a contestant said, leading the successful campaign to evict her.

In season 3 of Big Brother Canada, a group of women planned to form an unofficial alliance to target a male contestant and keep the man-woman ratio in the house balanced. When the men discovered this plan, they announced, “We need to rally up and start picking the girls off!” Later, they added: “There was no guy-alliance [before]. There is now.”

Meanwhile, when Jennifer Lanzetti was ousted on Survivor: Kaoh Rong, she explicitly blamed her exit on — you guessed it — her attempt to form an all-girl alliance.

Welcome to the vicious world of reality TV, where backstabbing is common — and the ones most likely to get backstabbed are, often, those women who deign to form alliances with other women.

This phenom may seem like a natural byproduct of the eat-or-be-eaten environment cultivated on reality shows like Survivor and Big Brother. But what if, more than a reality show trend, the brutal treatment of all-women alliances says something about the real world we live in?

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It’s not just women, of course, who create alliances on reality television; competitors of all genders form partnerships with those they want to work with throughout the game, either because they click, or because they share common goals like targeting specific players.

All-women alliances are like most other alliances in that they’re formed out of necessity to make it as far in the game as possible. But there are a few differences worth mentioning: Players will often form an all-women alliance to increase the chances of a woman winning the game. Or they are forced to work together when up against blatant sexism. On Survivor: Kaoh Rong, for instance, Lanzetti planned to form her all-women alliance with a fellow tribe mate in part because she was annoyed that men were calling that tribe mate “blondie.”

There is also a marked difference in how these all-women alliances are treated on the shows. When men form all-male partnerships, they have interesting nicknames like Team America, The Brigade, and Chilltown. When women form them, they’re often dubbed, reductively, “all-girl alliances” — and what follows is nothing short of a witch hunt, with the offended parties carrying torches to tribal.

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Jennifer Lanzetti on Survivor: Kaoh Rong

This is especially true when players perceive all-women alliances as a direct attack on men. On Survivor: Kaoh Rong, for instance, when several women blindsided their tribe, two men reacted in a way that can only be compared to a temper tantrum. The castaways stole the tribe’s axe and continuously doused their fire with water so the women couldn’t eat. They boasted about their act of “revenge,” claiming that without these tools — and, really, without the men — the women wouldn’t be able to survive. They even compared their revenge to “psychological warfare.”

Considering the way fragile masculinity works, such treatment should perhaps come as no surprise.

In 2015, the controversial hashtag #MasculinitySoFragile sparked a debate regarding societal expectations of men. There is no one definition of fragile masculinity, but writer Jessica Lachenal at The Mary Sue summed it up nicely: “There’s always this need to ‘prove you’re a man’ by responding to perceived threats–even if those threats never existed in the first place.”

Such forces help explain why, in the world of reality TV, men react with particular vengeance when women threaten their perceived dominance — even if the threat is more imagined than tangible.

The way all-girl alliances are treated also taps into expectations placed on women in positions of power and leadership. In the “Lean In” generation, women have been taught to eschew femininity and exhibit traits typically associated with men, like confidence and authority. Yet studies show that they may experience a “backlash effect” if they do so.

This double-bind is evident in the world of reality TV as well. On the one hand, women have been burned for acting “too feminine” — like Big Brother 17 contestant Vanessa Rousso who, despite being a master of intimidation tactics and playing a near-perfect game, came in third, after being scrutinized for crying a lot (which, in an interview, she blamed on — yes — her period).

On the other hand, when women bond together to assert their collective dominance in all-female alliances, as men have done in their own collectives since the dawn of such shows, they are also scrutizined — and, often, kicked to the curb as a result.

Another dynamic on reality TV shows that echoes the real world? Relying on one example of female success to “prove” that systemic sexism doesn’t exist. In reality TV, the most high-profile example of such success is the Black Widow Brigade. This all-woman alliance, from 2008’s Survivor: Micronesia — Fans vs. Favourites, was one of the most dominant of all time, pulling off some of the biggest blindsides in Survivor history. While such bold moves, when executed by women, are usually grounds for swift execution and damnation, The Black Widow Brigade is generally regarded as one of Survivor’s most revered alliances, and many have highlighted it as an example of women overcoming the all-girl alliance curse.

The women in the alliance proved that it’s possible to defy the forces working against them — just as some women in business have managed to defy the odds to climb the ranks to success. But just as in the business world, one example does not undermine the fact that there are systemic and pervasive issues at play, one successful alliance does not negate the fact that reality TV is steeped in sexist dynamics . . . and relying on one example to pretend otherwise is actively dangerous.

The difficulty all-girl alliances have in succeeding is all the more discouraging when you consider how important it is for marginalized groups to carve out their own spaces together. Marginalized people often must create their own spaces because the ones available either don’t benefit them, or actively hurt them. And yet when they do band together, onscreen or off, they’re usually attacked for doing so.

Maybe one day, all-girl alliances will be the norm on reality shows — and so, too, will them dominating the competition. But for now, all-girl alliances remain beholden to a tribal council that’s not quite ready to accept their power.

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Lead image of Black Widow Brigade: Wikimedia Commons/Pixabay

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