In this golden age of TV abundance I am sometimes baffled by what my kids choose to watch. Although I try to steer them in the direction of shows of some education value, that doesn’t always work. A case in point is my daughter Sammy’s odd attraction to Ultimate Beastmaster on Netflix.
The show is in some ways an updated version of American Gladiators. In this iteration contestants compete against one another on an obstacle course known as “The Beast”. The contestants and hosts all hail from countries with large TV markets (i.e. the United States, China and India) so the show can be easily repackaged for international audiences.
The show has its quirks. Sylvester Stallone makes random appearances and some of the lighter outfits worn by the contestants become noticeably transparent when stretched. What I find to be the most troubling, however, is the subtle sexism that’s built into the program.
Don’t get me wrong, Ultimate Beastmaster is a product of a much more enlightened time than American Gladiators. But although the new show treats the female competitors with respect those same competitors face an inherent disadvantage by the fact that they are competing directly against the men. Many parts of the obstacle course require reaching or jumping large distances and so a 6’-4” male is going to have a distinct advantage over a 5’-2” female regardless of their respective athletic abilities.
Of course the argument could be made that having separate categories for men and women is itself sexist. But the most noticeable artifact of the current system is that the female contestants are always eliminated early. In the three seasons of the show no woman has ever made it to the finals (read here for a more data-driven analysis). This has resulted in some cringe-worthy lines from the hosts like, “This is the furthest we’ve seen a female go!”
Although accurate and meant to be encouraging I can’t help but wonder how my nine-year-old daughter is processing it all.
Ultimately I see this as a design problem. Plenty of sports by design favor a particular body type / physical ability / gender. Basketball, for example, favors tall men who can jump and have a high degree of physical coordination. This is why I am an architect and not a professional basketball player. That said, if you’re designing a “sport” from scratch and you’re going to have men and women competing against one another, why not design it for both? Why not design elements of the obstacle course that are more challenging to men and some that are more challenging to women? Why not design it so that a nine-year old girl sitting at home sees that while everyone has different abilities, she still has a chance to win?