Making History: The Amazing (and Reductive) Race for an All-Female Winner

Making History: The Race for an All-Female Winner

December 12th, 2010

Tonight, there is a 2 in 3 chance of history being made on The Amazing Race.

For a show in its seventeenth season, it sorts of seems like it should be past the point of “making history,” but the fact of the matter is that no all-female team has ever won The Amazing Race (or at least the American version of the Amazing Race).

The show has been building towards this piece of history for a while now: Dustin and Kandice, arguably the “strongest” all-female team the show ever had, had two shots at the title before eventually losing out in the finals of their All-Star season (Season 11), while Jaime and Cara are the most recent team to make it to the finals in Season 14. However, the narrative hasn’t been particularly strong within a given season, I would argue, since the All-Star year: there, Dustin and Kandice had no other narrative but the notion that they should have been the first female team, and their eventual loss was one more step back for gender balance within this program.

For the record, I do not particularly care who wins tonight, which probably sounds like I haven’t been invested in this season. However, it’s more that I have no real preference: I like both Brook and Claire (who grew on me as the season went on) and Nat and Kat (who don’t need the money but have proved fierce competitors) enough that I’d like to see them break the streak, but Jill and Thomas rode that fine line between intensity and enjoying themselves which makes them a perfectly acceptable winning team along the lines of Meghan and Cheyne as opposed to a dissatisfying winning team like Freddy and Kendra.

But after the jump, I do want to look at this “all-female team” narrative, specifically the ways in which that narrative could overwhelm all other narratives as they race towards the finish line. [Note: now updated with post-finale thoughts, so Spoiler Alert]

The first season of The Amazing Race was won by what we refer to as an “alpha male” team. The second season was won by much the same. The third season introduced the “recently dating/dating/engaged male/female” team trope. While there have been exceptions (Chip and Kim and Uchenna and Joyce as happy married couples, BJ and Tyler as the sort of anti-alpha males, Nick and Starr, Tammy and Victor and Dan and Jordan as alpha siblings), the fact remains that you can pretty comfortably fit the winners of The Amazing Race into a narrow selection of archetypes.

The Amazing Race is all about archetypes: every team is given a broad distinction, some more broad than others, and then that becomes their story. Nat and Kat started out as two friends who were as close as sisters who wanted to experience the world together; Brook and Claire started out as two home shopping hosts who wanted to prove that they were more than just pretty faces (and who wanted to kiss as many random men as possible); Jill and Thomas started out as…a dating couple. The Amazing Race, like all reality competition program, is about charting these stories until the very end, and then finding the narrative in the resulting combination.

But no other reality competition has a narrative quite like this one. Yes, we could look to Survivor and find Amanda’s complete and total failure at Tribal Councils as a sort of running bit of history, but on Survivor it seems as if that history becomes about the people. Jeff Probst probably calls things Survivor history all the time, whether it’s two people quitting at once or Russell finding Immunity Idols without any clues, but the individual nature of the game always makes those narratives about the people rather than the game itself. It also helps that Survivor has a fairly diverse history in regards to gender, with Richard Hatch and Tina Wesson splitting the first two seasons and establishing early parity.

As I sat down this morning to consider the coverage surrounding the finale, I realized that I believe the all-female team narrative to be problematically reductive: many “previews” (my own included, really) are focusing exclusively on the history-building element, which suggests that the teams involved are of considerably less importance. Or, perhaps, it shows that the teams involved have not established enough of a personality to have narratives of their own: while Dustin and Kandice very clearly defined themselves in terms of making history during their All-Stars season, Charla and Mirna were not as strongly connected to the “all-female team” history due to their narrative (Charla’s dwarfism and its impact on their racing) being so potent. Their win would have technically been the first all-female win, but it would have first and foremost been about Charla overcoming her condition to prove she could win despite her condition.

It may seem silly to be concerned about reality television contestants having their identity reduced for the sake of fitting into an historical narrative, considering that editing already reduces them to begin with, but the reason I would ultimately prefer one of these two female teams to win the race tonight is because no other all-female team should have to switch narratives almost exclusively to “I want to be the first” as they conclude the race. All-female teams should be allowed to race on their own terms until the very end, and while I don’t think that “making history” would be something either team would reject I do think it’s something that would forever define them as “that team” without much memory of what otherwise made them distinct.

On a macro-level, cynics could argue that this season was perhaps built for this: there was no alpha male team (with Ron and Tony being older, Jonathan and Connor being nerdier, Michael and Kevin being father/son), and many of the young male/female teams proved too self-destructive to make it to the end (which producers might have figured out in the interview process, or perhaps Nick and Chad were on their best behavior). And yet I think the two female teams deserve credit beyond their gender. The athleticism gap between Brook and Claire could have been a considerable detriment to the team, but they have worked through some occasional tension (and a watermelon to the face) in order to bounce back. Similarly, Nat and Kat have both faced substantial challenges (like eating meat despite being a vegetarian, or facing a fear of heights) which have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they are an all-female team. And while I think the race is going to highlight those stories when they break down the three teams’ journeys to this point, I just don’t want all of that to be forgotten if one of them reaches the mat first and becomes part of history’s journey as opposed to their own.

Of course, it’s very possible that Jill and Thomas will win, and it will be a narrative of Jill proving to Thomas that just because she didn’t go to Notre Dame doesn’t mean that she can’t hold her own on The Amazing Race. And while they will become yet another “dating” team to win, themselves subsumed into a larger tradition, for that brief moment it will be their victory.

And I just hope the same can be said for the all-female teams vying to make history.

Post-Episode Update:

As it turns out, there was never any doubt: with Jill and Thomas unable to find the final task thanks to a taxi driver who was unable to understand what a computer or the internet was, it became a race through L.A. traffic between the two all-female teams. In truth, though, there was just no overcoming an early lead: Nat and Kat easily became the first all-female team to win The Amazing Race by grabbing the first cab out of the airport, talking their way into the solution to the central riddle on the phone with a dispatch operator, and using their note-taking to help them through the memory task before driving to victory.

I was pleased with the way the narrative played out: while they opened with the “first all-female team” note, they were able to shift pretty comfortably into Nat’s struggle with diabetes and eventually their camaraderie as friends became their narrative. With Brook and Claire, they got to discuss what it means to be a strong woman, and the “Brook and Claire flair” ended up being their narrative. And while Jill and Thomas struggled mightily, and their final moments were quite bittersweet, but it was Thomas who became the comforting figure amidst the disappointment. It was the ultimate testament to the pleasantness of these contestants, actually: I’d have been happy with any victory, and I ended up happy with the way they responded to their various positions. A solid season, with a charming conclusion.

As for the expected All-Stars reveal, interesting that they didn’t actually reveal the cast: they pretty much threw out every possible team, including many that very clearly won’t be running the race based on the above link (and the sheer numbers involved). I’m disappointed that Toni and Dallas appear to be a red herring, since I liked them so much, but that Mike White and his father Mel are going to be back makes me extremely excited (plus, Zev and Justin fill the role of “Passport Misplacers” well enough).

Cultural Observations

  • I didn’t get a chance to write about it, but the “Double U-Turn” pretty much saved the U-Turn for me. The problem with the U-Turn was that it was most often used to punish a team in the back of the pack (and guarantee their elimination) than it was used in order to force a leading team to regroup. It ended up making the leg less suspenseful rather than more suspenseful, and the only real tension would be if the team survived and the tension lingered in the subsequent leg. With the Double U-Turn, you get the best of both worlds: TWO U-Turns make sure that there will be tension as to which team finishes the two tasks faster, and it means that one team will definitely move onto the next leg and face off with their U-Turners. I still like to imagine the race without it, but if they want the gimmick this was how to do it.
  • I know it took Nick and Vicki’s ridiculous decision to quit a task (similar to Flight Time and Big Easy’s ridiculous decision back in Season 15), but I liked that there were a couple of examples this season of teams with considerable leads. Yes, it’s less suspenseful when Jill and Thomas have a five hour lead and can coast to a first place finish, and the penultimate episode had zero tension thanks to Nick and Vicki being nine hours behind, but I like these teams more now that I’ve seen them race free of competition. I think I will enjoy the finale more now that I know they’re capable of being excited and care-free than if they had been in competitive mode all along.
  • In case you didn’t hear, All-Stars return in the Spring – if you don’t want to wait for the announcement, Reality Blurred has the spoilers.
  • I also suggest checking out Aaron Barnhart’s wide-ranging coverage of “The Reality Decade” for the Kansas City Star – some really great stuff.
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2 Comments

Filed under The Amazing Race

2 responses to “Making History: The Amazing (and Reductive) Race for an All-Female Winner

  1. belinda

    “…Jill and Thomas unable to find the final task thanks to a taxi driver who was unable to understand what a computer or the internet was…”

    I don’t think a cab driver was the demise of Jill and Thomas, but because they completely panicked over the cab driver’s inability/unwillingness? to help them after striking out with the operator on the phone. That was their fatal flaw. After that, they were so hung up on this one way to complete their task, they didn’t think about any other alternative solutions to solve their problem.

    Compare that to Claire and Brooke, who also asked the driver to find them ‘internet’, but when that failed, they didn’t dwell on that, but figured out a different solution, and that is to ask their driver to take them to a hotel with internet, which makes a whole lot more sense to a cab driver than yelling “internet!” “computer!” repeatedly at the guy when he obviously isn’t getting it.

    Or Nat and Kat, who admittedly caught a lucky break with a helpful operator, but they got them to help by being coherent (which I thought was the reason why Thomas couldn’t get his operator to help him), calm and polite and not overly pushy.

    Though, you’re right that the initial early lead because they’re the first ones out of the airport is probably the biggest reason why Nat and Kat won. :D

  2. Eleanor (undeadgoat)

    Watching the finale, with Mallory saying she hoped she could do it again, definitely made me think, “Oh, so are she and Gary going to be in an upcoming all-star season, since they’re letting her speak in the actual episode and not a Web Extra?” So that’s not exactly a reveal, but it’s definitely a tease.

    And as a new TAR fan I think I will go back and watch Season 14, at least, maybe 12 and 15 as well–it’s a long time from now until February, after all.

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