Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Are Amateur Athletic Shows Like 'The Challenge' and 'Titan Games' Fair to Women?

21biz_kareem_W_main- H 2020
Courtesy of Networks

Series such as 'Ultimate Beastmaster' and 'American Ninja Warrior' have been incredibly popular during the pandemic but are wildly divergent in their depiction of female athletes — with real-world consequences.

Amateur sports competition shows are part intense athletics and part corny game show but usually tremendously entertaining. The Titan Games, The Challenge, Ultimate Beastmaster and American Ninja Warrior, all featuring challenging obstacle courses, have proved to be popular, particularly during the pandemic, when sports were on hold. But are these shows good for women? Do they exalt their athletic prowess, redefining popular notions of women’s capabilities, or do they perpetuate condescending stereotypes, giving women a demeaning pat on the head and plastic participation trophy?

Here’s why it matters. Popular culture has the power to amplify disparity or extinguish it, and TV shows perpetuate prejudice when they spread demeaning stereotypes. The more often these stereotypes appear, the more people feel their biases are justified. A study of descriptions of Black quarterback prospects in the NFL Draft section of the Sports Illustrated website between 1998 and 2007 showed that Black quarterbacks were lauded for their athleticism but criticized for their athletes, they are not equal. Some are downright cringeworthy.

Clearly, women and men are not physically the same. Men have superior upper-body strength, while women are able to process oxygen faster, giving them higher endurance. But TV shows don’t have time for endurance, they want to see swollen muscles and bulging neck veins. That’s why the obstacle courses on most of these shows are about power and speed, which favor men. One study determined that there is an average 10 percent to 12 percent performance gap between elite male and elite female athletes. Which is why head-to-head competition between men and women on obstacle courses that cater to men’s strengths can appear as if it’s being inclusive when it’s really just passive- aggressively shrugging and saying, "Hey, I gave them a chance.” It’s like going on Jeopardy! but all the questions are about one person’s profession, which makes them look smart.

The worst offender is Ultimate Beastmaster, which features obstacles that require tremendous upper-body strength and great leaping ability. Although women compete, they do extremely poorly on every episode. While the athletes all have impressive backgrounds in sports, climbing and obstacle courses, and everyone gets through the first obstacle of running up a ramp, many falter on only the second, which requires leaping from one giant gear to another. There is some excitement to seeing a few women make it a little farther than some of the men but demoralizing to see them en masse do so poorly. The end result is they are not taken seriously. It’s as if the show was embracing Aristotle’s claim that a woman was merely a "deformed male."

American Ninja Warrior — which recently cut ties with a former champion charged with sex crimes — also has a problem in the way it treats female competitors. The obstacles favor men, which is why only men get to the finals. True, watching Kacy Catanzaro be the first woman to complete a qualifying course and stuntwoman Jessie Graff the first to advance to city finals was glorious. But how much fairer it would be to see the women run against one another, or the course modified to show a wider variety of athleticism.

Dwayne Johnson’s The Titan Games has the right idea by having the men and women run the same obstacles — but only against the same gender. What makes the matchups especially riveting is that amateurs are matched against one another as well as professionals. It’s inspiring to see how often the determined amateurs best the experienced professionals. Plus, Johnson doesn’t phone in his hosting duties, instead acting as a cheerleader to the athletes and interacting with their families. The show captures the spirit of camaraderie in sports without sacrificing intensity. And it treats the men and women with equal respect.

MTV’s long-running The Challenge is one of the most compelling competition shows around, but it is not familyfriendly. The mostly 20-something athletes live together in a house, face tough competitions, and conspire against one another in order to win the million-dollar prize. With all its sexual tension and betrayals, it’s a Gen Z version of Lord of the Flies. Many of the males are actively misogynistic, though they would vehemently deny it. But the show’s challenges are fair. Sometimes the men and women compete against each other, sometimes they are in teams, sometimes it’s men against men and women against women. This season, the final challengers competed individually on a level playing field that involved strength, determination and endurance and, despite being up against three burly, muscular men, a woman won. That was an empowering moment.

We have to be vigilant in how people are portrayed in popular culture if we want to fight inequities. This is not a call to cancel, but a challenge to do better because the stakes are higher than just entertainment — they are how we perceive and treat others. Professional wrestler and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey observed, "Once you give them the power to tell you you’re great, you’ve also given them the power to tell you you’re unworthy." Yeah, what she said.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.