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18 April 2016

The outrageous sexism on The Island with Bear Grylls might be what makes it a great show

The strength of this show is that it uses ordinary people to create a microcosm that reveals the cracks and strains in our society.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

The Island with Bear Grylls has been no stranger to sexism controversies since it began in 2014. Its first series, which saw a group of 12 marooned on a desert island for four weeks, was criticised for only testing the survival skills of men: were women simply deemed not up to the challenge?

Channel 4 claimed the show set out “to examine modern masculinity and how traditional skills and ideas of manhood have changed over generations”, but female survival experts insisted that this premise was “inherently sexist”.

The second series saw a team of women join their male counterparts, but on different islands and at different times, so viewers could compare their attempts at survival. “When pushed to the limits of human endurance,” Bear asked, “will it be brute power or mental strength that wins the day?” Despite such patronising stereotypes, after a rocky start, the women thrived. Bear’s final thoughts on their camp? “Wow, look at this! It’s cool! And it’s so clean!”

This third time around, eight men and eight women were placed on an island together: unbeknown to them, they were dropped off on the island at the same time, but on opposite sides. They spent the first few days on their island travels blissfully (if severe dehydration, starvation and confusion can ever be considered blissful) unaware of each other’s presence, before bumping into each other on day five. Not coincidentally, that’s when my blood pressure rocketed to new heights.

The men had been struggling from the start: as soon as their boat hit the shore, Bradford’s 26-year-old Riz broke down sobbing, explaining he was “getting emotional”. The rest of the men waited awkwardly for him to stop crying (offering such useful support as, “he’s properly crying!”, “fuck, man” and “we shouldn’t be moving with that”) before beginning their hunt for a habitable spot. They had to stop several times on their trek for him, spending their first night in the middle of a dense forest.

The women, meanwhile, led by army veteran and amputee Hannah, and 57-year-old retired farmer Erika, had found a habitable campsite and food sources, immediately built a fire, and settled in rather comfortably by the end of day one. Hannah, in particular, refused to slow the group down, despite having several issues with her prosthetic leg.

Riz v Erika

Just before accidentally running into the women, the men mused on the abilities of their gender. “Can you imagine your missus out here?” one of them asked Simon (an insurance salesman whose main skill seems to be “nasal whining” and making helpful comments like, “Ah, another day on Camp Shit”). “She wouldn’t do ten minutes out here mate, unless there was a five-star hotel,” he replied.

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In case you thought this was a joke specifically made at the expense of his wife, Simon clarifies:

“It is so physically demanding. A woman’s not equal on physicality. So I don’t think a woman would be able to do – they wouldn’t be able to do what we’ve done.

“Men are better at physical stuff: lighting fires, hunting, moving stuff. Women can multitask allegedly . . . but anything where it’s a physical exertion, then, naturally, a man’s gonna have the edge over your normal, standard woman, basically.”

If you thought Simon and the other men would be eating humble pie as soon as they gazed upon the women’s triumphant camp, I wouldn’t blame you. But sadly, you’d be wrong. As soon as the they ran into each other, the men were already speculating their superiority. I wonder if this is going to increase our workload, 26-year-old Elliot chuckled smugly.

Peak of physical perfection, insurance salesman Simon, offers some philosophical insights on gender.

The women shared their only food with the starving men, who had not been able to feed themselves since arriving. The men graciously responded by laughing at their bras drying on branches and complaining that their new home wasn’t tidy enough.

“The area the girls are staying on is awful,” doctor Daniel explained to camera. “This camp is a godforsaken place. Oh, it’s horrendous.”

“I’m not positive about this group. It’s unorganised chaos at the minute,” offered Simon. “They need a bit more rule.” Ah, yes, what every disorganised lady needs: the firm hand of patriarchal rule. By this point, my voice was hoarse from yelling: “They’re the only ones who have made the Island even barely habitable and you should be kissing their filthy toes with gratitude!”

When Erika offered to help her new male counterparts collect water for the camp, the men insisted she would only create more work for them. But as she strode into the distance with a water can gracefully atop her head, the men struggled to carry two between the three of them.

Erika shocks the men by carrying a thing. Truly unbelievable.

“I’m fascinated by the change in everything suddenly, just because the men are here. Suddenly, we’re helpless women,” Erika told the others. Hannah, meanwhile, demonstrated her skill for micromanaging these male superiority complexes: “Men are doers, you give them a job, they do it. And then they feel that they’re helping a woman. But who has the power in that situation, really?”

Simon and Erika’s opposing views on the sexes came to a head when Simon woke up one morning with the ambitious plan of building 16 individual beds in a day. “The girls just have to sit, and watch, and learn,” he grinned. “If you wanna talk, put your hand up, and then you can talk,” he told them. When he mansplained fishing to Erika – “the primary objective is to catch something” – she responded the only way generations of women have known how to: “Fucking men.”

Erika recites an ancient female proverb.

“She’s crackers. Absolutely crackers. If you say anything to her she storms off crying,” Simon insisted, and I began gnawing at my own arm in rage.

At the end of the day, Simon had failed to make even one bed. In fact, the only person who successfully built one was Erika. Sulking Simon responded to questions of whether he’d share the bed by both sexualising and dismissing her as unattractive: “I’m married with three kids, and I’d pass on that one.”

In later episodes, most of these tensions have calmed, but the men continue to subtly undermine the women where possible, and seemingly have little awareness of their own sexism. After eventually leaving the island, Riz responded to sexism claims by adding, “I don’t have a problem with the women and they a did fantastic job, better than some of the blokes. They were all really strong. Tilly, bless her, she was strong. Erika, look at the age difference between me and her and she’s a woman, she completed the challenge. The way I see it, they’ve done better than me. They’ve done better than a bloke.”

Of course, that’s a fact. The women did do better than Riz, and they did beat a bloke. But the way Riz says this – as though it is his personal, benevolent, feminist opinion, peppered with patronising “bless her”s and surprise at the women’s strength – shows he has learned little from his stay on the island.

But the strength of this show is that it uses ordinary people to create a microcosm that reveals the cracks and strains in our society: whether it be the sexism so infuriatingly demonstrated here, assumptions about disability (the participants were shocked by Hannah’s strength as an amputee), or class tensions (last year’s Vic led his camp insisting that on the island, manual labour is king, and the posher participants were almost useless in the elements).

So while part of me, like Erika, wishes I could see how the women would have fared totally alone, I’m perversely grateful to see these power struggles play out on screen. Even if I may lose my hair in the process.

The Island with Bear Grylls is on Mondays at 9pm on Channel 4.

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