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May 8, 2020

Game Shows As Historical Allegory

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Perhaps you are a dedicated Jeopardy! viewer, or maybe the only game show watching you do involves sighing as the last two minutes of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire stand between you and the start of your favorite steamy hospital drama. Regardless of your personal feelings toward game shows, their place in the landscape of American television is undeniably prominent. The structures of these programs have mirrored the fluctuating social trends that have driven our society forward while simultaneously stifling progress, serving to mimic norms as they reinforce them.

Ever since the television set became the centerpiece of the idealized American home, game shows have provided the loophole to the American Dream. They offer a way to get rich without grease-stained hands or arthritic fingers, swapping the assembly line or crop field for a sound stage and a camera crew. Take a gamble, spin the wheel, finish the phrase, become a millionaire. While this sort of rise to riches is on one hand a circumvention of the ladder-climbing that is central to how many people conceptualize America, it also represents a key factor of how success is distributed in our society — luck. Are you lucky enough to be born into a family that is willing and able to withstand the weight of college tuition? Are you lucky enough to live in a place where the job market is not fully saturated? Perhaps, then, you might just be lucky enough to land on the most profitable spot in Wheel of Fortune.

In a similar way, game shows are a gateway into the life we oftentimes wish we could live for ourselves. We want to be behind the wheel of the Jaguar so enticingly parked under the noses of the audience, and we wish we could somehow tag along on the weeklong Carribean getaway. Everything about these programs is overly animated, from strikingly excitable adult contestants to mind-bogglingly charismatic hosts. We crave that level of enthusiasm in our own lives, and we wish we could command a room in the same way.

Most of the pieces that create our game show viewing experience are exaggerated to a tee, and their homogeneity is no exception. In a look back at some of the most popular game shows of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, we are drawn to beloved programs like Name That Tune, The Gong Show, The Price is Right, The Newlywed Game and What’s My Line? Of the five shows mentioned here, the hosts have predominantly been white men. There have been exceptions to this rule (cue Betty White on Just Men!), but the trend is unarguably clear.

Additionally, game shows have long utilized women as props. Cut to the images of 26 models in identical dresses holding briefcases on Deal or No Deal or Vanna White revealing letters in full glamour on Wheel of Fortune. In each of these cases, women are essential to the smooth operation of the program, yet they sometimes utter few words or no words at all throughout the show’s duration. Perhaps show creators utilize women in this way to hold viewers’ attention throughout the episode. The solution I would propose, instead, is to put a little more effort into making the show’s content interesting in itself without promoting the idea of women as passive, silent assistants.

Today, the field appears to be shifting, with game show hosting no longer a profession strictly open to white men. On NBC alone, Black-ish star Anthony Anderson leads To Tell the Truth, Steve Harvey hosts Celebrity Family Feud and Michael Strahan drives The $100,000 Pyramid.

In many cases, women are also moving away from supporting roles and towards leading ones. Ellen DeGeneres is the face behind Ellen’s Game of Games on NBC, where contestants are put through a series of physical and trivia challenges that typically end with some sort of slime. Similarly, Elizabeth Banks hosts ABC’s Press Your Luck, where players have the opportunity to win money, travel, vehicles, “coffee for life” and more. Further, Jane Lynch guides a group of contestants and celebrities alike through pop culture-centered trials in Hollywood Game Night on NBC.

As game shows begin to reflect more accurately the demographics of the American population, they fortify the proposition that one need not be a white male in order to occupy that suave, enviable position of host.

Despite this type of progress, many television networks are looking to the past for inspiration. Revivals of Match Game, Pyramid and The Joker’s Wild (now hosted by Snoop Dogg) have premiered in recent years. As streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu are moving forward by pouring funds into their own original content, cable networks seem to be stepping backwards in an effort to unearth their glory days.

Even as they evolve, game shows remain classic, reminding us of a time that was less muddled by technology yet also decidedly less equitable. Either way, we are drawn to them by the dazzling opportunity to walk away with a fortune after only a half hour’s work, a fantasy we’d love to see come to fruition in our own lives but one we’ll settle for experiencing vicariously.


Megan Pontin is a freshman in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected].