On April 16, the BBC game show The Weakest Link comes to NBC. The show’s host, Anne Robinson, is abrasive, derisive, and British, which leads critics to wonder if American audiences will warm to her. But most likely, NBC isn’t worried about Robinson’s personality. American TV audiences are accustomed to abrasiveness, derision, and Brits. What they aren’t accustomed to are female game show hosts.
Numerous male emcees have achieved iconic status in American pop culture. Think Wink Martindale. Think Bob Barker. But for all the Martindales and Barkers, there is not a single Patricia Sajak, Alexandra Trebek, or Chick Woolery. Maybe this is a good thing. As Chuck Woolery told Newsweek in 1975, “Emceeing a game show is the dream of every DJ in America. And that’s who’s got the job—disk jockeys and television has-beens.” But shouldn’t women have the right to become TV has-beens, too?
In The Encyclopedia of TV Game Shows, the most frequent game-show role for women is “assistant,” “model,” “hostess,” or something worse. (There is no male equivalent for hostess.) Examples of “something worse”: Four women were cast as “pirate girls” on the 1956 show Treasure Hunt, and two women were cast as “dancing cigarette packs” on the 1953 show Judge for Yourself. Dixie Dunbar portrayed Old Gold Regular, and Floria Vestoff sizzled as Old Gold King Size. Perhaps things were different in Anne Robinson’s Britain? Alas, no. The 1974 edition of the British annual Mandy for Girls contains a section on “The ABCs of jobs for girls.” Right below the suitably feminist occupation of “Policewoman” is “Quizmaster’s Assistant.” The accompanying poem begins: “A quiz-master I’d like to be/ But as I am a girl, you see/ Perhaps I will apply to go/ As his assistant on his show.” (The rest of the poem is a gem. Click here to read it in its entirety.)
That said, Robinson isn’t the first woman game-show host. The Sally Ride of the business is Arlene Francis, who hosted Blind Date from 1949 to 1952. (Francis gained her greatest fame as a What’s My Line? panelist.) In fact, in the early days of television, there were a host of female hosts, none of whom were very successful. Gypsy Rose Lee briefly hosted a show called Think Fast in 1950. In 1953, Vera Vague hosted Follow the Leader and The Greatest Man on Earth. In 1954, the female host of Gamble on Love, Denise Darcel, lasted a month before being replaced by a man, Ernie Kovacs. She wasn’t the problem; the show lasted only another week.
After that brief flurry in the early ‘50s, female hosts largely wandered in the desert for 30 years until Betty White surfaced as the host of Just Men! in 1983. White won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Game Show Host that year, becoming the only woman to ever do so. (Vicki Lawrence, for Win, Lose, or Draw, and Susan Stafford, the original Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune, are the only other women to be nominated.) Three years later, Elaine Joyce was picked to host the All-New Dating Game. Joyce said the producers told her at the end of the season that they wanted a male host, and sure enough, they replaced her with Jeff MacGregor in 1987. Joyce sued for sex discrimination and settled out of court in 1992 for an undisclosed sum.
In the ‘90s, women continued to host game shows infrequently, and the shows for which they are selected reflect a 19th-century, separate-spheres concept of gender roles. For the most part, men host quiz shows—game shows about tests of knowledge. Nancy Pimental, the replacement for Jimmy Kimmel as co-host of Win Ben Stein’s Money, is the only woman to play a significant role on a successful quiz show. Women, on the other hand, are matchmakers (Annie Wood on the 1996-97 show Bzzz!), baby sitters (Summer Sanders on the Nickelodeon show Figure It Out), shoppers (Louise Duart on Lifetime’s short-lived Rodeo Drive), or cooks (Robin Young and Sissy Biggers on the Food Network’s Ready … Set … Cook!).
It’s hard to say who’s to blame. Lifetime’s mostly female audience preferred the network’s revitalization of Supermarket Sweep, which was hosted by David Ruprecht, to Duart’s Rodeo Drive. Was that the fault of the host or the show’s conceit? And it’s the mostly female daytime audience that’s been rewarding toothy, well-tanned Guy Smileys over the Vicki Lawrences and Betty Whites.
No one’s asking for a radical feminist sensibility to pervade the game-show cosmos. (Though a show called Steinem-MITE! hosted by Jimmie Walker might be the ticket. Plus it would solve another game-show inequity—only a handful of black men have hosted a game show. The Jackie Robinson of game shows is Adam Wade, who hosted Musical Chairs in 1975.) But it would be nice—and it would help Anne Robinson’s career—if game-show producers and viewers remembered: One is not born a game-show host. One becomes one.