Thursday, July 25, 2013

Jeopardy! Should Consider Women and People of Color

Watching Jeopardy! is a family tradition. My mother watched Jeopardy! with her maternal grandmother as a child, and the two would yell out the answers, my mother in English and my great-grandmother in her native Hungarian. After she got married, my mother watched Jeopardy! with my father, and the two always yelled answers at the screen. (Between the two of them, they always knew the whole board.) My parents raised me on a steady diet of a half-hour of Jeopardy! per day, and I’ve grown into a diehard Jeopardy! fan. I’ve even taken the online test to get onto the show, and have auditioned in-person a few times. (No luck getting onto the show yet. Let’s keep praying.)

Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy!, has announced that he’ll be retiring in 2016. Jeopardy! fans are eager to know who will be hosting the show after Trebek, so the blogosphere has been buzzing with the names of possible successors. Some candidates that have been mentioned so far are Matt Lauer, Anderson Cooper, Seth Meyers, Andy Richter, Ken Jennings, Brian Williams, and Dan Patrick.

If you didn’t notice, all of those as-of-yet named potential replacements are white men. Don't get me wrong - there’s nothing inherently wrong with having another white male host of Jeopardy!. However, it would be prejudiced and unfair for the casting directors to exclude women and people of color from the pool of possible hosts.

Jeopardy! doesn't have a great track record with race and gender relations, as it has been criticized for its mostly white and male contestant pool. Having watched hundreds of episodes, I can confirm that women and minorities are indeed underrepresented on the show. Out of the three competitors on every episode, there’s usually only one female player. Although a game played by three men is not uncommon, the biggest number of women I can remember seeing on an episode is two. People of color are even more uncommon than women on Jeopardy!; although you can usually count on at least one female player per show, you can’t expect the same for non-white contestants.

According to this very unscientific record that an avid Jeopardy! watcher kept over 78 episodes in 2001, there were 103 men (59%) and 71 women (41%) contestants. The race demographics are embarrassing: 161 white players (91.5%) versus 15 people of color (8.5%).

However, I’m not sure if it’s fair to blame the disproportionately low rates of women and people of color on the Jeopardy! casting directors. In order to compete on TV, hopeful contestants have to pass the online test, perform well at the in-person audition, and then be chosen by the casting directors. Only the people at Jeopardy! would know the demographics of who takes the online test and auditions, but I think that there’s a sex and race imbalance in who tries out. The three times that I auditioned for the high school tournament, about half of the students were male and half were female, but I don’t remember seeing any African-American or Hispanic teens. When my mother auditioned for regular Jeopardy!, she said there was a handful of women and no non-white people there. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, fewer women and people of color either take or pass the online test, and thereby don’t make it in big numbers to the audition round. As a result, I don’t feel comfortable blaming Jeopardy! for the low rates of women and minorities on the show.

However, I do feel comfortable blaming Jeopardy! for only considering white males as potential hosts of the show. Should a woman or person of color be chosen simply because of their gender or race? Of course not. But there are completely qualified female and non-white candidates who could succeed Trebek as host, and they should at least be considered. We're in the 21st century. It’s only fair.

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