How American Ninja Warrior Is Feminist
By now, you’ve probably seen the video of Jessie Graff become the first woman to complete stage one in the national Las Vegas finals. This was a long time coming as the show has been on for eight seasons, and it was nothing short of emotional. Graff’s run was a historical defeat for crushing gender stereotypes and revealing women’s strength, power, and capability. She’s become our new superhero! But, it’s important to note that she’s not superhuman because calling her superhuman reinforces the notion that women are not strong physically, that she must be superhuman to do what she did. Nope, Jessie Graff is not superhuman. She is a human who has trained long and hard to accomplish what she did. Other women can do it too and they will. Women are strong and capable while still being human and “everyday” people.
I'll admit, as a passionate nerd of American Ninja Warrior, I didn't even watch the show religiously until it had its sixth season. Before then, I had seen it here and there when I was at my parents, and it did appeal to me, but not in a way that kept me craving for more. It wasn't until Kacy Catanzaro, Michelle Warnky, and Meagan Martin became the first women to defeat the warped wall and complete a city qualifier's course when the show really grabbed my attention. While I enjoyed seeing the male ninjas, the huge gender disparity bothered me, so when more women started being on the show and advancing, I became an avid viewer and never looked back.
In the past few years, I've seen a lot of progress of the show and because of this progress, it's only become more enticing to me. The future has only introduced more women, and more women who dominate and shake up gender stereotypes because they show that women are strong, physically. In my interview with Meagan Martin, she said it beautifully, "Girls can be strong. There really are no limitations. You can do what you set your mind to." Catanzaro has been a huge example of this by challenging people's limiting beliefs about what small women are capable of when she destroyed the Dallas final's course in season six. I wrote about how the women of American Ninja Warrior shake up gender norms and sexist beliefs of women’s capabilites in my article, The Women of 'American Ninja Warrior' Challenge Gender Stereotypes.
I am drawn to American Ninja Warrior because of my love for individual sports and sports that are not in the mainstream, because the women (and every athlete) are empowering to watch, but also because it has striking feminist elements. In this blog post, I'm going to dive deeper into these ways that American Ninja Warrior is feminist!
A Gender-Neutral Platform
Perhaps one of the most appealing and talked about reasons why fans love American Ninja Warrior is because of its egalitarian gender-neutral playing field where all genders compete on the same course. This is a rarity in sports, and American Ninja Warrior is shaping the future of athletics by creating a gender-neutral platform and showing that being a strong, incredible athlete has nothing to do with one's gender. The ninja warrior women I've talked with are drawn to this genderless platform too and wouldn't have it any other way. It helps take away the nonsense of being a gendered athlete. The women on the show are not here to be great women athletes, they are here to be great athletes, period, just as the men have always been thought to be.
As an intersectional feminist, I'm always looking at and trying to be more aware of intersectional representation. Another awesome reason to love American Ninja Warrior is that its competitors are diverse in a myriad of ways. Historically, the representation of women has been lacking on the show, but it's increased hugely in the past few years and will only continue to do so. There are athletes of various races, ethnicities and backgrounds. It's not just White athletes being represented. There are a number of Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American ninjas who compete too. Disabled athletes are represented as well, both ones with invisible and visible disabilities.
Sexuality is the one area of diversity that is not represented much on American Ninja Warrior, but, as a queer-identified individual, I will admit that displaying one's sexuality, as an athlete, is not always necessary and complex. Since heterosexism pervades society, representation of LGBTQIA folks is crucial. This is hard to portray through athletics, however. Sexuality and sexual identity is one's private matter, and is not relevant to one's athletic performance. Should every athlete who is queer/gay come out as queer/gay? I don't believe so, and we still need to have more queer representation in the media and eliminate heterosexism. American Ninja Warrior had its first and only (so far) OUT gay athlete in its military episode in 2015. In his story, Deon Graham, a Black gay man Naval officer, talked about how working out helped him come out about being gay.
American Ninja Warrior also represents athletes from various class backgrounds and professions. One of the aspects that makes the show stand apart from other sports is that we're seeing "everyday" people training for and competing on a seriously tough obstacle course. These are not high profile athletes who are being paid millions of dollars. In fact, the ninjas aren't being paid at all, not even the top veterans. This is a controversial matter all on its own, but what's impressive is that while these athletes do not get paid, some of them perform some of the best athleticism ever seen across all athletic fields. Most of these ninjas have full-time jobs, families, and other commitments, and, yet, still find the time to train to try to be the next American Ninja Warrior. Some of the ninjas have dealt with a lot of challenges in their lives whether it's battling an illness, being there for their loved ones' struggles, or had to overcome abuse.
Also, while the athletes shown on American Ninja Warrior have been cisgendered, I am predicting that there will be trans and/or genderqueer ninjas in the next year or so.
The Show Believes In Women
Some fans have a problem with the wildcard selections being given to women on the show. But, if the show didn’t do this, then they would be perpetuating a huge gender disparity that they had in the first several years of the show. Bijan Nowroozian, co-host of Armchair Ninja Podcast, said it best, "We want to see more women excel at the sport. This gives us more opportunities to see women compete. If you want to see a guy make it to the wildcard, it's like 'Come on! How many men are already competing in the finals? Give the women a chance!" The women need more opportunity in order to be able to advance further. And the producers believe in the women plain and simple. They believe in the women’s physical abilities and want to give them the opportunity to perform their capabilities in Vegas. In the future, there will be more of a gender balance when it comes to receiving wildcards because more women will qualify for the national finals.
The Women Steal the Show
We could argue that it’s the women who have increased the show’s ratings. After Kacy, Meagan, and Michelle gave the fans what they’ve been waiting for, their performances got more people interested in watching. With Kacy’s city final’s course run going viral, everyone and their long lost cousin had heard of the show. The wins of Issac Calidiero and Geoff Britten are most likely responsible for increasing interest in season eight, but these women making history mostly likely boosted the ratings for season seven. So far in season eight, Jessie Graff has been the main attraction with all eyes on her hoping that she would be the first woman to beat stage one in Vegas, and she delivered!
While the show has struggled with a huge gender disparity, it’s taken an active approach in accepting more women to compete and airing more of their performances. Season eight has shown more women on the show than ever before. The women were the stars of the Philly city final’s episode as they focused on the four women who qualified for it. Never before had four women qualified for a city final’s course in the same city (prior to this defeat, the number had been two and that was also in season eight in LA). This was a historical feat that was worth great attention, and I believe the more attention women get on American Ninja Warrior, the more women there will be on the show. More girls and women will be inspired to train and apply for an opportunity to run the course, and the more women there are, the more of a chance there will be for women to go far, really far. But, seeing more women on the show isn’t just inspiring to girls and women, it’s important for boys and men to see women as physically strong and capable. This crushes gender stereotypes that are harmful to our society. When women are being treated as equal and living their potential, or at least trying, the world is a better place.
Also, as Rich Carroll, co-host of Armchair Ninja Podcast, pointed out, Tyler Yamaguchi was inspired to train and apply to be on the show because of Kacy Catanzaro. When Tyler, at 5'1", saw that Catanzaro (5'0") was perfectly capable of beating the warped wall, he knew that height did not have to be an obstacle and that he could dominate the wall too. Boys and men are just as inspired by women and they should be. Girls have grown up having both women and men s/heroes, it’s time boys grow up having sheroes too!
Also, the truest fans of American Ninja Warrior are all about the women! When I was at the Vegas finals taping this summer of season eight, most of the fans, men and women, I watched the performances with were the biggest fans of women. When the women were up to run the course, the fans were on their feet, ready and loud. Every fan I spoke to had high hopes for these women. I asked the fans who their favorite ninja was, and there was always a woman on the list.
When it was Jessie Graff’s turn to crush the course, every eye there was watching her like a hawk. This was one of the women we had expected to finally beat stage one. Chills were running down my spine and I got quiet because I knew that what was about to happen could be a huge milestone for women. This is what I came here for, to watch a woman complete stage one. After Graff jumped onto that cargo net and became the first woman to hit that buzzer, I met eyes with another woman fan and tears were running down both of our cheeks. This was an emotional defeat that will help pave the way for more to succeed. But, it wasn’t just emotional for the women, every single person despite their gender were excited beyond words for what they just witnessed. The fans were roaring. I stood next to a man who was also dying to see Jessie Graff’s run, and he said with full confidence, “She could win the whole thing. I think she will be the American Ninja Warrior."
I wish it weren’t so, but I’ve been in athletic spaces my whole life, and as a woman, it’s rare to be in a mixed gendered community where people get the most excited about the women and believe in them whole heartedly. On the Wolfpack Ninja Podcast and the Armchair Ninja Podcast, the hosts give full honor and respect to the women ninjas and treat them as equals. It’s refreshing to listen to, especially since most of these podcast hosts are men.
At the Vegas taping this year, I sat next to a ninja from Sweden and he told me how much of a ninja nerd he was of all of the ninja warrior competitions. I asked him what he thought about Jessie Graff and he replied excitedly, “Oh, she’s my ninja crush!” Jessie Graff is, now, everyone’s ninja crush, and how awesome is it that a woman is finally society’s superhero? Now, Hollywood doesn’t have to look far to find a real life superhero. She’s right in front of our eyes.
It Promotes Solidarity
Believing in women and treating them like equals creates solidarity, and American Ninja Warrior has solidarity like I’ve hardly seen in any athletic community. As a fan only, I don’t know what it’s actually like to be a ninja in the community, but from everything I’ve heard, read about, and witnessed, the ninjas show unconditional positive support of one another. While American Ninja Warrior is a competition and the ninjas are competing against the course and others to ensure their spot to Vegas and be the fastest up stage four to claim that million dollars, the competition is friendly. In fact, it’s the friendliest athletic competition I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.
One great example of this solidarity that I was fortunate to witness was during the taping of the USA vs the World competition. Don’t worry, I won’t spill any of the beans, but I will say that the ninjas and fans were cheering for each athlete whether they were from the USA or not. This kind of friendly, supportive competition is absolutely beautiful. When else do we see this happening? Unfortunately, that isn’t translated much when you watch it on TV, but it’s extremely apparent in-person.
The ninja community is strong, united, and welcoming to everyone. I wrote about the solidarity between the women competitors in my Bitch Flicks article, but I'll mention, again, that this solidarity is powerful and creates a positive influence for women, feminism, and society.
It’s important to note that while these are some ways I believe American Ninja Warrior is feminist, I am sure there are ways in which the show is not. Most of our favorite TV shows could step up their feminist game and be more inclusive, socially aware, and give better representation. We can only hope that American Ninja Warrior will continue to be a powerful, feminist example for the future of sports.
Note: Diversity behind the camera is just as important as diversity in front of the camera. I don’t have the numbers of how diverse the crew is of American Ninja Warrior, so I can only speak from what I've seen at the three tapings of the show I attended. I saw a number of camerawomen, some women course testers and creators. From what I could tell, the crew was predominately white. If anyone reading has the actual stats on this, please share in the comments!