Remember When I Said This Season Was Jeopardy’s Year of The Woman?
I Didn’t Realize How Right I Was
Yesterday, after a Final Jeopardy in the category LET’S SPEAK ITALIAN that no one was able to answer correctly, Daniel Nguyen a high school math teacher from San Jose became champion with $7,199. It was, by all standards, an utterly unremarkable game except for a detail that I’m certain none of the millions of fans of Jeopardy even those who have been who have been watching for decades, might have known. Daniel was the first man to win a game on Jeopardy since April 5th, a period lasting 27 games a streak is unheard of in the shows nearly thirty-eight year history.
Now admittedly, this may appear less impressive when you consider the fact that Mattea Roach won twenty three of those games — I’m reminded of a statement that after Jim and Gaylord Perry broke the all-time record for most combined wins in MLB by two brothers, a sportswriter said: “Cy Young and his sister still have them beat.” (Of course, as any Jeopardy fan worth his salt knows eventually the Perrys did win more combined games than Cy Young and his sister, but let’s not get bogged down on semantics.) I’d argue that this is even slightly more impressive than Amy Schneider’s streak of 40 wins earlier this season, because it is testament to a far greater theme that has been going on throughout Season 38 of Jeopardy.
I’ve watched Jeopardy for more than thirty years and have been a scholar of the game for the past decade, and I have known for a very long time that Jeopardy has a female champion problem. There have been years where I have seen Tournaments of Champions where they have featured only a single female champion and have never seen one where there have ever been more female champions than males. These tournaments start with fifteen champions: if in any given year, the ratio of male to female is two to one, it’s kind of astonishing. While part of this does have to do with the fact that it is very difficult to win at least five games on Jeopardy as a rule, it doesn’t change the fact that for pretty much the first thirty years of the shows existence — probably a little longer, if I’m being honest — the average ratio of male champions to female ones in a Tournament of Champions was often, at best, three to one.
Before Season 38 the world was outraged at the controversy over Mike Richards and his sexist behavior as producer of Jeopardy which ended up costing him. In an article last August I argued in the strongest possible terms that the show’s far greater problem was the fact that there weren’t enough women appearing in the contestant’s arena. While I won’t go so far as to say the problem has been permanently solved yet, it’s very hard not to look at the play and the champions that have won this season and not somehow think that their has been — without anyone noticing it — at least a partial rectification of this problem.
In the 174 games that have been played so far this season (counting today’s) 97 have been won by a female contestant. That ratio is actually more impressive when you discount the ten games that made up the Professor’s Tournament last December. And while, yes, a great number of these wins are credited to Amy Schneider and Mattea Roach, there are quite a few female champions who have done quite well though it remains to see how many of them will qualify for the Tournament of Champions next fall.
In March, four women managed the impressive feat of each winning four games: Christine Whelchel, who won $73,602; Margaret Shelton, who won $79,700; Maureen O’Neill, who won $58,100 and Jackie Kelly, who won a very impressive $115,100. Based on the qualifications for Tournaments where five games guarantee you a spot and four is questionable, it’s hard to know how many will make it: Maureen may have been eliminated when Mattea won her fifth game in early April. (The fact that Jackie’s 4 day total is greater than Tyler Rhode’s five game total of 105,901 makes her the likeliest of the four women in this scenario to qualify regardless of how the last of the season plays out.) While Christine may also end up being eliminated (her four day score is now the lowest of the champions) she managed to accomplish the notable feat of being only the fourth Jeopardy player to win her match in a Tiebreaker round.
Another player, Emma Saltzberg, managed to win three games and $54,199 before being defeated by Lawrence Long, another three game winner. And some female contestants will have places in the annals of Jeopardy for other reasons. Danielle Maurer, of course, will be known as the woman who managed by $1 to dethrone Mattea Roach. Nancy Donehower has a niche a somewhat dubious distinction: she unseated eleven game champion Jonathan Fisher and the next day was defeated by Tyler Rhode, who won 5 games. And a female champion this week will no doubt be remembered for another reason: Mallory Kass, who defeated Danielle Maurer, almost casually mentioned that she wrote the first story in the best-selling series of novels of YA Fiction and subsequent CW series The 100. (Credit to her for saying that appearing on Jeopardy was far cooler than having one of the most famous series in books and television.)
Has Jeopardy solved its problems with female contestants? It’s going to take a lot more work than one season to say so. But on another related note, on at least a dozen occasions so far this season, I have seen games with three female contestants. My memory for the show’s history isn’t perfect and I have no intention going through all the archives to find out one way or the other but I am fairly certainly that this, too, is nearly unprecedented in the series history. The best way to have more female champions is to have more female contestants, and the more often they can fill the stage with female players, that can only help.
I am not naïve. I know all the accomplishments of women on Jeopardy don’t amount to a hill of beans compared to the problems that women are facing now and are going to face at an accelerated rate in the years to come. But in the small world of Jeopardy, a series that has been iconic for decades and has been dealing with its issues with female contestants for almost as long, I can only count this as a step in the right direction for a cultural institution that has had its problems with them both over its long history and recently.