Nicole Apelian & More On Gender Bias in the Wilderness

While living in a hut on Vancouver Island for History’s popular reality-TV series Alone, Nicole Apelian fished for salmon alongside a family of black bears and listened to packs of wolves howling into the night. She was stalked by a cougar on multiple occasions. “I slept with my knife next to me and my axe by the door of my shelter,” she said of her experience on the show, which sends contestants into the remote wilderness to film themselves without a camera crew as they try to survive. It wasn’t fear of wild animals that made Apelian keep weapons at her bedside: Bears, wolves, cougars—they’re all predictable, she explains. Apelian was worried about humans.

“I was in a cove by myself in the middle of nowhere and there are boats around,” she said. “My main concern was, boy, if someone knows I’m here and comes by—.” She continued, “It’s a scary thing, having lived through that more than once: violence perpetrated on me by men, which I was sometimes able to stave off and sometimes wasn’t.”

This particular fear never made it on television, but it was plainly visible to me while watching the show. The potential terrors of the series are many: it equips 10 people with camera gear and limited survival equipment, drops them off in the woods, and dangles the prize of $500,000 for the contestant who lasts the longest. The show features close encounters with fearsome predators and grisly injuries involving everything from axes to fishing hooks. Still, as I binged all seven seasons over the course of a couple months and daydreamed about stepping into a pair of camo rain boots and making my own gill net, it wasn’t the prospect of being pounced on by a mountain lion that interrupted the fantasy, but rather the specter of some creep finding me in the woods.

Much of my obsessive love for Alone revolves around elementary examples of upending traditional notions of gender: a woman chopping wood, a woman skinning a porcupine, a woman building a shelter. It isn’t that I doubted women’s ability to excel at those tasks, it’s just thrilling to actually see it—and bittersweet to imagine what it might have meant to see it sooner. (It is no surprise that the women of Alone report receiving scads of fan mail from little girls, and their parents, who view them as role models.) Ultimately, though, my Alone reveries are about transcending gender; being a person, just a person, in nature. But the women on the show never fully escape womanhood, whether it’s in their actual survival experiences or the intrusions of “real world” gendered realities or the editing of the show or the sexist fan reactions or even my own identified projections.

There is no escaping the realities, and resonances, of a woman alone. You can disconnect, go off-grid, and thrive in the remote wilderness, and yet a Zodiac boatload of gendered baggage often follows.

Although I discovered Alone on Netflix, it comes from History, a cable channel known for pseudoscientific documentaries like Ancient Aliens, as well as chest-puffing reality-TV enterprises such as Ax Men (“loggers across America are putting everything they have on the line to pull through and keep their businesses afloat”). Collectively, its slate of shows gazes romantically toward a traditional bygone era of manhood and America, while occasionally regarding contemporary reality through the lens of conspiracy (see: documentaries on Bigfoot, UFOs, and “10 Ways the World Will End”).

It is no surprise that History would launch a show that concocts a scenario in which traditionally masculine skills save the day. It’s the reality-TV version of another of the channel’s shows, The Men Who Built America: Frontiersmen, a documentary about men who “set forth across uncharted land with determination and self-reliance.” In fact, the first season of Alone featured 10 men and zero women. It was only with season two that women were introduced to the series, and each season since has been marginally co-ed, with no more than three women. It remains overwhelmingly white.

Some fans of the show reacted skeptically to the post hoc inclusion of women. Callie North, who appeared on season three, observed of the social media viewer backlash, “A lot of the comments were, ‘There’s no way women can do this. They can’t handle it with their menstruation, it’s going to cause emotional upset.’” The women on the show did more than just handle it. “It’s incredible how the narrative changed as the women, time and again, proved themselves to be not only equal, but also superior survivalists on average to the men,” she said.

Now—SPOILERS AHEAD—no woman has ever won the show. However, women competitors’ averages are better: By my calculations, they last slightly longer than men: 49 days versus 36. (I relied on Wikipedia’s record-keeping and excluded season four because it featured teams of two.) An attempt to make anything of such a score can, optimistically, serve for commentary on socialized gender differences, but it also can involve broad generalizations around biological differences and risks verging into dangerously essentialist territory.

In the early 1990s, research emerged showing that nearly twice as many women as men survived in the Donner Party, the group of pioneers who famously resorted to cannibalism. Researchers suggested that women benefited from greater body fat and a lower metabolism. The research also led to questionable interpretations—with no care toward distinctions of nature and nurture—about “a female temperament that relies more on cooperation than aggression,” as an Associated Press article put it at the time.

Two decades later, the author of a book on the Donner Party spoke to the emotional component of survival in less deterministic terms, noting in an interview that “the men fell apart psychologically much more readily than the women did.” Of course, even without offensive references to “female temperament,” observations around emotional capabilities are often used to trap women, and men, in expected roles.

Commenters in Alone’s Reddit community have highlighted the emotional demands often placed on women, while speculating about the early breakdowns of a few of the married men: “[W]e are seeing what happens to men who rely on their wives to do all their emotional labor. It’s not healthy. Meanwhile the women [on the show] are getting a break from doing emotional labor, lol.” (Another commenter responded, “You’re right! I was trying to figure out why many of the women seem so joyful, almost giddy. I think it’s because they’re getting a break from all the bullshit.”)

For Apelian, there is a thread of truth here, which she explicitly attributes to socialization. “Women seem to deal with emotions better and a lot of that is how we’re raised in Western society,” she said. One of the biggest challenges of Alone is the stillness of solitude, she explains. “We all have grief, we all have trauma, and that comes up when you’re by yourself and you don’t have any distractions,” she said. “When that stuff comes up, [women are] better equipped to deal with the emotion that arises.”

Recently, I drove my car around the corner from my home, parked in front of a stranger’s house, and sat talking to my therapist on the phone. It was the first time I’d left for my weekly therapy session instead of hiding in the bedroom while my husband took Zoom calls down the hall. Rain pelted down on my windshield, helpfully concealing the crying inside. My eyes were leaking about social deprivation, about only seeing friends at a sanitized, outdoor, mask-shielded distance, about the rigidity and lack of casual touch. Then I started talking about Alone.

“Everyone thinks it’s going to just be about finding food and shelter, but then they get hit with the isolation,” I said, laughing at myself, realizing I was crying to my therapist about a reality-TV show. “They miss their families, their communities. They start to lose themselves, their grip on reality. They can’t stand the psychological impact of being alone.”

Ironically, I realized my tears were equally about the fact of rarely ever being alone in the midst of a pandemic-induced domestic retreat that continues to feel suffocating even with my 3-year-old recently returning to childcare. Alone underscores my need for other people, but it also nurtures a fantasy of running away from my family, if only for a couple hours. I wanted the opportunity to miss them. Even admitting such a wish feels verboten, but the mothers on Alone go many leaps and bounds further.

“I don’t leave my kids that often,” said Apelian, “but when I’ve had to leave for extended periods of time, I have heard from men and women, ‘How could you leave your kids for that length of time?’” This was true of her two seasons on Alone, as well as a recent survival competition that she filmed in Bulgaria. When Apelian was married, her husband would leave for work trips for similar lengths of time and never get any flak. “No one ever said a word,” she said. In the end, she tapped out of season two because of her children. As she put it through tears on-camera, “I need to get home to my kids… it’s been over two months I’ve been away from them and I know they need me, I just feel it in my gut, but I love it here. I feel like I could just stay.”

“If at the time I had been married with a partner who was fully engaged, that might have been different,” she told me. When she left, Apelian had only lost 10 pounds, she says, and still had food left to eat.

Of course, the dads on the show are not met with opprobrium for heading out into the woods. As North, who was raised by a single mom, wryly puts it, “Fathers abandoning their children is such a common narrative that it’s not surprising.” North, who does not have children, said of the mothers on the show, “It’s a pretty powerful statement, which is, ‘I can do this as a mother, I can take a journey for myself and leave my kids with my husband or partner.’ It’s shifting the narrative around those double-standards and ideas around what constitutes being a ‘good mom,’ which is the full sacrifice of the self.” Of course, the pandemic has only further institutionalized maternal sacrifice with women dropping out of the paid workforce at dramatic rates to provide childcare at home, which is predicted to “set women back a generation.”

Watching seven seasons in quick succession, I noticed a frequent refrain from the men on the show: They wanted to make their families proud, they didn’t want to disappoint them, and they wanted to take care of them with the prize money. During season five, Sam Larson tells the camera that he wants to prove to his wife, who is home providing childcare, that he’s capable of doing more than just scraping by financially, that he can bring home that $500,000. Clearly, it is not just women carrying gendered baggage into the woods. Often, the show feels like a search for masculine meaning, for fathers especially, that shuttles between prehistoric romanticism and a 1950s vision of the bacon-bringing provider.

I’m reminded of the mythopoetic men’s movement, which arose in the 1990s in response to a purported masculinity crisis blamed on industrialization and feminist gains. The movement sent mostly privileged white men into the woods for weekend wilderness retreats, ironically addressing the theoretical problem of men abandoning the domestic sphere for work—which supposedly left boys under the problematically “feminine” influence of mothers—by having men abandon their families to go “wild” in the woods. As I recently wrote for Jezebel, these retreats were criticized at the time by feminist men for not only regarding “anthropological literature like post-modern tourists” but also shirking parental responsibility in favor of “stomping through the wood.”

Alone offers a contemporary reboot: a “wild” escape with the potential validation of a big paycheck, one earned outside of the masculine alienation of modern times that History so successfully targets.

The fortitude of the women on the show seems to have marginally changed some viewers’ minds. As one poster on the Alone Reddit thread put it, “[T]he way women have performed on this show has already made me modernize what I had thought was already a modern mindset. …. At some point you just have to admit you were wrong and I was.” For Apelian, appearing on the show, and ending up among the final contestants on her season, has given her a level of “street cred” where men now take her seriously at gatherings where she teaches classes in bushcraft, which is the practice of skills used for survival in the wilderness.

“That has not always been the case,” she said. “In the past, there was a lot more of, ‘Let me do that, honey. Let me show you how to make that fire.’” To get respect, she says, “I had to do a lot more than a guy would have had to, one-hundred percent, hands down.”

The world of survivalism is built upon the repudiation of a supposedly increasingly “feminized” world. In a 2016 journal article, author Casey Ryan Kelly examined National Geographic’s reality show Doomsday Preppers, arguing that it “constructs hegemonic masculinity as a set of survival tools, an antidote for a crumbling and emasculated society.” More broadly, she argued that “theatric performances of masculinity in popular culture have intensified the crisis motif to cultivate anticipation of an apocalyptic event that promises a final resolution to white male alienation.”

Kelly cited Alone, along with the survival shows Man vs. Wild and Naked and Afraid, and scripted programs like The Walking Dead, as examples of pop culture “[stoking] male prepper fantasies.” She argued that “apocalyptic manhood” emerges through these “mediated performances that confirm the necessity of masculine skills as modern society meets its demise.”

In practice, many Alone contestants subscribe less to the culture of survivalism than to bushcraft, which seeks to commune with, rather than to conquer, nature. It also borrows from indigenous knowledge, raising questions about cultural appropriation. The aim of practitioners is to develop “a deep knowledge of ecology, political and cultural history,” while “working closely with indigenous practitioners as a shared community of practice,” writes Lisa Fenton in a 2016 doctoral thesis. However, bushcraft initially arose from colonizers’ use—and then appropriation and codification—of indigenous knowledge “to negotiate challenging and unfamiliar terrain.”

Fenton suggests the possibility of interpreting the modern popularity of bushcraft, in which Bushcraft 101: A Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival became a New York Times bestseller, through a Marxist lens of alienation, in which the practice serves as a means of “reasserting personal, embodied, creative productivity in direct relationship with nature.” In this framework, there is a tragic irony: “the industrial-military project of colonialism spawned the knowledge and practices that provide a counter-current to its alienating ideologies of commodification and consumerism.”

Outside of the show, many Alone contestants are thoughtful about this history, as well as the current reality of skills workshops dominated by white practitioners. (Again, Alone’s contestants are not just overwhelmingly men but also white.) “That’s a huge issue,” said Woniya Thibeault of season six, who considers herself a “wilderness living” practitioner and provides scholarships to “indigenous, black, and transgender people” for her educational skills workshops. “Some do not want to hear it and have a lot of white fragility and are very entitled.” Of course, Alone does not highlight the existence of these tensions. The most that can be said of the latest season is that it acknowledges the setting of the Great Slave Lake as the home of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation community.

Whatever marginally progressive messages emerge in the show often seem to only serve dramatic purposes. Take the way Alone regularly undermines the usefulness of traits traditionally associated with masculinity—like, say, boastful arrogance. Early on in season six, a contestant named Tim Backus, a professional hunting guide, jokes on-camera about how some of his fellow contestants, all of whom had met beforehand, were “wood nymphs and forest sages, like larping, magic spells or whatever,” and then jokingly asked a tree permission to cut it down (“Hey baby, how you doin’, mind if I cut your kids down?”). He was the first contestant that season to tap out, after just four days, because of a critical leg injury. Thibeault, one of the “wood nymphs,” was in the final two, lasting 73 days.

In the end, she left while tearfully telling the camera, “I’ve loved being here with every fiber of my being and I don’t really want to leave, but my body is done.” Thibeault continued, “I’ve never felt so deeply connected to any place on earth in my life,” she said. “We live in this culture that puts winning and puts money on top of everything, so to make a choice to let go of the idea of that in favor of self-care, that’s the message I want to leave here with.”

It isn’t just women contestants doing the “tree hugging.” There are contestants like Dave Nessia, who weeps over having to kill animals to survive, and who appeared on the show twice, lasting a cumulative 109 days; and the Thoreau-citing Alan Kay, the winner of season one, who tells the camera, “Man battling against nature—any man that does that is going to die. You have got to learn to work with it.” There are men who figuratively “hug trees” and men who, sometimes literally, scream at them (a man named Larry unleashes on one). Thibeault notes that traditional notions of masculinity “don’t necessarily come with humility.” She added, “You’re not going to kick nature’s butt, are you kidding me?”

Alone does a good job of highlighting the absurdity of such attitudes, all of it coming from men, but that isn’t to say that the show does justice to its women contestants. “The editing reflects the gender biases of our world,” she said. “There’s a lot of awesome, awesome women [on the show], but it almost feels like it’s in spite of the show rather than helped by the show.” She feels that season six’s Nikki van Schyndel, “a really strong, capable woman,” was edited to look “really bubbling, they highlighted all of her accidents.” (She was shown accidentally cutting her hand with an axe, stabbing herself with an arrow, and getting bitten by a squirrel.) Similarly, Michelle Wohlberg from the same season “is incredibly strong and they didn’t show a lot of her amazing stuff, but they showed her so sick and weak and missing her son,” said Thibeault.

The show features extensive discussion across all seasons of bodily fluids, including discomfort and concern due to constipation from lack of food, but not menstruation, despite all of the women I interviewed mentioning it. “I bled for half the time I was out there: 60 days and I had three periods,” said Apelian. “I never really had painful cramps until then. It’s something you’re dealing with on top of everything else.” She added, “You’re losing not only calories, that’s energy.” In this exclusion, the show makes the experience of having a uterus seems aberrant, unrelatable.

The production had “blind spots,” as North put it. She notes that there were no women on the support crew that came out to visit her every few weeks to make sure that she was healthy enough to continue. “Sometimes it would be just one man coming out to check on you. I look back now and see how that’s pretty inappropriate,” she said. “It’s all men who cannot possibly relate to the complexity of your individual experience.”

Of course, the “gender biases of our world,” as Thibeault put it, are reflected in viewer reactions, no matter how formidable women contestants have proven themselves to be. “Still, to this day, there’s so many comments based around the looks of the women on the show,” said North. She was shocked by the criticism she received after her season aired. “There was so much sexism, so much vitriol,” she said. Shortly after being dropped off by boat at a secluded location in Patagonia, North was shown taking off her clothes to go for a dip. “So many things I did on that show, they had a double standard. ‘Oh, jumping in the water naked, how dare you. How dare you show your body on TV,’” she said. Meanwhile, multiple men have done similarly, and uneventfully.

A few weeks ago, after binging Alone, I woke up at the crack of dawn, tiptoed out of the house before the toddler was up, and drove over an hour north of the Bay Area to an isolated beach on a bay. I was meeting up with a friend of mine, a fellow mom. It was months in the making: A full stretch of morning with our respective husbands providing childcare and on a weekend of smoke-free air. My friend wasn’t showing up until later, though: I had set my alarm for an ungodly hour with the idea of having solo time to go “wild,” which is to say: sit in a camp chair and read a book by myself.

Except, I could hear a group of men in a neighboring cove laughing and burping performatively. It was 8 a.m. My cell phone had no reception. I’d hiked 20 minutes through the woods down to the beach. I thought of the knife and axe Apelian kept by the entry of her shelter, because of those fishing boats off the coast. Then I thought of North who had told me of her own worries about “some creepo” finding her in remote Patagonia. I rolled up my pants and waded into the clear, icy water, carefully navigating between undulating purple jellyfish the size of a dinner plate. “I feel very safe when I’m around wildlife,” Apelian had said.

When my friend showed up, we sat six feet apart, talking about the suffocating domesticity of our respective quarantines for two hours straight. Then she decided to head home to relieve her husband of childcare. “You go ahead, I think I’m going to stay,” I told her, checking the time and wishing I could text my husband to see how things were going at home. I feel like I could just stay.

The burping men were gone. The beach was empty. I put on my bathing suit, wishing I had the nerve to go naked, and waded into the water, breathing through my teeth, until I could lift my feet behind me. Then I dove below the surface, as eelgrass licked at my toes, and the cold swallowed me whole. I resurfaced, sputtering, and let out an uncontrollable yelp followed by a childlike giggle that echoed off the cliffside. I’m glad there were no cameras around.