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'Jeopardy!' sexist uproar revives old charges, gets a 'Top Ten'

"Jeopardy" host Alex Trebek and Julia Collins, 31, the winningest woman in "Jeopardy" history in terms of consecutive games won. Now, the show's under fire for a sexist category question. Photo Credit: AP / Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions Inc.

A sexist category on "Jeopardy!'s" Monday edition — "What Women Want" — has suddenly put one of the world's most successful programs under a harsh spotlight, and worse, revived an old debate about a supposed gender bias in the categories.

Worse still: It got the "Top Ten" treatment on "Late Show with David Letterman" Wednesday night.

"What Women Want" arrived as a category Monday, and it didn't take long for a social media wildfire to ensue: Hard to say where the first spark came from, but website the Jane Doze tweeted, "ARE YOU SERIOUS @Jeopardy?," which was then retweeted by Sophia Bush.

Boom! And that's all it took. The uproar continues. But get beyond the offensiveness of the question and answers (did I read somewhere "A pair of jeans that fit well ..." Yes, umm, I did). HuffPo called this a "major sexist fail."

Not wrong, Huffpo. Not wrong.

There's irony and history mixed in here. Foremost, there's been a long history of gender bias accusations — recently mitigated, though not obliterated, by Julia Collins' 20-game winning streak that ended in June, and which placed her as the winningest woman in "Jeopardy!" history, and right behind Ken Jennings in consecutive wins.

In that brief moment, the talk wasn't about bias, but about whether "Jeopardy!" had finally gotten the monkey off its back: That the show was either biased in favor of male contestants, or that cultural conditioning had somehow made women less capable at this buzzer-beating beast than male ones.

The male/female question has been a long and fraught one here, and even led to sensational charges back in 1993 that "Jeopardy!" was "rigged" — an enormously dangerous word within the context of game shows for obvious reasons.

In his 1993 book, "Inside Jeopardy," a onetime show producer and writer named Harry Eisenberg charged that the show changed answers to favor women — or, in the Associated Press account at the time, "Harry Eisenberg, a former writer for the popular show, says in a new book that clues and topics were altered at the last minute to be more 'female-friendly,' such as replacing a category on weapons with one on clothes."

And this: "We have an unaggressive female champion. Let's give her some easy stuff," [top show] producer George Vosburgh is quoted in the book as telling his staff before the taping of a June 20, 1989. On one occasion, questions about basketball star Michael Jordan were replaced with questions about ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov."

The charges were potentially devastating — Federal law prohibits the manipulation of game shows questions and answers to affect an outcome (go to Netflix or Amazon to watch Robert Redford's Oscar winner, "Quiz Show," for the background on the most famous scandal of them all).

Then, it got really nasty. Merv Griffin Enterprises, which produced the show, said in a statement: "We're very proud of the quality and fairness of 'Jeopardy!'. The allegations are hollow and the comments concerning the host and producers of the program unfounded and offensive."

Then, host Alex Trebek called the allegations "a sleazy campaign to sell books that seek to destroy the integrity and popularity" of the program, as reported in Newsday at the time.

The show said Eisenberg — a writer there from 1984 to 1991 — was disgruntled over backpay and held a vendetta against the top producer. "A vicious vendetta," said Trebek, who conceded that changes were made to categories — as Newsday again reported — for "'legitimate reasons,' such as a clue's similarity to one from a recent program, or one that is in poor taste. 'There is nothing sinister, illegal, or unethical,''" he said."

A year later the publisher of the book sued Trebek for defamation. But the book was largely forgotten ... until this post.

Meanwhile, the gender bias issue has not been forgotten. The show — seen mostly by women, according to Nielsen figures — was the subject of a Slate investigation in March that began with this:

Last week, Alex Trebek appeared on Fox News to talk about latest Jeopardy! mastermind Arthur Chu and to speculate as to why women are less likely to win at the game than men are. “Women contestants, when it comes to a Daily Double, seem to want to wager [less] because they figure, ‘Oh, this is the household money, this is the grocery money, the rent money,’” Trebek said. “Guys say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m playing with the house money. I’m not taking any money home unless I win the game, so I can go whole hog on this wager.’ Women are more cautious in that regard.” But “that’s changing,” Trebek added. “We’ve attracted more women to the show ... and they’re getting a little more adventurous.”

The writers of the story, Ben Blatt and Amanda Hess, analyzed results from the vast fan-run-based website, "J! Archive," and "according to our data, women win Jeopardy! less often than men do. During the past 30 years, 39.9 percent of Jeopardy! contestants have been women, and they’ve won 30.3 percent of games."

It then got around to the Big Question:

So what accounts for the gender gap in Jeopardy! champions? It’s partly because there are fewer female contestants overall, but that doesn’t totally explain the difference. One possibility is that the questions themselves are gendered. (In our data set, women had a slightly lower rate of success than men on Daily Doubles, answering correctly 62.3 percent of the time compared to 67.8 percent for men.) The people who create Jeopardy! clues are overwhelmingly male: Male researchers on the show outnumber female ones 5 to 2, and male writers outnumber female ones 7 to 2."

There was nothing sinister or accusatory about the Slate piece, which was only looking into the wager discrepancy. But in light of "What Women Want," it takes on a whole new meaning.

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