Anyone who’s ever seen former “Real Housewives of Atlanta” star, attorney and noted schemer Phaedra Parks coolly dispatch castmates with a devastating comeback over lunch knows that she, like the Wu-Tang Clan, ain’t nuthin’ to mess with.

But on the current season of Peacock’s over-the-top reality star mystery game “The Traitors,” two-time “Big Brother” winner Dan Gheesling, considered a strategic mastermind, tried to throw her under the proverbial bus to save himself. It was the wrong move. He found that Parks’ competitive skills are sharp, even behind intricately coiffed hair and extra-long eyelashes.

“Yeah, I was like, man, I really wish I would’ve paid more attention,” Gheesling told Entertainment Weekly. Parks, who like him was a secret “Traitor” conducting fake murders and mayhem, masterfully talked her way out of being ousted and got him instead.

He didn’t see her as a threat because “everyone loved her.” But “Phaedra in hand-to-hand combat at that table shredded me up,” he said. I believe that’s because Gheesling, like lots of other men on reality shows, assumed he was in charge in his alliance with Parks, not only because he’s a man, but because he’s from a show with physical challenges that skew male.

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”Reality [TV] is a microcosm of society,” said Angela Rockstar, a Columbia resident who appeared on the 20th season of “Big Brother.” And she’s absolutely right. A 2021 Harvard Business Review story titled “When People Assume You’re Not In Charge Because You’re A Woman” begins with people constantly asking a female marketer when her male boss will arrive to start the meeting, but she doesn’t have one. They just assume she does.

That reminded me of a column I wrote last fall about how the media ignores Vice President Kamala Harris, in which I included an incident in which an older man I was interviewing assumed I was the secretary taking notes to hand over to a male reporter.

The Harvard Business Review piece refers to this phenomenon as “role incredulity,” because we’ve been trained by society to literally be incredulous that women can fill positions of authority like CEO or doctor. On reality shows, that translates to men assuming everyone will acquiesce to them, or drastically underestimating the strategic ability of female opponents because they don’t recognize what the women are doing as strategy.

“Truth be told, he [Gheesling] would have gotten Phaedra out first if he had seen her shows,” said Jerome Singletary of Pikesville, a former reality casting professional who worked on “The Real World,” “Road Rules” and the first season of “Big Brother.” “She’s a competitor. All the Housewives are. More screen time translates into a better paycheck. These Housewives bring more to the table than just a pretty face and a couple of cute wigs. She’s not one to sleep on.”

But Gheesling and other men across the genre do constantly sleep on female contestants, particularly those of color like Parks, and seem surprised when their assumptions are upended. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so depressing.

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Reality shows often value things that men — particular young and physically fit ones — are stereotypically good at, like running fast and lifting heavy things. They simultaneously downplay skills that women might excel at, like listening, or devalue their mastery as mindless flirting or weakness.

Take, for example, recent “The Traitors” conspirator Parvati Shallow, who came to fame on “Survivor” as the leader of an all-female alliance called the Black Widow Brigade. The group flirted, charmed and reassured their way to eliminating every male contestant, including a guy they talked into giving them his immunity necklace as a show of solidarity before swiftly voting him out. Brutal.

In that same Entertainment Weekly interview, Gheesling admitted that Shallow told him he was walking into the trap that eventually led to his ouster, and not only ignored her but didn’t even remember her advice. “You have one of the greatest ‘Survivor’ players knowing exactly what’s going on, and you don’t listen to her,” he said. As Shallow apparently texted him, “Yeah, dum-dum.’ ”

A 2023 study published in the journal Psychological Science showed that women and people of color got voted out early on “Survivor” because of “racial and gender bias when it comes to how contestants voted.” “Survivor” and “The Amazing Race” star and current public defender Eliza Orlins told the audience at a University of Daytona forum that the physical challenges on both shows “are certainly geared towards men” and that women “are perceived as weak.”

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Even some female players who excel in those physical tests seem to downplay the strengths of older or less fit colleagues. And I believe that Gheesling was more willing to work closely with Shallow, whose game he was more familiar with and respected, than with Parks, whose tactics he wrote off.

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I also think the fact that both Gheesling and Shallow are white made them naturally gravitate towards each other, which Pharaoh, a Houston podcaster whose The Reality Kingdom looks at the genre through a diverse lens, calls unconscious bias. Before shows like “Survivor” and “Big Brother” started consciously casting more contestants of color, he said, there would maybe be one non-white person on a tribe or in a house. And as that Psychological Science piece posits, those players were voted out first, in part, because their white competitors stuck together.

Even when it’s not about race, Pharoah agreed, female players who are stereotypically more adept at the social aspect of these series have an advantage because the shows themselves are “social experiments. But that [trait] is seen as less desirable because it’s feminine. Being social is feminine, and making big moves is associated with a more masculine energy. ‘The Traitors’ is really a more social game, in that you have to trick people into liking you.”

He cites “The Traitors” Season 1 winner Cirie Fields, herself a member of “Survivor’s” Black Widow Brigade, a sweetly smiling 50-something Black woman who led with maternal warmth. “They didn’t think she was that dominant enough to take the money from them, and underestimated her. They were a little confused by someone that’s out of their realm,” he said.

Rockstar said she saw this bias as the oldest female player in the Season 20 “Big Brother” house, especially with castmate Brett Robinson. He became “my arch nemesis,” she said. “He would tell all these frat boy locker-room stories, and the other girls would laugh and go, ‘Oh, Brett you’re so funny.’ One day I cornered them all and said, ‘Ladies, why are you putting up with this [stuff] and one of them said, ‘This is what we’re supposed to do,’ to laugh at a man’s stupid joke, because maybe he does know better! We give men so much credit. I wish more women on reality TV would get together and tell each other ‘No, YOU’RE so smart.’ ”

Last week’s episode of “The Traitors” ended on a cliffhanger, in which either Parks or former “Bachelor” star Peter Weber (another great competitor I think has been underestimated because he’s from a show whose audience skews female) was about to be banished. We won’t find out until Thursday’s episode airs at 9 p.m. whether Parks can talk her way out of her doom a second time. If she survives, I wonder if her competitors will learn a lesson about underestimating women.

Science says they probably won’t. But one can hope.

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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