Vanna White finally stepped up to the podium as the host of Wheel of Fortune on Monday, after 37 years of letter turning. (Minnie Mouse took over at the letter board; Baby Yoda would have been too much of a spoiler given the show is taped over a month in advance.) This wasn’t technically the first time she’d taken the podium — she switched places with Pat Sajak for one round several years ago when he had laryngitis — but it was the first time she hosted the entire show, and it will continue for two more weeks.
White has now joined the very select group of women who have hosted game shows. This group includes some television legends — Arlene Francis and Betty White both turned their multiple stints as guests on game shows into hosting gigs — and the occasional novelty import like Anne Robinson (whose acerbic British frankness played less well in America during the short-lived attempt to bring “The Weakest Link” across the Atlantic.)
For the most part, however, America’s game show hostesses have been few and far between, with the notable exception of Meredith Veira, whose earnest girl-next-door charm was the perfect chaser for Regis Philbin’s cornpone hamminess when he left “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” and more recently Ellen DeGeneres, in her somewhat mean-spirited prime time talk-show spin-off “Game of Games.”
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I have a minor history in television game shows, so I have some skin in this game: I appeared nine times on “Jeopardy!,” including five times as a returning champion (back before they allowed you to stay until someone beat you, a move that seemed brilliant when it loosed the ratings bonanzas of Ken Jennings and James Holzhauer on the game) and three in tournaments.
I don’t remember everything that happened during those shows, though it’s not so much that everything goes by in a blur as much as that you enter a heightened state of awareness that focuses you entirely on the clues, the buzzer and why the hell the guy at podium three always gets in a microsecond before you do. (I do remember talking with Alex Trebek after my second show about baseball; I remember being disappointed that he liked high scoring games.)
But from Trebek’s soothing Canadian purr to the commanding elegance of stage director John Orlando’s “Quiet, please” before tape rolled, I do remember, distinctly, that the dominant voices around me were male.
Of course, behind the scenes, women have always been making names for themselves on game shows. During my time on “Jeopardy!” I met two of the best: no-nonsense contestant coordinator Suzanne Thurber and the effervescent Maggie Speak, who succeeded Thurber and is now one of the show’s producers. From the makeup chair to the director’s chair, women are vital in the smooth functioning of every game show on the air. In a business that relies on machine-like precision and hideous efficiency — both “Jeopardy!” and “Wheel of Fortune” tape five shows in a single day, usually managing to get the entire recording done in the same 30 minutes it takes to watch them on TV — this is no mean feat.
(The two productions share the same building on the Sony lot in Culver City, Los Angeles. “Jeopardy!” Contestants get to pass by the Wheel on the way to their set; I always asked if I could give it a spin but the producers, obviously fearing the hell that would rain down on them for letting my clumsy hands near another show’s centerpiece, always politely but firmly declined.)
In front of the camera, however, it’s a different matter. Perhaps it’s because the qualities that one associates with a game show host — quiet confidence, leadership, an authoritative voice — are often those that a male-dominated society associates with, well, men. The idea of a woman’s voice having authority is one popular culture still struggles with, from male Supreme Court justices interrupting their female colleagues more often as more women are added to the court to how when women speak 50 percent of the time they are seen as “dominating” a conversation.
Maybe it’s just a marketing bias. It’s certainly easier, even now, for women to be published under their initials or even a male name, let alone when most of these shows were established.
But it may well be something just slightly more sinister: A woman in charge of a game show will probably need to correct people when they make a wrong response, and women correcting men is something that can be a very dangerous thing. In Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh’s America, we are never very far from Margaret Atwood’s famous quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
But maybe now that Vanna White is in charge, we can hope that more women will step up to a podium and offer their own variations on Trebek’s famous “Oh, sorry!” for when a hapless contestant makes an error. Certainly her arc — from one of the last surviving showcase models who once were fixtures on American game shows to currently-temporary host — is encouraging and maybe even a little bit symbolic. Maybe the touch-screens of “Wheel of Fortune’s” letter board won’t be a glass ceiling after all.
And, given that the sad news of Trebek’s cancer diagnosis means that he will likely retire soon, perhaps with his characteristic grace he’ll support a woman for his successor.I nominate Mayim Bialik, who is an actual neuroscientist and nerd icon. Talking baseball with her after a game would be fun.