America didn’t get its first woman president this year. That title went to a reality TV star instead. But on reality TV tonight, odds are that America will get its first woman Ink Master—contestants Kelly Doty and Ryan Ashley Malarkey are two of the three finalists. And if it happens, it will very likely be because the women on the show took a hint from the Obama administration.
The women on the Spike TV show formed an alliance that systematically worked to highlight each other’s strengths and pack the finale with as many women as possible. It was an example of “amplification,” which holds that women can help each other’s voices be heard in masculine environments by supporting and highlighting each other. The tactic recently made headlines when the women of President Obama’s cabinet told the world they employed it to have their voices heard in the White House. Ironically, that kind of amplification was exactly what Hillary Clinton didn’t receive.
But forget Clinton for a second (don’t worry, we’ll get to her); let’s talk about the women of Ink Master. The current season started with 18 tattoo artists, five of whom were women. This alone is notable; while more women artists are entering the growing industry, there is hardly gender parity. In Ink Master’s eight seasons, a woman has never won. Ask most tattoo aficionados to name a single female tattoo artist and they’ll say one name: Kat Von D, who came from Ink Master judge Chris Nunez’s shop in Miami and turned her penchant for drama and portraiture into a successful career, on TV and on human flesh. So having as many women on this season of Ink Master was significant to begin with—and it’s what enabled the women to amplify, according to University of Illinois at Chicago feminist scholar Veronica Arreola. “First, you need enough women who want to do this, who don’t want to be out on their own, who don’t want to continue to play according to the old-boys’-network rules,” says Arreola.
Studies show women are often interrupted and spoken over at work or in environments like Ink Masters, whose so-called “stew room” where contestants await judging has been home to consistently aggressive behavior since the show’s inception. But the women this year, led by Malarky, (who could single-handedly make neck tattoos the next big thing) formed an alliance in the early episodes, which enabled them to amplify each other’s voices on a show that this season saw regular fighting matches about whose art was the ugliest, as well as below-the-belt attacks about people’s looks and ages.
Amplification essentially needs to be a conspiracy, says Arreola: “They all have to buy in to say they’re going to have each other’s backs at every meeting.” That’s exactly what Malarky arranged on Ink Master. On the show, the “meetings” were the stew rooms and strategy sessions where the challenges played out. And in those meetings, when the men were louder than each of the women individually, they had a chorus of women backing them up. In that way, they made themselves heard.
Was it annoying? ****, yes. But the fighting on the show always is. And this season, the producers ratcheted up that conflict, forcing the contestants into two opposing teams, each headed by a different judge (think the format of The Voice). The women’s alliance crossed team lines—infuriating the men and the judges occasionally, and surprising the Ink Master’s showrunner Andrea Richter. Whenever one of the women had a chance to stick it to someone on the other team by forcing them to give hard tattoos, she stuck it to a man.
These women leaned into their gender. Hard. Every episode, they huddled and repeated some variation of “as long as one of us wins,” and then they’d do whatever they could to bring down the weakest man. Week after week, the men fell. And when a woman was on the ropes, the women from both teams came together and did everything they could to save her—to the increasing fury of the show’s men. Gender became the topic of every conversation. But while the men complained about the women teaming up against them, they never really formed an alliance of their own. Instead, they looked out for themselves. For the women, though, the show wasn’t about the individuals; it was about all of them helping to get at least one of them—any of them—to the top.
Why Didn’t This Work For Clinton?
Which brings us to the woman who wanted to be president. While Clinton’s government experience outmatched that of most male candidates, women became hesitant to cite her gender as a reason to vote for her—because critics had accused her of “playing the gender card.” “When women start to support other women, the backlash erases everything else about that woman,” says Arreola. “It becomes about supporting women for women’s sake—as opposed to supporting women because they are smart and capable.”
Would a more overt play to women have helped Clinton’s campaign? “Based on my experience teaching girls, that would not have worked for her,” says Anea Brogue, an author and educator who works with children to escape gender stereotypes. “I’m sure that Clinton was very conscious of not running just on her gender because that would have shut people down.”
The girls alliance on Ink Master didn’t care about that backlash. Their conspiracy was laid bare for all to see. Though the two women who made it into the finale were clearly two of the very best on the show, they repeatedly said they would have been happy if any woman made it. Just to show that women could do it. And it worked.
One major difference between a reality TV show and a general election for president of America, of course, is who gets to have the final say. On Ink Master, it didn’t matter how annoyed the audience was by the gender alliance playing out every week on the show; it was the panel of judges who had the final say. Not so with a presidential election. There, it was the viewers—the public—who pulled the lever on Election Day. Clinton and her supporters could ill afford to annoy the women (and men) of America the way Doty and Malarkey could.
But as the women in President Obama’s White House made clear, to make it in a man’s world, women need to work together. The women of Ink Master understood that and owned up to it. They fought in heels, with perfect makeup that matched their face tattoos—and tonight, one of them just might win.
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