I wish I could say that I was someone who didn’t believe in guilty pleasures because guilt is destructive and stuff, but nothing brings me such shameful joy as the Spike TV show, Ink Master, hosted by former Jane's Addiction and Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Dave Navarro.
It’s my Bachelorette, but instead of a dozen hunky dodos battling it out for some poor woman’s hand in marriage, it’s a dozen tattoo artists (“artists” may be a stretch for some of these people) competing for $100,000 and “the title of Ink Master.”
It’s often a crash course in fragile reality TV masculinity—these schlubs are out here constantly talking about being “a real man” or “having balls” or other dudes “being pussies,” in such a way that makes you wonder who hurt them and also why you are still watching this show as a vaguely self-respecting human and woman. But this season, things changed. In an unprecedented move, a cohort of women created a powerful pact with two goals: stack the finale with women, and make a woman Ink Master. And it worked.
Last night, Ryan Ashley Malarkey became the first woman to win Ink Master in eight seasons. It was the first season that saw two women in the finale. And it was the first time such a thing had been so skillfully orchestrated.
Unlike other seasons, which have typically been every-man-for-himself, this season divided the contestants up into two teams. Despite being placed on different teams, four women, Malarkey, finalist Kelly Doty, Nikki Simpson, and Gia Rose, decided that together, they would watch out for each other. And it got three of them to the third-to-last episode of the season, two to the finale.
When one team got to choose what the members of the other team had to tattoo, they would protect each other and make sure they got better “human canvases” (that’s what they call the people who the contestants tattoo every week because this show is ridiculous).
As a group, they set their sights on their male counterparts every week, and knocked them off one by one. The dudes couldn’t do anything but complain about the girls club, mock them for the very real issues they face as women in the insanely male-dominated industry, and feebly attempt to create a team of their own and respond to what they surely considered to be a sexist affront. Unfortunately, they weren’t organized enough—and they just weren’t skilled enough.
It wasn’t that previous female competitors haven’t been immensely talented. Sarah Miller made it to the finale in the second season, placing second. And artist Tatu Baby was a finalist in her second run of the show, in Season 3, placing third. Since then, however, the show has featured almost entirely white men (though last year Anthony Michaels became the first black person and person of color in general to win the show).
It seemed clear that this year, the producers wanted a female Ink Master. Of the 18 initial contestants, five were women, which is more than any other season. Also, they were stronger competitors than their predecessors, although working together definitely contributed as well. Over the course of the season, a man won the weekly individual tattoo challenge three times. Every other time, either Malarkey, Simpson, or Doty won, which they all considered a victory.
It was a skillfully executed feminist takeover of one of the most chauvinistic television shows that I can’t stop watching. And it was absolutely delightful. And for the first time, I don’t have to consider Ink Master a guilty pleasure—this season was an actual pleasure to watch.
That is until Dave Navarro’s entrance for the live finale, which saw him dangling shirtless above the stage, hanging from hooks attached to the skin of his back, à la Criss Angel: Mindfreak, swinging back and forth—all while reciting the same sterile narration he gives every week.