Tag Archives: reality television

Misee Harris: Why a Black Bachelorette May Matter More Than You Think

"I'm totally in love with this island and $40,000 ring — I mean, you."

“I’m totally in love with this island and the $40,000 ring — I mean, you.”

The Bachelor. For 25 seasons, millions of viewers have watched a familiar formula of women crying, helicopter rides as first dates, and so many red roses given and ‘I love yous’ exchanged that have, with the exception of three cases, ended in break-ups. The show isn’t exactly a rousing advertisement for the institution of marriage, but rather a venue for many contestants to pursue pseudo-permanent reality television careers and fratty cruise events where they can hook up with other like-minded, shallow people.

Can you tell I’m not a diehard fan? (And yes, I know I enjoy my Housewives. But we all have our contradictions, and I’m living with mine every day, gfs).

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Pediatric Dentist Misee Harris campaigns to be the next Bachelorette.

So it may surprise you that I’m actually a big advocate of Misee Harris’ social media campaign to become the first black bachelorette. The pediatric dentist from Tennessee is an absolute knockout who also has a huge heart, given her commitment to mentoring young women and volunteer efforts with children who have autism. She has a precious video of her with her dog, is sweet with her Facebook fans and quotes 2 Chainz. Nuff’ said.

I'm annoying and shady and nobody liked me...thank God I'm white! It's like, totally awesome.

I’m annoying and shady and nobody liked me … was I picked because I’m white? That’s like, totally awesome.

So why the social media campaign? Although Harris applied and was chosen to be a contestant on a previous season of The Bachelor, she ultimately withdrew because she was concerned about ‘being another token.’ Given that all 25 seasons of the franchise have featured white Bachelors and Bachelorettes, and that there have been very few contestants of color, this is totes a valid concern. Here is what bothers me. Misee Harris is pretty much perfect. I mean seriously, how many people do you know who possess all of her exceptional qualities? When you consider some of the other not-so-perfect contestants on the show (Vienna Girardi anyone? Or Brad Womack? OK those were the only seasons I watched, promise ;)), it seems a bit ridiculous for creator Mike Fleiss to make the claim that diverse contestants don’t come forward, and that when they do, it feels a ‘bit forced,’ like ‘tokenism.’

An earth angel, not a token! (photo courtesy of Jaimie Tull of Tull Studios).

First of all, isn’t there an argument to be made that viewers have been ‘forced’ to endure ten years of nearly all-white casts that for many of us, do not reflect the diversity of people we engage with in our daily lives? Also, tokenism in this context would imply that a non-qualified contestant was picked simply because they added diversity. But to dismiss a beautiful, successful, charitable woman because of the color of her skin? How does that constitute anything but systematic racial exclusion? Seriously dude, check out the Wikipedia definition of these terms before you preach such foolishness, fo’ real.

resized_aliblue

I was SO heart-broken a week ago, but now I’m the new Bachelorette—score!

Furthermore, why is it that the Bachelorette must be a former contestant? Isn’t the formula getting a tad stale? I mean really, every season, it’s the same deal—white woman gets ‘heart broken’ on The Bachelor, sits in Chris Harrison’s hot seat during the reunion show for ten minutes and cries about how she is ‘looking for love’ and has finally moved on from the Bachelor who she fell in love with over those two dates she had with him, only to come back a week later smiling and radiant as she is announced the new Bachelorette. We. get. it.

Now I know there are many peeps out there who will argue that The Bachelor isn’t a show that contestants of color should strive to be on in the first place, and that it might actually demean an accomplished woman like Harris. I have a few responses to this, and I highly recommend that you act out a Snap! as I make each point, so get ready. First of all, regardless of whether or not you think Harris should be on the show doesn’t take away from the fact that Harris wants to be on the show. At the end of the day, she should be granted an equal opportunity, period. Yes I know, she could have been a contestant on The Bachelor and won a chance to become the next Bachelorette, but considering that very few contestants of color have gotten far on previous seasons of the show, the odds of that happening were very much against her. Secondly, The Bachelor is one of television’s most popular franchises that is watched by millions of people religiously and has, like it or not, cultural influence. To give a show an all-inclusive title like ‘The Bachelor’ implies that there are going to be all kinds of contestants on the show, not a whitewashed view of relationships and marriage that as Jezebel put it, “couldn’t be further from reality.” I mean seriously, if Mike Fleiss is going to be so blunt about his reasons for excluding people of color, then he should have named it ‘The White Bachelor.’ Or, ‘The Fratty Bachelor.’ Or even better, ‘The White, Fratty, Straight, Christian Bachelor.’ You know? Keep. It. Real.

A dating show, or white Greek rush event?

A dating show, or white Greek rush event?

Quick side note. Similar criticisms were leveled at Lena Dunham of the show Girls, for featuring an all-white cast in the middle of Brooklyn. And guess what? Dunham admitted that had been an oversight and promptly addressed the lack of diversity in the second season. I love me some self-reflection. LOVE.

Lena figured it out, so why can't Mike?

Lena figured it out, so why can’t Mike?

Finally, it is precisely this cultural permeability, this accessibility, that can actually make a show like The Bachelor a potentially powerful tool for creating conversations on topics around relationships and some other pretty serious issues. Doubtful? OK, let’s take the example of Sean Lowe’s season, which did feature a fairly diverse group of contestants, including an Iraqi woman named Selma Alameri. Former Bachelorette Ali Fedotowsky took it upon herself to write a blog entry titled “Selma’s boobs, Roller Derby, and Tierra Drama” in which she makes fun of Selma’s cleavage and criticizes her intent to stay true to her mother’s wishes and not kiss Sean on national television.

(Brief aside/rant: There’s nothing I love more than when someone like Ali, who has reaped the benefits from The Bachelor for all the reasons mentioned above, takes an opportunity to shame a woman of color’s body on a public forum as well as provide ‘cutting-edge’ cultural criticism. No really, it’s like, my favorite thing ever. She should totes come back for another season of The Bachelorette, cause last I checked, season one didn’t work out too great. Oh no. I. didn’t. Oh yes I did! Snap!).

Aside over. When reading the comments in the article below, there was definitely quite a bit of backlash against Ali for, as one person put it, “discussing other cultures in a blog when you don’t know anything about that culture.” Then one person responded to that comment by asking,

Maybe you can help explain why this point of view is wrong. To those who don’t know much about/understand these cultures, Selma is a bit confusing. Where do we draw the line of modesty on national television? I don’t know much about the Muslim faith myself, but I was under the impression that women were supposed to dress more modestly, abstain from drinking alcohol, and not be spooning and caressing on national television. What makes kissing so taboo in relativity to those other things?

Then over at Reality Steve, the blogger who posts spoilers every season, someone responded to his comments calling Selma a ‘tease’ for dressing sexy but not ‘putting out’ by noting,

I take MAJOR issues with you going on and on about how Selma dresses sexy and thus she was a ‘cock tease’ for not putting out with Sean. Wow Steve, so if a woman dresses sexy, she has to put out? That’s how rape culture is perpetuated, FYI.

Who knew a date between Iraqi-born Selma Alameri and Bachelor Sean Lowe would provoke cultural conversations?

Who knew a date between Iraqi-born Selma Alameri and Bachelor Sean Lowe would provoke cultural conversations?

This is why I think pop culture shows can be so awesome, because they can facilitate important conversations on issues like culture and gender that need to be had, just by the nature of their accessibility. While the diversity of blogs in the blogosphere is exciting, there is a potential that certain communities which cater to specific topics will only pull in the interested and invested, ultimately preaching to the choir. I love the idea that having a diverse group of contestants on a show that so many people watch might provoke questions and spark conversations on cultures that are different from theirs in a way that they might not normally engage with. I mean seriously, I love that someone might actually learn something, or at the very least, be inspired to learn, about the Islamic faith after watching an episode where two people go on a date, climb a rock, and toast marshmallows over a campfire. Furthermore, as this blogger put it,

Such a show would inherently promote the idea that black women are desirable. It disrupts the cultural narratives in media—that some see as propaganda—promoting the expectation that African-American women should be perpetually single. It de-emphasizes the standard of a white, fair-haired woman as the epitome of female beauty and worthiness, a standard which fuels billions of dollars in sales of hair dye, hair extensions, and skin-bleaching creams globally. This beauty ideal also contributes to the absence of black women from the ranks of the highest paid models and actresses, where our form of beauty tends to be an occasional exotic trend rather than embraced as an everyday normality.

Scandal proves we're reading for a black leading lady.

Scandal proves we’re reading for a romantically attractive black leading lady.

As she further points out, it is not like Americans aren’t interested in high-profile relationships involving black women, including those of Beyonce and Jay Z, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith, and of course, Michelle and Barack Obama. Seriously, if Americans are ready for a relationship between two black people in the White House, then why can’t they watch a black woman date on a show that isn’t just comical (read: Flavor of Love)? And if Mike Fleiss is so concerned about ratings, perhaps he should look to the show Scandal, which features an affair between a powerful black broker played by Kerry Washington and a white president that is bringing in eight million viewers an episode.

Pop culture visibility matters, and Misee Harris deserves to be part of it. If she were chosen I would totes watch, and it’s not just because she’s black. It is because she is a professional, talented woman who would add interest due to the nature of her accomplishments. That being said, picking a diverse roster of candidates for her would also add a lot of interest, and it would probably get people talking. And that’s a good thing, right girlfriends?

Want to show Misee some love and support? Check out her Facebook page and her twitter account, and tweet Mike Fleiss @fleissmeister letting him know you want @miseeharris as the next #bachelorette!

And check out this Huff Po live interview with Misee!

An abridged version of this article is now on The Huffington Post.

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Interview: An Inside Look at Development in Afghanistan – from a Woman’s Perspective

Sunday marked the 11th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and as I watched the media coverage on various news stations, I couldn’t help but feel irritated at the fact that for 11 years, I had been fed details of a war through the filter of my television screen. When I mentioned my frustrations to a friend, she referred me to someone who is currently doing international development work in Afghanistan! This woman graciously agreed to be interviewed, but preferred to keep her identity and the identity of the company she works with anonymous. I hope that this can shed some insight on the unique challenges of working in development from someone who is actually working in Afghanistan, and what the possible future holds as the U.S. withdrawal looms closer.

Overlooking Kabul

Overlooking Kabul (photo courtesy of Max Becherer, The New York Times)

Q: So, can you provide some more background about what your role is, and what the goals of your development team are?

A: So basically, the team I’m working with is focusing on the development of the country’s private sector so we can improve the overall economic situation in the country. We’ve been there for over ten years, so we’re trying to stay on track for progress. I would say that the most important goal is to help the country be self-sufficient, in that they can become more self-reliant without international presence.

There are a variety of different players involved, but really the goal is to find local businesses and attractive opportunities, so the money we give can be spent towards promoting productive business growth to stimulate the economy.

Q: OK, so what would you outline as the main obstacles you’ve encountered while working in development in Afghanistan? Maybe we could start with some of the cultural challenges first?

A: Cultural context is crucial. Honestly, it doesn’t matter how much you read about the history and culture of the country you do work in, because in my opinion, you really need to be on the ground to understand the reality of the situation and what the risks are. I’ve spent a lot of time adapting to the environment and I definitely think you do better work here once you have a better understanding of the culture and are able to frame this notion of development within their (the Afghan people) terms.

On a day-to-day basis, there are smaller and larger challenges I’ve been faced with. For example, what I’ve experienced from the Afghanis we have worked with is that you can’t just jump into a meeting and start asking direct questions. That’s basically considered rude here. You have to allow a few minutes of familial conversation before you start business. And of course, even with the best translator, there runs a risk of misinterpretation, just because there are some phrases and words that can’t be perfectly translated, you know?

Q: And you’re a woman working in Afghanistan …

A: Yup, which offers its unique challenges, obviously. One of the first things I noticed is that you rarely see women outside, so there seems to be a confinement of women in the private/domestic sphere, though let me be clear that I am not speaking for the entire country, just where I am personally located. So as a woman, walking outside means getting stared at … a lot. And when I actually meet with men, I have to cover my arms otherwise I am perceived as being ‘too forward.’ It can get annoying to constantly have to monitor yourself, but I have to say, that for the most part, the Afghan people I work with have been really warm and welcoming. Of course, we’re working with the ones who are welcoming this idea of development in the first place, so the men I meet with are probably more open-minded to the idea of women from the West working in the public sphere.

Which brings me to another point. Just because some people are open to this idea of development, doesn’t mean that the relationship is completely harmonious and trusting. After all, this is a country that has experienced war for the last 30 years, and drastic changes in regime shifts. I mean first you had the Soviets in the 1980s, who were toppled by the American-backed mujahedeen that later branched out to the Taliban, and now, the current American invasion.

A market in Kabul. Almost 90% of Afghanistan’s national budget is financed by foreign governments.

And I think a lot of Americans forget that, both here and at home. There’s this attitude coming from our stakeholders sometimes of, ‘Why don’t they want help?’ and you really have to understand the history of international involvement in the country, and how there have been so many broken promises made. Even now, while I get to work with a lot of amazing stakeholders, there are some who are not always genuine, who are just trying to invest to add something to their company’s vita, you know? And so you have to be conscious of how things operate here, of how to best leverage your resources, and to make sure you are hooking up with the right people who are sensitive to the country’s unique cultural history and challenges.

Q: What about security?

A: The security situation is definitely limiting. You have to do a lot of coordination with logistics; you can’t just go out and see places.

Q: Do you feel that affects media coverage as well?

A: What I’ve gathered from the military officials I’ve talked to is that the relationship between the media and the military is um, pretty tense. The military claims they’re misquoted all the time …

Q: Right, but isn’t it difficult for journalists to get access to information? I remember a few years back Laura Logan gave an interview in response to criticisms from the Bush administration aimed at journalists that they weren’t giving the ‘whole story’ on Iraq. And her response was that due to security and logistical issues, it was difficult to move freely within the country. Have you ever seen the film Control Room? I couldn’t believe that the majority of reporting done from the CentCom (U.S. Central Command) base was located hundreds of miles from Baghdad …

A: I haven’t seen the movie, but I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if security issues placed restrictions on journalists as well.

Q: Not to mention that most media outlets are relying on AP reporters for their foreign news coverage, so it’s not like there’s a ton of journalists out there reporting on foreign affairs, even in Afghanistan.

A: Right, and I think that again drives home my main point. If you’re relying on the news for your media on Afghanistan, you’re just not getting the full story. Nothing compares to actually being on the ground and working with people here. And look, I’m not saying that I have full access to the country here, as I mentioned before. But even working here with the American government, I am still exposed in a way I never was before. Meeting with Afghan people and seeing the culture first-hand really changes your perspective.

Safety is still a concern for many women in Afghanistan (photo courtesy of Mauricio Lima)

Q: OK, now I want to ask you about the state of women in Afghanistan and it’s a two-part question. First of all, there seems to be a new focus on women’s education and empowerment in the developing world, because recent research has shown that there is an actual ‘net growth’ in economic development when girls are educated and women are given means of economic empowerment (like through microfinance). There is strong evidence that the education and empowerment of women creates a more educated, powerful community—their children are more educated, infant mortality decreases, and women who have access to the family’s finances are more likely to spend their money on the family’s health and nutrition then their husbands are.

So my first question is, how can development initiatives move forward successfully if Afghanistan is currently considered one of the worst places for women’s rights in the world?

And my second question is, even though there’s been a marked improvement in the education of girls, with over 2.4 million going to school, why do you think progress in other aspects of women’s development has been so slow?

A: Well I can’t speak to that specifically, because I don’t focus on women’s development, but I think there are several contributing factors, based on the conversations I’ve had with other people working here. First of all, just because you give aid to a country, doesn’t mean that it’s going to change cultural attitudes overnight. Even if girls go to school, they are still entrenched in deeply complex, patriarchal familial and societal relations. And of course safety is still an issue, and there are some who believe the military invasion has made the security situation more dangerous because of retaliatory threats by insurgents. But, there are also many who fear that when western forces withdraw, that instability might return and any gains made will be reversed.

One interesting aspect about women’s rights that I didn’t really consider before I came here was the huge gap in skill set. I mean, there were many women who attended university in Kabul in the 1960s and 70s …

Students at Kabul University, 1970s.

Q: I was going to ask you that! I recently screened a documentary film, Afghan Star, to my students for a section on how music can serve as a powerful tool for protest and change. And the movie follows these four contestants who are competing for a grand prize, and fans of each contestant ‘campaign’ for their favorite, in what the film argues is basically a first taste of democracy for many Afghanis. Anyway, they show flashbacks of Kabul in the 1970s, and it seemed to be kind of a hip, cultural mecca!

A: Yeah exactly. So you’ve got these people who are more educated, and then a lot of people who have been growing up during the war who are illiterate, and honestly, I just think it’s going to take time to bridge that gap, and a lot of patience.

A look back on the former ‘Paris of Central Asia’:

Q: So moving forward, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges Afghanistan faces with development?

A: Well first of all, we are currently having huge issues with inflation, because of all the aid that is being pumped into the country. Furthermore, since Afghanistan imports a lot of their products, the charges for customs are really high. They just can’t compete with countries like Iran, whose currency is really cheap, in that respect. And it’s going to take a while before the country has enough local businesses and ventures before they can compete with other industries. The argument is that when we withdraw out of the country and we invest less money, inflation will go down. But then if we don’t continue to support reconstruction aid, what will happen? Can we really accomplish all that needs to be done in the next two years? It’s something that those of us who are working in development, are still grappling with.

Q: OK, so here is my final question. Political pundits are always throwing around this notion that Afghanistan is impossible to keep stable, that it’s too tribal, too conservative a culture, too vast a region. But I recently read an article in the New York Times in which several Afghan scholars cited this viewpoint as condescending, as a reaction used whenever Americans do not want to engage in a conflict.

I mean, do they have a point? Sure the country’s been at war for 30 years, but it was only a few decades ago referred to as the ‘Paris of Central Asia …’

A: OK, let me say this in response to the ‘Afghanistan is tribal’ argument. I have met with different groups of people, from different ethnic tribes, Pashtuns, Hazaras, etc., and while there may be some cultural differences and tensions, most of the people we’ve met with seem to be on the same page of wanting to move forward with their business ventures, with progress in the country.

Can Afghanistan ever be stable? I can’t say for sure, but I will tell you there are concerns that Kabul might collapse as foreign aid and investment are withdrawn before 2014. It might just take a strong leader, and that’s why the next round of elections is so important. If they’re fraudulent, then I doubt the Afghan government will be able to assume responsibility for the security of the country.

But then, maybe change will come from the people themselves. My hope in the development work that I’m doing is that we can help to empower the Afghan citizens, and honestly, I’ve just been amazed at how innovative people are. Even if they don’t have formal schooling, many of them are self-taught artisans, are skilled in construction, agriculture, and different types of services. It’s really inspiring to me to see that despite these change of regimes, despite the oppression, the wars, the people here just do it. And that’s why personally, I have hope, even if I’m unsure as to whether everything can be stabilized in just two more years.

Stealth Festival

An Afghan woman at a one-day “stealth festival” called Sound Central, in Kabul October 1, 2011. The first music festival the country has seen since the Taliban regime. (photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ahmad Masood)

Please stay tuned for an upcoming interview with a Cultural Studies scholar from Kabul who has done extensive research on women in Afghanistan, the intersection of capitalism and development, and yes, even reality television shows like Afghan Star.

Afghan Star trailer … amazing film (and available on instant neflix!)

The documentary film Control Film

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