IT WAS deeply amusing last week to see companies twist themselves into knots to explain why they pulled ads from TLC’s “All-American Muslim’’ — specifically, why caving to a miniscule group of religious extremists does not, by definition, make them companies that cave to a miniscule group of religious extremists.
“We have a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion,’’ went a clumsy post on the Lowe’s Facebook page, after the company heeded the boycott call from the Florida Family Association. Meanwhile, the CEO of Kayak.com, the Concord-based travel website, wrote a blog post insisting that “we’re not bigots.’’ Rather, he explained, they’re just extremely uncourageous: “We do try to avoid advertising on shows that may produce controversy, whether we support the content or not.’’
I asked the company to clarify, but never heard back. So I’m still wondering where Kayak.com stands on the rest of the TLC lineup, which include such shows as “The Virgin Diaries,’’ “Sister Wives,’’ and “Hoarding: Buried Alive.’’ Seriously: If you want to be shocked or horrified, spend a few minutes on the TLC website. I just watched a promo for an episode of “Strange Addiction,’’ in which a woman dips her fingers into her dead husband’s urn and eats the ashes.
By contrast, “All-American Muslim’’ is so milquetoast, as Jon Stewart noted last week, that it’s practically sleep-inducing. The cast members, a group of friends and relatives from the Arab-American-heavy town of Dearborn, Michigan, have strong Midwestern accents and mid-level government jobs. The breakout character is a thirty-something court clerk who lives with her parents. In one episode, a newlywed couple painted a bookshelf while debating whether to give away their dog.
There’s a strong case to be made that “All-American Muslim’’ is TLC’s most benign show in years, and also its most useful. In roundtable discussions, the castmates reveal the range of views within the Muslim community on such issues as whether women should wear headscarves. And they acknowledge the sometimes-surprising challenges of living as a Muslim in America: How to deal with strange looks when you’re traveling, how to coach your Muslim-heavy football team during Ramadan, when most of the kids are fasting from sunrise to sunset.
Perhaps TLC executives understood, from the start, that the most heated drama around this show would have to come from outside. And of course, there would be someone who complained, stoked by the paranoia that helps keep various websites and talk-radio hosts in business. (A website called “Creeping Sharia’’ went nuts when a Walmart in Dearborn started selling Middle Eastern foods — which actually seems less like creeping Sharia than all-American bigfoot capitalism.)
So the conversation has begun. And while the backlash against Lowe’s and other companies has been heartening, the flood of anti-Muslim comments on the Lowe’s Facebook page and various newspaper websites is not. The rhetoric got so ugly that Lowe’s had to take the posts down — though the company did not take the next step of loudly restoring the ads.
Which gets us back to lack of courage. If companies aren’t going to stand up against bigotry — if Muslim celebrities and sports stars are largely silent in situations like this — then our best bet for advancing knowledge might be reality TV.
In truth, we could do worse. The “All-American Muslim’’ controversy called to mind a recent survey about girls and reality TV from the Girl Scout Research Institute, which had some surprising findings about the impact of reality shows. Yes, there were the expected ill effects: Girls who watch a lot of reality shows expect women to be catty and deceitful, and they’re more likely to be concerned with their appearances.
But an overwhelming number of those girls also reported that reality TV had sparked conversations with family and friends, taught them about people with different backgrounds, beliefs, and perspectives, raised their awareness of social issues. Make no mistake: TLC is in the business of ratings, not social justice. But it can offer us a service, nonetheless.
So what’s next? A series about Sikhs? Nuns? Monks? Hasidic Jews? Or how about recovering porn addicts, such as the head of the Florida Family Association? There are plenty of American subcultures to explore.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.