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The PJ Tatler

by
Cinnamon Stillwell

Bio

August 14, 2012 - 8:43 am

Capitalizing on the success of “Glee,” the Oxygen Channel has come up with “The Glee Project,” a reality TV talent competition in which contestants vie for a coveted spot on the show’s namesake. Currently about to conclude its second season, “The Glee Project”—in keeping with the high school-era outcasts that inhabit “Glee”—put out a call for the awkward, the overweight, the disabled, the curiously little, the racially ambiguous, the sexually confused, the openly gay, the transitioning transgenders, and, of course, some plain old cute guys, no doubt to corner the teenage girl market.

Notable among this season’s contestants is 19-year-old Aylin (pronounced “Eileen”) Bayramoglu from Chicago. She’s a confident, vibrant, flirtatious young woman with what I consider to be the contest’s best voice. She also happens to be a Muslim. She describes her background as “Turkish Muslim” and yet shows no inclination to inhabit the traditional female role associated with her culture. She doesn’t wear a head scarf, she’s sassy, outgoing, and judging by her familiarity with the Top 40 songs assigned to her by the judges, thoroughly steeped in pop culture. In other words, she’s just like any other young American woman.

If anything, Aylin—who, early in the show, has a puppy love relationship with fellow contestant Charlie that includes a good deal of smooching, not to mention later episodes in which she makes out with various female contestants in pursuit of winning the sometimes creepily exploitative competitions—could dial the overt sexuality back a peg or two. But freedom is freedom.

Most importantly, Aylin is brave. It’s hard to imagine that the “conservative Muslim family” she refers to on occasion—nervously joking that they still think she’s never kissed a boy—will approve of her behavior once they see the episodes on TV. In a portrayal of this very scenario during last week’s episode, Aylin—acting in a short film assigned by the judges—played a Muslim girl who gets pregnant by her non-Muslim boyfriend and then, after tearfully donning her head scarf, is taken away by a fictional version of her own family. The role clearly hit home for the irrepressibly cheerful Aylin showed real sadness during the filming.

In reality, female rebellion in the Muslim world can have dangerous consequences and mere disapproval is the least of them. During the second-to-last episode (the finale airs tonight), the writers from “Glee,” including creator Ryan Murphy, discussed the possibility of choosing Aylin as the winner, noting carefully that the show hasn’t yet “explored Muslim culture.” One wonders if this—by the way, very gay—group of writers has any idea what they might be getting into. Unlike the show’s believing Christian and Jewish characters, all of whom are either caricatures or toned down secular fantasies, a Muslim character would challenge Glee’s writers to tackle something truly cutting-edge. It’s a far cry from getting “slushied” in high school for being gay or promiscuous to being hung, stoned to death, or “honor” murdered.  There’s also the small matter of death threats, which tend to gravitate towards those who challenge Islam’s orthodoxies.

My hope is that should the judges choose Aylin to star in “Glee,” they won’t fall prey to the usual liberal preoccupation with presenting her as a victim of American culture, but, rather, as a triumph over the “stereotypes,” as she often describes them, imposed by her own culture. As Aylin herself put it in an interview with Wetpaint.com:

I would want my character to be a little controversial because I do want being Muslim to be represented. And I just kind of want to be super flirtatious and cause trouble and stir things up.

Sounds good to me.

Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum that reviews and critiques Middle East studies in North America with an aim to improving them. She was a political columnist for SFGate.com (San Francisco Chronicle online) from 2004-2008 and has contributed to many websites, blogs, and publications. Several of her essays have been reprinted in high school and college textbooks. She is a San Francisco Bay area native.
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