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Cinnamon Stillwell

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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Will Muslim Girl Power Win ‘The Glee Project’?

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012 - by Cinnamon Stillwell

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.

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When Television and Politics Collide

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012 - by Cinnamon Stillwell

I have a confession to make: I watch a lot of TV, and I’m not going to pretend that all or even most of it is educational. This would hardly be considered unusual except that I’m a serious political person who does serious political work and people like us aren’t supposed to admit that we watch a good amount of—let’s face it—trashy TV. The way I look at it, we all need a little fluff in our lives, especially after a day spent reading and writing about the decline of Western civilization. And as the cliché goes: if you can’t beat them, join them.

Also, I’ve found that there are political aspects to even the most seemingly superficial of television shows. I’ve been taking note of political moments in non-political TV over the past several years, but, with some exceptions, have been hesitant to write about them for fear of incurring the scorn of my fellow politicos. But I’ve now decided to come out of the closet, so to speak, and share with the politically-minded a little glimpse into the netherworld of American pop culture.

Here are a few examples I’ve collected:

  • Fatima Siad, the second runner up from Season 10 of “America’s Next Top Model,” was a Somali-born Iman look-a-like whose teary-eyed admission that she’d been subjected to genital mutilation as a child brought a moment of moral clarity to a show that typically plays into liberal, multicultural pieties (when not dwelling on cat fights and “booty tooch” lessons).
  • Several installments of HGTV’s “House Hunter’s International” have been set in Israel, but none brought home the vulnerability of Israeli life more than the episode in which a young woman setting out on her own—but with her protective Jewish mother in tow—was shown a series of apartments in Tel Aviv all with one feature in common: built-in bomb shelters. It seems this is a staple of modern Israeli real estate, something that we in the U.S., even in the post-9/11 era, can hardly imagine. Talk about reality TV.
  • Season 12, Episode 8 of “Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit” centered on the sexual assault of an FBI agent involved in an undercover investigation into a militia group. This of course led to a scene in which said militia members were protesting Park51 (the Ground Zero Mosque) while holding aloft anti-Muslim signs and screaming anti-Muslim slogans. The noble detective Olivia Benson argued with one of them, saying something like, “Whatever happened to religious freedom?” The implication being that only right-wing militia types and other bigots would protest the building of Park51, not those—including Muslims—with justified concerns over the questionable proclivities of its organizers or the lack of common decency involved in the idea of the project itself. Including any of the “Law & Order” franchises in this list is almost redundant since, as I’ve noted previously, the show is transparently biased, but it certainly is an unending source of material.

Although there are many more such instances I could come up with, I’ll leave it at that and stick to current offerings from here on. I hope PJ Media readers will tune in—pun intended—for future musings on the subject. What better way to watch TV guilt-free?

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