The Amazing Race Canada Season 2 revels in its diverse casting
Best friends Shahla Kara and Nabeela Barday are on a mission to win Season 2 of The Amazing Race Canada. But there’s a catch.
How do you dominate challenges while at the same time remaining true to your religious beliefs? In this case, the two Muslim women would have to refrain from drinking alcohol or eating certain foods.
Anyone who has watched the popular reality show knows there is always a roadblock or two that involves ingesting questionable substances or doing an extreme event.
“We were very worried going into the race that we might have to take a penalty because of our religion, so we wanted to think of every possibility so we would be prepared,” says Markham resident Kara, 29.
Their conviction was so strong, that Barday, also 29, says they were prepared to walk away from the grand prize of $250,000 if confronted by something prohibited by their religion.
“We understood that we weren’t just representing ourselves, we were also representing our faith,” says Barday.
This season of The Amazing Race Canada, which starts Tuesday, July 8 at 9 p.m. on CTV, has seen some particularly inclusive casting.
On the heels of Toronto hosting WorldPride 2014, there are two gay couples, an interracial couple, South Asian siblings, Olympic teammates, twin brothers and, in a nod to the mainstream, a married couple.
“It’s actually incredibly fun to do. It’s complicated, it’s a massive jigsaw puzzle. We have such an incredible country that there is an obligation to reflect that diversity,” says Canadian reality TV king John Brunton, president and CEO of Insight Productions, which produces both the Amazing Race and Big Brother franchises for Canada.
While scripted television has long been criticized for not being representative of minorities, reality TV has been something of an unexpected champion. Along the way it has been an incubator for allowing society to reflect on itself. To allow viewers to have a conversation on what makes us different: permitting for the seeding of common ground.
To that end, casting a reality show is part science, part black art. You have to take thousands of applications and then try to reflect the diversity of the country through gender, ethnicity, religion, geography and sexuality. Not to mention that the final contestants have to have the personalities to make dynamic television.
It’s just about an impossible task. Especially if that country is Canada, long described as the most diverse country on earth.
The gold standard for that has been The Amazing Race, which first aired in the United States in 2001, branching into a dozen incarnations globally, including Canada.
Brunton says he is incredibly involved in the casting of the shows, which he considers the most important part of the process.
“It’s not just about diversity. They have to be watchable. Audiences have to want to root for them,” says Brunton. “We were fascinated by these girls (Kara and Barday) because they are not just lovely people, but they also represent a generation in Canada that we don’t always see represented.”
With the exception of reality TV, minorities are not only less likely than whites to play recurring roles on TV, but they are also vastly under-represented as key decision makers, directors, producers and casting agents, says Richard Schaefer, author of Sociology: A Brief Introduction.
Before reality TV, minorities were mostly successful at being cast in science-fiction television, such as Star Trek, where they were seen as exotic, says the author.
“Content analysis shows that, as a group, reality programs do represent the diversity of the general population. As such, they offer a new and significant exception to television programming that is otherwise dominated by white actors and actresses,” Schaefer says.
Generally cheap to make, reality TV has been criticized on artistic grounds. But shows such as The Amazing Race, Survivor, America’s Got Talent and Big Brother have generally reflected the makeup of the population.
The danger has been to avoid the descent into stereotype: the angry black guy, the snippy gay person, the snobby blond cheerleader.
In the case of Big Brother, diversity has also been the source of controversy. Season 15 for the American franchise was the most explosive yet with house guests making racist remarks that quickly overshadowed the storyline. CBS boss Les Moonves defended the show, saying that Big Brother is a “social experiment” reflecting what goes on in society as a whole. Ironically, one of the house guests accused of racism blamed the perception on “southern stereotyping.”
Brunton says such comments wouldn’t have flown in Canada.
“The ratings went up for the show in the U.S. because of the controversy. People would have turned their sets off in Canada. Canadians would not stand for that,” he says.
Brunton points out that in the inaugural season of Big Brother Canada, the most popular house guest by far was Gary “Glitter” Levy, a cross-dressing, gay black man.
“I’m not sure if he would even be cast in the U.S. version,” says Brunton. “But Canada is an incredibly tolerant place.”
Markham, Ont.,-born Kara, an occupational therapist, says she did worry about becoming stereotyped, but the positive side was that she had a platform to show that there was “a larger population in Canada that we represented and we wanted others to see themselves in us.”
“We worried about everything, including how we dressed, whether we should wear tights,” says Kara. “We were certainly not saying we were representative of being every Muslim, but we did know that there would be some judgment.”
Barday, a management consultant who also lives in Markham, says being Muslim was only one part of their makeup.
“As a Canadian woman, as a career woman, as a Muslim, all these things harmonize, that you can still be outgoing and ambitious and true to your values,” she says.
“We both really wanted to show and demonstrate that a moderate Islam exists that is not necessarily being portrayed in the media.”
Importantly, Amazing Race contestants also got the opportunity to learn from each other, says Kara.
“I don’t have a lot of gay and lesbian friends, so it was great to be able to understand another point of view, as well as give my point of view,” says Kara.
The two friends say their travels have made them realize how lucky they are to have grown up in the multicultural Greater Toronto Area.
“Living in the GTA is such a privilege. By and large everyone understands the concept of diversity and is usually culturally sensitive,” says Kara. “But once you get outside the Metropolitan area you understand that it’s not like that everywhere. But The Amazing Race puts this kind of diversity out on a national platform where you can at least start having that conversation.”