"American Candidate," the reality television show that begins broadcasting in August, promises to help close the gender gap in U.S. politics by showing women as viable – if still virtual – presidential candidates.
Among the dozen candidates drawn from hundreds of applicants, at least four are women who made their faux candidacy public last month, as part of their assignment to plan a political rally in June.
"If you want to change culture, you have to have things on film and TV. Show women as leaders," said Marie Wilson, co-founder and president of The White House Project. The organization is New York-based and works to create a political and cultural climate in which the idea of a female president is considered normal. "Look, people are watching 'The Apprentice,' they're watching reality shows," Wilson added.
Structured like "Survivor" or "The Apprentice," the show pits the candidates against each other in a series of so-called challenges, captured by camera crews. Each week, the weakest candidate will be eliminated until the person voted best suited to occupy the White House emerges.
Even before its first episode airs, however, the show has run into its own challenge, in the form of outspoken would-be contestants, who say they were eliminated by a casting process for the show that appeared to be democratic and turned out not to be. The controversy even generated an anti-"American Candidate" Web log called "The AmCan Sham."
Candidates Selected in June
In June, about a dozen candidates were selected as finalists and began the 10-week competition to earn the title of "American Candidate." The winner will receive $200,000 and a televised forum to address the nation. After the show finishes airing, he or she is free to run a real race for the presidency.
The producers have not released the names of the dozen finalists, but several sent out news releases as part of their first challenge on June 8, in which they were given 32 hours and $100 to plan a political rally. As camera crews began following the contestants through this first phase of the campaign, producers counted heads at each event with the intent of eliminating the candidates with the smallest turnouts.
The show's finalists include Chrissy Gephardt, the lesbian daughter of former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt; a gay black man who used to work for President Bill Clinton, an animal rights activist, a public relations executive, a multi-ethnic member of the New York-based League of Pissed Off Voters and a radio talk show host.
The show's executive producers are all men, but its 11-person advisory board includes five women, according to the show's Web site. One of the female advisors is Wilson, who helped recruit female applicants.
"We had to get a lot more women in the process," Wilson said. "When they first put the word out, they started hearing from men. Men have seen themselves in this kind of role. More men than women wake up in the morning and think, 'I should run for office.'"
Some of the women who tried out for the show, however, have been soured by a process that began in January, when a Showtime producer, R.J. Cutler, began recruiting applicants.
"I think it's ridiculous now," said Medea Benjamin, "if it's just a couple of guys sitting around and deciding who looks good on camera." According to the show's Web site, applicants were encouraged to set up personal pages on the site and rally support from online visitors who could endorse their chances of making it onto the show by clicking their "Support Me" icons.
Benjamin, a human rights activist and member of the Green Party, thinks she should have been selected to compete on the show because her Web page received 4,324 "votes," more than some of the show's finalists.
On her "American Candidate" Web page, for instance, 31-year-old Chrissy Gephardt, logged 143 supporters. Other finalists include Libertarian radio host Joyce Riley, 55, who had 482 clicks and 30-year-old public relations executive Lisa Witter, who had 282. Black-, Puerto Rican- and Italian-American Malia Lazu, 27, had 277, according to the show's Web site.
Swimsuit Model Also Cut
Among female candidates, Benjamin, 51, was second only to swimsuit model Carrie Bradstreet, who had close to 30,000 supporters and, like Benjamin, was cut from the finalists and now suspects that at least some of the finalists were hand-selected and exempted from an application process that, for her, included a 120-question application and videotape.
Patrick Carkin, who operates a political Web site called birddogger.org, is also vexed with the show. Last month he issued a press release criticizing producers for using his name to attract media attention in his home state of New Hampshire, even though they didn't pick him to be on the show.
Cutler, the show's producer, declined to speak with Women's eNews, but recently he told Matt Smith, a columnist at the San Francisco community newspaper, SF Weekly, that Web site support had no effect on the selection process.
"You won't be able to find anywhere that anyone associated with the show that says Web site support has any direct impact on somebody getting on the show," he told Smith. According to Cutler, the personal Web pages were intended to build community support and expose the public to alternatives to typical party platforms. The experience rankled Benjamin, since the show is supposed to offer public instruction in the overall process of creating a candidate. "Really, if the goal is to try to open up the political system, then the process should have been a more transparent one," she told Women's eNews.
Hard Feelings Aside
Hard feelings aside, "American Candidate" did successfully attract attention to some women's platforms.
Even though she wasn't chosen as a finalist, Bradstreet, a conservative, Christian stay-at-home mom, viewed her experience in a positive light.
"The reason I applied was because I saw this as an opportunity to hopefully get my views out about the importance of instilling values in our youth and especially our young women," she wrote Women's eNews in an e-mail. "I didn't expect to get chosen, but had hoped that this medium would allow many people to read some of my views."
Public relations executive Lisa Witter, who did make the cut, said the involvement of advisory board members such as Wilson and Kay J. Maxwell, president of the League of Women Voters, gave the show some clout, in her opinion.
Witter, 30, said she is from a working-class family in western Washington state, and hopes her mock candidacy will show other women that a young woman can be powerful and become president someday.
"The more the country sees that women have strong political views," she added. "I think that's a good thing."
Although she's in it to win, Witter said an added bonus would be getting more women to vote and to run for office.
"I want to show young women to go for it," she said. "You can run, you can lead and you can win."