This Thursday, the new season of one of my guiltier pleasures, What Not To Wear, premieres on TLC. The gimmick of this particular episode is that they're doing a makeover on a former child star. And that child star is...
Mayim Bialik, a.k.a. lil' Bette Middler, a.k.a. Blossom! Now, having gotten a sneak preview of the episode, I can tell you that Mayim Bialik is the most likeable guest in the show's history. She's unabashedly brainy (she has a PHD in neuroscience!), down-to-earth (she won't buy tops she can't nurse her baby in), and sweet (she donates the standard new-wardrobe money to charity and foots the bill herself). Also, she doesn't own a single pair of pants.
That's right - no pants. Now, I've seen an embarrassing number of episodes of What Not to Wear, but I have never, ever seen someone on that show who doesn't own at least one pair of jeans. My first thought was that Mayim was just quirky, but out of curiosity, I did some research...
...and learned that, yes, Mayim Bialik is a Conservative Jew, bordering on Orthodox ("Conservadox," as she puts it). She keeps Shabbos, keeps kosher, and follows family purity laws. And presumably, her wardrobe of below-the-knee skirts and long sleeves conforms to Jewish laws of modesty.
So why doesn't the show bother to mention this? It's not like they're afraid to get personal: when discussing her wardrobe, Mayim talks candidly about nursing, weight loss, and body image issues. And it's not a tangent; her religious beliefs directly affect her choice of clothing, both the "old" wardrobe and the new one TLC helps her select. But never once do they mention religion at all: she's just a kooky girl who loves her skirts.
My guess is that the network was afraid of alienating viewers, particularly the Heartland mamas who live vicariously through "What Not To Wear"'s NYC shopping sprees. Maybe they thought that showing Mayim as a conservative Jew would make her too different, not enough girl-next-door.
This isn't the first time that TLC has side-stepped the central issue of religion. Jon and Kate (of "Plus Eight" fame) are active churchgoers, and their conservative Christianity is the reason that Kate didn't selectively reduce her mega-pregnancy in the first place. In their books and on their website, the Gosselins talk about Jesus obsessively. But we never see them doing it on the show.
A counter-example is 18 Kids and Counting, the TLC show about the Duggar family. With the Duggars, it's impossible not to talk about religion; as leading members of the uber-conservative "Quiverfull" movement, they believe in strict, non-maninstream gender roles and behavioral codes (not to mention having dozens of babies as a form of Evangelism). The Duggars chat with the cameras about God's role in their lives, explain why kissing before marriage is sinful, and visit the Creation Museum.
So, in this basic cable version of reality, there are two kinds of religion: extreme and nonexistent. Even though religion is a part of most Americans' lives, it's somehow taboo to show day-to-day religious practices -- or even mention them! -- when it comes to "normal" reality TV stars. Given the premium on shock value on reality TV these days, it's hard to believe that anything is off-limits -- but there you have it.