On Sunday evening, the final chapter of “Alaskan Women Looking for Love" aired. It was the sixth episode in a short TLC series where six Alaska women head to Miami, Fla., to dive head-first into the dating scene, thousands of miles from the Last Frontier.
The program is just one of dozens of reality shows spun out of Alaska in recent years. But this one is a little different. Instead of showing Alaskans living the rugged life amid scraggly spruce trees and wide, rushing rivers, this show takes Alaskans out of their element, transporting them to a different world, where viewers see how they fare among the people -- and the culture -- of Miami.
That’s the concept, anyway.
As an Alaska woman, it’d be easy to feel offended by the premise of the show. Instead, I found myself growing bored with what comes across as a disjointed series, unsure of its focus, and trying really, really hard to capitalize on cultural differences.
Curious about the women starring in the show, I decided to reach out to a couple of them to hear their thoughts on the experience.
I spoke with two of them, Heather Bartlett and Sabina Clark, last week. Both women were down-to-earth, honest and candid. Bartlett, a 29-year-old single mom, said she had “given up” on dating. Now, she has a better sense of what she wants out of life.
Clark, 27, saw the show as an adventure. She was “open for anything different,” she told me. Both saw the opportunity to star on the show as random luck. Both likened the experience to a “rollercoaster”. And both say the experience was overwhelmingly positive.
But what about for the rest of us Alaskan women? Does the show do us justice?
It’s apparent that TLC wants Alaskans to appear as different as possible from their Lower 48 counterparts. For example, the tag line -- “Watch as six sheltered women from Kodiak, Alaska, venture for the first time ever to the Lower 48 in search of love” -- is problematic for several reasons.
First, not all the women are from Kodiak. Kodiak Island is the only Alaska locale we viewers are introduced to -- that’s where we meet the women in the first episode, and watch them go on some awful dates with inebriated fishermen. That’s where the women will return in the sixth episode, with their newfound Miami beaus. There’s no mention of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, where both Bartlett and Clark actually reside.
The second claim, that the trip to Miami was the women’s “first time ever” journey to the Lower 48, is also false. Both Bartlett and Clark have traveled to the contiguous U.S. before, and both had actually lived abroad, although Bartlett was just a baby when she lived in South Korea.
Still, the women attest that when they touched down in Miami, they were in for a huge culture shock.
Clark said she had “absolutely zero expectations” of what Miami would be like. For her, the biggest challenge was the heat. She was “shedding water” during her dates, she laughed.
Another major difference was how people reacted to the camera crews. In Kodiak, “the bar would just empty out” when cameras arrived, Clark said. But in Miami, cameras garnered the opposite response.
“People are trying to get on TV,” she said.
Bartlett was most shocked by the meticulously-groomed bodies and faces. “I was really surprised at how perfect everybody looked,” she said, adding that the idea of maintaining such a lifestyle is "exhausting" to her.
Culture shock, or setup?
As the show continues, the narrative leans on this culture shock to create tension -- but how much of it was real?
The women said they were “encouraged,” but not required, to wear their casual Alaska clothes and go about the day in their normal, Alaskan way. They were, however, instructed to bring their XtraTufs, the iconic brown puddle boots that can be seen spring, summer, fall and winter in Alaska and have earned the nickname “Southeast sneakers.”
In one scene, the group stands in line at a swanky night club, wearing XtraTufs, T-shirts and tennis shoes. Meanwhile, they are surrounded by women teetering in 5-inch heels.
I had trouble believing these intelligent women would not know that they would look out of place. Clark said they were “sort of encouraged to wear (the XtraTufs) for effect.”
Bartlett, however, said she wasn’t expecting the bar to be so swanky. “That was one of the more embarrassing moments.”
“I thought, wow, we look like idiots,” she said.
Overall though, Clark said they were sometimes playing it up for the cameras. “We understand what we’re trying to make happen here and just pretend that we don’t know” about some things, she said.
Miami men, Alaska stereotypes
All six women go on dates during the course of their stay in Miami. But how much was genuine, and how much was staged?
Neither of the women I spoke with were totally sure what was real and what wasn’t.
Sometimes on the show, a man will enter the shot and start chatting up the women, seemingly out of nowhere. “Maybe they were picked out and told about the show?” Clark said.
“I definitely think there were guys kind of planted,” Bartlett said. But just because a man was planted doesn’t mean that one of the women would connect with them, she added.
Still, not all of the romance was set up. For instance, one of the women, Jenny, has a love interest -- referred to as “Don from Alaska,” who she meets on Kodiak Island in the first episode -- who was real, Bartlett said.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the show is the stereotype created about Alaskans. Alaskan women are portrayed as naïve and sheltered, and Alaskan men are portrayed only briefly, but presented as socially inept and drunk.
Both Clark and Bartlett said it was important to remember that it’s just a TV show, and not to take it so seriously -- or too personally.
“At no point do I ever put down men in Alaska,” Bartlett said.
Producers “had to generalize because all our lives are so different,” she added.
Another season on the way?
All these aspects -- the culture shock, the men, the stereotypes -- are pieced together to create the show.
Yet I found myself searching for a solid narrative among disparate elements.
Perhaps that’s because overall, the women came across as low-drama. No real bombshells were dropped during the course of the show. The most dramatic moment was an intervention with one of the girls, 34-year-old Jenny, whose drinking habits had upset the housemates. But even that was relatively mellow considering the standards of today’s reality TV. Don't expect "Jersey Shore".
In the end, these are relatively well-adjusted Alaskan women, having some fun in Florida. I was left feeling like producers struggled to create tension in the show, even with all the staging and set-up dates.
Perhaps that’s why the show’s soundtrack is so overly dramatic. When tensions don’t exist, create them with music.
Still, the show has garnered a fan base. And it appears there may be a second season on the horizon -- Haley, a spunky, tattooed 22-year-old, asked her Twitter followers on Friday where the girls should go “run wild” if slated for a second season.
That would be good news for their fans, and for the women, who say they are seeking, more than anything, new experiences and adventure. After all, who wouldn’t like a free trip to an exotic locale, with adventure and good times guaranteed?
Still, how those adventures are spun out to the world perpetuates stereotypes about Alaska that TV producers seek to create, stereotypes that line pockets with cash at the expense of reality.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com or follow her on Twitter @Laurel_Andrews