By Bailey Shoemaker Richards
February 18 marks a change in my TV watching habits. Normally, the only things I’ll be caught watching are Doctor Who, Castle and the occasional cartoon (with my little brother, of course). I get most of my news and op-ed information from blogs, Twitter and news sites, usually read on my lunch break at work. Simply put, I am just not a TV person. Melissa Harris-Perry may be changing that, at least on the weekends.
Harris-Perry, author, political commentator, Tulane professor and now TV show host, is a versatile and engaging speaker, and she is the first black woman to have her own show on a major cable network. As a self-proclaimed black feminist, Harris-Perry’s show can only be good news for young women searching for a role model as they flip through channel after channel of ‘reality’ TV.
The eponymous Melissa Harris-Perry is a two-hour talk show that airs Saturday and Sunday mornings (10-12ET) on MSNBC, and the first two episodes covered a blistering number of topics – from reasons to want a strong GOP to why unions matter, from the contraceptive debate and religion’s role in public policy to Whitney Houston’s funeral, the current state of the GOP field, economics, a clip of FDR being snarky and graph after graph of useful numbers – as Harris-Perry said, “Welcome to nerdland.” There’s a Twitter chat during each show that uses the #nerdland hash tag, and it’s a great place to talk with other viewers, find reading recommendations and see the intellectual firestorm surrounding the show.
The second weekend did not fail to impress either, starting off with a bang on Saturday morning with Harris-Perry’s discussion of the intra-vaginal ultrasound bill, moving into a discussion of states’ rights and consumption, all while maintaining the same sense of humor and perspective that made the first week so great. The second hour focused on the movie “The Help” and dissecting what it got wrong and what it got right – the best part of that segment, to my mind, was that Harris-Perry brought on Barbara Young, a woman who has not only been a domestic worker, but who has been instrumental in organizing for better treatment of domestic workers. That voice is one that has unfortunately been missing from many discussions of the movie and the book.
Sunday’s show was even better, if that’s possible: Anita Hill was one of the guests, and watching two black feminists talk economic policy and the housing crisis on a major network without any other voices to interrupt theirs was a moment for the history books. The final show of the second week also went through a huge number of topics, from Syria to gas prices to No Child Left Behind to why boxing voters into homogenous categories can backfire, to the story of a barber who was one of the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement. It ended on a discussion of the use of black women’s bodies for medical studies, often without their consent, addressing Henrietta Lacks as well as the unnamed slave women whose bodies were used to test early ideas about gynecology. At the end of each show, I feel both intellectually drained and invigorated – better informed on a huge variety of topics, and driven to learn more and do more work on all of them.
As a nerd and a feminist, finding a show that unashamedly appeals to both of those qualities is like finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. To make things even better, Harris-Perry is a fantastic host: she’s witty in engaging her guests and the viewer in looking at current events, she has a commanding presence without the overbearing nature of so many talk show hosts, and she makes complicated political, social and economic issues interesting and understandable even for viewers who might not normally be interested in the subjects she covers.
Harris-Perry does a professor’s job of making tough topics accessible in the format of a TV show, which is no small feat – she also assigns homework. The show’s blog listed some reading recommendations, and warned readers that there will be a quiz. The blog consistently updates with “what we’re reading,” keeping everyone current on the issues that will be most pertinent for weekend discussion. Nerdland is growing, and its population will be well read.
Harris-Perry also brings on a panel of guests for each show, and her guest choices are another cause for celebration among viewers. In the first few episodes alone, she has brought on amazingly diverse groups of people to talk with her about history and current events, politics and news. It is refreshing to see a show that has women and people of color speaking alongside the omnipresent white men on most other news and opinion shows. This is a trend that I’m sure Harris-Perry intends to continue, and one that I would love to see more hosts emulate.
Whether she agrees with her guests or not, she’s careful to get to the facts on each issue – her nerdland love of graphs and charts is already a running theme on the show – and her ability to make confusing issues visual and concise without sacrificing their complexity is a huge asset for any viewer. Harris-Perry manages to be simultaneously erudite and relatable, academic and personable, and brings in a welcome combination of humor and seriousness to discussions that are only going to get more interesting.
The first couple of shows culminated in Harris-Perry’s attempt to get Beyoncé to agree to be on the show. Harris-Perry let her hair down and asked the superstar to talk to her about whether or not girls really do run the world – whether or not Beyoncé decides to venture into nerdland, Harris-Perry can certainly count me as a permanent resident.