Stella Case No. 074, Originally Published: 2 June 2004
It might seem a bit strange that the SciFi cable TV channel might air a “reality” show — after all, the “Fi” stands for “Fiction” — but who ever said “reality TV” was an accurate depiction of life?
Be that as it may, SciFi’s Mad, Mad House ran on the channel, which is owned by Universal Studios. Judging by its ratings you’ve probably never heard of the show, so here’s the scoop from the SciFi web site:
Five practitioners of “alternative lifestyles” — a Wiccan, a Naturist, a Modern Primitive, a Voodoo Priestess and a real-life Vampire (known collectively as the Alts) — rule the roost. Meanwhile, 10 ordinary folks move into the House as the Alts’ Guests — and compete against one another for the $100,000 jackpot. Our Guests will live out a Survivor meets The Real World meets The Osbournes lifestyle — and try to get along living under one roof together. The eclectic and unpredictable Alts will challenge them, judge them and eliminate them one by one — ultimately deciding which Guest is most fit for life in the Mad Mad House.
Even though this wasn’t the Fox Network, the winning “Guest” was the stripper. Sorry, but it was against the rules to do the obvious: vote any of the weirdos …er, “Alts”… out of the house.
Of the five “Alts”, which would you think might be the most controversial? Perhaps the Naturist? (If you don’t know the term, you probably know the more common “nudist.”) But nope, that was just a silly yawn, thanks to strategically placed house plants and such.
OK, how about the “Modern Primitive”? That would be Art, who practices “ritual suspension” (he likes to hang around) and “other traditions” that are “based on Native American rites of passage.” Rather than live on a Reservation in the middle of a southwestern desert, Art is “a professional piercing artist and body-modifier. His goal is to cover his own body with Polynesian and Marquesan art.” In publicity photos, he doesn’t seem to wear much more than “Avocado,” the name that the naturist Alt, David Wolfe, prefers to go by. Rather, Art mainly sports geometric tattoos, even on his face. Nah — nothing out of the ordinary there.
Then there’s Ta’Shia, the “Voodoo Priestess”. OK, OK, this one was pre-shadowed by the case title. Yep: she’s the controversial one. SciFi says Iya Ta’Shia Asanti was raised Christian, but “later became disenchanted with it.” So she “embraced the tenets of Voodoo and has spent more than a decade studying and training in the field of African spirituality. She is a co-founder of the Ifa Conference on African Spiritual Tradition, a priestess of Yemoja in the Ifa tradition, a civil-rights activist, a teacher of African traditions and culture,” and — wait for it! — “an award-winning poet.” The point of her being on the show was to educate people that voodoo is “a sacred religion unlike the misrepresentations popularized in entertainment.”
Sounds like a reasonable goal. But not to the National African Religion Congress Inc., which likes to be called NARC. Based not in Africa but in Philadelphia, Penn., NARC says depicting Ta’Shia as a voodoo priestess “demeans and misrepresents the voodoo religion.”
“People already have negative feelings about this religion without a program like this exacerbating things,” said NARC president George Ware before the program had even aired.
Since the NARCs hadn’t seen the show yet, they had to go by its advertising and publicity to criticize it. At the time they said Ta’Shia does not wear the correct clothing for a voodoo priestess, and that the promotional clips for the show depict her doing things that aren’t part of the religion. God (or whoever) forbid!
The African group has thus embraced the American way: it filed a lawsuit in federal court against Universal Studios, USA Cable Entertainment, and show producer House of Eleven Productions demanding that the court order the show to change its advertising and programming. The suit says Ta’Shia isn’t a voodoo priestess, but rather merely a priestess of “Yemoja in the Ifa tradition.” Thus, the SciFi channel must be forced to stop calling Ta’Shia a voodoo priestess, and be restrained from “airing any episode… that falsely portrays any practice of African-based religions.”
Perhaps unwittingly, the lawsuit revealed a possible ulterior motive for the suit: it says the show’s producers signed Ta’Shia for the show only after failing to sign Gro Mambo Angela Novanyon, “a recognized Haitian voodoo high priestess in Philadelphia.” And just who is she? She just happens to be the founder of NARC.
But two months after filing the suit, NARC dropped it. In its newsletter, NARC notes the suit was settled when SciFi agreed to put a disclaimer on the Mad Mad House web site. “The relief NARC sought in its suit,” the newsletter noted, “i.e., an injunction blocking broadcast of the show, was not possible because of First Amendment protections given to free speech.”
Darn those pesky American freedoms! And, um, didn’t they know about that basic right before they filed suit? (Of course they did; that’s not the point. Publicity and pressure was.) Although they admit they have no legal leg to stand on, NARC still ominously hints that “other relief may be sought in the future” now that the lawsuit has fallen on its face.
Meanwhile, as of this writing the show’s web site still bills Ta’Shia as a “Voodoo Priestess” (what a shock!) Let’s hope the suits in SciFi’s executive suite didn’t injure themselves when they rolled their eyes — that could be an actionable injury.
The bottom line here is, who is SciFi to judge whether someone is a priest or priestess? It’s not like they can call Rome and check the credentials of a voodoo practitioner. There is certainly no organization with a proprietary right to the term “Voodoo.” If Ta’Shia wants to be known as a “Voodoo Priestess,” why shouldn’t the producers take her word for it? For them to insist she be labeled in a different way, indeed, could be considered religious discrimination.
Ironically, in the same issue of their newsletter NARC editorializes against “Holier Than Thou Disease,” lamenting that “The National African Religion Congress constantly encounters dissension from one spiritual house to another and from one African-based religion to another.” In the editorial, Gro Mambo Angela Novanyon herself lectures that “It takes a small mind and a lack of spiritual education to think that your religion is the purest, most powerful and the only religion recognized by God.”
Voodoo practitioners: heal yourselves!
- “Suit: TV Show Demeans Voodoo”, Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 February 2004.
- NARC web site.
- Mad Mad House web site.
For Info on Voodoo/Vodun, see the Religious Tolerance site.
As noted, it was dropped very quickly with a minor concession by SciFi.
My 2021 Thoughts on the Case
I covered it pretty well in the case: no organization gets to dictate how people practice their religions, nor can force a TV show off the air because they don’t force their performers to change the way they practice their religions. What rational person would have it any other way?
TSA Case #73 was about a woman who sued Radio Shack because someone changed the spelling of her town’s name to “Crimedanch” from “Wyandanch” on her receipts, a town known for its high crime rate, but the plaintiff complained that she wasn’t a criminal, so she sued over the little joke rather than complain.
A lot of readers wrote to complain about her lawyer. Attorney Siben said “It’s a violation of civil rights to be characterized in a way that infers that everyone from Wyandanch is a criminal.” To represent that group:
Jeffrey, a law student in New York: “Apparently Mr. Siben doesn’t just need to go back to law school, he needs to go back to grammar school. The characterization ‘Crimedanch’ may *imply* that everyone from Wyandanch is a criminal, [but] people who draw that conclusion from the implication *infer* it.”
I appreciate the readers who understood that I was quoting Mr. Siben; to those who took me to task for using the word wrong, Jeffrey nicely adds: “You used ‘infer’ correctly in the next ’graph. 🙂 ” That was, indeed, my perhaps-too-subtle way of making fun of his error.
And many readers noted that the plaintiff said she had a son in high school.
D.D., a retired attorney in Washington, was one: “If her son plays on the high school football team, he is probably between 15 and 18 years old. Torres is listed as being 26 years old. She must have been a rather precocious child.”
Or perhaps she married an older man with children from a previous marriage? I did check the original source again, and it’s not a typo, at least: it does say she’s 26.
Last, Chris in Ontario, Canada: “Randy, I love your work, but can’t figure out how you don’t go insane trying to comprehend just how stupid people can be. You must spend a lot of time pulling at your hair and screaming at your monitor. Thanks for doing it though! You account for 100% of my email subscriptions between Stella and This is True. Nothing else on the ’net seems worth cluttering my inbox with.”
My sanity, or lack thereof, has yet to be tested. For anyone who doesn’t already know, my weekly This is True is social commentary using weird-but-true news as its vehicle to make it fun to read.
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