I’ve long thought about writing a post celebrating the best in travel television. Maybe 10 years ago, travel TV became a thing, a money-maker, something sure to grab the interest of massive audiences. Throw in a host willing to eat strange foods, get dirty, or engage in adventure travel, and you have the perfect ingredients for a drama-filled hour or half-hour of television.
I personally love the stuff. Give me some free time, a device and some streaming TV, and you’ll find me happily couch-potatoing my way around the world. (And perhaps pricing flights between episodes.)
But for as long as I’ve thought about ranking the best travel television journalists and shows, that list has been populated primarily by men. Anthony Bourdain. Michael Palin. Rick Steves. Ian Wright.
For years, Anthony Bourdain has been my favorite. I’ve enjoyed watching him grow into his career as a prickly, foul-mouthed young man in poorly-chosen clothing on “A Cook’s Tour.” From there, he evolved to a slightly more appreciative, but still deliberately smart-alecky mid-career host on “No Reservations,” wearing shirts that clearly had been sourced by a producer who forced him to put them on the minute before the cameras were on, fold marks from the store packaging still fresh. From there, we had “The Layover,” a slightly lighter romp around the planet, with Bourdain having worked through his anger and angst, and B.S.ing his way through a destination under a manufactured deadline set for his fabricated next flight. At last, greyed and charmingly leathery, he has become the wise sage. No longer slamming colleagues or making cutting remarks toward others, he’s softer, kinder, and more curious than torked off at the world. CNN gives him time to ruminate, to luxuriate, to ask hard questions, and to come to epic, reflective conclusions in “Parts Unknown.” And, oh! Those cold opens! So captivating, so well-done with an explosion of video and sound seized on location, it’s the closest television comes to poetry.
I like this incarnation of Anthony Bourdain. I like him at this age, humbled, gentler and worn in like a favorite pair of jeans.
I’ve recently fallen hard for Phil Rosenthal’s work, “I’ll Have What Phil’s Having,” and “Somebody Feed Phil.” The two series put travel television on its head. Rather than a surly, cynical host, or one willing to eat whatever is still wiggling or shocking, Rosenthal enters the world wide-eyed and appreciative, with love and empathy for those he interviews. We need that. Things in our own country are far too messed up right now to be very cynical about the politics of other nations. We need a breather, a break. We need the salve, the blissful escape, the unspoiled wonder that is Phil Rosenthal. I’m so glad to know “Somebody Feed Phil” has been picked up for season two. (Check out the trailer here.)
And yet, I can’t help but think at 61, Bourdain’s age, or 54, Rosenthal’s age, a female travel host wouldn’t have the same opportunities. No chance to reflect upon a lifetime of lessons and impart the resulting wisdom to the public through a carefully-crafted travel program. No chance to go into the world, gray hairs unleashed, unapologetic about her wrinkles and sags. Instead, women have a perceived expiration date, in television, and otherwise.
But the problem isn’t just that there are no older women in travel television, there really aren’t many women at all. Is this just another symptom of this era in which women are still emerging, making our voices heard, speaking our truths? Or should we accept that we have to see and hear and experience the world through the filter and experience of a male traveler, in perpetuity?
I’ve seen Samantha Brown‘s work, but overall my travel philosophy is very different, so her coverage of luxury travel is lost on me–much like Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods, it holds no appeal. But I also remember seeing and loving the work of Justine Shapiro, who hosted Globe Trekker/Pilot Guides, and then sort of disappeared from travel television. She was real, she was smart, she was curious and she was wonderfully vulnerable.
Today Shapiro is 55, and Brown is 48. Both are no doubt nearing their disappearance into the ether where on-screen women go after a certain age, casualties to television network bean counters and focus groups who can’t see the marketability of women travel hosts over 50.
So where are all the women travel hosts? The young ones are forging their own paths, mugging for the GoPro to produce low budget YouTube videos, and taking bikini shots of themselves to post on Instagram. But that’s not the kind of travel coverage I’m talking about.
I distinctly remember a scene when Shapiro traveled to Mexico and witnessed her first bullfight. When they killed the bull, she cried. To watch her digest the cultural experience is fascinating, painful and unforgettable. It’s an authentic moment that happens so rarely in travel television, and is so desperately needed. It’s the kind of travel TV that makes people think. That’s the kind of programming that can create inroads to understanding. And the resulting shift has the power to change everything.
But, we need mentors to lead the incoming class, and sadly, there are few, if any.
Certainly there’s no shortage of women travel bloggers; my Twitter feed runneth over. They’re smart and funny and fearless and ready to help travel TV lovers experience the world from entirely different perspectives. Women have stories to tell. Women have stories about what it is to be in this one wild and enchanting world. And women travelers are ready to tell those stories in the unique and unflinching way that only women can. Sensitively. Analytically. Courageously.
For years I dreamed of working as a travel journalist, or, leveraging my experience as a TV journalist and producing programming like Zero Point Zero produces for Bourdain and Rosenthal. I think I’ve given up on that dream; my expiration date is nearing. But I sincerely hope this next generation of women who love travel and are passionate about inspiring discovery of Mother Earth’s secrets in others, get that chance. I, for one, am ready to stream, and dream, with them.
Bring on the Rollerbag Goddesses.
And Justine Shapiro, if you’re out there, please come back.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to her clients.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.