Academic journal article Western Folklore

"This Is Reality. Right Now, Right Here. So Be Real" Reality Television and the Amish "Other"

Academic journal article Western Folklore

"This Is Reality. Right Now, Right Here. So Be Real" Reality Television and the Amish "Other"

Article excerpt

Traditionally, the term "ethnography" carries with it connotations of the academic. However, recent work in visual ethnography has expanded the genre beyond the confines of simply observing and documenting the "other" to include texts that blur the boundaries between observer/ observed and education/entertainment. Mary Louis Pratt describes ethnographic texts as "a means by which Europeans represent to themselves their (usually subjugated) others" (1992:7). Sharon R. Sherman goes one step further and explains; "the emphasis of ethnographic filmmakers has been and is to record different cultures in an attempt to discover something of their own," thus foregrounding the conscious or unconscious self-directed intention of the observer (1998:32). Sherman's term "ethnodocumentary" is reserved for those filmic texts "whose filmmakers intend to use them either to portray the customs and traditions of the cultural other for the purpose of elucidating anthropological research or to construct visual ethnographies" (1998:33). The diversity of the ethnographic genre is further delineated with Denise O'Malley's phrase "ethnographic docudrama," which identifies those visual texts that fictionalize actual events and cultural groups-such as Ridley Scott's film BlackhawkDown (2001).1 What has yet to be explored, however, is the intersection of ethnography (specifically a folk-centered ethnography) and a popular cultural text, such as reality television. If, as Sherman points out, for "mass culture to have appeal, it turns to folklore" (1998:259), a key question to consider is, what types of socio-cultural representations does the collusion of these two seemingly discordant discourses (reality TV and a folk-centered ethnography) create?

This paper will explore the UPN reality television show Amish in the City, which aired during the summer of 2004, and its treatment of the Amish and their initiation folk custom "rumspringa," a period of experimentation for young Amish men and women when they leave the strict world of their Amish community in order to live among the nonAmish. Devil's Playground (2002), the HBO documentary that preceded and in ways inspired Amish in the City, will serve as an important contrast for the television series, since generally, a subject's depiction will vary depending on the genre or medium (in this case, television or independent film) through which it is represented. Stephen Cantor and Daniel Laikand produced Devil's Playground and were the executive producers for Amish in the City. Devil's Playground follows a traditional documentary format; director Lucy Walker presents a number of on-location interviews gathered during the years she and her crew filmed select Amish youth. Amish in the City, however, covers a much shorter time frame that is more typical of reality TV productions. Though both texts are concerned with documenting rumspnnga, a Pennsylvania Dutch term loosely translated as "running around," the reality TV version is far more overtly constructed and mediated. Considering the genre's tight filming schedule (Amish in the City, for example, takes place over two months), the setting as well as the events (or dramas) that transpire must be carefully controlled and directed.

Set in Los Angeles, Amish in the City depicts eleven young men and women, five of whom are Amish and six of whom are not, as they cope with living together in the same house for nine weeks over the summer of 2004. At issue is the representation of the Amish as a folk group and the transformation "ethno-interaction" (the deliberate clash between two groups) undergoes when treated under the mainstream precepts of reality TV.Jon KiOlI, one of the producers for Amish in the City, explains, "reality shows at their best can be documentaries for the masses" (2004). Kroll's statement rests on the idea that television is considered more egalitarian than other audio-visual media because it reaches many viewers from many different strata of society in the personal sphere of their homes. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.