Friday, October 26, 2012

The Problem With 'Breaking Amish'

Breaking Amish is a new show on TLC. I must admit that I have long been fascinated by the Amish, largely because of their close knit culture and their refusal to use modern technology.  When I learned that Breaking Amish was designed to be a form of documentary about 5 people leaving their Amish and Mennonite communities to travel to New York and live among the English for the first time, I must admit that I was excited. I imagined the culture shock and the emotion of leaving behind a way of life that was all consuming and the doubts that would occur. What I did not imagine, and probably should have given the fact that it is airing on TLC, that it would be nothing more than a farce representing itself as a documentary series.

A lot of reality TV in and of itself has an unpleasant undertone. In theory this is a way for us to learn about unusual experiences, lifestyles that are different from our own and different circumstances through a different viewpoint - certainly a laudable concept of expanding people’s horizons. But this is very rarely what we see; far more often reality TV exists to present us with people that are considered “weird” or “other”  by society and encourage us to both decide that their lives are somehow our business and then to pity or judge them. It’s a combination of an old fashioned freak show and a town pillory - from the raucous activities of Jersey Shore and Real Housewives to the insular culture of American Gypsies to the family life of Honey Boo Boo this is all about watching people regarded as “freaks” and then judging them and is only exacerbated by the frequent targeting of vulnerable people.

From the very first episode something about this show struck me as wrong. How exactly did TLC manage to find five people interested in leaving their closed communities all at once? The cast were all old enough to have gone through Rumspringa - a time when the young have the chance to live among the English and make the decision as to whether or not they want to remain Amish. Their fascination with creamers, cell phones and microwaves seemed feigned at best. Rebecca, in particular, went out of the way to display disgust about the outhouse in her home.  If having an outhouse was a part of her normalised life, why is it so absolutely disgusting to her suddenly? It’s not like indoor plumbing was ever a part of her everyday existence. Right after getting off the plane, their language completely changed and they used all of our current vernacular, including cursing. After a moment’s contrived confusion about chop-sticks, they adapted happily enough to eat a meal in a Chinese restaurant. They presented very accurate seeming shock at a $50 hotel breakfast (I was shocked, never mind them!) but then maintained that same shock for a $10 a head meal. Navigating an airport is a matter of brief confusion, but a bedside radio is incomprehensible. And that’s before we consider the likelihood of Jeremiah getting a driving license and job as a taxi driver in New York city so quickly. Many inconsistencies just didn’t pass the smell test.

After a quick internet search, I quickly found that what TLC had attempted to present as a true experience was based on lies. Jeremiah, the raving sexist of the group, apparently has been married before and has three kids. Naomi Stutzman, Jeremiah's ex wife filed for divorce on the ground of "gross neglect of duty" and "extreme cruelty." Stutzman also received a restraining order and, after separation, lived in a domestic abuse center. Abe and Rebecca who supposedly have grown close and even became engaged on the show, apparently already have a child together. Rebecca isn’t the only woman to have a child out of wedlock, but she’s probably the first to go on national television and lie about having her teeth pulled by the Amish to get a new set of dentures for free. A picture taken in 2010, clearly shows Rebecca in a bikini with a huge smile and of course, her own teeth. Abe, who also spent quite a bit of time expressing his displeasure with Kate and Sabrina for drinking also has an arrest on his record for public intoxication. Yeah, that is the sound of hypocrisy. Then there is the little manner of Sabrina, the sole cast member who is Mennonite. Sabrina married Delmar R. Burkholder on July 25, 2009.  From the look of the wedding photos, it’s clearly not a Mennonite wedding.  Sabrina also participated in the 2010 National Geographic documentary Amish At the Altar,

This fiction presented as fact is especially damaging when we consider that a large part of this series doesn’t just tell us how different the Amish and the Mennonites are, but also how wrong or bad they are. From the constant running in fear from the Bishop and his family, to describing the way the Amish live in contemptuous terms through to showing their loved ones shunning them. We have conversations in which the Amish are presented as extremely misogynist, that Amish men are over-sexed and will press their wives for sex hours after having a baby and even Amish men having sex with animals. In an extreme example, Rebecca even says that the Amish had all of her teeth removed unnecessarily when she was young and that is why she needs false teeth, which, as we say above, is a lie. But it is a story so shocking that it moved a dentist to provide her with a new set for free - I can only hope that kind dentist was in on the fiction. The Amish and the Mennonites are presented extremely negatively from the very beginning. When the show isn’t trying to amuse us with the somewhat contrived conflicts between the cast, it relies on demonising and othering these communities to engage their audience. This is the very purpose of the show and the only thing that differentiates it from any other reality show with a group of people getting drunk and having ridiculously dramatic spats, love affairs and fights that are such a staple of reality tv. The show’s very concept is reliant on the Othering of the Amish.

This is further problematic simply because the Amish, due to their beliefs, have no real chance to respond. The Amish cannot go on television or on the internet and say “no, these are lies. No that’s an exaggeration. No that is a gross generalisation”. They are not in a position to effectively counter the message presented.

And this fiction damages any attempt at legitimate criticism as well. I am sure there are things to criticise about Amish communities and how their insular lives leave little hope for intervention or help; for example the treatment of women and GBLT members for one. But any of these messages are lost and undermined by the sheer amount of lies being presented. Any truth, serious issues or reasonable criticism this show could raise about the Amish or Mennonites is completely lost due to the deception of the source. Why should I trust Jeremiah’s complaints about the interference of the Bishop in his life when everything else he has said is lies? Why should I believe Rebecca when she talks about the state of health care in her community when she has faked so much? Is Abe’s depiction of the low education levels in the Amish community accurate or just another dramatic falsehood?

The deception undermines any possible reasoned criticism that this show could inspire - relying instead on constant freak-show shaming with little substance or secure foundation. Even the truth they present cannot be taken seriously when it is drowned in so many lies and, worse, it could undermine the truth that other, more honest commentators present.

Editors Note: This piece was written by both Sparky and I. We have to deal with his addiction to reality television somehow.