“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad.”
Mark Twain, in his travel memoir, Innocents Abroad
Twain is convincing enough, but I believe, too, that not all travelers ever learn. A new British television series steps problematically into familiar and at-the-same-time specifically different territory. Curing privileged rich and/or white kids has been the task of reality shows for decades now: shows like The Island with Bear Grylls, Brat Camp, Exiled, and You’re Cut Off! promise us a grim catharsis as we watch them meet justice.
Channel 5’s Teen Tribe appears to be more punishment of spoiled white privilege through hardship and isolation. Here, however, they are sent to live as different indigenous tribes do; in other words, their “punishment” is to live the customary lives of the Other. Do they discover they are the “asses” Twain describes? And what is more important, do we, as vicarious voyeurs?
In its first episode, Teen Tribe places two British teens with a Peruvian Amazon tribe, the Ashanika. A “pampered princess” Alex and a lazy gamer Ethan are forced to eat wood worms or cook in traditional ways, and all with no electricity or running water. The Guardian remarks with genuine fandom, “It’s delicious watching the horror unfold.” What is the horror, exactly? That these traditional practices are so barbarous as to be unthinkable or that they will have no long-term effect upon our non-Innocents Abroad?
The newspaper reports the girl’s lessons learned: “‘I started out as a pampered princess,’ Alex says with a terrifying smile, ‘but now I’m a jungle queen.’ Be afraid, be very afraid.”
I am. There may be little enough chance for imbeciles like Alex or Ethan to learn anything from the accommodating and genuine Ashanika (especially when British film crews constantly “reform” them with starring camera roles which feed their narcissism). Yet I also wonder if viewers learn anything different. As much as we might find ourselves offended by the teens, are we more likely to be disgusted as they are by the practices? Do we, in a way, ally ourselves with the Western “exiled” with a self-righteous nod, thinking, “Yes. Indigenous cultures are as awful as the prison in Scared Straight or the bootcamps in Brat Camp and so practicing this horror on you is justified”? Of course; it’s the conceit of the program. The Other’s way of living is by definition offensive. (By the way, The Guardian loved Brat Camp, too!)
Spot the Ashanika.
In his Innocents Abroad, Twain asserts famously that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” The latter observation is dead-on, but I argue that the bigotry is emboldened by programs like these, by cruise ships that drop in for afternoon trinkets, and by too many well-meaning service trips armed with selfie cameras. It’s not travel that is fatal to prejudice if we pack it with us and use it to adjust our camera angles, frame our memories and future narratives.
A series of five studies conducted at Northwestern University suggests that Twain is right, at least in some respect. Lead researcher Jiyin Cao reports that, “the more countries one travels, the more trusting one is. Breadth is important here, because breadth provides a great level of diversity in people’s foreign travel experiences, allowing them to reach such a generalized assumption.” Does this mean that, had we shipped Alex and Ethan to several locations, the teens would broaden their views? Perhaps only without the television cameras. But for the viewers, the camera is all we witness. We cannot–as travelers by proxy –see more than the exoticizing of the foreign.
In Jungletown, which premiered this past spring, hundreds of 20-somethings are determined to build the most sustainable modern community. While this sounds noble enough for environmentalists, its placement in Panama and its “casting” of all young Western white people sets up a binary for exotification and objectification. Jungletown does take notice of this juxtaposition, even plays upon it, when showing the Panamanian manual laborers working obediently behind the idealistic and naive whites. But of course, their goal is to build a “modern” community inside this clearly wild, undeveloped, exotic otherworld: what a challenge for the noble whites (who are building this town only for themselves)! Combine this framing with other reality shows in Panama–Survivor, Man vs. Wild, and Naked and Afraid–and what patterns do white Western viewers see?
The highly-bigoted Rudyard Kipling once remarked, “What should they know of England who only England know?” and this seems at first glance to reinforce Twain’s idea. However, so long as the lens of other cultures is focused on the story of the English protagonist, than England has still learned little. It carries its prejudice with it, and the sometimes unsuspecting Other is left at a loss, even a tragic one.
No, it is not Twain who understands the necessity of travel here, but the globally-misquoted Proust:
The only true voyage of discovery . . .would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is. . . .