When television network UPN announcedAmish in the City, their latest attempt to capitalize on the popularity of reality TV shows, many journalists questioned how it was different from a similar show that never got off the ground. CBS, whose parent company owns UPN, last year cancelled plans to air The Real Beverly Hillbillies, in which poor Appalachian families would be paid to live in a Beverly Hills mansion. Interest groups and legislators said the show would be insensitive to Appalachian culture and communities.
This year, it's Amish in the City, which will place five Amish teens during rumspringa—an Amish tradition allowing teens 16 and older more freedom from community rules before choosing whether or not to join the church—alongside five "mainstream" teens. The point, execs say, is to see what happens to Amish kids "who will walk down Rodeo Drive and be freaked out by what they see." It's not intended to be insulting, the network says. Still, after one CBS executive admits that the series was planned in part "because CBS couldn't do 'The Real Beverly Hillbillies.'" The Amish, he said, "don't have as good a lobbying group" as rural Appalachians do.
That is about all that Donald B. Kraybill and UPN can agree on. Kraybill, author of The Amish: Why They Enchant Us and many other books on the Amish and Mennonites, believes it would be impossible for the show to accurately depict the Amish community, and that any effort would be by nature insensitive to Amish prohibitions on graven images. Yesterday, CT talked with Kraybill, who is Senior Fellow in the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College.
Do you think Hollywood has more of an interest in the Amish than the rest of the country does?
I think there is a TV and Hollywood interest in them because they are unique and different. They've had the courage to buck many of the strong currents of technological change and modern values. They're interesting for Hollywood simply because they stand apart so far outside of the mainstream of American life.
But I also think they're easy prey because they don't fit the standard taboo list of religion and race that Hollywood may not be able to talk about with other groups. And, by nature of their passive nature and religious commitment to peace and non-resistance, they're not going to file suits or engage in aggressive lobby efforts like some other religious or ethnic groups might do.
So they're really vulnerable in a sense to the powerful forces of Hollywood.
Could you explain rumspringa?
Technically, rumspringa translates to running around, which simply means that they begin going out with their friends. They may begin dating. Others are out with their friends. They'll be sledding, they may be ice-skating, they may be playing volleyball. They're going to youth group singings. It's a time when they are less under the supervision of the parents, and they are still not baptized in the church, so they are betwixt and between the supervision of their parents and the authority of the church. They are not required technically to abide by the regulations of the church until they are formally baptized.
For the bulk of them it would be four to five years when they continue living at home. The one news release I saw implied that all young Amish people leave their home communities and live out in the larger society. That's simply not true. The typical practice for over 90 percent of them would be that they would continue living at home, continuing working at home, or in an uncle's shop, or an aunt's quilting store.
In some of the larger communities, there are sizeable youth groups of maybe 100 to 125 kids. Here in Eastern Pennsylvania, we have about 26 or 27 sizeable youth groups like this that a young person would join at the age of 16. Out of 26 or 27, a few of them, three or four are going to be more rambunctious, more mischievous. The boys in some of those groups will own cars or trucks, they'll go to movies sometimes, they may go to the beach, or go to New York City. But many of the other youth groups are much more traditional. Then at some point, they need to decide if they going to join the church and become baptized or gradually drift away from the community.
Do you have any thoughts about the show?
It strikes me as absurd and ridiculous for a number of reasons. It will be impossible to find typical Amish youth to participate. The ones who would be willing to participate in this kind of thing are ones who have likely decided to leave the community, and they will be very aware of the outside world. So, from that standpoint, I think it's going to be very unrealistic, and certainly not reflective of what typical Amish teens or youth would say or do in response to that.
I think it also is a cultural slap in the face to the Amish because they have consistently objected to having members of their community photographed. They do not object to photography—they don't have a problem taking photographs of buildings and animals and furniture—but they do object to having individuals face cameras and have their photographs taken.
I think there's also kind of an underlying theme here that somehow the Amish are un-enlightened, and that the rest of our society understands progressive values and is enlightened. This is a chance to make fun of people that we think are less enlightened.
The fact of the matter is, in terms of some basic indicators of happiness and satisfaction, they may be a whole lot more satisfied and find a whole lot more meaning in life than the rest of us do.
Do you think that is why people are interested in the Amish?
I think that is certainly one of the reasons that stirs our imagination and, as I've said in some essays, torments the modern soul. I think we worry that they may indeed be happier than we are without going to high school or higher education or having access to as much modern technology as we do. It certainly stirs our curiosity, and it may be one factor that draws us to them.
I think there are issues like community and stability, a sense of place, a sense of coherence in life that also are factors that pull us toward them. But that doesn't really provide the rationale or reason to have this kind of a "reality" show.
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Other coverage of the show includes:
UPN eyes Amish for reality TV | Series follows 5 during traditional decision to stay or leave roots (Akron Beacon Journal, Ohio)
Amish reality TV? Get real! | Must you continue to pile boxcars on this runaway train that is the reality show wreck from which we can't look away? (Alex Richmond, The Trentonian, NJ)
My Big Fat Amish Diet | Forget the Amish reality show. (Philadelphia Inquirer)
Reality TV Goes Amish—and Amiss | "Amish in the City" is only the working title for the new reality series that's set to air this summer. (Washington Post)
Other CT articles on the Amish include:
Threatening the Amish | How the Amish solve the legal problems of civil liberties (December 2003)
Film Forum: Side Dishes | The Devil's Playground offers us an intimate look at four Amish youngsters, their experiences at home and their interaction with mainstream culture. (Sept. 12, 2002)
Keeping Up with the Amish | We evangelicals have made a too-easy peace with the inroads of consumer culture. (Oct. 4, 1999)
Other CT articles on reality TV from our television page include:
Christian Survivors Playing a Non-Christian Game | A former winner of the CBS reality show talks about the faith that led her to the game and how Christian ethics intersects with outwitting, outlasting, and outplaying the competition.
Books & Culture Corner: Whose Reality TV? | Tune in this week to Frederick Wiseman's PBS documentary, Domestic Violence, to see some real survivors. (March 17, 2003)
Would a Christian Bachelorette Be Different? | A panel of Christian singles discusses the proliferation of reality dating shows and the turn from seeking one-night stands to seeking spouses. (Feb. 19, 2003)
'Pastor John' Sees Himself As a Survivor on the Mount | The show's first clergyman discusses reality TV, playing the game with faith, and why he was the first voted out. (Oct. 02, 2002)
Reality Check | Television shows feature Christians in a race, on a trip, and in a prison. (April 23, 2002)
Is Reality TV Beyond Redemption? | CBS hooks viewers with new lowbrow programming. (Aug. 2, 2000)