Paris Hilton–Anthropologist: The Production of Cross-Cultural Difference in First-Person Adventure Television
by: Adam Fish / UCLA
Cross-cultural transgressions — and the production of cultural difference — mark the contemporary wave of first-person, reality-based, adventure television (e.g., The Simple Life, Going Tribal, Digging for the Truth, 30 Days, No Reservations, Caught in the Moment). Not a competitive program (e.g. Survivor) nor a docusoap (e.g. Laguna Beach), this sub-genre of reality television is similar to investigative journalism and first-person ethnography. With emphasis on cultural encounters, this genre shares formal and theoretical similarities with select phases in the history and methodology of ethnography — particularly the earlier (pre-1960s) production of cultural difference through cultural encounter and the later turn towards first-person reflexivity (post-1960s; explicitly the 1980s).
The protagonists, quasi-ethnographers and our guides into the exotic, are keys to understanding the ethnographic method accidentally at work in these programs. The host families and indigenous cultures that shelter the protagonists are the subjects against which we compare the protagonists’ backstories in the production of cultural difference. The protagonists’ back-stories — necessary for establishing a baseline for gauging the cross-cultural contacts that form the crux of the shows — are revealed in on-screen personal narrations or in visceral contacts between the protagonists and their non-Western or American subcultural hosts. The contacts both magnify existing and produce new cultural differences that, in their emphasis on extremities of wealth and poverty, urbanism and ruralism, ordinary and exotic, modernity and “primitivism,” are televisually graphic while ethnographically suspect, but reveal a commonality in the first-person production of difference shared by both this genre and historical moments in ethnography. With an emphasis on the spectacle of difference, these programs look like earlier naïve objective anthropology. Upon closer analysis their subjectivity and processual nature affiliates them with cinema verite and postmodern ethnography of the 1980s. Finally, by being ethnographies latently about the televisual production of difference and the transgression of personal, social, and even national boundaries, these programs have some formal similarities with contemporary (post-1990s) anthropologies of media.
Six programs currently appearing on six separate networks are capitalizing — figuratively and monetarily — on the myriad issues surrounding cultural difference. The confluence and comparative success of such programs, and the emergence of similarly themed comedy features (Idiocracy, 2006; Borat, 2006), is evidence that the mining of difference has become a lucrative strategy for creating entertaining visual texts. The Simple Life (E!; 2003-), Going Tribal (Discovery; 2005-), and No Reservations (Travel Channel; 2005-) each feature faux-ethnographers being changed, resisting change, and reflecting on the process of personal change in the course of exotic adventures in foreign lands or alien (to them) environments. In each of the programs difference is isolated and magnified–or created, if necessary.
In The Simple Life, viewers are expected to identity with the rural or middle-class host families who agree to have pampered rich girls Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton stay with them for a month while they act as the girls’ interns, husbands, parents, or whatever class-contradictory or suggestive relationship the TV producers can concoct. Quotidian physical labor is the “adventure” for these celebutants’ expeditions into the rural middle-class.
Watching Bruce Parry, a British ex-Marine, imbibe hallucinatory roots and grotesque foods — toilet pig, rat cake — right along with the “primitive” locals, is the intended joy of the ethnographic reality television program Going Tribal. Parry details to the viewer how the foods and psychedelics change him — from tongue, through intestine, to mind, and spirit. After a month with the aboriginal people, and before boarding a helicopter, Parry simultaneously confesses his worries about globalization’s effects on his indigenous friends and laments Western societies’ industrialization.
The chain-smoking, drug referencing Manhattanite and semi-famous chef Anthony Bourdain, in No Reservations, is full of self-parody and cultural irony as he eats his way through the least or most savory, rustic and 3rd world urban locations in the world. Unlike Parry, Bourdain does not attempt to alter his subjectivity in order to think and feel like the indigene. But like Parry, Richie, and Hilton, Bourdain will never give up his metropolitan existence. After establishing the televisual protagonists’ extreme difference to the “host” cultures they encounter, these programs capitalize on the instances — usually gustatory, often political — where cross-cultural frictions occur.
The Production of Difference
Each show’s protagonist magnifies, subdues, exaggerates, or overcomes his/her original culture in contact with the “foreign” body. In the process, to greater or lesser degrees, the protagonists embrace, or negate, the “other” culture with their own expectations of the exotic or their requirements for familiar terrain. The prime pleasure in watching this process is predicting its rate of failure or success, the moments of transformation, and the points of blockage. As the protagonist navigates through the foreign culture, we ask ourselves whether we would want to be in the protagonist’s or host’s positions. Strange, idiosyncratic, unpleasant, or threatening foods, difficult travel conditions, religious rituals, political ideologies, sexual patterns, and behavioral taboos are important sites for self-surmounting, self-clarification, or self-calcification. The stress on the faces and the tension in the timber of their voices add currency to the protagonists’ confessions that they are resisting change or being changed. This visceral and oratory excess is the residue of difference. It is also the early colonizing anthropologist’s cross-cultural “knowledge.” Knowledge here consists of a sense of difference yet also kinship between the two abutting cultures, and an awareness of the destabilizing process involved in their contact. The deeper pleasure and more meaningful educational value of these programs thus derives from an affirming and a challenging of the qualitative differences between the cultures.
On-screen protagonists entertain and edify by juxtaposing their normal, everyday lives with their adventurous experiences. Both their “real life” and their television life are somewhat contrived. Through staging, scripting, and editing the real is made ridiculous as cultural difference and individual transformation are exaggerated. That said, self-authenticated, individual change can and does occur on these programs (if only because of the meeting with television industries), and progressive revelations are possible at the points of cultural contact. Indeed, an embodied experience of the production of televisual difference requires one to play-along with the programs’ (and the fans’) bracketing of cultural difference and the conflicts that follow. Each program produces difference differently, but each in their own way skirts the edge of ethnography, while flirting with the tourist impulse and cultural slumming that plagues anthropology’s history and academic claims to empirical cross-cultural reportage. Just like today’s ethnographer, the protagonist may be changed by the encounter, but all return to the comforts of industrial society to reap the benefits.
Today’s media anthropologists are unpacking the productions of discreet cultural units to reveal how difference is manufactured under the aegis of science or entertainment in the search for fact and spectacle. By using the tools of pro-filmic biography and on-camera in-process reflexivity, contemporary first-person adventure television reflects the personalizing of anthropological praxis. This genre has similarities to post-1980s reflexive anthropology. By situating knowledge building in the ethnographer’s or protagonist’s subjectivity, both postmodern ethnography and adventure television explore the personal process of building knowledge.
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