Paris Hilton–Anthropologist: The Production of Cross-Cultural Difference in First-Person Adventure Television

by: Adam Fish / UCLA

The Simple Life

The Simple Life

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.

Going Tribal

Going Tribal

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.

Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain

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.

Image Credits:
1. The Simple Life
2. Going Tribal
3. Anthony Bourdain

Please feel free to comment.


  • Bradley L. Garrett

    Cultural encounter / existential crisis

    Intriguing article Mr. Fish. I am not sure if you are suggesting that it is the intention of these quasi-celebrities (full credentials in the case of Hilton) or their producers is to challenge the illusion of objectivity in anthropology or if this is an concomitant by-product of the undertaking. Certainly the addition of subjective awareness and exposure of bias in ethnographic reporting is a necessary confession, but it seems to me that in the journey undertaken in many of these ethnodramas, cultural contact and cross-cultural experience is only a single facet of popular request, and not the primary focus of interest most of these shows. Would Bruce Parry ingesting hallucinatory drugs in a tent in the middle of the arctic be any less interesting or popular?

    These shows are distinctly self aware, sometimes to the point of cultural blindness. Based on the popularity of Survivorman, I would suggest that the addition of cultural ‘other’ as a point of conflict or enlightenment is a single channel of the process of self discovery, not necessarily the goal. In another scenario, ‘other’ (as a resident protagonist) always exists, but may take the form of conflict with nature or self (ego) in place of culture. Hence, the trajectory of these documents is, it seems to me, distinctly existential.

    This is intensified by the technique of ‘exposing the wiring’ – something seen often in Caught in the Moment and used extensively in Survivorman where the existential dilemma of the moment is actually filming the show. Fuck, what a drag! I would suggest this is an evolution of the earlier phenomenon of the ‘confessional’ you mentioned used often in reality TV shows such as Survivor and Real World to highlight personal (usually external) drama. Exposing the wiring turns the camera on the self (internal), and questions the motives of the protagonist.

    While I may not agree that adventure TV celebrities can add much to the anthropological body of knowledge, it is obvious that they are doing a far better job than academics of disseminating knowledge to a relatively ignorant viewing public. There is a lesson to be learned here, to be sure. Interesting that the reflexive teleanthropology requested by a media hungry public raised on the anthropologist-as-exotic-exploitation-expert may advance anthropological praxis in this new form.

    Hope to see more of this. Good article.

  • oxymoron?

    Paris Hilton—Anthropologist? At least, it tells me that dissing Hilton is so yesterday!

  • Change outside the text?

    This is an interesting column that, for me, triggers questions of both audience and the role of television in society. What are the implications of first-person productions of difference, not just in terms of who is producing difference and how change contained within texts occurs, but for external change (ie, audience, cultural, etc.)? If we conceptualize television as a cultural forum, what is the impact of “knowledge building in the ethnographer’s or protagonist’s subjectivity,” particularly when operating as quasi-narrative in a subgenre of reality TV?

  • Exposing the Wiring

    Mr Garrett,

    Thank you for your excellent additions to the article!

    Analogous developments link anthropology and first-person television. It is possible, however, that a homologous origin for both exists far back in the ancestry of representational practice. I think a study of early cinema/ethnography at turn of the century could uncover the universal source.

    I do, though, think it possible that media industrialists are aware of the issues I raise. They know that cultural contrast –the more graphic and extreme the better– makes for good entertainment.

    You make excellent points regarding the eco-other in Survivorman and the “exposing of the wiring” (I love your phrase!) in Caught in the Moment and Survivorman. I agree with you that showing off the cameras and technologies furthers the industrial and protagonists’ reflexivity.

    Indeed, if I could make my own ethnographic program it would be based on Going Tribal but with the added element of making the film crew characters, their labor visually transparent, and I would add another character (a local woman with some advanced training anthropology) to make fun of, clarify, and magnify Parry’s ethnographic tourism.

    My point is that ethnography and this genre are refracted through subjective experience, so I also agree with your existentialism. The cross-cultural knowledge is a byproduct, accidental in The Simple Life, intentional in anthropology, but existing in both modes of cultural knowing.

    I am not sure if anthropologists are paying this genre the attention it deserves (if only because it is the result of a culture of media production with curiously similar histories and methods). Nor am I sure if anthropology needs to be “public” by coopting popular modes of representation. I think anthropology is less about the ‘other’ than it is about the process of making the ‘other.’ In that respect I don’t know if anthropology in its academic modality is equipped to ‘go public.’ I think these six programs are as close as we have seen to television anthropology.

    Certainly, issues of academic gatekeeping make condescending statements by anthropologists about Going Tribal almost universal. I don’t see anthropologists learning much from The Simple Life on how to do their work. The article was written to empower television scholars and irritate anthropologists by elevating these programs to the height of an academic field. In this respect I am probably like a television producer that knows that extreme contrasts produce entertaining media.

    Thank you for your response.


    Adam FishUCLA

  • Well.

    Gaughin was french and he was well-acquainted with Van Gogh who was dutch.

    Gaughin was thinking that the artist must research the symbol, the myth, aggrandize the ordinary things of life into myths.

    Van Gogh was thinking that one must know how to deduce the myth from the most down to earth things of life.

    Supposedly, the two painters fought rather violently.

    Anyway, I suppose as you assert you own culturally- crossed, class-defying differences here and colonize your own quasi-indigenous corner of the media, Paris Hilton as a headline is a slick rick way to get people to read an anthropological article that would otherwise have little general interest.

    As an expat, I would incite you to spend your energy seeking out those who have actually gone and adopted new tongues, manners, classes, customs, mores for more than a week. People who live with the learning problem of difference constantly, daily.

    I’m sure you could do better by your fellow anthropologs by going and finding transplanted artists who are doing something really special and make a reality show around them. (Maybe find some type indigenous to Michoacan Mountains before the wall goes up.)

    De toute façon, I read most of it. Good show.

  • Sedition


    You ask important questions and challenge me in a good way in your response to my little article. Your analogy that anthropologists are to Paris Hilton as a painter is to a painter, that they are different but the same, and that my column is unoriginal, was poetic but you miss an important point. Comparing two things that are incomparable, finding the similarities, between two dissimilar things, particularly when, if rigorously argued, would force readers to acknowledge the high in the low and the low in the high, is a very useful exercise when attempting to diffuse the pretensions of an elitist field of study like anthropology and a populist cultural forum like television. Saying an architect is like an architect does not reveal the structures of art as would saying an architect is like a painter, or a painter is like a musician, for these explicit reasons. The greater the distance between the compared objects, the more salient the fibers that connect, the greater the theorist’s ability to make sense of (through making the foreign seem close) and to effectively complicate (make foreign the known e.g. “the uncanny”) our place in a multicultural society.

    I would think that an expat, apparently out of the country for some political reason, would appreciate the criticism of elite institutions like American academics and the preciousness of ethnography. But instead, you chide me to return to a modern ethnographic context in the wilds of exotic lands. Classical anthropology in the Victorian observational mode is no longer possible and I am attempting to broaden what anthropologists can do with their peculiar toolkit.

    Comparing Paris to an anthropologist is not only oxymoronic as one reader commented but absurd. But to be able to qualify such a comparison as effectively as I have done is patently seditious.




    que-everrr. That’s Spanglish for “what ever…” (yes I’ve trademarked that phrase, thank you very much.)

    The ridiculousness of your work exemplifies by its very ridiculousness the ridiculousness of this modern world and certain dare we call them “icons”.

    That’s hot.

  • hımmm paris hilton sexy and like minded girl hahaha

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