This is what immoral reality TV looks like.
"I don't think it's right that the woman has to stay beneath the man. I think we should be equal," says Rebecca, a pink-cheeked, 20-year-old Amish woman in Punxatawney, Pennsylvania, as she handwashes clothes at 5:45 in the morning. Soon, Rebecca will trade laundry, outhouses, and floor-skimming dresses for strip clubs, jeans, and bars, in the ultimate devil's playground, New York City. With the new series Breaking Amish, TLC follows Rebecca and four other Amish and Mennonite young people living together in a Manhattan hotel on their rumspringa, the window of late adolescence in which youths venture out into the world for the first time to make an informed decision whether austere religious life is for them. From the show's teasers, Rebecca, Sabrina, Kate, Abe, and Jeremiah will get drunk and tattooed, spin on stripper poles, and discover a little more equality between the sexes, while also pining for the simple life they left behind.
Breaking Amish is the latest addition to The Learning Channel's (commonly known as The Leering Channel) provocative reality TV programming. Once a boring educational channel where you could watch a documentary on the spotted owl or get tips for cooking the perfect soufflé, TLC is now the go-to place for gawking. Breaking Amish appears alongside 19 Kids and Counting about the fertile Duggar family; Abby and Brittany, which follows a set of conjoined twins as they navigate college life; Sister Wives, which may instigate the formation of a Mormon Anti-Defamation League; and the self-explanatory freakshows: My Strange Addiction, My Crazy Obsession, and Strange Sex. Breaking Amish is a hybrid of the ethnic minstrel show—along the lines of Jersey Shore or Shahs of Sunset, where a culture is reduced to its caricature parts—and The Real World, where good looking twentysomethings live together in a new city, full of possibilities. (All of the Amish stars of the show are remarkably good-looking. One imagines plucky TLC producers hiding behind barns with binoculars to do their casting). But what sets Breaking Amish apart from the other shows is how much is at stake for the stars: their religion, their families, their identities—the very world they've known up until now.
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Detractors of reality TV often decry the genre as exploitative, but usually the show's stars exploit themselves. Subjects are often all too willing to divulge the worst parts of their personalities to nab more airtime. As journalist Lillian Ross said decades ago, loquacious sources tend to "violate their own privacy." Even the most extreme examples of questionable taste, like Toddlers and Tiaras, are not exploitative because the girls are already being pimped by their own parents, and by the pageant industry in general. TLC cameras simply swoop in and document a sensational story that is already underway. And breakout reality stars play along. On the wildly popular Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Mama and Sugar Bear ham up their redneck tics for higher ratings, and in hopes of being renewed for a second season. Real Housewives know how to stay relevant by stirring up the most drama in the highest hemline. Reality stars play along because they know it will benefit them, in the form of endorsement deals, a devoted Twitter following, and spin-off shows.
Snooki might lose control of her bowels in a drunken stupor, but she's probably not going to lose work. Rather, she'll get jobs because of it. This is the brand she has built to pay her bills. Teresa Giudice might fling a table at her family, but she will sell more cookbooks that way. But the genre becomes exploitative when the pay off isn't so clear for the participants. That's why TruTV's Hardcore Pawn is so unpalatable. Set in the ghetto of Detroit, cameras capture desperate people (almost all of whom are African-American, some of whom are on drugs) attempting to pawn prized possessions to white storeowners for a few bucks. Producers create a narrative for the audience to laugh at the people on camera, not with them. The genre also teeters on exploitation when the subjects are not fully informed about the consequences of their participation. Celebrity Rehab documents washed-up stars of yesteryear at the nadir of their careers, irresponsibly corralling them into the camera's way while still in the throes of recovery. How can a person high on crystal meth or in the midst of a decade-long bender make a fully informed decision to be videotaped?
Similarly, how could an Amish young person, who has grown up without electricity or ever being photographed, possibly comprehend the consequences of having his drunken exploits filmed for posterity? Not only is the idea of the participants of Breaking Amish making a fully informed decision dubious, but the stakes are also quite high. If an Amish decides not to return to their community after rumpsringa, they are shunned, and must give up all contact with their family. But in the first episode of Breaking Amish, the show alludes to the fact that the cast members' agreeing to be on camera has already strained relationships to a breaking point. TLC plays up this drama. Sabrina, a 20-year-old of Italian and Puerto Rican extraction who was adopted by Mennonite parents, tells cameras, "I'm nervous about going to New York because I know there's no going back. I'll lose a lot of my friends. If I sacrifice everything I have and it doesn't work out, I'll have nothing." Over a tense last supper, Abe's mother tells him flat out, "If you go to New York, you're going to be shunned." Like drinking and fighting, a good old-fashioned shunning makes for stylized TV drama. But unlike the guidos and guidettes of Jersey Shore, this cast won't have a home to return to when filming ends. Most everyone can agree that reality TV is fake. But that conventional wisdom has probably not entered the candle-lit homes of the Amish. For members of this community, the consequences of reality television are all too real.
It's not that documenting the Amish is essentially exploitative. National Geographic's Amish: Out of Order centers on Mose Gingerich, a former Amish in Columbia, Missouri, who counsels young Amish runaways. The show portrays a more comprehensive picture of the culture, emphasizing the tight-knit support system rather than TLC's point of view, which Jeremiah sums up as, "Bein' Amish, we can't do nothin'!" Amish: Out of Order follows its subjects' integration into the world, like getting birth certificates and social security numbers (which they've never had before) so they can enroll in high school. The 2002 documentary Devil's Playground by director Lucy Walker deftly follows a group of teens through their rumspringa as they decide whether to stay in the mechanized world or go back to their faith communities. Between 85 and 90 percent of Amish teens return home, and the viewer has a clear understanding of why.
But beyond scintillating montages of good-Amish-girls-gone bad, what makes Breaking Amish exploitative is its central conceit: Why are these kids going to New York? When a cab driver asks Jeremiah what brought him to the city, he responds casually, saying, "Well, I grew up Amish and figured I come see what New York is all about." The stars hail from towns in Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio, but only Abe and Rebecca know each other. They make vague allusions to "this opportunity," referring to being plucked by TLC, but the show makes no explicit mention of the false pretenses under which they meet. By framing the series as a documentary a la Devil's Playground, the totally fake structure calls into question the very real emotions and fallout these kids will face. Had the network been more up-front in acknowledging the inorganic, Petri-dish nature of the show in something of a Real World voice over ("Seven strangers are picked to live in a house...") the raw emotions and real experiences would resonate. Some interactions between castmates are revealing, like when the group goes grocery shopping in the second episode, and debate who will cook, since the boys have never dabbled in women's work before. "It's not my job to cook the food," says Jeremiah. "It's not my job either," Kate snaps back. But this scene is quickly followed by the girls getting drunk on cheap red wine in their hotel room. TLC wants the audience to leer, not to learn. Or as Abe poignantly says when the group sets out to Times Square in their incongruous homespun garb and attracts gawking tourists, "Everyone is looking at us like we're stupid."
After two episodes, it's revealed that the cast members have never been on an escalator, worn sunglasses, or taken a shower without a bucket. It remains unclear if Rebecca will find equality among the sexes. Hopefully, she will, because if she doesn't, there's no going home, even though in episode three her grandfather stages a coup to retrieve her from filming. Maybe TLC and National Geographic can team up to film a spin-off series, where the cast of Breaking Amish meets Mose Gingerich to bring them into the supportive fold of the ex-Amish. After this season, it might be the best chance they've got.