TLC
Q, Nuala, Tamara, Frank and Mary of 'Escaping Alaska.' Image source: TLC

Is This Reality TV Show as Racist as It Sounds?

ICTMN Staff
8/4/14

The cable-TV network TLC explored exposing naive people to the hectic and challenging modern world with Breaking Amish. Breaking Amish purported to tell the story of five young Amish people who have experiences in New York City and must, eventually, decide whether to remain in the non-Amish world or return to the lifestyle they've known all their lives. There were numerous problems with Breaking Amish; the "reality" depicted turned out to be unusually fabricated, even by reality-TV standards. But discussion of what actually happened on the show is less important than a discussion of the basic concept:

Let's put these backward, horse-and-buggy people in New York City. We'll take them to strip bars, make them get tattoos and watch them get drunk. It will be hilarious!

The show pretended to be about human drama; people making hard choices and beliefs being tested. Ok, but it was also about sneering at their culture. There's no way it couldn't be. This is a show for people who watch a lot of TV about people who aren't allowed to watch TV at all -- how can the audience not feel superior to the subjects before the first episode even airs?

TLC's latest series, Escaping Alaska, is being compared to to Breaking Amish. This time, though, the participants are five Alaska Natives (identified as "Eskimos") who have hatched a plan to leave their families and culture to experience life in the lower 48.

Escaping Alaska already has problems: The whole setup is contrived, and depends on the premise that leaving their culture and family is (as Nuala says in the clip above) "considered treason". The show's description at the TLC website says "Leaving an Inuit community for any earthly reason is the ultimate sin, so our cast members are lying about their true intentions, telling their community that they are going on a cultural/religious mission, and thus committing the highest treason." Facebook commenters have already seized upon this premise as utterly false, saying that young Alaska Natives leave home all the time. The notion of "shunning" may have been borrowed from Breaking Amish.

We are to believe that the five met on the internet and have lied to their parents about the nature of their journeys south. The "culture shock" that will play out is a little harder to trust when we know they have the internet in their Alaskan homes. One of the young ladies wants to be an actress -- an Eskimo Jennifer Lawrence, she says. These kids haven't exactly been living under a rock. They're less backward than the Amish.

But viewers are supposed to see them as backward. Their dress is supposed to be funny. Their love of seal meat is supposed to be funny. Here's a clip where one of them, Qituvituaq, or "Q," discusses how he likes to "go on adventure hikes looking for mythological creatures."

This is all supposed to be funny. Is it? And if these young people aren't as naive as the Amish, there is arguably something disturbing about the expectation that viewers will smirk at them because of their race, rather than their religion. 

We can't help but recall a scene in Nanook of the North, the 1922 "documentary" film about the life of an Alaska Native. Visiting the "Trade Post of the White Man," Nanook marvels at a gramophone. The trader attempts to explain how it works, then hands a record to Nanook, who bites it. The scene was staged; Nanook (not his real name) had seen a gramophone before, and only put the record in his mouth because the film's director told him to.

Escaping Alaska is filled with moments that tread similar ground. When the group visits the beach for the first time, they play in the sand like children, and Nuala chases seagulls. In a terribly-acted scene, Q expresses his surprise that San Diego will be holding a Mardi Gras celebration, while Nuala puts on a snowsuit because she intends to do Mardi Gras "Eskimo style"; later, Tamara observes that nobody twerks in the streets of her hometown. Despite coming from "Eskimo" villages, the five of them have a pretty good command of American pop culture. They don't seem to be any less informed about life in San Diego than, say, white kids from rural Kansas. But we're pretty sure a show about white kids from rural Kansas living in San Diego wouldn't have made the TLC cut. Not funny enough.

But Eskimos -- now that's funny. There are a lot of places where nobody twerks in the street, but it's funnier when an "Eskimo" says it, right?

We're just dreading the scene where one of them tries to bite an iPad.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Poking fun at minorities is the American way. Who remembers "Little Black Sambo" or the "Frito Bandito?" How about Amos & Andy, Sanford & Son or Chico & the Man? Does anyone know that the Lone Ranger's sidekick's name, TONTO means "stupid" in Spanish? Who ever saw Joey Bishop play an Indian as "comic relief" in the movie "Texas Across the River?" Who saw Chuck Connors as Geronimo, or Anthony Quinn as Crazy Horse? Americans feel it's okay to make fun of us because they think we're all dead. They honestly believe that there are no more of us to feel offended. The only (ironic) saving grace is that they make fun of themselves too. Look at the antics of idiots on shows like Lizard Lick Towing, Duck Dynasty, and every other moronic show featuring Rednecks at work. I can't complain about one television program without complaining about television in general. If you don't like a program, write the network. Television's job isn't to entertain you, it's to sell you shit you didn't even know you needed. Television has gone from the once pertinent media to a box full of idiocy punctuated every ten minutes by useless sales propaganda. The shows are mindless, the ads irritating and anyone who watches too much TV becomes a robot . . . why do you think they call it "programming?"

Juliet's picture
Juliet
Submitted by Juliet on
I hope the participants enjoy themselves while perpetuating stereotypes about their own people. Maybe they can get together with the other 'reality' stars for a monster series called 'Real Losers.'

indianmedicine's picture
indianmedicine
Submitted by indianmedicine on
If it were a Joke, would it be Funny ?........................................... ......................................................................................................... Answer: NO ! ................................................................................ ......................................................................................................... The alleged "Reality Shows" that the Entertainment Industry is presenting as "Authentic" is "The Joke".............................................................. ......................................................................................................... The Inuit People that are in Alaska, have interfaced with Western Culture, simply because of the technology they use each day in sustaining "Life" in their Villages, example: Aircraft, Snowmobiles,Hunting,Fishing and Civil Defense, including Rescue,Recovery........................................................... .......................................................................................................... The "Alaskan Scouts" existed during WWII, and were the "Eye's & Ear's" of the State Militia and U.S. Army from then until now - except their Name has changed to The Alaskan National Guard..................................... ......................................................................................................... Native Inuit are NOT a Stupid People, and for The Entertainment Industry to portray them in this manner - is NOT Reality - except for the Non-Inuit People believing this Portrayal as such................................................... ........................................................................................................ Remember when Plains Tribes were depicted as "Running Circles Around The Wagon Trains so the "White Immigrants" could shoot them like an Arcade ? ........................................................................................................ ........................................................................................................ That's what this "Reality Show" is, FABRICATED CULTURE that only exists in the minds of Script Writers.......................................................... .......................................................................................................

value116's picture
value116
Submitted by value116 on
Sabrina Lamb, who wrote a guide for financial education for 7 to 18 year olds, called "Do I Look Like An ATM?" also took on Shawty Lo's reality show, "All My Babies' Mamas on Oxygen TV along with NBC. She started a petition drive, based on the fact that the show was degrading and demeaning to children, got 40,000 signatures, picketed outside Rockefeller Center, received all kinds of threats including death threats, was also asked, "Who Are You?", (she said, "Read the petition, our names are there--that's who we are"), and was successful in having the plug pulled on the show--it was cancelled. She's now in discussions with others re: shows that are questionable, in terms of recycling negativity and stereotyping, such as the TLC show above. Look her up, get the ball rolling, see what comes of it, have fun with it while you're at it, and perhaps we'll have some responsible programming.

Teirersias's picture
Teirersias
Submitted by Teirersias on
It's not as racist as it is just a stupid show. I watched it last week. A couple of things about this editorial. The cast is from Alaska so no surprise they self identify as 'eskimo'. Whether that word infers racism or prejudice is debatable depending on who you ask, here and in other parts of the arctic. In Alaska it is commonly used by the Yu'pik and Inupiaq while here in Nunavut it's more divided among Inuit. The documentary cited in the article Nanook of the North was set in Nunavik but filmed in Nunavut , it was never intended as a depiction of Alaska. The director of the movie Nanook of the North was Robert Flaherty and his name is a well known Inuit family name in the Baffin Region of Nunavut to this day. Although Nanook was definitely a colonial piece of the early movie making days it is remembered fondly by many here and the name Robert Flaherty is not remembered with hatred or malice here, in fact quite the contrary by most accounts. That said, Escaping Alaska is a stupid show that perpetuates stereotype. The cast are in it for a quick buck, promoting myths that, here in the arctic, we all know are not true. I suppose in that it's racist but remember it's the cast that chose to do the stupid show.

hesutu's picture
hesutu
Submitted by hesutu on
It's certainly possible, perhaps likely, this is an exploitative show developed for entertainment. However, this article goes beyond pointing out that possibility. It attacks the indigenous youth who have chosen to participate. It disrespects their choices, negates their autonomy and individualism, and fully validates their fears that those who are "off the reservation" (so to speak) are punished by their communities for betrayal, for the article clearly positions them as those who by participating in this have betrayed their people. Even more disturbing, and highly upsetting, is that this article mocks and ridicules the member who is a traditional who has traditional perspectives. Which I share and agree with. Those of us that believe as our ancestors do are portrayed by this article as backwards and ignorant, adopting the perspective of the psychopathic genocidal white materialist dominators who steal and destroy everything they can see.
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