Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “The Amazing Race

Objectify My Love

I must admit that my experience with horror has caused me to frame “fetish” in a psychosexual light (which, of course, likely aligns with the popular use of the term in non-academic circles). Although part of me strongly suspected that this particular iteration of the term did not apply when reading Karl Marx, reading about commodification and fetishization caused me to reflect on the underpinnings of some of the sexual practices labeled as fetish.

For example, when reading through Marx’s work, I couldn’t help but recall how French philosopher Jean Baudrillard conceptualized four types of value that objects could possess in modern society:  functional, transactional, symbolic, and sign. Admittedly a more complex theory than the description provided in the entry, we can momentarily consider how the functional and transactional value of items primarily relates to their usefulness while the categories of “symbolic” and “sign” are predominantly derived as a result of the objects’ relationship to other objects (sign) or to actors (symbolic). Applying the vocabulary of Baudrillard to Marx, I marvel at how we have developed a sense of sign value (for a particular object) that is entirely dependent on the (also constructed) value of other objects—and how we react to these assigned values as if they were real!

Marx argues that a potential explanation for this inflated/manufactured sense of value stems from a disconnect between labor and product, with specialization of labor distancing the workers from the results of their efforts. Although we can use the classic example of a factory system to illustrate this point, I also began to wonder about the role of labor on the American version of The Amazing Race (CBS, 2001-present).

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the show in relation to ideology, but I also believe that another important can be made with regard to the show’s treatment of labor. I fully admit that I am a fan of the show and enjoy watching it, but, at the same time, am also troubled by the ways in which the show often asks students to perform various types of labor. On one level we often see contestants complete some form of labor related to the everyday activities of locals as part of a challenge—here, labor is constructed as a momentary inconvenience to the racers, with their actions completely separated from the notion that some people must do these things in order to survive. The casual way in which the show introduces the notion that these activities are “a way of life” does little to acknowledge the complex set of meanings that this form of labor holds for those who must continue the work long after the Americans leave. In addition, speaking to the idea of Orientalism and labor, we might also consider how some racers understand these tasks as a chance to “go native” and value their experiences as stories that they can retell to their friends in order to amuse, amaze, or delight. Labor, then, is treated as some sort of commodity as we trade the completion of a task for progress in the game; labor is not valued in and of itself, but rather merely as a means to an end.

Yet, on another level, we also see that the very presence of the racers also speaks to a form of commodification as production companies benefit from the contestants’ labor (what Mark Andrejevic called “the work of being watched”) in ways that are likely beyond the comprehension of the racers themselves. Using the quick example of reality show stars not seeing any money from royalties as a quick example, we see that individuals’ efforts on these shows are focused on a rather short-sighted prize:  although they might win a million dollars (and possibly have a continued career in entertainment if everything goes according to plan), they are sacrificing their labor to a process that likely cares little about them as individuals with the end product (in this case, a television show) again divorced from any meaning making that happened during the course of the race itself.

Ultimately, I seek to address one aspect of this disconnect through media literacy, asking young people to think carefully about how they, like the racers on The Amazing Race, trade their labor for badges, recognition, and social interaction. At the end of the day, I do not think that it is my job to tell students what to think, but I do want to ensure that they can’t use the cop out “I didn’t know what I signed up for.”

Although our initial discussion focused on The Amazing Race (per the assignment instructions), I must admit that a deeper discussion can be had regarding the commodification of secrets.

When I first began my studies in Annenberg, I worked on a piece for the Norman Lear Center on the implications of a website called PostSecret. (PostSecret, a community art project started by Frank Warren in 2005, represents a fairly simple concept: individuals anonymously divulge a secret on a postcard frequently adorned with a related image, which is then published on the Internet.) Over the years I have continued to return to this issue/concept and have begun to wonder how, in this so-called Age of Information, we have learned to commodify secrets. We can talk about corporate espionage as one form of this—or even celebrity scandal—and I worry that, in our quest for knowledge/power, we have forgotten that all of these secrets represent real lives, identities, and emotions.

In our post, Shannon raised the idea that individuals can fetishize their secrets but reading Marx for this week also caused me to consider the ways in which we buy/sell (or otherwise trade) the secrets of each other in this day and age. Although I think these practices are fueled by the understandable human trait of curiosity, I think we have lost a bit of perspective as we have allowed our secrets (and, by extension, those who hold them) to hold a sort of power over us that, although socially constructed, is attributed to the secret itself. In this, we surely must be careful as the informational basis of secrets undoubtedly possesses the potential to affect us but my point here is that the information itself does not contain the power, rather power manifests in people’s reaction to, and relationship with, the information.

Off to See the World

One might think that the American version of a show called The Amazing Race (CBS, 2001-present) might be somewhat sensitive to ethnicity, given the potential misreading of its title. Sadly, however, the show (currently in its 19th season) continues to exhibit signs of ethnocentrism as it shuttles contestants around the globe on a race around the world.

Assuredly, part of the problem manifests in the contestants themselves, who rarely, if ever, show large amounts of cultural sensitivity and/or knowledge. (It should be noted that there are certainly exceptions to this rule, but the general lack of awareness seems to be somewhat surprising given that contestants have had numerous opportunities to learn from past racers’ mistakes and although some have learned the value of doing research on a country or picking up a guidebook, none seem to grasp the utility of learning foreign languages or customs. To be fair, the situation may be admittedly more complex with producers having control over which teams are actually selected to race—I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it seems like selected teams do not have distinct advantages [e.g., nobody reports spending extended amounts of time overseas] and it is entirely possible that producers do not select teams who prepare in this fashion.) Perhaps unwittingly perpetuating the stereotype of “ugly Americans,” discourteous behavior is most often exhibited by teams/racers 1) yelling at foreign cab drivers (in English) and getting frustrated when said drivers do not understand the racers (even when the racers resort to speaking as they would to a child or an elderly person), 2) becoming upset that locals do not instantly know the location of some destination in the city (e.g., a specific plaza, street, or shop), or 3) complaining about India or China (size, poverty, food, smell, crowding, etc.).

Worse, perhaps, the show itself presents as a sort of extended travel narrative, painting the contestants as little more than tourists who zip from location to location, participating in challenges that are little more than thinly-disguised vacation package day trips. Ostensibly grounded in the traditions, customs, or ritual of the current location, the challenges that racers face (called roadblocks and detours) demonstrate little respect for the practices upon which they draw and definitely do not ask the racers to internalize the importance of the activity in the lives of those around them. Instead of asking racers to truly engage on a meaningful level, one might argue that the racers are, as Dean MacCannell suggests, “simply collect[ing] experiences of difference” (again, we need to question the role of editors/producers as such internalization may in fact occur for racers but such a transformation is never highlighted in the on-screen interviews, unless the reaction is so over-the-top as to be insincere). Moreover, building upon thoughts mentioned elsewhere in Lisa Nakamura’s chapter “Where Do You Want to Go Today?” one can see that, from a Western (in this case, American) perspective, The Amazing Race is constructed on pillars of Otherness, exoticism, and foreignness.

The Amazing Race – Season 19, Episode 1

Take the above scene, for example, that features a font designed to invoke associations of “Asian culture” imprinted upon paper umbrellas, set in a temple. Putting aside the issue that the task at hand has nothing to do with any of the Asian “props,” the font itself is incredibly problematic as it represents Roman (i.e., Western) letters that are constructed out of faux brush strokes—a type of writing that finds a home in no Asian culture on Earth. Second only to the typography used on the stereotypical Chinese take-out container (see image to the right) in familiarity with a Western audience, the font used in The Amazing Race demonstrates just how shallow the program really is.

On a larger level, however, the show also demonstrates no small amount of Orientalism as it works to legitimize Western culture, often presenting local culture/customs in a tone that invokes terms like “quaint” or “backward.” (Although primarily focused on America, one might also note that the show’s host, Phil Keoghan, expands the narrative slightly, presenting a form of acceptable/valued Otherness in the form of a man who presents as White but speaks with a New Zealand accent.) The exotic nature of the locations/tasks is also often conveyed through their status as spectacle.

Chipmunk Adventure Clip

Watching the main titles, one can almost ignore the distinctly (yet ambiguous) “ethnic” soundtrack and compare the images to those of other travelogues. In particular, The Chipmunk Adventure (1987), a movie made for children, seems striking in its presentation of cultural icons from around the world, suggesting that The Amazing Race is not the first media product to treat foreign people in this way. This treatment, aspects of which are also mentioned in Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk, alludes to the trope of “forever foreigner,” which suggests that although dominant American culture may tolerate, absorb, or incorporate aspects of other cultures, titillation derives from the notion that one is participating in activity that is perpetually Othered and will never be as “American” as apple pie (amusingly, and perhaps rightly, Jennifer 8. Lee argues that this phrase should be changed to “American as Chinese food“) and country music.

Instead of taking the opportunity to truly educate an American audience about the complexities and joys of life abroad, The Amazing Race pushes an ideology that, in large and small ways, reaffirms just how great it is to be American. With a television as passport, we are able to visit distant lands (from the comfort of our couch, no less) and accrue knowledge, if not understanding. We watch for an hour a week and come away feeling worldly, content to accept the manufactured diversity on screen (through composition of racing teams and locations) as substitute for the real thing as we reassure ourselves that we, as White Americans, truly represent the amazing race.

Doin’ It Like They Do on the Discovery Channel?

I will be the first to admit that I watch a lot of television. I mean, my DVR is always threatening to delete an episode of The Amazing Race or Project Runway (don’t judge, you know you watch it as well) because it needs to make space for yet another show that I have added to the queue. I have long since come to terms with the idea that I am sacrificing hours that I could actually be outdoors (what good is sunlight?) but I do think that television has a lot of valuable lessons to offer if we just take the time to consider about the messages that we’re being presented with.

A study[i], published last week in Pediatrics, reported it more likely for teens exposed to a high level of sexual content from television to experience a pregnancy in future years compared with peers who had lower levels of contact. I would, in an attempt to avert the whole “media is corruptingAmerica’s youth” notion, point out that the study also mentions that a variety of factors contribute to teen pregnancy, including social, individual, and environmental influences. Still, the idea that young people pick up something from television programs seems worth exploring a bit further.

Observational learning posits that an individual can acquire knowledge simply through the act of watching an example (e.g., most people who have never fired a gun could probably take the correct grip due to their exposure to firearms on television). Taking this idea a step further, it seems likely that people who see sex on TV would naturally garner ideas about the act based on what they saw.

In retrospect, it seems quite obvious that American youth begin to formulate their ideas of sex and sexuality from things that they see on television. In our country, sexual activity is not something that is discussed in any real terms amongst most teenagers, and therefore it seems only natural that young people are getting their information from any source that they can.

For me, the problem arises when teenagers get a skewed sense of sex due to their television exposure. Sure, there’s an element of sex that is exciting (partially because it possesses a verboten quality) but what happens when young people are not exposed to the responsibilities that come along with having a sexual relationship? I get that every instance of sexual contact can’t be “A Very Special Episode” (or 7th Heaven for that matter) but does television have a responsibility to instruct its viewers in all aspects of sex? Is there a way to do this without losing others’ interest or making a big deal about it?

More than anything, this study brings about the idea that television, or media as a whole, cannotbe the only way that young people learn about sex. No matter what your feelings on the topic, it seems prudent to instruct young people in the matter so that they can make the decisions that are right for them. The challenge as parents (although not a parent myself, I’ve been exposed to many families through work) is that it’s scary to let your children go and hope that you’ve equipped them with the necessary tools to make good decisions. As adults, it seems all too easy to forget that we were once curious youth who did the best that we could to make our way in a world that constantly sent us mixed messages; looking back as people who have made it through the harrowing journey of adolescence, it seems all to easy to dictate the correct path as we have our answers readily at hand.

[i] Chandra, Anita et. al. Does Watching Sex on Television Predict Teen Pregnancy? Findings from a National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Pediatrics 2008; 122; 1047-1054