August 07, 2014

Escaping Alaska stereotypes the Inuit

Is This Reality TV Show as Racist as It Sounds?TLC's latest series, Escaping Alaska, is being compared 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."

Reality Check: 'Escaping Alaska' escapes reality, but other than that, it's an OK watch

By Emily FehrenbacherI missed the first episode of “Escaping Alaska,” but recently watched the second one. In this episode, the cast arrives in San Diego. They get off the plane wearing fur parkas, which was the first indicator that this show was staged, because later in the episode they have many reasonable outfits with them for a sunny California climate.

The cast later goes on a whale watching cruise, and a random, already-mic’d, horrible “stranger” approaches them. As they tell this woman about whaling and subsistence culture, she responds with complete disgust and ends up storming away. One of the two gentlemen in the cast follows her and they end up going on a date that night. I was so confused. I rewound to see if I had missed something. But I had not. In the real world you don’t end up asking out people who tell you that your way life is repulsive.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to be the reality police. If we are judging the show on its entertainment value and not taking into account how accurately it portrays Alaska Native culture, the real-life online acting resumes of the people in it and some of the questionable filming locations, the show is totally watchable.

I found the five characters to be likable, regardless of their fabricated story arcs. One girl, Tamara from Noorvik, brings a poster of her idol, Jennifer Lawrence, and a pillow with a picture of her crush, Prince Harry, on her journey. Which is just adorable. And I will never be someone who badmouths a good fish-out-of-water storyline, especially when it involves a boyfriend back home (Mary from Tanana) and some good partying in the streets (during Mardi Gras).

But the show is also treading lightly on big, often wrenching issues--including the challenges facing rural Alaska Native young people as they make their way in the world and the disappearance of villages and traditional ways of life. In the end, it’s hard not to be the reality police when the subject matter is very real to many Alaskans.
Comment:  Let me see if I have Fehrenbacher's position straight. She's saying we should ignore the fact that 200 years of entertainment--from novels and plays to movies and TV shows--have taught us everything we know about Natives. We should ignore that Escaping Alaska will be most people's only exposure to Inuit people and culture.

When we ignore Escaping Alaska's stereotypes and the proven harm of stereotyping, she says, we can view the show as pure entertainment. And in that context--where you completely blind yourself to the real-world consequences--the show can be enjoyable.

Similarly, if you ignore the ongoing violence against Native women, you can enjoy a comedy about them as shrewish "squaws" who deserve a smack. If you ignore the hundreds or thousands of Native deaths, you can enjoy a comedy about Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee. It's all about overlooking the bad and focusing on the good.

Great argument, Emily! Do you have any other ridiculous rationales for excusing and enjoying racism?

No comments: