I’m teaching Othering right now in my Media and National Identity class, and so once more Amazing Race is in my mind. Functionally, next to no other primetime shows spend as much time outside the United States, thereby making Amazing Race one of the most prominent, widely seen sites on American television for the depiction of foreign countries and peoples. And thus its representation of the world stands to “weigh” a lot more than, for instance, CSI: New York’s depiction of New York City, given the vast number of televisual depictions of the Big Apple.
What I find so frustrating about the show is not simply that it ends up Othering again and again, but that it’s a format that could allow for such interesting challenges to ideas of Othering, and that occasionally does so. It’s like a B student who writes occasionally brilliant sentences, and hence who you know could do better if s/he really applied him/herself, yet who isn’t trying hard enough.
A key problem with televisual representations of other countries and their peoples is precisely that other countries and their people are so actively represented, by which I mean the writers and directors have very certain ideas of who they want on camera. Think of Survivor here, as perhaps the only other show on primetime American television that films overseas. The locals have been evacuated from the filming site, and are only encountered as a “reward,” and as accompaniment to the nice meal that serves as centerpiece for the reward (screaming out for bell hooks’ “Eating the Other”!). They are usually chosen for their stunning primitiveness, grass-skirts, ability to dance with a smile for the cast, and/or perhaps to impart ancient tribal lore.
By contrast, Amazing Race holds great promise as a site for encountering the world. The format sees teams racing through towns, cities, and countryside and encountering random individuals who have not been selected by the directors (cabbie luck in particular playing a key role in who wins or loses). Especially when we’re in cities and places that the crew simply cannot stage manage, we therefore see an eclectic mix of foreigners. Their comments are of course heavily edited, and selectively translated, but they hold more power to speak for themselves, and to represent themselves. This may take place through quotidian acts like giving directions, refusing a team member’s requests to buy something in a challenge, or so forth, but it frees them from the need to appear solely as “reward,” and as dancing, cooking primitives.
Yet the Amazing Race still falls back into tired, old set pieces. Phil’s mat serves as an especially contentious site, somewhere for smiling, costumed locals to sit and wait for hours for the pleasure of welcoming Americans to their country. Phil’s allowed to look pissed off at having his time wasted, but they just sit there and smile. Oddly, we don’t even see Phil talk to them (I’m not looking for a Benetton ad, but are they that odious?). And once they’ve said “welcome,” it’s time to shut up and let Phil speak again, as their agency is so severely restricted.
Then there are the tasks, many of which spectacularly reduce a nation to two predominant activities (“Beg or Boogie”!), and that hire a cast of colorful locals to be their very best cover-of-the-tour-book stereotypes. When the race went to Kenya, we had Masai warriors leaping up and down, in Russia it was babushkas planting potatoes (more on them in a second, though), and so forth.
I’m also constantly both fascinated and depressed by the battle of looking, and of the imperial gaze, that goes on in many episodes. On one hand, the show often conforms to a “Heart of Darkness”-esque rendering of foreigners as painted onto a backdrop, mere props to draw the attention back to the American subjects, who constantly speak of and for the locals. See Chinua Achebe’s famous broadside attack on Conrad for more details on how insidious this kind of Othering is. On the other hand, the photographers often treat us to images of the foreigners staring at the American racers, and occasionally offer us delicious soundbytes of them criticizing them (as when, in a recent season, a group of babushkas engaged in wonderfully wry commentary on the racers’ plowing techniques and general physique). We’re also shown egregiously bad behavior from some racers, and the editing usually chastises the offending, offensive team. It might be easy to see this as a reminder that we’re looked at as much as the foreigners are, and at times it encourages us to look with the locals’ eyes, not the racers’. Yet there is no problematization of our own looking and gaze as viewers. The suggestion is a classically white liberal feel-good one that some travelers are bad, but that we’re not – our own motivations for watching, and investment in or at least culpability with the exoticization and spectacularization of difference, are never really questioned.
Despite all my criticism, though, I keep watching. The simple fact is that the show is doing more than most are to at least engage with the world at large. Us non-Americans don’t come out of this process looking all that good, and I’d love to reform the program in many ways (Sorry, Phil, but you’re not needed: let’s replace you with locals who can say more. How about international racing teams? And please, please, let’s do something about the challenges). But there’s potential, which is met at times. There are no tribal elimination scenes and fauxthentic team names. The soundtrack is rarely a lost recording session from Peter Gabriel. Nobody’s in jail at the hands of a brutal foreign government. The countries are more than just an amalgam of their lovely wildlife and pitiable slums. And none of them are being bombed or supposedly plotting the downfall of the USA en masse. In the radically culturally chauvinist landscape of American television, that alone puts Amazing Race in a rare position.