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Is This Reality TV Show as Racist as It Sounds?

TLC's "Escaping Alaska" invites viewers to watch the trials and tribulations of young "Eskimos" in the big city.
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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."

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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.