‘Ethnographic’ TV: compare & contrast
Posted on 11:30, September 28th, 2010 by Lew
At the risk of courting Pablo’s disappointment, I’m descending briefly from lofty theoretical heights to make a few rather rambly observations about two new examples of ‘ethnographic’ reality television in New Zealand: How the Other Half Lives and Are You My Tribe? (both of which screen on TV One, Monday nights).
First, the similarities: Both shows follow a pretty well-established format popularised most thoroughly by Louis Theroux: ‘gonzo anthropology’ for the television audience. Both are journeys of discovery undertaken by middle-aged celebrities who have made their names and reputations by being all-round Kiwi blokes — former All Black Marc Ellis and broadcaster Mikey Havoc. Both have enthusiastically embraced their ignorance of those aspects of life in New Zealand which form their shows’ subject matter. Both possess the superficial characteristic required for such an endeavour: the ability to establish and maintain rapport with people whilst simultaneously objectifying them; or, put another way, the ability to make the objectification not seem quite so objectionable.
In HTOHL Ellis is explicitly using his status as a cultural elite to investigate defined sub- or counter-cultures within New Zealand society. In AYMT Havoc uses the same cultural elite status to gain entry to te Ao Māori in an attempt to make up for 38 years of having (as one Ngāi Tūhoe kaumatua put it) not bothered. Both Havoc and Ellis speak to — and for — ordinary Pākehā middle-class New Zealand; that swathe of folk who are, by any objective definition, in charge of the country economically, politically and culturally; and who yet harbour considerable uncertainty about whether they are or not. There’s an unselfconscious normative aspect to this; HTOHL’s blurb declares that Ellis “reckons he’s pretty normal” but in the show “he jumps the fence of normality”; the word ‘other’ is even in the show’s title. AYMT pointedly started with the most ‘scary’ iwi for its first show, which went to some lengths to emphasise Tūhoetanga as a distinguishing characteristic. So the clear subtext of both shows is to firm up that shaky sense of cultural identity by emphasising the fact that the cultural objects of his investigation — those, by definition, with a strong and distinctly-articulated identity — are on the margins, outside society’s norms and not really wholly accountable to them. The screening of the two shows back-to-back is a bit troublesome here; I’m vaguely disturbed by the equation of Māori with the sort of fringe subcultural ‘others’ which are the objects of Ellis’ investigations — Neo-Nazi survivalists, witches, born-again Buddhists and so on.* One of the key things the last few decades should have taught Aotearoeans of all hues is that Māori aren’t just another fringe group.
So much for the similarities. There are some pretty fundamental differences between these two shows, which are also emphasised by their consecutive timeslots. The first and most obvious of these is the specific objects and the host’s relationship to them. Ellis is lighthearted and superficial; he’s more interested in the gonzo than in cultural engagement, and the choice of fringe subcultures as his objects permits him to be flippant and dismissive when it suits. Havoc, playing for much higher stakes, doesn’t have this luxury: he can’t treat his objects as cultural curiosities or as a freakshow. He has to take his objects seriously, and this requires him to engage more deeply and more honestly with them than Ellis does, to put more of himself on the line, drawing more out from the objects of his investigation.
That difference gives rise to the second major difference: the presence and extent of judgement as to life according to ‘other’ norms. The heart of programming like this — and of comparative ethnography in general — is in the carefully-contained judgement of the investigator. The point is to examine the cultural fronts, where norms butt up against each other; and the key attribute of a host isn’t so much to be a jovial wise-cracking ‘good bloke’, it’s to do so whilst gaining genuine insight into where the cultural fronts lie, how they might be negotiated, and indeed whether it’s possible to negotiate them. This is a pretty rare quality; one which Louis Theroux has in spades and which permits him to make such eye-opening television: the objects of his investigation don’t feel like they’re being objectified. As a rule they are disarmingly frank, and sometimes frighteningly so. Theroux achieves this sort of dynamic by carefully constraining his judgement, but not abandoning it altogether. Theroux asks the question which needs to be asked and holds his own cultural ground, but does so in a way which does not threaten or attack his objects. Theroux refuses to become complicit in admiring whatever edifices of self-delusion his objects erect, but also does not make it his business to tear them down.
For all that Havoc exhibits maudlin and faintly embarrassing envy for the strong and rooted sense of identity possessed by Ngāi Tūhoe (honestly, how many generations will it take for people to realise that being Pākehā is not the absence of culture; it is a culture in and of itself!), he enters into the discourse in good and robust faith to find out what that identity is, and what it tells him about his own. His aim is not to disabuse them of their stranger notions, but nor is it just to impassively observe. Havoc puts himself in uncomfortable situations (such as powhiri and a raucous kitchen-table drinking session) but does not relinquish his own cultural ground, finding ways to ask the question — like addressing the fact that one in four young Māori end up in prison, and asking “how is ‘exclusive’ different from ‘racist’?” — and expecting good answers, without alienating those who must provide them.
Ellis, on the other hand, is not required to do anything more than the superficial, so he doesn’t. He exhibits a much stronger sense of his own identity than than Havoc does, but there’s almost nothing of it in the programme. His own reality is never challenged: the cultural front never emerges because instead of engaging and standing firm on his own ground, he withdraws into jocular trivialities, avoiding the conflict which is necessary for this sort of exercise. Discomfort is limited to banalities like sitting through three-hour chanting ceremonies and sleeping rough in the bush. He gets through the entire first episode of this season with Kyle Chapman, former leader of the National Front and probably New Zealand’s best-known neo-Nazi, without once initiating discussion about the ideological and racist foundations of Chapman’s Survive Club. What’s more, when one of the club members talks about how the ‘maaris’ — and Ngāi Tūhoe in particular — are the leading threat to New Zealand’s civil society, he fails to ask the question (in fact, judging by a posting on Survive Club’s website it seems that not being a “media hate monger” was part of the deal.) It takes a special sort of obliviousness to not remark on the irony of a group of racial-supremacist armed wannabe commandos training for the coming apocalypse in a remote part of the Southern Alps who think some other group are the real threat.
You don’t get to be Louis Theroux without asking that question.
* I can certainly see the counter here: Tūhoe training camps; rongoa Māori and modern religions like Hauhau and Ratana.