‘Ethnographic’ TV: compare & contrast

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 TÅ«hoe 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 TÅ«hoetanga 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 TÅ«hoe (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 TÅ«hoe 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.

8 thoughts on “‘Ethnographic’ TV: compare & contrast

  1. And yet I couldn’t help but be embarrassed by Havoc’s clumsy questioning and the stereotypes he trotted out. There are a myriad of ways to ask about Maori imprisonment rates and his was probably the most cringeworthy.

    An alternative would have been: “One in four Maori men go to jail. Is this the case with Tuhoe?” With some sort of follow-up. Instead of judging/applying a stereotype to the children who had given him a generous welcome earlier in the day.

    As you say, he’s no Louis Theroux.

  2. Yes, that’s what I meant by ’embracing his ignorance’. To an extent this is appropriate — better that he own his ignorance and insensitivity honestly than fake being a SNAG.

    Ignorance and insensitivity from townie Pākehā is as common as dirt to rural Māori; so common that a little goodwill and a genuine willingness to engage makes a world of difference.


  3. Lew:

    I am not sure why the reference to me in the first sentence (with all due respect to you and he, it has a sort of Chris T. tone to it, if you catch my drift), but I would most rather read your TV reviews (of which there appears to have been a few in the past few months) than those of the twittering scribes in the MSM (BTW–what happened to your Twitter account? I looked you up and it says you no longer exist!). In other words, you give good deconstruction when others merely dissemble. Carry on.

  4. Hah, Pablo, it was a jibe, nothing more. Thanks for the compliment.

    In the interests of parsimony (in a medium where two characters makes a lot of difference) I shortened my twitter handle to LewStoddart. Still going. No substitute for the longer form, but it’s very handy for stuff where brevity and timeliness is the essence. Not to mention the fact that compressing an argument into 160 characters really forces you to be disciplined about it.


  5. Hi

    Interesting viewpoints – cheers .

    I don’t really get why the two shows are scheduled together either , or come to think of it why it took two years for TVNZ to finally broadcast Are You My Tribe.

    Re : ‘Clumsy’ questioning – Make of it what you will , but please remember that you only see the directors edited final cut . I can assure you that there was a good honest set up/follow up to that , and the other questions

    Hope you enjoy the other two eps


  6. Thanks for stopping by, Havoc. Curious about the screening lag — assume this must have had something to do with the terror raids in late 2007 — perhaps just a bit soon for the network?

    Your point about what was cut is fair enough, but we’re only in a position to talk about the programme which aired rather than the much more extensive discussions which went on at the time (which we’re not privy to). For all that it might have been insensitive, as I’ve suggested above I reckon you did pretty well with your lines of questioning. The rapport you had established was strong and clearly survived any offence they might have taken.

    But that’s much better than if you had been too reluctant to cause offence in the first place. We’re not going to go anywhere with people cringing away from cultural conflict. It’s necessary; it just needs to be done with goodwill. Looking forward to the other two episodes.


  7. I saw the Eellis survivalist episode, and in light of the terrorist raids on Tuhoe, I am wondering why the police and armed offenders have not done the same with this group of rednecks with guns with a clandestine political agenda.

    Perhaps the police force is still the bastion of all things redneck that it once was openly known for.

    When you think about it there are a hell of a lot of rednecks with guns in NZ, and considering their attitude to people not like them, surely that is a concern.

  8. Pete, I’m sympathetic and agree with the point about the two groups being treated equally. But I’d really rather that neither group of generally harmless dreamers got heavied by the boys in black for doing what, in both cases, amounts to little more than backyard games for grown-up boys.

    Yes, there are lots of people with dubious political and philosophical views, and yes, many of them own guns. But the two things don’t really add up to any sort of public danger.


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