For some time now, popular culture has used people’s fascination with the Amish to create attractive yet false impressions of that group. Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s Thrill of the Chaste addressed the allure of Amish romance novels. In Fooling with the Amish: ‘Amish Mafia,’ Entertaining Fakery and the Evolution of Reality TV (Johns Hopkins), Dirk Eitzen, a professor of film and media, addresses reality TV’s use of interest in the Amish to promote false ideas.
He specifically looks at Amish Mafia, a Discovery Channel show that ran for 37 episodes from 2012 to 2015 based on the ludicrous premise that a group of four men (three labeled Amish and one Mennonite) use force, including a gun, baseball bats, a sledgehammer and firebombs, to keep people in line who threaten the Amish in Lancaster County, Pa.
This “reality TV” was entirely fictional — an extreme example of a genre known for deceptive methods (staging scenes, coaching participants, rigging contests).
Eitzen draws from this show to look at how reality TV shows “have helped fashion a media environment in which sensation trumps facts.” This has had a broader effect on our cultural and political discourse. He shows that, “in taking liberties with facts, reality TV works much like gossip.” He explores how gossip can go in both positive and negative directions, but one of its purposes is to make people feel a part of a group. He writes: “One of the consequences of watching Amish Mafia, stemming from its relationship with false gossip, may be that it cultivates disrespect not just for the Amish but for everybody who is ‘not like us.’”
Eitzen is a scholar, and some of the book can feel technical. When he writes, “You might quite reasonably object that this explanation is like peeling a layer off of an onion only to expose another layer,” I nod in agreement. Nevertheless, through all his careful exploration of the various aspects and effects of reality TV, particularly Amish Mafia, he makes important points that need attention in our current climate.
As one who never watches reality TV, I found Eitzen’s analysis fascinating. He also notes that many people do watch such shows, and their impact ripples into the wider context. It reinforces the tribal thinking that links people to a former president who glibly labels information he doesn’t like “fake news,” and his supporters agree. How to address this? Eitzen astutely concludes, “The only real hope for fixing the problem of fake news in the long run consists of political and social changes that genuinely address the grievances of those who feel powerless and disenfranchised.”