Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Returning From Exile

Lately, I've been watching a lot of television.

Having lost my job, I've spent numerous hours trying to find a new one with various reruns of sitcoms providing background noise. (This partly explains my prolonged absence from writing but now I'm trying to get back into the swing of things.)

Syndicated sitcoms aside, there's one show that I've caught that I can't quite make my mind up about: MTV's Exiled, which premiered this past August. The premise is taking the spoiled, narcissistic teenagers from My Super Sweet Sixteen and placing them in remote places in third world countries in order to teach them a lesson or two about earning a dollar. Each former Sweet Sixteener stays with a host family for one week where they are guided by someone their age.

For the most part, I must admit that I'm a fan of reality television shows (although not all of them) and to some extent I enjoy the senseless drama as a form of entertainment. Which is why I laughed a little to myself about the thought of these young money monsters heading to places such as Kenya, Morocco and Thailand to finally see that life isn't all Gucci bags and trust funds.

But the one thing I keep in mind is that this is still reality television and one week in exile won't teach these teens much more than life sucks for everyone else but them as they return home to the cushy wallets of mommy and daddy.

I'm not trying to be overly cynical because I actually do find a few positive notes about this show. If anything, it gives viewers the chance to see how hard people in other cultures truly work for the simplest of things such as water, never mind just earning money. In the first episode, Amanda travels to Kenya where she stays with Josephine from the Musai tribe and must travel four hours to get to the drinking well. Quite the time-difference from just turning a faucet.

It opens viewers' eyes to different cultures and different traditions. Of course, in a limited scope, as a half-hour television series can only do so much, but perhaps every bit does count, especially since the show reaches such a young demographic.

While the subjects of each episode are the people we all love to hate, the show is still humbling for those of us who haven't grown up with a silver-spoon in our mouth. The majority of us are not living in mansions with butlers and maids and a never-ending amount of money to spend but we live quite comfortable lifestyles. So, while we may feel inclined to laugh as Amanda shrieks over the bugs flying around her or at her complete disgust at building a hut with cow dung, we may come to realize that we might not handle these situations with any more grace than she did. (Given my irrational fear of bugs, something tells me I would've been less than graceful when dealing with the insect population in Kenya!)

Watching these host families take these Americans in with open arms, there is almost a sense of exploitation as they are used as teaching tools for the privileged. With only one week spent with the host family, each teen is whisked back to life in the States while the respectful and humble host family carries on with life as usual. It begs the question of whether there should be any type of compensation for the role these families have.

Shortly after the show's debut, Newsweek examined the response the show has received noting viewers' concerns over stereotyping and exploitation.

Whether or not these experiences really have changed the perspectives of each teen that particpated on the show is debateable but in the end, it is just reality television. Unfortunately we're just careless about who we drag into our craze for "reality."

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