Doubts about Amish teen reality show

Sect in the city.

Call it The Real World: Lancaster County.

Except that on UPN’s proposed reality series, with the working title Amish in the City, five Amish young adults will be uprooted from their simple life and placed with five “mainstream” Americans in a yet-to-be-disclosed city.

The show, which is set to be cast this summer, would follow the Amish youths as they enter rumspringa, a rite of passage that occurs when Amish teenagers turn 16 and are allowed to leave their families. After a few years of sampling outside life, the Amish teens must then choose to either return to their church or leave the community.

Network executives say they believe that viewers will love to watch what happens when Amish stop being Plain People and “start getting real.” CBS executive Leslie Moonves, who oversees UPN, called it a “fish-out-of-water” situation.

“This is not intended to be insulting to the Amish, but to have people who have never had television, who will walk down Rodeo Drive and be freaked out by what they see,” Moonves said at a news conference outlining UPN’s new shows.

But Amish scholars doubt casting for the show will attract Amish youths, who are serious about their culture and religion.

“I can’t imagine that any of them may be willing to do it,” said Donald Kraybill, who has written several books about the Amish. “For Amish people to be on this show would be a very blatant violation of their religious principles.”

Kraybill said that the show is based on several false premises. For one, rumspringa is not a time when Amish teens travel far from their tight-knit communities, he said.

Rather, they join youth groups in which they take part in social activities such as volleyball or ice-skating, and go on dates with members of the opposite sex, Kraybill said. Some of the more “worldly” groups may have cars or see movies, but few Amish teens from the Lancaster area travel farther than the Shore or New York City, he said.

“It’s a freer time when they might hang out with their friends,” Kraybill said. “But they aren’t sent away from home.”

The show’s producers are also wrong to assume that all Amish teens are naive and ignorant of the modern world, Kraybill said. Because congregations have their own religious rules, some Amish young people have cell phones, have traveled in hired cars, and have often watched television while working as domestics in “English” homes, he said.

“They do know a considerable amount about the outside world,” he said. “It’s not like they’ve been living in caves for the past three centuries.”

Amish in the City is not the first time that television producers have turned to rural America for reality-TV ideas. CBS tried to make a reality version of The Beverly Hillbillies in which a country family would move into a mansion for a year, but public outcry forced the network to kill that idea.

Amish in the City sounds similar enough to that to concern Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies.

“We don’t want to see the networks making fun of people just because they are from a rural area,” he said. “The idea that you can take rural communities or communities with strong cultural values and put them on television with a laugh track and invite people to make fun of them is a disservice – not just to the rural people, but to the whole television-watching public.”

So will people watch a show about uprooted Amish? Almost certainly, said Mark Andrejevic, author of Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched.

“Reality TV seems to be fashioning itself into an Animal Planet for humans,” said Andrejevic, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa. “It’s like a laboratory experiment: Take people who wouldn’t otherwise spend time together, put them in jar, and see what happens. The Amish are a group that lends itself to that kind of approach because lots of people who aren’t exposed to them find them to be a novelty.”

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