For several years now, the American reality television landscape has been filled with shows that follow a similar narrative: White Americans head out into the wilderness , and have to survive while building a home, or making food, or mining for gold… or any number of manufactured scenarios. It is almost always white American men, although very occasionally, a white American woman may join a team. Thanks to the tax credit that followed the creation of series Deadliest Catch, Alaska is a favourite location for these types of shows — though, sometimes, the Canadian wilderness such as Yukon is used too. Rarely, locations in areas such as Georgia appear.
These wilderness-based reality shows have always been colonialist in nature. They are driven by the idea of exploration and occupation — of striking out into a new area and claiming space. It harks back to the notion of frontiersmen, and taps into the apparently common pioneering dreams of white American men. Television networks promote these shows as being about people who choose to opt out of modern, urban and suburban society and live ‘off the grid.’ They use specific editing techniques and rousing musical scores to depict these people as heroes — taking on a huge challenge and sticking with it through adversity. But, upon closer inspection, these types of reality television demonstrate that capitalism has turned colonialism into a cycle — and these shows bring that cycle full circle.
What shows are we talking about here?
There’s Building Alaska — the ninth and current season of which sees “three men risk it all to build a remote hunting cabin, an off the grid bear lodge, and an island retreat.” This long-running reality series documents build projects at separate locations across Alaska, with men trying to overcome weather, landscape, isolation, and wildlife to create a homestead.
There’s also Gold Rush. Now in its tenth season, its original premise was that, “facing an economic meltdown, the team risks everything and sets out on a mission.” That mission was to head north to the wilderness and find gold. Alaskan Bush People is also in its tenth season, though it is widely thought to be more heavily scripted and staged than other reality shows. That is not reflected in its premise, however, which characterises the series as “a journey into Alaska’s bush, where naturalist and adventurer Billy Brown, along with his wife, Ami, and their seven children, chooses to live life on his own terms, connected to wild nature and bonded to each other.”
Alaska: The Last Frontier is in its ninth season of following the Kilcher family, who have lived on their homestead for four generations. They are the descendents of Swiss immigrants and Alaskan pioneers, and spend each episode in manufactured wilderness-based peril, even though they apparently live a 20 minute drive from the nearest town, and are able to provide regular updates and stylised photo shoots for their website.
The list goes on and on — Mountain Men, Alone, Man vs Wild — but they all centre on the same thing: men “risking it all” for “survival”; as if their survival were ever in doubt, with sizeable camera crews documenting their every move. Do people get hurt making these shows? Of course they do, but people get hurt every day, everywhere, and if you choose to set your building project in the middle of bear territory, then the possibility of getting mauled by a bear should really be part of your all your decision-making processes.
The grim ironies
This is the first of two grim ironies that stem from these “reality” shows.
They centre on white Americans seeking to get “off the grid,” and “unplug from capitalist society,” by signing lucrative contracts with giant media corporations. The cognitive dissonance involved here is truly remarkable. The tagline for the first season of the show Live Free Or Die specifically — and seemingly without any self-awareness — markets the series as such:
“There is a movement growing in America. These pioneers have made a choice to awaken the animal self by going back to the wild.”
For the people on these shows – like “financial advisor-turned-frontiersman Colbert” in Live Free Or Die, or airport-operator-turned-gold-miner Todd Hoffman in Gold Rush – the lifestyle they adopt in these harsh environments is a choice they make, with the backing and guidance of wealthy television production companies — regardless of the fact that, for communities such as the Inupiat village of Inaliq, on Alaska’s Little Diomede Island, this harsh environment is a daily reality that comes with real peril, as opposed to the kind manufactured for entertainment. The choices made by these reality TV stars are steeped in white colonialist privilege. It is the difference between a lifestyle choice, and an actual way of life.
This brings us to the second irony of these shows — and it is, by far, the cruellest. The lifestyle that these people choose essentially returns them to that of white settlers (from both Europe and Russia, in the case of Alaska), who sought to crush Indigenous communities during the process of colonisation. So, for example, white Europeans decimated the First Nations of Canada through colonialism, only for a group of white American men to show up in Yukon two centuries later to test out their ability to “survive” in the wilderness in exchange for money; or indeed, for a group of white American men to show up two centuries later to essentially re-enact the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897, which caused further damage to First Nations communities in that era.
This is one of the ways in which capitalism brings colonialism full circle — right there in our living rooms during our television viewing.
It was early capitalism that sent Europeans across seas and oceans to colonise unfamiliar lands; the desire to open up new trade avenues and new opportunities for business and commerce; the desire to stake claim to property that could then be occupied, possessed, and monetised. It was early capitalism that drove the murder, robbery, and marginalisation of Indigenous communities, and it is modern capitalism that drives white Americans to seek to broadcast themselves either trying to re-capture that settler lifestyle, or trying to appropriate survival techniques developed by the very people that lived in that harsh environment first.
First Nations and Indigenous communities were vilified and persecuted for living in a way that was connected to their land, to the extent that those communities were either completely destroyed, or irreparably damaged — with many forced to give up their land and adapt to colonisation. They were labelled ‘savage,’ ‘primitive,’ and uneducated for holding beliefs and values fundamentally based in balance, co-existence, and connection with the natural world. That sustained colonial onslaught continues to echo through history, impacting First Nations and Indigenous communities today. Indeed, the remaining bigotry is right there in that Live Free Or Die tagline, saying that in “going back to the wild,” they “awaken the animal self.” The dehumanisation of entire cultures rumbles on, unchecked.
But now that enough white Americans are bored with “the rat race” they created — now that the pendulum has swung back far enough the other way that “homesteading” and “survival lifestyles” are back in fashion — wealthy corporations have found a way to capitalise, commercialise, and cash in on this essence of colonialism.
Is any of that cash being donated to help clean up the water supply of First Nations and Indigenous communities today? Or to help return their land? Is any of that money spent on any kind of reparations for colonialism at all? The chances are slim, since there is no significant evidence of those issues being resolved…
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