The Amazing Race: Global Othering

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Recently, a truly fantastic book was published by NYU Press, How to Watch TV. Edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell, it collects 40 essays, each on a different show. I’m humbled and honored to be included, given the remarkable pedigree of the others in it, and I can’t wait to use it in class. At $29, there’s no way you can beat it (though — shameless plug — how awesome would it be with Television Studies or Television Entertainment?)

Anyways, NYU, Thompson, and Mittell have been nice enough to let me post my piece, on Amazing Race and Othering. It tries to come to terms with my deeply conflicted feelings about a show that is trying what very few other American shows bother to try, yet that can still so often make me wanna puke in my mouth a little (and no, that phrasing isn’t in the official piece).

So here’s my piece, below the fold:


The Amazing Race: Global Othering

American television was never just American, but in recent years, its production, distribution, and reception have all globalized in a more concerted way. In terms of American television’s onscreen representations, though, its interest in and use of the rest of the world are still starkly limited. Vancouver and Toronto stand in for American cities when Canadian tax breaks help Hollywood out. Law and Order: SVU’s Elliot Stabler takes a trip to Prague to bust a child pornography ring, and spy or military shows similarly jaunt around the globe to capture nefarious evil-doers, portraying the globe as a problem to be fixed by American law enforcement. Reality television and the news, meanwhile, also seem most interested in the world at large when it is corrupt and violent, corrupt and dying, corrupt and depraved, and/or willing to supply a judge for a competition reality show. Or occasionally the rest of the world justifies coverage when it is stunningly beautiful, exotic, and free of people, as in Survivor and many nature shows or documentaries.

I generalize, of course, but so does American television. Exceptions can be found, but they are few and far between, largely because depictions of the rest of the world are themselves few and far between. In the 2011–2012 television season, for instance, every scripted program on American primetime network television was set in America, with only the retro airline drama Pan Am and the spy shows Chuck and Nikita leaving American shores even occasionally. Network reality programming offered us a quick trip overseas on America’s Next Top Model; it gave us a lush yet unpopulated South Pacific in Survivor, and The Amazing Race (CBS, 2001–present). As is often the case, and as had become de rigeur by the show’s nineteenth season (in its eleventh year on television), the heavy lifting of representing the world and its people on network television was left to The Amazing Race.

Over those nineteen seasons, The Amazing Race regularly brought in 10–12 million viewers a week, according to Nielsen ratings, and won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program nine out of ten times after the award was introduced in 2003. The show’s format is relatively simple, filming several teams on a race around the world. The race is broken into legs in different countries with tasks to be completed before advancing, movement by all manner of modes of transport, and ultimately a footrace at the end of each leg to the Amazing Race mat where host Phil Keoghan and a festively costumed local await, ready to eliminate the last-placed team in most instances. The teams set out from the United States, and the first team back to the final mat in the United States wins a million dollars. The race requires the competitors to interact with locals to get ahead, and the series regularly portrays the competitors’ thoughts and opinions on the places they visit. As a result, it is a remarkably rare entity on American network television in this supposedly globalized era: a program that spends time in other countries, depicting the locals of those countries while doing so, and showing an interest, however fleeting and caricatured at times, in the rest of the world. As one of the few shows on American television to do so, it carries significant representational “weight” in speaking of, for, and about the world at large. Like it or not, outside of the news, the Amazing Race crew are one of the key sources on American primetime television for messages about the world and its various citizens.1

What, then, does it say about the world? Jordan Harvey argues that its depiction is mostly without merit, stereotypical, and Orientalized.2 I agree to a point and will illustrate how deeply nationally chauvinist the program can be, through analyzing season seven, broadcast from March to May 2005. However, I will not “only” critique The Amazing Race; I will also focus on moments in season seven when it realizes progressive potential for depiction and challenges rather than reiterates tired clichés about the rest of the world in ways that highlight the multiplicity inherent in most television representations.

In his groundbreaking analysis of the discursive conquest of the Middle East by centuries of Western writing about the area and its peoples, Edward Said notes how this conquest happened in part by denying non-Westerners the right to speak for themselves, as knowledge was constructed for and about them in the West instead.3 While everyday discussion about depictions and representation can often turn to noting the presence of “stereotypes” and to the rating of depictions as either “good” or “bad,” one of Said’s most helpful offerings was to remind us that much of the symbolic violence done to those being depicted begins when they are denied the right to speak for and of themselves and is exacerbated by the need to reduce complex, varied cultures to singular signs that take on the status of representativeness. Significant cultural diversity is thus reduced, for instance, to the singular depiction of the angry, irrational, despotic, and barbaric “Arab” seen in fictional texts written by non-Arabs. However, cultural identity is always in such flux, characterized by variation and difference, that any attempt to depict a group of people will at the least prove inadequate, and at the worst do great damage to an understanding of the diversity of identity. Said observes how large swathes of Western literature, “science,” and travel accounts engaged in a process by which cultural differences within the Middle East were flattened out and reduced to a monolithic group (“the Oriental”) that was then regarded as a knowable, singular entity and to a rhetoric that justified colonization and subjugation. And though Said’s initial work was primarily historical and concerned with the Middle East, subsequent work by Said and others shows the continuation of this into the present day (witness how rarely, for instance, Iraqis are invited to discuss Iraqi culture or society on American cable news), and the extension of Orientalism to multiple foreign groups. If the nation is, as Benedict Anderson famously notes, “an imagined community,”4 much of the work that goes into nation-building takes the form of imagining those who are not like us and projecting onto them all manner of unsavory attributes, so that we can then flatter ourselves with the contrast we see between the savage them and the noble us.

In many ways, The Amazing Race takes an active part in this process of nationally chauvinistic projection, all the more so because it wears the badge of being “reality.” Yet many of the show’s more egregious moments of representation let us see how such depiction has often become a self-confirming process. The premise of The Amazing Race suggests that we will see competitors in “real” situations with “real” people around the world, but instead they are often interacting in highly contrived situations. In an early leg of season seven, for instance, teams face a challenge in which they must lead llamas a short distance in Peru. Rather than read this instruction in the Lima airport and be forced to find llamas, llama herders, and so forth, the teams are guided to a specific location in the countryside where the llamas await them, and where only those Peruvians hired or otherwise allowed “on set” by the producers may interact with them. The producers often hire the locals beforehand; for example, the bushmen from whom the teams can select for lessons on spearing a swinging sack in South Africa were preselected by the producers. While we can understand this choice for logistical reasons, the result is that the producers have chosen many of the locals to whom both the teams and we as viewers are introduced to represent their culture, and we would be naïve to assume they were chosen at random. The Amazing Race requires an amazing feat of international organization and stage design (hence its many Emmy awards); before the cameras even arrive, therefore, the producers have already played a key role in deciding exactly what we will or even can see. They decide what is worth depicting from a country, and hence they decide what should be represented, leaving the country and its people little and sometimes no room to speak for themselves.

This stage design is especially notable in the challenges, as complex cultures are reduced to a small set of tasks that are habitually described as “common” and “traditional” by Keoghan. South Africa, for instance, gives us a “Tunnels or Tribes” Detour challenge, introducing South Africans to us literally as cavemen, or as primitive tribal elders who demand those most stereotypical of tribal belongings: necklaces, drums, pipes, and bowls (rather than iPods, say). In Botswana, the “Food or Water” Detour challenge reductively implies that the people are so poor that their life and cultural being has been reduced largely to the search for food and water. And India gives us “Trunk or Drunk,” exoticizing the country as a land of elephants, vibrant color, and mysticism. Of course, producers also decide where in different countries the teams will visit, and these decisions have considerable impact on the resulting image of the country and its people as well. Whether the nation is presented as traditional, simple, and rural, or as commercially vibrant, modernized, and urban comes down entirely to the producers’ choice. And then there is the mat, where Keoghan waits sternly for the teams, flanked by a local who is usually in traditional dress and limited in task to waiting several hours with the host before turning on a smile and welcoming the teams to his or her country. “Mat talk” will often ensue between Phil and the racers, and this usually entails retrospective commentary on the day’s tasks, yet the “native” welcomers are never invited to contribute to these discussions, nor to provide further context or additional information. Moreover, because of the speed of the race, many interactions with locals along the way reduce them to passive pointers; we rarely see or hear a local rise even to the level of supporting character in an episode. Surely more interactions occur along the way during the race, but the editing leaves audiences with heavily restricted and directed vision.

The locals quite often function as backdrops alone. One reply to the criticism that we learn so little about the locals is that the show ultimately isn’t about them—it’s about the American racers. Interpersonal dynamics between the racers, both within groups (witness Ray and Deanna’s spats in season seven) and between them (witness Alex and Lynn’s hatred of Rob and Amber), frequently take center stage, and the locals are merely obstacles around which the racers and their attitudes must maneuver. This reduction of “the Other” to backdrop, though, has been a key component of the simplistic rendering of foreign cultures for centuries. Thus, for example, Chinua Achebe notes critically of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that the Africans are poorly rendered in order to make them more ideal as backdrop for the central concern with the hero Marlow’s psyche.5 Conrad’s novel may be critical of colonial governance, as such, but it never shows a true interest in colonial subjects of that governance; instead, the novel renders them in broad, crude strokes. Similarly, in The Amazing Race, non-Americans are rarely if ever allowed to become true characters. Rather, the world becomes a sounding board for the American subject, and the world’s people appear as objects to be looked at, smiled at, or occasionally frowned at, yet never fully fleshed-out individuals.

Season seven’s episode entitled “We Have a Bad Elephant!” offers one case in point, with editing and stage design forcing the various Indians on the show into a series of unsavory positions. Rob claims ownership over a local serving as guide, worrying that another team might “steal” him. A challenge requires teams to push ornately decorated wooden elephants through the streets, co-opting locals to push for them. Gretchen ends up atop the elephant, yelling at Indian children to push harder, presenting us with a shocking colonial era tableau (see below). Later, a Fast Forward challenge requires Joyce to submit to having her head shaved, which leads to shots of an Indian man standing above the prone, crying Joyce, cutting off her hair, in a disturbing image that evokes countless tales of foreign male sexual aggression against “our” women. Finally, after a camel race with dancing, colorfully dressed Indians looking on, the teams arrive at the mat, where they are greeted by an old Indian man whose moustache connects to his sideburns, and whose welcome suggests little command of English. Few of these subalterns are allowed to speak, save to confirm their ownership by Rob in the former case, or to welcome racers in the latter, and none serves as anything more than local color.

As this criticism suggests, a key disappointment with The Amazing Race is its failure to live up to its potential to offer better chances to hear from and of non-Americans. Small modifications could make for such interesting moves forward in the presentation of foreign nationals to the viewing audience. What if, for example, Phil’s companions on the mat debriefed the racers instead of Phil? What if locals joined the team members for an entire leg? What if not all teams were American? What if they were rewarded more systematically and significantly for learning about the cultures and people around them? And what if less of the action was staged?

Certainly, when the race finds itself in spaces that the producers cannot control, we often see the show working at its best. Throughout the show’s many seasons, passersby in markets have fueled some of the more captivating interactions, as they speak for themselves and not according to script. In season seventeen, one task involving a set of Russian babushka potato farmers was brought to life by subtitled translations of the babushkas’ plucky commentary and mockery of the racers. Camera work and editing in the cracks between challenges often give us better, if fleeting, access to the locals’ perspectives as well. As with all reality shows, one risks falling into a trap by focusing on the set-up of The Amazing Race alone, as much of the art of reality television lies in its editing. Reality as genre specializes in judgment by editing, wherein insensitive and stupid comments are rendered as such by a quick cut to someone else’s judgmental glare. Here, the show’s editing regularly rewards the culturally sensitive and interested racers, and chastises the insensitive and ignorant. In many of these brief moments, viewers are invited to identify with the locals, not the racers, and to see the Americans and their behavior as the spectacle. Thus, for example, when “the hillbillies” boisterously start singing on a pickup truck serving as a bus in Peru, the camera captures numerous scornful and bemused looks from their fellow Peruvian passengers. And throughout season seven, Lynn’s derogatory comments about, for instance, Peru being “donkeys and blankets” or Johannesburg being “a real city” and not just “like chickens and camels and whatever” are habitually met either by admonishment from his partner Alex or with a quick cut to a disapproving local taxi driver. In such moments, the show can break from offering a racer’s eye-view of the race, and it often becomes most amusing when doing so.

The show works against stereotype at other points, too. Season seven, after all, is not all llamas and bushmen. Rather, Keoghan and the camera introduce several cities by focusing on their outstanding architecture, commercial centers, technology, and modernization, hence refusing to label those attributes as American only. Occasionally, the show also gives cultural and political history in ways that could expand its audience’s understanding of a country. One of the tasks in Chile, for example, begins with Keoghan noting the country’s many award-winning novelists, while a visit to Soweto leads to a history lesson (albeit extremely brief) on the city’s political past. Lynn’s comment that Johannesburg isn’t just “chickens and camels and whatever” may be especially cringe-worthy, but it stands alongside many moments in the run of The Amazing Race when racers have commented with awe at how a place or people have defied their expectations and stereotypes. Such moments may be offset and outnumbered by tasks that play into stereotype, but here we see how easy it is and would be for the show to more systematically challenge received knowledge about the rest of the world and give us an expanded sense of what to expect outside the United States.

Meanwhile, the show’s initial and final legs always take the teams through the United States, where we see American passersby treated entirely akin to foreign passersby. American cabbies’ incompetence can often decide the race as much as (or, due to placement at the end of the race, seemingly more than) foreign cabbies; Americans become backdrop and passive pointers; American cities and regions are reduced to simplistic tasks; and each season therefore ends with Americans filling in the same roles as their foreign counterparts. The representational weight of such in-country depictions are lighter than those of foreign locations, of course, as most viewers have likely seen countless other depictions of Miami (in the case of season seven), but astute viewers may at least be taught in these final legs that the show’s depictional mode is just that—a mode and a visual grammar—rather than accurate representation.

Everything happens so quickly on The Amazing Race that racers often voice a desire to return to the country and “really” see it later. Such moments actively frame the show’s depictional mode as superficial, and thereby gesture to depths of cultures and countries that The Amazing Race is not showing. While this framing does not excuse the show’s choice to paint in broad strokes, and while we still might be left wondering why, for instance, the show doesn’t offer us an entire race in only one country in order to allow for more depth, the acknowledgment of the show’s inability to represent the world is still important. Just as we are all surely aware by this point in reality television’s history that the camera doesn’t show us everything about each person, The Amazing Race invites us to realize that we haven’t seen everything about the countries it visits. Moreover, as evidenced by Travelocity’s multi-season sponsorship of The Amazing Race, the show encourages viewers to fill in the gaps themselves by traveling more and seeing more. A glance at most Amazing Race fan discussion boards also indicates that the show offers viewers the chance to sit back in judgment both of its representations, as fans often compare what they saw in their own travels in a featured country to what the show depicts, and its racers’ social strategies in interacting with locals, as such behavior is commonly central to fan reactions to cast members. And as with its CBS reality partner, Survivor, the show invites us to imagine how much better we’d be as contestants in terms of both speed and ethics.

Where are we left, then? With a show that can easily fall into an age-old rut of belittling other people and cultures in an attempt to lift up America and Americans, and yet one that is also capable of subverting elements of that process. As one of the few American primetime shows that regularly take Americans outside of their own country, it is therefore simultaneously disappointing and promising. While it would be “neater” to conclude with either condemnation of the show or praise, it deserves both, albeit at different moments. More broadly, though, its failures point to a larger shared failure of American network television to cope representationally with globalization. After all, while The Amazing Race deserves criticism for its worse moments and for frustratingly falling short of its potential, its colleagues on primetime television deserve criticism for not even bothering. Hollywood is happy to take the world’s money, it seems, and to export its American-centric brand of television far and wide, but it is still largely disinterested in creating a truly global television. When representations of the world at large and of the billions of people outside of America are restricted to The Amazing Race, the news, rewards on Survivor, nature shows, images of Anthony Bourdain eating in other countries, the imported Locked Up Abroad, and little more, U.S. television is failing both the world and the United States.



1. See Jonathan Gray, Television Entertainment (New York: Routledge, 2008), 109.

2. Jordan Harvey, “The Amazing ‘Race’: Discovering a True American,” in How Real is Reality TV? Essays on Representation and Truth, David S. Escoffery, ed. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006) 212–29.

3. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979).

4. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 1993).

5. Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,” in Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, 1965–1987 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1988).


Further Reading

Hall, Stuart, ed. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997.

Harvey, Jordan. “The Amazing ‘Race’: Discovering a True American.” In How Real is Reality TV? Essays on Representation and Truth. David S. Escoffery, ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.

Havens, Timothy. Global Television Marketplace. London: British Film Institute, 2008.

Murray, Susan, and Laurie Ouellette, eds. Reality TV: Remaking American Culture, 2nd ed. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

Roy, Ishita Sinha. “Worlds Apart: Nation-Branding on the National Geographic Channel.” Media, Culture and Society 29, 4: 569–92.


Jonathan Gray

Publication date (from feed): 

Fri, 04 Oct 2013 17:39:14 +0000