Disjuncture and Difference in The Amazing Race

Curator's Note

 I paraphrase above the title of Arjun Appadurai’s influential 1990 article to bring to attention the arguments made therein regarding the power of Western media in international contexts of widespread information dispersal, multivalent visual environments, and postmodern understandings of user sovereignty. Appadurai, in a nutshell, rejects center/periphery models for a more nuanced understanding of the shifting “scapes” made possible in international media environments. It is an eloquent argument for hybridity as an analytic.

 

The Amazing Race presents itself as a competition that, like all such “reality” shows, promotes individual effort and meritocracy. But in the end, as the accompanying clip makes clear, it’s really not about winning the Race so much as it is about “being on” the Race. This is especially true if you are “different” in some way: this season finale featured Luke, who is obviously hearing impaired, as well as two “vertically challenged” stunt performers. Past episodes and seasons have made a great deal of hay from the genders, ages, sexualities (remember “The Virgins”?), and cultural milieu of various participants (who knew you could be from Kentucky and still manage to find the airport in Munich?). Much of the drama that is the show’s hallmark has to do with how contestants confront and negotiate difference (from other contestants, from the people they encounter in other parts of the world, from themselves as they were at the beginning of the race).

 

The Race, then, would seem to be the perfect illustration of the blending of “scapes” that is the cornerstone of Appadurai’s argument. I would suggest, however, that the hybridity championed by the Race is rather expedient and, in the end, chimerical. “Being on” the program is tantamount to being “special” in a very specific sense, a sense explored by Nick Couldry in his theses on media power as consumer practice. This is true for contestants as well as the places they visit and the people who live there. The Race reifies the importance of being mediated, no matter how different you might be.

 

Citations:

 

Appadurai, A. (1990). Disjuncture and difference in the global culture economy. Theory, Culture, and Society 7, 295-310.

Comments

Chad Thomas Beck's picture

Fantasy and Difference

 

Robert,  This is a very provocative post, and I agree with you that the representations of difference on _The Amazing Race_ are expedient and chimerical.  These representations seem to be a fantasy constructed by the producers as part of their commercial strategy. Your point raises interesting questions about the specific kinds of fantasies that we see on the show.  One approach might be to consider that producers of reality shows frequently incorporate tokens of difference and try to include idiosyncratic (in relation to competing programs) portrayals of difference (hence, the examples of difference in _The Amazing Race_ that you cite).  To those forms of difference, _The Amazing Race_ adds exotic world travel for the vicarious tourism of viewers.  But what seems to complicate the matter is that reality shows often play upon the struggle between self-expression of participants (often self-conscious of “being on”) and the manipulation by producers, a struggle always in favor of producers.  As you point out, “being on” _The Amazing Race” seems paramount.  At the same time (and I confess that I have been only an occasional viewer of the show), I wonder if the participants or the residents of communities that they visit register significant expressions of or debates about difference anyway, and if those expressions are disjunctive with the narrative structure and emotional essence imposed by the producers. 

Chad Thomas Beck Indiana University

 

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