Disjuncture and Difference in The Amazing Race
by Robert Moses Peaslee — Texas Tech University
October 13, 2009 – 15:07
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.
Appadurai, A. (1990). Disjuncture and difference in the global culture economy. Theory, Culture, and Society 7, 295-310.