Where do you draw the line when it comes to entertainment at another culture's expense?
That's the question that springs to mind when watching the promo for "Tribal Teens: Here Comes Trouble," a new reality series out of the U.K. that plops entitled teenagers amongst the most secluded tribes on earth.
The first episode of the series, which aired on Britain's Channel 5 on Tuesday, featured two teens named Ethan and Alex who were sent to live with the indigenous Ashaninka people of the Peruvian Amazon as punishment for being lazy and spoiled, respectively.
According to The Guardian, Alex is a self-described "pampered princess" who is immediately unimpressed upon finding herself living in a small hut with no electricity or running water.
"They are sleeping on wooden planks, pissing in a hole in the ground and washing in a dirty river," she complains in a promo. "How long are we here for?"
Promo clips from the show (like the one above) feature the teens being forced to witness or participate in Ashaninka customs which include eating grub worms for energy, and preparing a special dish by chewing yuca and then spitting it into a pot.
This isn't the first show to use the formula of pampered Westerners navigating "weird" and "gross" indigenous cultures as entertainment. In fact, "Tribal Teens" is basically a rehash of the 2008 MTV reality series "Exiled," which similarly sent spoiled rich kids from "My Super Sweet Sixteen" to underdeveloped countries. The hope, of course, is that the teens are learning to change their ways and appreciate numerous privileges they have in comparison to the people they've been ostensibly forced to live with. But are they? And at what cost?
On a certain level, there is something satisfying in seeing spoiled or disrespectful kids forced into situations that demand them to reevaluate their often times incorrigible behavior. It's what makes shows like "Scared Straight" strangely fascinating.
But with shows like "Tribal Teens" and others where people are encouraged to change their perspectives by living with "natives," things get complicated. There's an element of exploitation and exotification inherent in framing someone else's culture as "punishment," while seemingly highlighting only the aspects of that culture which would be considered unpleasant to Western eyes.
Granted, the Ashaninka community seems genuinely happy to host the teens and share their culture with them. But the fact that their culture is still seen as a kind of endurance test, an elaborate version of boot camp or reform school is unfortunate. Like so many other indigenous people of Latin and South American countries, the Ashaninka should get more than a reality show about obnoxious teens to introduce their way of life to the world.