When MTV sent a camera crew to follow 15-year-old Amanda as she planned her $200,000 Sweet 16 party in 2003, they captured her saying such gems as, "I get happy looking at myself," as she twirled and preened before a mirror, and "I love money. People say it doesn't buy happiness, but I think it helps." Later, during a particularly bratty meltdown on the network's reality series "My Super Sweet 16," the young Floridian verbally berates her father for making her arrive at her party in—gasp—an Acura, instead of the planned limousine.
It's hard for any adult to watch these spoiled teens without wishing someone would give them a reality check—a little taste of life outside the plush confines of their McMansions. Well, MTV has happily complied. Their new reality series, "Exiled," takes the characters you loved to hate from "Sweet 16" and sends them to remote villages around the world where they face challenges greater than having only one afternoon to find the perfect dress in Paris.
That MTV's viewers are taking some pleasure in seeing these bratty princesses brought down to earth isn't a surprise. This kind of gotcha has become a programming staple. But not only was the premier of "Exiled" the network's highest rated new reality show this year, some fans seem to be taking the program's message about privilege and abundance seriously. They are having conversations not typically seen on MTV's discussion boards about cultural stereotyping and Africa's international image. Who knew fans of the network that features endless hot-tub hookups are also worried about exploiting the Third World?
In the first episode of "Exiled," which aired last week, our girl Amanda, who is now 19 and seems to spend her days sleeping and sunbathing, is surprised by her family and friends (and, presumably, MTV's film crews), with the news that they are sending her to Africa. Amanda is whisked away to Kenya, where she spends a week with the Masai. She sleeps in a dung hut, is asked to touch cow dung (which she refuses to do), carries water for hours and watches the slaughter of a goat.
The show follows a typical arc. The young American begins her journey sheltered, whiny and unsympathetic, and, after a night of dancing and bonding with her hosts, turns around, opens up to the culture and finds a new appreciation for her life back home. At the end, during a traditional Masai ceremony, she is given a Masai name, Nadupoi, which means "awareness."
Sounds like a typical redemption story, but viewers didn't just watch for the satisfaction of seeing Amanda face down a pile of dung à la "Fear Factor"; they actually critiqued the network's politics. "MTV could have been much more responsible in picking a place for this girl to go," writes a viewer posting under the username PurpleReign. "They are just fulfilling stereotypes without showing a larger and more accurate representation of Africa. They showed Africa in a really negative light … It's offensive and rude and perpetuates the wrong ideas of Americans who know no better. And not even just Africa, but all underdeveloped nations are going to be represented this way on this show. It's sad."
PurpleReign was not alone in this objection. Several people from Africa have posted comments bristling at the portrayal of the continent. "I'm from west Africa and whenever I hear stupid comments like, "do you live in a hut," I get so pissed off!!!" writes crazyyama. "But anyway, this is a good wake up call for all of the rich spoiled brats of the world who believe that they control their world!!!"
Other commenters note the lack of actual cultural exchange. Josephine, the daughter of Amanda's host family, and her peer, is gracious, warm and heartbreakingly generous toward Amanda, but whether she will be able to come to America is never mentioned. "I wish they followed up on Josephine," Geogirl writes. "Did Amanda invite her to America? What are her dreams that Amanda encouraged her to pursue? How did Amanda's visit change Josephine, or did it?"
More discomfiting than watching some indulged teenagers briefly face up to reality is the enduring plight of the host families. In the show's second episode, another "Sweet 16" vet, Ava of Beverly Hills, Calif., gets sent to Thailand. Her host, Ladee, asks to come Beverly Hills to visit. Ava agrees, through gritted teeth and a condescending smile. If viewers log on to MTV.com and watch the deleted scenes, they will discover that Ladee speaks English because she spent her childhood in an orphanage: her family was too poor to take care of her. But as soon as Ava is back in America, she laughs about how she will continue to buy Gucci and Prada and Christian Loboutin because, "I love my bags and shoes."
Several posters noted that the host families on the show seem like props. "The show falls into the theme of using other countries and cultures as teaching tools for people in the U.S." says feministing.com blogger Miriam Peres. "These people are being used as a teaching tool for mostly white, privileged girls. Why was this girl honored? Because she stopped crying after a few days? She was offensive. She wasn't appreciative."
Latoya Peterson, blogger for Racialicious.com, has a similar objection. "They're taking these extremely spoiled kids and going, 'OK, what's the worst thing we can do to them? Send them to Africa!" she says. "That's a terrible mind-set to have. It's the First World balking at the Third World." But Peterson is encouraged by the kind of comments the show is generating. "For every comment that was like, 'Aha! They got what they deserved,' there are a lot of others from people who are hungering for a real, deep conversation."
Executive producer Dave Sirulnick says the show's purpose is to encourage an awareness of the other cultures. "People will see the dignity they have, the wonderful cultural traditions they have, things that they wouldn't otherwise see, especially on MTV," he says. He points out that while there's only so much you can do in a half-hour reality series, the people selected to participate have benefited significantly from the experiences. "Amanda has … I think 'changed' might be too deep a word, but her outlook and perspective is different now." (Sirulnick wasn't sure how the participating host families were compensated for their role, and at MTV's press representatives have no so far been able to provide that information.)
Politics aside, the show's stories of transformation, whether they're long-lasting or not, do seem to have real appeal to an audience that usually snacks on a diet of superficial dating and makeover shows. And the word is spreading: "I'm gonna tell everyone to watch this show just so u can get ur ratings up and stay on air so u can send more kids to third world countries to get a better understanding of humility and appreciation," writes Gerald Mizzle on MTV's message board.
Sirulnick says that the network is talking about doing some sort of sequel where Josephine and the other host families are brought to America. Maybe other networks will pick up on the thirst for substance. "Gossip Girls" in Ghana, anyone?