Jungletown and Reality TV: The Unbearable Whiteness of Being and ‘Surviving’

The onslaught of headlines indicating some dark times – regarding immigration, education, and healthcare, to name just a few areas of concern and crisis – have left a lot of us looking for escapist entertainment in our downtime. Even just an hour offline and away from the news can provide a much-needed respite. Ironically enough, though, for many of us, escaping reality often comes in the form of imbibing it through the heavily manipulated filter of reality television. But of course, “reality” onscreen is never just black and white.

Viceland’s Jungletown, one of the latest installments of this burgeoning genre, begins to reveal how reality is itself shaped through national perspective and global position. This ten-part docu-series serves as a starting point from which to consider how reality TV shows set in the Global South are often centered around contrasting white Westernness with a foreign “other,” normalizing a certain brand of Western culture and exotifying other cultures in the process. And, to put it plainly: if the past few months have proven anything, the last thing we need is to ignore the incipient ways that white American exceptionalism is reinforced.

As a “docu-series,” one could argue that Jungletown isn’t, at its core, reality television; it lacks the formulaic casting of contestants, weekly competitive challenges, and that familiar “day in the life” family drama, perfected by the likes of the Kardashians (whose lives we know, after 13 seasons, are anything but quotidian). With staged scenes, specified filming times, and armies of editors, it’s safe to say that when it comes to the interactions captured by these unscripted series, we’ve given up the ghost of an unsullied “realness.” Just like other reality shows, however, Jungletown carries with it the same allure of watching and witnessing uncomplicated interpersonal arguments and meltdowns, heartfelt confessions, and passing triumphs.

And, as far as escaping reality goes, this is Jungletown’s explicit premise: it’s about finding ways to exist outside of the environmentally detrimental impact of “modern” society – and that impact is something we should all be concerned about these days. Jungletown is about seeking out untarnished spaces and creating something ethically and ecologically sustainable. It’s about exploration, building both social community and physical communes, and learning how to live in a way that doesn’t deplete both the earth and its resources in the process. And holy smokes, for the love of goodness sakes, is it ever about whiteness and privilege.

Jungletown follows the story of a real estate entrepreneur in his early thirties who is trying to build “the world’s most sustainable modern town,” with little more than the land that he’s already purchased in Panama (and hopes to eventually profit from) and an incredible ability to sell his idea (and, to a large extent, himself). Aware that towns take people, this area is packaged and sold as an educational institute called Kalu Yala, which is basically a unique study abroad opportunity promising a minimal carbon footprint and the freedom to be shoeless most of the time. As such, the institute has attracted a few dozen or so staff, and up to 80 young folks between the ages of 18-24, “interns” willing to pay $5,000 for the opportunity to spend ten weeks living in lean-tos in Latin America. The camera captures these staff and students negotiating survival without electricity and running water, while trying to build up on-site infrastructure and residing in extremely close quarters (or, to be more specific, hammocks).

Some might view Jungletown and the personalities it depicts as an accurate glimpse of a generation that’s been treated with kid gloves and demands instant gratification. To say that the privilege evidenced in this show is merely a symptom of (accusatory finger wagging) “millennial snowflakes” and their over-educated self-entitlement, however, is to risk missing the mark entirely. The driving force behind this venture is way bigger than birthdates – and, way, way older. In one of Kalu Yala’s founder Jimmy Stice’s many monologues, he says of the group’s vision: “We’re building a town to look for the best ways we can live, in terms of compassionately treating each other in a global community – access to food, access to healthcare, access to socioeconomic mobility that’s actually beneficial to the environment” (emphasis mine). Sounds sort of idyllic, right? Maybe. But what Jungletown aptly starts to highlight is that the “we” who get to be intentionally included in said “global community” is much less obvious – and inclusive – than it often appears on TV.

With episodes entitled “Pioneers or Colonists?” and shots cutting between the crew of recently arrived interns and a crew of reticent, aging Panamanian men doing manual labor while making (subtitled) comments about liking the institute’s presence since Kalu Yala pays more than locals, it’s hard to ignore the meaning in this juxtaposition. Thanks to insightful editing decisions that self-consciously depict the incongruity of this coupling, Jungletown begins to pull back the curtain of reality TV casting – and not just of individuals. Rather than mere backdrop, Panama – and with it, Panamanian peoples and cultures – becomes the co-star against which to contrast a nearly nauseating display of youthful naivety and, most importantly, largely Western, largely white, idealism.

While subscribing to the sustainability piece of Stice’s pitch, pretty much all institute attendees have ulterior motives. Some state that they’re there to make a career change, others point out that it’s a great way to build up wilderness skills and have an adventure, and others just want to see the world. Select vignettes show the interns’ range of experiences and backgrounds, but nearly all the individuals have one thing in common: international mobility.

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While a few folks featured are from Puerto Rico, Brazil and even Panama, the overwhelming majority of interns shown by Jungletown read as both white and Western. Rather than their age, it’s these folks’ evident ability to press pause on their lives back home – whether that’s work, school, or perhaps even just an elective “gap year” – slap down their passport and purchase a plane ticket to wherever they please. And in this case, it’s Panama. What remains insufficiently examined, however, are the global political conditions that allow white, educated, affluent-enough individuals (and in this case, their land-purchasing leader) to choose Panama in the first place. In a sort of self-reflection rarely seen in reality TV, Jungletown spotlights what all too many unscripted shows saturating broadcast and cable television networks have managed to skate by for years doing: using the strategic casting of a place in the Global South as shorthand for adventure and exploration, exoticism and potential human endangerment. Well, endangerment of the Western, white human, that is.

Jungletown is by no means the biggest offender in this field; there’s a whole bevy of reality shows that rest solely on the exploitation of geographic otherness as both stage and starting plot point for suspense, courage and conquest. There are competition-based series like Survivor, one of the most widely known and whose US version now boasts 34 seasons, but there are also those shows that focus solely on surviving, such as Man vs. Wild, one of many television shows featuring survivalist Bear Grylls, and the greener Naked and Afraid. Depending upon their format, each one of these shows has situated a season or an episode (or three) in Panama – and the country serves a very specific purpose. Naked and Afraid is perhaps the most extreme (and thus crystal clear) example.

Each week, viewers can tune in to watch as one (naked) American man and one (naked) American woman go up against a chosen geographic region: “the daunting jungle of Amazonia,” “high elevation in the peaks of Udhampur, India,” or, of course, “the remote Panamanian rainforest.” Armed with no more than a bowie knife or a machete, a pot or a fire starter, the topography, flora and fauna, become our Americans’ adversaries. Watching folks from places like Colorado, Florida and Missouri amble barefoot over thorns and through swamps, struggle to purify muddy, fecal- and bacteria-infested water, and deal with hundreds of mosquito bites in a matter of hours does make for entertaining, escapist television. But, when nearly all of the episodes take place in non-Western nations, shows like Naked and Afraid also reinforce a stark divide between “here,” the home states of our daring participants and even the safety of our couches, and “there,” the undeveloped wilderness of the unknown.

By repeatedly casting certain countries in the role of remote wilderness locale, reality shows like Naked and Afraid exotify and cement the distant danger of places like Panama: places where people have been living for years. Thousands of years. And when over 90% of participants featured in shows like Naked and Afraid are white, and shown traipsing across Tanzania and wading through parts of Brazil talking about wanting to conquer, combat and survive an environment that is presented as utterly inhospitable, the episodes work to altogether erase the experiences of the people always already existing there. We turn on these reality TV shows to watch white people trying to survive in far-flung regions, and yet, what’s always already lost in these recurring representations is real survival. And, not just surviving: living.

When reality TV shows (or notions of new, all-inclusive sustainable communities, such as Kalu Yala) originating in the US repeatedly choose as their stage the Global South, it’s because we are in the privileged position to do so. As Jungletown demonstrates, to escape the perils wrought by “modern” society – or, capitalist consumerism – where do folks head? Why, South, of course. The repetition of this choice time and time again works to eclipse the lives, cultures and histories of these regions whose only role to play is one of an unpopulated, even primitive place just waiting to be colonized and developed, conquered and survived – and this effective whitewashing works both ways. Viewers are not only presented with the image of the threatening, exotic and undeveloped wild of “there”; they are implicitly asked over and over again to understand “here” as just the opposite: modern, safe, and easily livable (albeit environmentally harmful and unfulfilling).

To reiterate its self-professed statement of purpose, Jungletown is about creating a place where “we” have “access to food, access to healthcare, access to socioeconomic mobility that’s actually beneficial to the environment.” We who are Western, white, and willing and able to travel beyond national borders, and then back again. When the staff and students at Kalu Yala complete their ten weeks abroad or tire of their time in the jungle – and after Naked and Afraid participants succeed in starving themselves for the full 21 days or tap out after just two – they will all effortlessly return to their previous places. It’s not a stretch to say that most of these people will also be returning to a stable place to sleep and affordable treatment for whatever afflictions they incurred abroad. But of course, this is not the case for everyone living in the US; survival isn’t always a breeze here, nor is getting medical care and sustainable nourishment.

The easy binary of “us” and “them” reinforced through particular reality programs not only erases people beyond the borders of the US; it also flattens the experiences of millions of people living in the States that can’t drop everything and head off for an adventure. In the astute words of one of Kalu Yala’s most redemptive (and rare, himself the son of immigrants to the US) staff members: “there’s… ‘us and them’ attitudes sometimes that Americans tend to carry around with them – which is a little disappointing.” Reality shows whose prefaces reaffirm the consistent erasure of – and perceived divide between – peoples both “here” and “there” are disappointing, indeed.

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