Tribal Wives: Is this Entertainment or Ethnocentrism?

By Joanna (JuJuBe)

In my travels across the internet, I recently came across some youtube videos from the BBC, from a 2008 show called “Tribal Wives”. The basic premise of the show is that a British (white) woman would leave her life behind for a month and join a “tribal” culture to document and experience every day life in a different cultural setting. I had not seen this show before, and until today, had not even heard of it. But, from the clips I have seen, I am pretty appalled. It is just another in a long line of culturally exploitative programs designated to degrade and demean non “Western” people.

Each of the clips I watched seem to be dedicated to exploiting exploring the “otherness” of “tribal” cultures. Supposedly, the show is about learning the customs of other groups of people, but from what I can see, it is more about showing how “primitive” and “misguided” the featured cultures are. One video emphasized wife beating. Another addressed forced child marriage. Yet another addressed female circumcision.

Beneath each of the commentaries offered on each of the clips runs an undercurrent of disrespect for the cultural traditions of the people involved. The show is filmed from a 100% Eurocentric perspective, and every custom highlighted is compared to the supposedly more “enlightened” British practices. Some of the British participants tried to question the love that the parents had for their children simply because they participated in cultural traditions that are not approved by “Westerners”.

Perhaps there should be a show where individuals from other cultures come to observe and comment on “Western” ideals and behavior. I wonder how they would feel about the sexualization of little girls in beauty pageants? Or the fact that many “Western” children are raised by nannies OR by the boob tube instead of by their parents?

Reality television is one of the most popular forms of entertainment today. And a lot of reality television is based on “cultural tourism”. A Western (usually white) individual invades the space of a “traditional” (usually non white) culture, pretends to be “appreciating” the vastly different way of life, and instead is actually reinforcing the notion of the inferiority of others.

Take for example Bizarre Foods with Anthony Zimmern. The title alone is enough to discern the impetus behind this sort of program. Take a white man, inject him into a new (usually non white) culture, and have him emphasize the “strangeness”, the “otherness” of the traditions practiced (in this case food). Add some grimaces and dry heaves for effect, and you have an accurate portrayal of how white folks look upon other cultures with disdain.

These sorts of programs are less about learning and appreciating cultural diversity among the people of the world and more about elevating “Western” (white) traditions above all others. They are produced in a way that makes them seem more akin to documentaries about wildlife than about human beings. The emphasis is on what “Westerners” see as “strange” or “primitive” rather than on the lives, loves, feelings and thoughts of real, living, breathing human beings who happen to participate in their own cultural traditions!