By David Weaver-Zercher
I remember the good old days - two years ago - when people asked me questions about the Amish because they saw an Amish family shopping at Walmart or sightseeing in Yellowstone.
Nowadays most of the questions I receive about Amish life emerge from what people have seen on a reality television show: National Geographic's The Amish: Out of Order, TLC's Breaking Amish, or the new Discovery Channel offering Amish Mafia. The way things are going, The Amish Pimps of Lancaster County can't be more than a few months away.
Is it true? Does it really happen that way? I've only watched a few snippets of these shows, but I've seen enough to know that the answer is complicated. Yes, there's some truth to be found in all these shows, especially in the Out of Order series. No, what you're seeing is not very typical. And, not surprisingly, some of the so-called reality has been fashioned from thin air.
Take, for instance, Amish Mafia. The notion of a powerful, surreptitiously sanctioned vigilante group that handles problems for the Amish is about as true-to-life as the Dunder Mifflin Paper Co. of The Office. When Amish people find themselves in danger, they do what most Americans do: they call a neighbor or dial 911. (And, yes, most Amish people do have access to phones, though they don't have the Amish Mafia on speed dial.)
The question "How real is this?" is a good question, and I hope viewers ask it early and often when they watch these shows. Perhaps an even better question is "How typical is this?"
Here's something to keep in mind with respect to Rumspringa, the teenaged running-around-time that's nearly universal in Amish life: watching the typical Rumspringa play out each week would get pretty boring pretty fast. Sunday afternoon volleyball games and Sunday evening singings are standard fare, lubricated with nothing stronger than root beer. Sure, there's some romance to be had and decisions to be made about joining the church, but it's pretty tame compared to Snookie's shenanigans on the Jersey Shore - and probably pretty tame compared to your teenaged years, too.
In some cases, of course, Amish young people venture far beyond the boundaries of the Amish way. Although few seek the glitz and glamour of New York City, some indulge in alcohol or other recreational drugs close to home. Premarital sex is not rampant, but neither is it uncommon. Like other 21st-century American couples, some Amish couples enter marriage knowing they have a child on the way.
Still, these "scandalous" behaviors are not typical in Amish life. And it just may be the rarity of these behaviors that makes these reality shows successful, at least from a ratings standpoint. The popular conception of the Amish as a chaste, even prudish society is relatively close to the truth. To wit: A friend of mine once asked a pregnant Amish woman when her baby was due, and the look she shot back told him that while Amish women know where babies come from, they don't want to acknowledge their coital complicity in the presence of a strange man.
So, yes, the popular conception of Amish people as morally constrained is quite accurate. And what's more enjoyable for some viewers than to watch a few brazen souls breaking the fetters of a straitlaced society? You'd expect wanton behavior from a Long Island girl named "JWoww," but for some it's much more satisfying to sense a little naughtiness in Katie Ann Stoltzfus, the Amish bishop's daughter.
If that is indeed the allure of these shows, it tells us more about viewers' desires than it does about Amish culture. The producers of these shows may not know a lot about Amish life, but they do know a lot about the television-watching public. And they've crafted Amish "reality" to tap into the desires they've discerned.
Most Amish people won't lose any sleep over this, I'm sure. And if perchance some are bothered by reality shows that feature their wayward cousins pole-dancing, they'll do their best to forgive those who make their livings producing this schlock.
Then again, maybe they'll pick up their phones and call the Amish Mafia.