News Editor Aneesa Ahmed laments as Channel 4’s new series that could have been meaningful, insightful and impactful, misses the mark repeatedly
Scarlett Moffat’s new show, The British Tribe Next Door, in my opinion, is one of the most culturally insensitive shows produced by Channel 4 and misses an amazing opportunity to healthily educate, due to a need to entertain.
The show follows the Moffat family after they move into a replica of their County Durham house, among the huts of the Himba people, a rural community in Namibia. It is intended to be a social experiment, where both groups are to ‘learn’ from each other.
The intention of the show was well-intended, as the main premise of the show is to not be condescending towards other communities around the world but rather to show a different way of living. However, it would be ignorant to assume that projects like this would not be problematic, and Channel 4 did not handle it as well as I assumed. The mere naming of the show The British Tribe Next Door is in itself controversial as the term ‘tribe’ has been deemed politically incorrect by anthropologists and social scientists; the term has derogatory connotations within the Western world. Furthermore, each community, including the Himba community, would have their own definition of what ‘tribe’ and the ‘tribal’ mean to them, so the Western blanket definition of a ‘tribe’ does not consider the multifaceted nature of the definition to different communities. The controversy over the term ‘tribe’ used by Westerners highlights the initial problem of the show as Moffat’s family, a white British family, label themselves a ‘tribe’ when in reality this is not an accurate definition of their family unit. The definition of ‘tribe’ varies between communities and was likely used in the show’s title for clickbait purposes, to exoticise the idea of having a show with rural communities.
The immediate juxtaposition of the Moffat family’s County Durham home amongst the huts of the Himba community is unsettling. The Moffatt family quite literally have the home comforts of on-demand television, WiFi and running water in their simulated home in Namibia, while members of the Himba community are having to dig down two metres for drinking water while dealing with snakes in the process. This set-up intrinsically suggests the problematic nature of the show, as it highlights the condescending nature of Western organisations, in this case Channel 4, having the means to install facilities, however only doing it when there is monetary value and publicity for them.
The show can also be likened to the ‘white saviour’ debate, whereby people from Western countries, primarily white people, go to help people of colour, with the help in some contexts perceived to be self-serving and often counterproductive. In the show, rather than asking how one member of the Himba feels after she encounters her reflection in a mirror for the first time, Moffat’s mother Betty simply says ‘Yes, you. Beautiful!’, which not only highlights a lack of interest but is can also be seen as condescending. It could be considered that this interaction implies that she was prouder of herself having provided a mirror rather than of the Himba woman.
Furthermore, the show appears to lack depth and discussion into topics that could be interesting and educational, such as discussing the importance of family, marriage, kinship and descent amongst African communities. However, the sheer lack of genuine interest from the family, is shown when Mark Moffat is asked about the number of partners he had before marriage, to which his only response was ‘no comment’. Moments like this could have been used for deep and insightful discussions regarding key concepts such as marriage, and could have been used to discuss similarities and differences between British and African communities. However, no discussion took place.
Similarly, there was a section where Scarlet tried traditional Himba clothing and explored what the outfits truly mean to the women who wear them. This concluded with Scarlett becoming tearful about exposing her ‘fat bits’. While this opens an important discussion about body image, a great opportunity was missed to deeply discuss the significance of dress to the Himba community, thus not making full use of the platform. Moffat’s comments on her body image attracted a lot of media attention in publications such as the Daily Mail, which gives the show good exposure however it overshadows the main focus of the show which was to understand the Himba way of living. Each encounter simply ends with the Moffat family saying ‘That’s different,’ which demonstrates that while the Moffat family’s intentions may have been good, their inability to create meaningful discourse from their encounters shows lack of genuine interest.
The combined lack of interest and ignorance to the problematic nature of this reality TV show makes it arguably one of Channel 4’s worst yet. It also highlights how despite society progressing, ideas of the ‘tribal’ as being exotic and different persist. Furthermore, their use of white saviourism for entertainment appears as condescending and insensitive, and the show could have tackled many issues within anthropological debate much more thought, but failed to use this opportunity.
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