Is the BBC commodifiying indigenous culture?

October 12, 2010

Last Woman Standing follows five Western British female athletes as they compete in sporting challenges against women from remote tribes and cultures. The Western women have one week in each location to master an Indigenous sport, whilst eating, sleeping and engaging in the rituals and traditions of the Indigenous culture. The competitor who outperforms the rest in the most challenges is declared the winner, the last woman standing.

Last Woman Standing situates the contestants in an “extreme tribal world”, in a pristine primitive environment which evokes nostalgia for a simpler past. It allows the audience to imagine places and spaces within the world where Western society and technology have not yet infiltrated and impacted upon the communities living there. In the Tarahumara, the Raramuri tribe “aren’t used to visitors”, and one woman describes the Western competitors as “tall and strange looking”. During the programme the Indigenous people are displayed in elaborate dress and costume, presenting them as rooted in tradition, living in a sacred and ritualised world. This display indexes exotic cultural difference, further entrenched when the BBC juxtaposes the Westerners with the Indigenous people. Having Westerners present in the local setting creates greater imaginary participation of the audience through identification with the familiar Westerners, which can promote distancing rather then immersion. By proliferating and perpetuating this stereotype of Indigenous people as pure, unspoiled and unchanging, the BBC’s depiction of the tribal world is misleading. It conceals the contribution of historical processes to contemporary circumstances and denies the agency of the people identified as members of the particular tribes.

Kamiaura Women

The BBC is trying to depict an ‘authentic’ image of Indigenous life. The more remote from Western experience that a tribe appears to be will produce the greatest contrast in lifestyle for the Western athletes, which in turn will produce the most interesting television. Accordingly, the Kamaiura tribe are described as, “hunter gatherers who have lived the same way for hundreds of years” and also “much of the Tarahumara way of life hasn’t changed for centuries”. I think that the  the BBC most forcibly renders the fetishisation of the exotic Other through ritual. The Western athletes are always greeted by a traditional welcoming, such as the traditional Kamaiura parrot dance in which the women of the village trail behind the men to show their subservience, or they are “hurled into a world of ritual they have never encountered before”, such as the Kali Initiation, which involved the cutting of a rooster and dribbling the hot blood down the face to gain respect and be welcomed into the tribe.

Kali Initiation

To me, it appears that the BBC is capitalising on the power it holds over the representation of the Indigenous peoples to a Western audience. As a result, the BBC is manipulating the Indigenous culture so that it can be commodified and consumed by the viewers. Through carefully constructed  image creation and editing, the BBC’s documentation of ‘reality’ in the series Last Woman Standing has played a role in creating the illusion of an uncontaminated authenticity, as the Indigenous people are relegated to a collective role as an undifferentiated backdrop for the staging of the athletic challenges within the programme. By consistently reproducing these distorted images of the homogenised Other, a rather complicated and problematic association between the relationship of Indigenous women with the Western audience, and Western notions of the Self is produced. It provides a highly distorted framework for perception of the Other and as a result, the the western audience is out of touch with reality about the Other. This may be because the identity of the subaltern resides in its deviation form dominant Western subjectivity, it is defined only in terms of its difference. This stereotyped imposed conception of a supposed Indigenous identity, indicates an ongoing colonial assault on Indigenous existence.

Therefore, can we argue that today’s representation of the Other by Western media is more reliable and justified than the images presented in the nineteenth century by European colonisers? In fact, it appears that the process of colonisation and the expansion of Western ideas and values did not end with the arrival of European people but has persisted and been fostered by the growth in media technology. Technology’s limitless capacity has perpetuated the process of invasion by fostering an unprecedented opportunity for people to see and experience the Other from a Western worldview. Consequently, this commercialisation and its associated commodification has continued to assail Indigenous people. The outcome is that the history, culture, identity and tradition of Indigenous people are being eroded, erased and reconstructed; shifting the world towards a singular world order as this hegemonic structure deepens further.


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