The Amish Diaries: Why Do You Care About the Amish?
Amish: Out of Order has become a hit show. Over the past month, millions of people have watched and learned about those who grew up Amish and found out more and more about this unique and interesting culture.
I think some people are surprised at the show’s success. It’s not exactly the blueprint one usually follows for a hit TV series. Don’t get me wrong, those of us that worked on the show are unbelievably proud of the series and what we were able to accomplish. But no one throws a drink at anyone else, there are no eliminations, people speak slowly and with strange accents, we have to blur a lot of faces, it has a different feel and pace than almost anything else on TV. Because of this, most outsiders didn’t expect much from the show.
But to be totally honest, those of us who worked on the show weren’t that surprised. We had a pretty good idea that people were going to tune in, that the show would capture people’s attention. And while I’d love to take credit and say that it’s all just because the show is so brilliant, I know the truth. As good as the show is, we had an ace up our sleeve that we knew would help us no matter what, something that we would refer to in internal meetings simply as the “A word.” I’ll let you in on our little secret.
We were pretty sure that the show would do reasonably well simply because it was about the Amish. And the public appears to have a never-ending fascination with the Amish. Look, I’m certainly not complaining. I also know that that the second you take any of that for granted and make a second-rate product, people stop tuning in. So because of that, we have always made each and every one of our Amish projects with as much care and sensitivity as possible. These shows usually take years to produce, and quite honestly very few other producers could do it. Many have tried and most have failed. But as much as I like to make everything about me, our show, Amish: Out of Order, is just a small portion of the public’s incredible fascination with the Amish.
Lancaster, Pa., makes nearly $2 billion off of tourism every year. Amish-style crafts, cooking, quilts and markets are major commodities across the U.S., whether Amish people made them or not. Walk into any bookstore and you will usually see a wall dedicated to “Amish fiction.”
But why? Why do people care so much about the Amish? I mean, this is a religious group we are talking about
If we are being totally honest, some people care about the Amish simply because they are different. It’s not a pleasant thing to talk about, but almost every Amish person can tell you a story about being out in public growing up and having a group of people staring at them, pointing, gawking, talking about them as if they weren’t there, so that they ended up feeling like a zoo animal trapped in a cage. To a degree, it’s understandable, and most of the time people who do it are just curious and don’t realize what they are doing.
But there is more to the fascination with the Amish than just the freak factor of funny outfits and haircuts. The Amish are devoutly religious Christians who generally want to remain separate from the rest of society. They are usually humble, hard working pacifists who don’t seek attention – exactly the opposite traits that usually capture the fascination of the American public.
And perhaps that’s why people care so much. They live among us, but they don’t live like us. How do they do it? How is it possible that they know about all the cool stuff that we have and yet they willingly choose not to use it? There is something about a culture that is able to remain so separate, that keeps itself at an arms length from the things that we strive, for that is enticing.
In many ways the Amish represent a way of life that we wish we could live. It is a type of fantasy. Maybe not they way we all would want to live the rest of our lives, but I would almost guarantee that each and every one of you has thought at some point in time, could I do it? Could I live without all of this stuff, could I be Amish? We don’t typically think like this about other religions or cultures.
But let’s be quite clear. It is a fantasy world. The image we have created of what the Amish are is very far from the truth, as I’ve written about in previous posts. There is a reason why the wall of Amish books is next to the sections about sparkly vampires and bodice-ripping romance. Amish life is a type of fiction. And the fascination that the American public has with the Amish is created mainly in their heads and has very little to do with the Amish religion, or the actual Amish way of life.
Because of this, it’s unsurprising that most Amish people are pretty shocked when they learn that people throughout the country care so much about them. To most Amish, this is just their way of life. In Lancaster, they have embraced tourism as a way of life and are pretty savvy at capitalizing on the cottage industry of all things Amish.
But if you meet Amish from most other areas, the rest of society’s fascination with their way of life is usually pretty bewildering to them. They really don’t understand why the quilt that their mother made for them suddenly can be sold for 10 times what it cost. Or that people would pay them for a ride in their horse-drawn buggy. Or that their story might be worth telling on a television program.
This week’s episode of Amish: Out of Order was a really interesting episode for us to make. The day that National Geographic Channel ordered this series, I knew I wanted to make an episode that tackled the question of why people are so fascinated with the Amish. For a while we were going to make it as more of a newsmagazine-style episode, where we interviewed experts, used a voiceover and really studied the topic in a typical documentary style. But then a remarkable thing happened. Two of our characters were confronted with real issues that dealt with this very topic. And by being able to follow their journey as they struggled to understand how to reconcile their lives with the public’s interest in the Amish, we were able to create a really unique and thought-provoking episode.
Because he has become the face of the ex-Amish, Mose Gingerich has opened himself up to a lot of criticism because the Amish have always been taught to remain humble and not promote themselves or exploit their Amish background. But the town of Lancaster seems to be totally free from that criticism, so Mose travels to Lancaster for the first time to see how the Amish there are able to balance self-promotion, tourism and keeping core values. At the same time, Esther, an ex-Amish girl, has an opportunity to exploit her Amish past to help her burgeoning acting and modeling career. But this goes against everything she grew up with as well. Both Mose and Esther have to make difficult decisions on what to do, with surprising consequences.
Ultimately, I know that the “A word” might get people to take a quick glimpse at the show, but it won’t necessarily keep people around. What will keep them watching is great characters, unique access that you can’t see anywhere else, and a deeper look at the most fascinating subculture in America. So thanks for tuning in, thanks for reading these articles. Keep watching. I promise, as long as you keep wanting to know more about the Amish, we will keep doing our best to find great stories to tell.
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