The Common Good
June 2013

It's Hip to be Plain

by Valerie Weaver-Zercher | June 2013

Who knew the Amish would become such a center of pop-cultural attention?

ONE SUNDAY EVENING during high school, friends from my Mennonite church and I drove around Lancaster County, Pa., stealing mattresses. Bored by too many evenings of roller skating and Truth or Dare, we, like teenagers everywhere, landed on thievery as the solution to adolescent ennui. Having found out which of our friends were away from home, we showed up at their houses, told their parents about our prank, and swore them to secrecy. Then we clomped up narrow staircases to their sons’ and daughters’ bedrooms and wrestled mattresses back downstairs and onto the bed of a pickup truck. Just before our getaways, we left notes on our friends’ dressers, signed with what we thought was a most clever alias: “The Mennonite Mafia.”

We had no idea that 25 years later, Amish Mafia would be a blockbuster reality show, its first episode attracting 10 times more viewers than there are Amish people. Had you told us then that a bunch of Amish and Mennonite kids growing up a few miles away would someday parlay boredom-induced shenanigans into a hit cable TV series, I don’t know whether we would have been flattered or jealous. Kate Stoltzfus? Rebecca Byler? Lebanon Levi? People with names like these—our “plain-dressing” Amish neighbors and the more conservative Mennonite kids we went to school with—were the butt of our jokes, not the cynosures of popular culture.

Only a few decades after we and our families exited the conspicuous conservatism of plain Anabaptism, mass culture is flocking toward it. From Amish-themed reality TV shows to Christian romance novels with Amish characters and settings, the media have finally landed the lucrative Amish account, although the furniture industry and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Amish Paradise” got there first. Americans’ enthrallment with the Amish—and schadenfreude about their sometimes wayward youth—has rarely been more intense.

Amish Mafia wasn’t the first reality show to expose our Anabaptist peers, of course. The massive success of TLC’s Breaking Amish last fall, with nine of the 10 episodes attracting 3 million viewers each, and National Geographic Channel’s Amish: Out of Order began the most recent wave of televised overexposure. As in an earlier wave—Amish in the City, the 2004 reality show that documented five Amish young adults’ relocation to Hollywood—Breaking Amish moved five plain young adults (four Amish and one Mennonite) to the city to sample the seductions of “English” life.

But compared to Breaking Amish, Amish in the City looks like a PBS kids’ show. The kids in Amish in the City took dips in the ocean, gawked at parking meters, and tasted sushi. Eight years later, during the first season of Breaking Amish, you could watch Amish young people get wasted, get tattoos, talk about bestiality, pole dance at a strip club, and tour a sex museum. Oh, and try to decide whether to stay Amish. As became apparent when news of cast members’ prior divorces, children out of wedlock, and DUIs trickled out, these Anabaptist young people were hardly being exposed to the ways of the world for the first time. But most viewers didn’t care. Apparently it doesn’t matter that the cast members aren’t actually babes in the woods—as long as they are babes.

An Amish Mafia, complete with tattooed Amish fixers who are “unafraid to crack some skulls,” exists only insofar as it inhabits the imagination of some Anabaptist-raised young people trolling for fame. It is what happens when a few disaffected Amish- and Mennonite-raised youth join themselves not to the church but to Hollywood and its hunger for access to a private subculture. By parlaying their faith heritage into a titillating hour of tire-slashing and machismo myths of redemptive violence, they make their allegiances clear.

TRAVELING A VERY different but parallel vector of the Amishizing trend is Christian fiction. Eighty-five new Amish-themed inspirational romance novels were published in 2012. That’s one about every four days. The top three authors in the genre—Beverly Lewis, Wanda E. Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall—have together sold more than 24 million books. As a subgenre of inspirational Christian fiction, which many secular observers either ignore completely or deride as picayune and poorly written, Amish romance fiction has garnered so much commercial success that The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Salon, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg Businessweek, and ABC’s Nightline have covered it, with journalists often striking a kind of astonished, if also amused, tone. “Do you have any idea how much money there is to be made in the Amish porn business?” one reporter marveled.

Except porn it is not. Viewers of Amish reality TV may want their Amish trying on bikinis, getting drunk, and packing heat, but readers of Amish fiction want their plain people pious, well-covered, and chaste. In fact, what journalist Pamela Paul calls the “pornification” of American culture—the overspreading of porn aesthetics and sensibilities into much of modern life—is exactly what draws the genre’s mostly evangelical Christian female readers to Amish fiction. From 3-year-olds dressed like prostitutes on TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras, to Oprah Winfrey interviewing porn star Jenna Jameson on afternoon television, to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl gyrations, many observers say that porn has migrated from the bottom of the bureau drawer of American popular culture to the kitchen table. And evangelical Christians are not amused.

Many Christian readers find respite within Amish romance novels. They might read about some hugging, handholding, and a few stray kisses in the novels, but anything overtly sexual, not to mention pornographic, is as absent as a plasma TV in an Amish living room. As chaste texts about chaste protagonists, Amish novels offer their audience “clean reads” of the purest, most unpornified kind.

The narrative universe of Amish reality TV, peopled with bad Amish boys, could hardly feel more different from that of Amish romance novels, inhabited mostly by good Amish girls. Still, the fact remains that the Amish, who make up less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the population of the United States, are occupying a wide swath of the popular imagination, much larger than their numbers warrant. Amish reality TV and Amish romance fiction may be feuding siblings, but they’re siblings all the same.

The Amish brand is strong enough to appeal to a cross section of Americans with widely divergent aesthetics, ethical standards, and entertainment preferences. As one marketing manager at a Christian publishing house told Newsweek, “You slap a bonnet on the cover and double the sales.”

Whether through novels that lift up fresh-scrubbed simplicity and chastity as an ideal or TV shows that revel in watching the offspring of a culture that treasures piety and modesty behaving badly, a very private way of life is at risk of overexposure. Should the desire of most Amish to live outside even the peripheral vision of the public trump the artistic prerogative of TV producers, novelists, photographers, and journalists? Or is all this exposure actually good for the Amish, as it inflates the ballooning mob of tourists snapping up their quilts and jams and rocking chairs? While the answers are unclear, what is clear is that Amish fictions, created mostly by outsiders, are increasingly profitable ventures.

MY FRIENDS IN the “Mennonite Mafia” and I were moving away from plainness even as the larger world was becoming mesmerized by it. In that sense, maybe the joke is on us; had we hung onto our coverings and skirts and accents a little longer, maybe we too, like Lebanon Levi, could have started cashing in. Still, I’m glad that we limited our burgling ambitions to pillaging the mattresses of our friends rather than ransacking the sacred contents of our culture. I wonder how the cast members of Amish: Out of Order and Breaking Amish and the Amish Mafia will feel a few years down the road, when they look back on the televised tomfoolery that they helped to construct. I wonder how they will make sense of their escapades, which turn pacifism, modesty, and simplicity into curios for a television audience.

I’m also glad that none of my friends or I have taken to writing Amish fiction. It’s possible that we would have found some success: Selling a manuscript to a publisher is much easier if the author has connections to the Amish. Yet while milder in its portrayals, more respectful in its representations, and less salacious in its content, Amish fiction doesn’t have entirely clean hands. There is no way for one culture to produce so many products about another culture without stirring up at least a whiff of cultural appropriation and commodification.

All this analysis may mark me as a disgruntled Mennonite with an overactive sense of protectiveness for those who share my ecclesial genes. The Amish don’t need folks like me to stand guard at their doors to keep the pranksters or novelists or producers or pilgrims at bay. Plus, anyone who has written about or photographed or interviewed or researched the Amish, regardless of their motive, has contributed to the group’s overexposure. That now includes me.

I don’t remember how the Mennonite mafiosi returned the mattresses we had lifted. I imagine one of us drove around the next afternoon, offloading them from the pickup truck with the help of our victims while regaling them with the details of our well-executed prank and inquiring after how they had slept. I do know that one of our friends—one who had come home tired late Sunday evening to find only his box springs and bed frame—didn’t find it as funny as we did. I remember that some chagrin then tainted our pleasure, at least until our friend got over it and we could get back to bragging about our cleverness. Still, the Mennonite Mafia lived on in the lore of our youth group for years after we graduated, or at least we like to think it did.

All these years later, I’m not sure what legacy the producers of Amish reality TV and writers of Amish fiction are leaving behind. Having entered the house of someone else’s faith tradition with cameras and microphones and notepads in hand, they are making tracks as they stomp up the stairs in search of storylines and curiosities. Borrowing the intimate items of a private people and laying them out for display or purchase may feel innocent enough. But it is likely that not everyone is amused.

Valerie Weaver-Zercher is author of Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels (John Hopkins).

Image: Young Amish men with buggies, Michael G McKinne / Shutterstock.com

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