overexposure

It's Hip to be Plain

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.

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