wed 19/06/2024

Amish: World's Squarest Teenagers, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

Amish: World's Squarest Teenagers, Channel 4

Amish: World's Squarest Teenagers, Channel 4

Members of the rural sect are exposed to the joys of South London

No sex please (or violence): we're Amish

Where can or will television’s thirst for tabloid anthropology fetch up? In previous tribal exchanges, wives have been swapped, geeks have gone to babe school, thugs to boot camp, WAGs to townships, Papua New Guineans to the big smoke. Posh girls have lately been parachuted into Peckham.

Is there no social grouping so polarised that some bright spark at BBC Three or Channel 4 won’t want to thrust them into an alien environment for our voyeuristic pleasure? Porn stars to hang with the Taliban? It could yet happen. Lib Dems to lie down with Tories? Oh, they already did that.

In the mean time, here come five young people from an Amish community in the Midwest, three slightly dorky boys and two more articulate girls. Where are they heading? In our direction, to sample our non-Amish ways. First stop, sarf London. Of our world they know nothing, although one of them was fairly sure that drugs are legal. They haven’t heard, for example, of JFK, neither man nor airport reachable only by taxi, never having watched television or flown or actually done much at all but till the land and read the bible. Ah, but which bible? One of the boys packed two, plus a longbow and a quiverful of arrows. We never did find out what happened at customs.

By their large barns shall ye know them, plus their discontinuation of class at 14

We can laugh. As subtitles go, World’s Squarest Teenagers is pointing-in-the-playground sneering. Maybe we shouldn’t so much. This may have been billed as a film about a religious sect which chooses to keep all 10 toes in the 18th century. By their long beards and their large barns shall ye know them, plus their plain style of dress and discontinuation of class at 14. They set more store by rules than schools. Occasional quotations from the more wrathful sections of the Old Testament were read to camera, just to remind you of the basic tenets of Amish isolationism.

The barn-raising scene in Witness (1985)

But no, this series is really about us. We can gawp at the Amish all we like, but they’ve got a lot to gawp at too. They arrived in South London – hot on the heels of those posh birds who went to Peckham. Pretty soon they were being inducted by the hosts – a nice bunch of mostly black kids - in the ways of the street: the stabbings, the shootings, the rapes. You don’t need to have disavowed electricity to see such modern conveniences as drug crime and alcoholism as undesirable.

None of the hosts could lay a bat on the ball. The Amish thwacked it clean out the park

Whenever anyone travels to a distant culture, the things they notice are the discrepancies from their own. In this case it was also the moral purview of a previous century taking the measure of the way we live now. Of course our crime figures weren't all that discomfited them. The girls in particular were deeply upset by the sex before marriage, single-parent families and commodification of flesh in sleazy Soho. Also the small houses and the materialism. They were further puzzled by such abominations as nail extensions, robotic group dancing and teenagers sleeping in till the afternoon. "What do you make of that?" they kept on being asked. Creepy was the answer more than once. One of the boys couldn’t get with the whole urban dislocation thing. “They play video games”, he observed slowly, “and I’m out in the barn playin’ with horses.”

The differences in physicality were also telling. They had a getting-to-know-you game of rounders, not often seen as a favourite pastime of South London homeys. Needless to say none of the hosts could lay a bat on the ball. The Amish thwacked it clean out the park. But then the hosts could do back somersaults. The guests struggled with cartwheels. None of these activities is strictly necessary to survival in city or country, but the differences told their own story: one is about teamwork, the other individual display.

For the Amish the real eye-opener was a visit to a mosque, where people as obedient as themselves to holy writ regularly muster. They noticed the absence of women as men prayed, and flinched when the imam told them that Muslims don't believe Jesus died on the cross. But all in all they mucked in, and even made friends. “Love deir singin’,” said one of their teenage hosts. “It did remind me of being in one of dem films.”

Amish satire: 'Weird' Al Jankovic's take on Amish paradise

You don’t need to have disavowed electricity to see such modern conveniences as drug crime and alcoholism as undesirable

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I'm pretty sure to most people the series comes across the absolute opposite of what the makerers intented. I suppose it started out as a way of making fun of a lifestyle that British teenagers can barely comprehend. What actually happens of course is that Amish teenagers come across as mature, responsible, adults with open minds while the Britsih teenagers come across as the childish, pathetic almost comic, products of dysfunctional families. We laugh at the Brits - not the Amish. Incidentally, there are Amish living in the UK and families with a similar lifestyle in the UK Brethrn community

In paragraph three you refer to the reading out to camera of "the more wrathful sections of the Old Testament." Actually, most of the quotations were from the New Testament and two from 2 Peter alone. When one of the girls read about the way of the flesh she was speaking from Galations (also in the New Testament, and it is likely that she continued to read about the 'fruit of the spirit' but the editors chose to edit it out because it didn't fit their own view on the bible). Very few of the passages suggested much that was wrathful, and this simplistic throw-away comment on the Old testament was simply prejudiced. On another point, the Amish are certainly not living in the 18th Century - for two reasons. The first is that their community life stems back to the 16th Century although it is true that many of those in the US are the descendants of 18th Century immigrants. Secondly, and more importantly, the Amish have in each generation found innovative ways of practicing their 'separation' principles in the context of a changing world. They are not stuck in a previous age, but are a particular community in this world operating under scripture and tradition. This is demonstrated fairly clearly by the existence of the programme itself. Most of these young people are members of the New Order Amish, which allow plane travel and the use of video cameras. Most Amish use some form of electricity and telephones are becoming more common. A little research will also show that the growth of the Amish population has encouraged a growing tourist trade among the Amish and an increase in the number of Amish people working in small businesses or even 'English' owned factories and a decrease in the number involved in farm work. They have little in common with the average 18th Century British person and the foundation of their commentary on our society is rooted in a complex and diverse (often paradoxical) culture and in their desire to serve God and display His kingdom in all things.

Joe I would agree with you. Most Amish have nothing in common with your typical American or Brit from the 18th or 16th century. However, there are still many true traditional Amish (not the one in your British documentary) who live and dress as if they were in the 18th century. The Amish in the BBC4 documentary don't even seem to be Amish. Their clothing, their style, the very fact they appear on a show and from their appearance tells me their not Old order (and may not even be Amish), their style seems to be that of a Mennonite. Most Amish that I've seen wear dark colors (such as brown, black, or royal blue). The men and woman look scrubby and typically won't even talk to you unless doing buisness with you. Even among the liberal Amish, they wouldn't appear on TV. Electricity use among the Amish varies from gas, batteries, and generators among the least Conservative Amish to no power among the most Conservative sects. The most conservative sects usually live in the most rural eras, and are almost always farmers. There are some Amish who would seem to be straight out of the 18th century. Most Amish, though, have adopted many conveniences. For the majority of Amish their way of life is more similar to that of an average American family from the late 1800s to early 1900s.

This program has in fact shown us what we are severely lacking, a faith, a community, truth, love and a sense of belonging. The young Amish people in the program have an air of serenity peace and purity about them even amongst the horrors of lost western community. The Amish have preserved something very precious. They truly know God!

Disappointing attitudes from 'educated' young ladies. Episode 3, Veronica- 'I think that the man's the boss...I'm pretty anti-feminism'. I consider the UK progressive when it comes to gender equality-which is important. In Katmandu the Nepalease Government is selling widows to men. In Iran, women who are victims of incest and rape are sentenced to death. The Amish attitudes to gender reflect a medieval mentality- Episode 3, Becky- 'The women submit to the men'. This subordinate view of women is clearly dangerous and if more people changed this ideology there would be a lot less inhumanity in the world. For example, would one seventh of Chinese baby girls go missing each year if they were considered of equal worth and ability to boys? In the UK, women have the right to an education and an opportunity to work. Women are enpowered with the belief that they can achieve the same as any other person. Consequently, this progression in attitude in the UK contributes to an overall humanity that is willing to provide help and aid in societies that need it. While the Amish are not necessarily damaging the world, what are they doing to help it?

Sam, I agree with you. I find it so sad that there are women who live here who would give up not only their freedoms but those of other women so easily.

I think these communities basically lead an excellent life. I am a Buddhist and believe that leading the lives these people lead produces excellent kharma. I was disappointed though that these communities believe that "the wife should submit to the husband" and that they believe it states this in the Bible. They need to go a step further. The Bible is not meant to be taken literally, at face value. When you really understand the Bible you realise it is all meant to be interpreted spiritually. The person who has best understood this is a writer called Joel S Goldsmith. He has written several books, one of the best known being "Spiritual Interpretation of Scripture". It is very unlikely that "husband" and "wife" in the Bible are meant in the earthly sense. Submission is meant to be to a much greater, universal consciousness

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