Reality TV and how it misguides us

Krystina Slack

This year, Augustana College has been hosting a series of Tea Talks that have been about a variety of different topics. The Tea Talk held on March 30 was the first to talk about the impact of reality TV. 

Dr. Brian Leech’s talk, titled “White Men in Cold Places: the Portrayal of Mining, Masculinity and Race in American Reality TV,” explained how reality TV shows about mining continue traditional colonial ideas of mining that first started in the 19th century and how modern-day, small-time mining can have a large impact on our environment.

The talk began by introducing the premise and ideas surrounding shows like “Ice Cold Gold,” “Alaska Gold Diggers” and “Gold Rush: Parker’s Trail.” All of these shows are about men who go off into the deserted wilderness alone and try to find gold. All of these shows also go along with the idea that only hard-working, white men can survive the harsh wilderness.

When people think about the gold rush of the 19th century, many people picture a white man setting out on his own and leaving his family behind in search of gold. This mindset is misleading because, in reality, mining was not really like this. 

Men would leave their families but almost never find any gold, and often had help. The idea that only a tough white man can mine is continued in many mining shows today, with white men as the main “character” looking for wealth.

These shows do not show you that the “desolate” places these people mine in are not so desolate. Many of the places have large or semi-large cities within a few miles, so these men do not have to hike or walk to their destination. They could drive or take a train. The TV show usually exaggerates the conditions that the men live and work through to make them seem tougher and their jobs that much harder. This also makes it seem that only the strong-willed can do what they do.

There are also many harmful environmental effects that small-time mining has on our environment today. Many small-time mining operations like those that are shown on TV cause deforestation. They create huge craters and holes. Once the mining operations are finished, they usually do not refill the holes because they want to move on to the next place as fast as they can and save money. 

The largest impact these shows can cause is poisoning the surrounding water with mercury. Mercury has been used by miners as a cheap way to bind the gold particles together to create a small piece of gold. This technique has been used for centuries and continues to be used today. If miners are not careful, they can release the mercury into the surrounding area, poisoning water supplies and killing the surrounding plants and animals.

Leech has more recently started working on a book on mining in reality TV, a project started as a result of travel restrictions during the pandemic.

“As a historian, most of my research is done in archives looking at people’s old mail and papers. There was no way to travel to any of those places,” Leech said. “I was trying to come up with a way to do a research project that would be both meaningful but also fun and doable from my house.”

Many people watch reality TV, but the elements displayed are not a part of reality. If we believed everything these shows tell us, then we would believe that only “successful white men” are capable of labor like mining. If you want to learn more about mining or any other of the topics discussed throughout the Tea Talk lectures, you can visit the Thomas Tredway library or go to the Augustana website to learn more.