When “Social Experiment” Immigration TV Goes Wrong

In the past five years, a swarm of documentaries about migrants has flooded our television screens, invading our living rooms and taking over our evenings.

It’s time someone said something. We’re all thinking it.

Whether it’s a reality set-up mixing cultures, a spotlight on a town with a big first, second or later-generation immigrant community, or charting the arrival of recent refugees in an unfamiliar location, the entertainment value of British multiculturalism has not been lost on TV producers.

In recent times, they have often favoured the “social experiment” format to highlight – and sometimes attempt to bridge – cultural divides. The more gimmicky the format, the more complaints and debates these shows invite. But they divide opinion among media commentators, immigration experts and people from the backgrounds or areas explored. Where some see reductive and even incendiary pieces of entertainment, others see a rare human side to a story so often dehumanised in the mainstream media.

Stunty documentaries about British Muslims are the latest iteration of the genre. Remember Channel 4’s My Week as a Muslim last October – in which a white woman was dressed up and brownfaced to experience life as “a Muslim”? It received complaints from viewers before it was even aired, according to Ofcom.

“I for one am exhausted from other people telling the stories of Muslim women – whether it’s Muslim men or non-Muslim women,” wrote the journalist and producer Farah Jassat for the New Statesman at the time. “Muslim women don’t need intermediaries validating their experiences for them.”

What about Muslims Like Us earlier that year? Dubbed “Muslim Big Brother”, the BBC Two show last January saw ten very different British Muslims move into a house together, and was criticised for reducing Islam to a reality show, with some commentators, like the playwright Alia Bano, seeing it as a reductive tick-list of stereotypes. “Muslims Like Us didn’t quite feel like dynamite viewing – more like a roll call of the 10 usual stereotypes… You could almost see the producer ticking off each controversy from a list,” she wrote in the Guardian.

By Anoosh Chakeltan for NEW STATEMAN
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