This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
So, a few days back I caught an episode of BBC Three’s Fat Men Can’t Hunt, in which a number of medically overweight men and women are sent into sub-Saharan Africa to live with a nomadic tribe who still live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In theory, the volunteers are only allowed to eat what they can hunt, using the traditional techniques of the nomads. In practice, the on-site nutritionists had to relent at least twice in the episode I saw and distribute food to the volunteers so that their health wouldn’t be endangered by their utter lack of success. It’s rare that a television show actually makes me angry, especially a show as insipid as this reality TV abortion, but Fat Men Can’t Hunt succeeded.
Speaking of anger, the show’s participants aren’t exactly happy either. In the episode we watched, an Oxford graduate named Martin blew his top in spectacular style. Having failed, like most of the other participants, to catch and eat anything, Martin is hungry as hell and isn’t going to take it any more. He sets off on a ragingly incoherent rant, screaming at the top of his lungs about the life the nomads lead and accusing another one of the volunteers of being patronising towards them. Martin’s point, so far as I could decipher it from his ramblings, was that the nomads live a harsh existence, and are amongst the poorest people on Earth, and that it is patronising to regard them as being Noble Savages or somehow representing a better, purer, more wholesome way of life. Which is a fair point to make, but he does a terrible job of making it, and he completely disrupts the tribe’s otherwise quiet existence. The nomad leader threatened to pull out of the show a couple of times because of Martin’s insane behaviour; I couldn’t help but feel that he was being awfully patient with the British. If a gang of foreigners started to live in my house, expected me to take them to Tesco’s to show them where all the food is, and then started yelling at each other in a language which most of my housemates don’t understand but apparently involves how shitty my lifestyle is, I certainly wouldn’t let them stay, no matter how much the BBC bribed me.
Which leads me on to the part which got me angry. After Martin’s flood of wrath subsides, we see some of the tribespeople talking to the camera, telling us about how tired they are of having these chubby British freeloaders in their camp, and complaining that the British aren’t really joining in with tribal life, even though the programme is supposed to be about their nomadic culture.
This is the part which got me angry: I get the decided impression that all of the participants in this programme – the on-site nutritionists, the nomads, and the British volunteers – were told different things about what the programme was going to be about. In a display of 21st century multimedia digital virtual interactive colonialism, the tribespeople have been led to believe that the show is about them and their lives, and about how they teach the British volunteers their ways, but aside from their leader they are almost invisible – the directors never show us the details of their lives, or even give us enough detail to distinguish between them, because the focus is on the fat folk and their antics. The tribe becomes a nameless, anonymous mass of humanity living a lifestyle which is only hazily depicted.
The volunteers, meanwhile, have been led to believe that the programme is going to be all about their waistlines, but they’ve been placed in a totally artificial situation. I don’t see how forcing people to eat wild birds in the savannah is going to allow them to resist easily-available junk food back home. Indeed, when Martin quits the show, the last we see of him is an image of him stuffing him face in front of a table laden with food.
The nutritionists seem deeply uncomfortable about the whole situation, as if they are vaguely aware of what the real point of the show is – schadenfreude – but feel obliged to make the best of it and try to help. They get nowhere. The British contingent are terrible and unco-operative, especially the guys, who behave like spoiled manchildren, while the nomads just want to get on with their lives. I don’t think I saw a single segment where the nutritionists are discussing things with the tribespeople. Did they even speak to their hosts, or were they too embarrassed?
The hapless volunteers are going to learn nothing which is going to help them lose weight or balance their diet when they get home, precisely because sub-Saharan Africa and suburban Britain are two utterly different worlds. The nomads clearly think that the point of the exercise is to teach British people about their culture and lifestyle, and it patently isn’t. The nutritionists reminded me of nothing more than frustrated parents on Honey, We’re Killing the Kids, trying desperately to look after a bunch of spoiled children who can’t handle even the fake, artificial hardship the programme has inflicted on them.
I, meanwhile, am disgusted.