Representing Frontier Life in the Living History Format "Frontier House"

Term Paper 2015 9 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Main Part
2.1 The Authenticity of Frontier House
2.2 Romanticizing of Frontier Life in Frontier House

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“We've come a long way.” (ep. 2, 9:34)

This quote by one of the participants of Frontier House, Adrienne Clune, is an accurate observation. We have indeed come a long way not only in technology, but also in general as human beings. We have changed our habits, our opinions, and our lifestyles. But the myths and nostalgia of past times have remained.

The series Frontier House tries to recreate the conditions of nineteenth century pioneer life by sending three families from the twenty-first century to homestead in Montana and watches them adapt to their nineteenth century environment as they struggle to prepare for winter. The purpose of this is to give the viewers an insight into the reality of pioneer lives and make them understand the hardships the pioneers had to endure. The series claims to do that without romanticizing the topics of westward movement and frontier life as it is often done in literature and film.

The question is in how far such an experiment is authentic and can be educational for both the audience and the participants and whether the Format Living History is really serving its purpose in Frontier House. This leads to my thesis that although the series Frontier House claims to show the harsh reality of nineteenth century frontier life, it still romanticizes the era to a certain extent and in a way influences the viewer to believe in the mythology that is commonly connected to the time.

In the first chapter of my analysis I will first give some background information on the mythology of the west and then go on to discuss the authenticity and accuracy of how frontier life is represented in Frontier House. In order to present my findings on the authenticity of the series, I will give certain examples from different episodes. In the second part of the analysis I will discuss my results to indicate how and what the series romanticizes about frontier life. Furthermore, all of this will be connected to the question of how educational the series really is and how it fails to keep the focus on its real purpose.

2. Main Part

2.1 The authenticity of Frontier House

The reality of frontier life and its depiction in the TV-series Frontier House is claimed to be authentic, but is this really always accurate and in how far can such a program then be educational ? To answer this question one first has to look at the meaning of the frontier for Americans and the mythology surrounding this topic. To understand these myths and legends one has to know what they actually are. The authors of “From Maps to Myth: The Census, Turner, and the Idea of the Frontier” define “an American myth” as: a collective belief that may never have been literally true but will always be psychically gripping-in its transition stage. Myths offer metaphorical guides to a society’s values, showing how a culture answers its key questions. They depict an imagined past while structuring an equally imagined present and future. (92)

This quote already shows the importance of the mythology of the frontier for the American people and that the commonly known idea of the self-reliant, inventive, inquisitive, free pioneer with his search for adventure and opportunity is still widely rooted in peoples' minds. These myths help creating a romantic picture of the past that does not necessarily have to be entirely based on the truth.

Frontier House might give us information about the era and tries to make the audience understand the hardships of the nineteenth century pioneers, but it is obvious that this is not the sole emphasis of the series. Already in the first episode we can see that at times the historical account makes way for a more Reality TV-driven production.

The participants are given camcorders to record their daily personal experiences and thoughts to let the viewer get an even broader insight into the lives of the homesteaders.

As Rymsza-Pawlowska already points out, “Reality television,[...], is not so much an account of the event, but of the experience” (5). This means that the focus lies more on showing the participants' experiences and feelings during a particular situation, rather than on the action and situation itself.

That the authenticity of the historical account is not always as significant as promised is also evident in the fact that although the participants are told to live as closely to how people lived back then, some of them do not always take the project as seriously as they are supposed to. The Clunes for example trade with a 21st century family, they steal a box spring mattress and the girls smuggle in make-up. Furthermore, especially Karen Glenn seems to have a problem with the women's role of the time, the hard monotonous work in the household, and especially the fact that women were expected to be submissive to their husband, is something she does not stand for. Karen at some points throughout the series exchanges her period dress with her husband's pants, signs the contract to get the land and trades at the local store, although, as it is even said in the series, that was usually not done by married women at that time. Nevertheless, Rymsza-Pawlowska notes that the participants are never stopped from not staying within the “boundaries” of 19th century pioneers life, which again underlines that the “experience of the subjects dominates the Frontier House narrative” (6).

The fact that there is a strong tension and a sense of competition between the families does not make the project seem more authentic as well. In the era of homesteading people had to help each other and not fight against and accuse one another of “cheating”, back then it was really about surviving, people knew that they might never see their loved ones at home again and a good-working social community was essential for physical as well as psychological survival on the frontier. On the other hand nowadays people are not as isolated from each other anymore, but it still is more anonymous and impersonal, everyone wants to be better than the other and have more than the other family. Mark Glenn realizes that by saying:

You don't have companions anymore, you have competitors. You don't have friends anymore, you have opportunities[...]We brought that filth and that negative aspect of the 21st century right back to 1883. ( ep. 6, 5:31-5:43)

The Clunes' constant complaining about the conditions; they did not have enough food and expected everything to be different, does not improve the authenticity of the series. Gordon also says that his wife had hoped to do other things like sewing an outfit, but this was something pioneer women had to do all the time, sewing was one of their major tasks in the household (Jones, 193).

The problem of the series is that these are twenty-first century families with their modern habits, lifestyles, opinions, and problems in a nineteenth century setting. The different backgrounds they came from had to create different problems on the “frontier”, but not in the way they would have done for the settlers back then, because they would have already been more or less used to these conditions. As I've already mentioned above, the question is in how far such a program with such participants can be educational and authentic. In the last episode, we get to see the families back in their normal, modern lives. We learn for example that the Clunes are now living in a giant mansion built while they were away, which gives reason to wonder in how far their lifestyles have changed and whether they live any different from the way they have done before the project.

To sum up one can say that although the series tries very hard to be educational and serve its purpose of informing the audience of the harsh conditions at the time, it puts too much emphasis on the individual characters' stories, experiences, and problems (e.g. the Glenns' marriage or Nate's wedding), some of which have nothing to do with the nineteenth century and pioneer life, and shows less of the real scope of homesteaders hardships (e.g. everyday chores). This again makes it clear that the series, while claiming to try to educate people and stay authentic to the era, focuses too much on the Reality TV part of television.

2.2 Romanticizing of frontier life in Frontier House

As was already mentioned, the American West was and still is connected to a mythology that is strongly believed in by most Americans. The TV series Frontier House addresses these myths and intends to clarify the romantic image many Americans still have of the West. I have already pointed out the program's attempt to educate people about the reality of the homesteading experience and how to a certain extent it fails to do so.

Besides drifting off into Reality TV and therefore not always giving an entirely objective and truly historical account of the era of the frontier, the program also does not stick with its promise of not romanticizing and further enforcing the mythologies of the West.

First of all the families' motivations to apply for the program are mostly based on their romantic visions of the time. As Edwards mentions in his article: “The applicants and eventual cast members also cite their idealistic notions of the frontier as motivation for participating in this series” (2). All state the aspect of living a simple life with the members of the family getting closer together as a reason for their attraction to the project.

Therefore it can be said that the families started the program with the common frontier mythology of simplicity, freedom, individualism and opportunity in their minds. After the first episode though, it already becomes clear that at least some of the participants had no idea of what they had to expect and how different and difficult it would actually be: “I feel almost like I've been sentenced to five months hard labor” (Adrienne, ep.2 , 0:12).

On the surface the series therefore really gives us an insight into the harsh reality of homesteading and the often false myths many Americans still believe in, but on the other hand it also sometimes focuses too much on the good parts of this kind of life. It is repeatedly shown how the participants admire the vastness of the land, the breathtaking atmosphere it creates, and how this makes them realize how dependent on and close they are to nature (e.g ep. 2, 2:40- 3:15).

While trying to make the viewers understand the harshness on the frontier and also sometimes the cruelty of having to butcher an animal that you have taken care of for so long, the natural and healthier lifestyle as well as the higher appreciation for your food is mentioned, when they are shown how to kill a chicken. It is talked about how pioneers knew where their food came from, because they raised or grew it themselves and they were not as distanced from their source of food as we are today, meaning that they really appreciated what they ate and were not so wasteful (ep. 1, 24:49- 26:49).

What makes it the clearest that this series reinforces instead of actively debunks the myths, are the last scenes in which the participants reflect on their time on the frontier and especially Mark and the children state how boring, isolated, but also extreme the twenty-first century is. There's too much to do, so you do not know what to choose, nothing seems special enough anymore and compared to the pioneers' lives Mark Glenn says: “It's an unnatural life that the twenty-first century offers” (ep.6, 52:30).

Another important scene is when Adrienne sews the American flag after hearing about the 9/11 attacks. She says:

There's a spirit and a vitality and an energy that I've always loved and admired and I love being part of that and I think a lot of it even comes from the homesteading experience, we've experienced that same spirit and enthusiasm and that go-and- get-it-now kind of attitude. (ep. 6 21:53- 22:14)

This confirms again how the series openly romanticizes the mythology of the frontier with its emphasis on close family ties and the spirit of freedom and adventurousness. Ultimately, as Edwards says in his text, the series tries to “recapture […] the shared values or ideologies of a particular group or society, a collective cultural unconscious” of that time, which is still prevalent today (7).

The series therefore does not only reinforce the ideologies, but it also shows the audience what they want to see. As Rose and Wood say about Reality TV:” Although authenticity is desired and earnestly promoted, consumers of reality television revel in the ironic mixture of the factitious and the spontaneous” (286). This basically means that the spontaneous reactions and the subjective experience of reality is often more important than the actual reality. So, by mostly only covering the common perceptions of the era, e.g by showing lengthy scenes of the fun games at the fair and the farming surrounded by beautiful scenery, to try and debunk the myths connected to them, the series leaves out an important portion of the truth and just ends up confirming this kind of romanticized picture of the past.



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University of Frankfurt (Main)
Documentary Living History Frontier House PBS



Title: Representing Frontier Life in the Living History Format "Frontier House"