Recently I had the dubious privilege of watching the first full season of NatGeo’s Doomsday Preppers. The premise of the show is fairly straightforward: some people think the world (sometimes qualified with the phrase “as we know it”) is coming to an end, and are preparing for what they believe is the inevitable breakdown of society. Committed preppers stockpile food, water, medicine, and more often than not, obscene amounts of ammunition. Extreme Preppers either live off the gird or are anticipating that transition, and many have devised ingenious energy and fuel alternatives.
What isn’t straightforward is precisely what the show’s producers are hoping to accomplish. At a certain level, Doomsday Preppers falls comfortably in line with the “look, disadvantaged white people!” brand of reality exploitainment popularized by enfreakment powerhouse TLC. In many cases, the preppers in question would be right at home on an episode of Hoarders or Extreme Couponing or My Strange Addiction. Essentially, Preppers are presented as walking talking punchlines; they are why America can’t have nice things.
Phil Burns of the American Preppers Network decries this characterization, arguing that the show deliberately skews the Prepper philosophy for higher ratings. Rather than emphasizing the push for self-sufficiency, community organization and sustainability, which our own Shane Billings will be addressing in a later post, NatGeo plays up the most sensationalist angle—namely, that Preppers are lunatic gun nuts who are grasping for any excuse to open fire. As Burns explains:
If I remove myself mentally from being a Prepper and consider it, I could very easily draw the same conclusion. In fact, from that perspective, I wouldn’t want to be associated with several of the presentations I see on the show. The bottom line is, Doomsday Preppers isn’t necessarily doing us a lot of favors in their presentation of us to the mainstream.
I agree that the producers are playing a ratings game, and agree that the show frames the majority of Preppers as the worst kinds of wingnut. But unlike Burns, I was taken aback not by the politics attributed to the featured Preppers, but to the politics not attributed. In fact, and in a highly surprising move, the producers have edited out or otherwise silenced all overt political messages. For example, the President is never mentioned by name, and neither are his policies—odd, considering the fact that the Preppers’ basic argument is that the country is on the brink of “economic collapse,” presumably as a result of….you know, something, though they never explain exactly what.
Also omitted are the obvious racial (and racist) undertones of the(se) Preppers’ fears, namely the encroachment of “urban violence” into otherwise calm suburban communities. In one scene from Episode 6, the Mester family takes their two German Shephards, Storm and Thunder, to a dog training facility; they watch gleefully as one of the trained dogs attacks a black man on command. The man is in full protective padding, but the visual is striking, and underscores the show’s simmering racist and classist undertones.
Despite these moments of apparent transparency (as soon as the Mesters arrived at the dog kennel, my brother snorted. “I bet they’ll practice on a black person,” he said, which to our incredulity was precisely what happened), the show never fully declares itself. It certainly stands in judgment of its subjects, but seems to aim for the highest, as opposed to the lowest, hanging fruit. Preppers are thus indicted generally, not specifically. The impulse to prepare, which includes the push towards sustainable living, is the crazy thing, while the specific reasons for such preparations, including dangerous political ideologies expressed via dog whistle, apparently aren’t worth a mention. But who cares about that, because these freaks are growing their own food! I mean, how insane is that, there’s like three supermarkets for every American.