Television
3:01 pm
Sun August 24, 2014

A Growing Backlash Against 'Amish Exploitation' In Pennsylvania

Originally published on Tue August 26, 2014 10:34 am

It's no secret many "reality" TV shows bear little resemblance to actual reality. Discovery Channel's hit show Amish Mafia is a vivid example. The show portrays Amish youth in rebellion, racing buggies and carrying guns. Amish characters appear on screen and describe for the camera how the "mafia" operates outside of Amish law.

In reality, the Amish don't like to be photographed, and rarely speak out publicly.

Now, locals in Lancaster County, Pa., where the show is filmed, are fighting back against what they call "Amish exploitation."

'The Whole Thing Is A Fabrication'

Amish scholar Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College, says many of the people on the shows were raised in the community but never officially joined the religion. And, he says, the violent images are completely at odds with the group's pacifist beliefs.

"There's no Amish mafia. There never was," Kraybill says. "The whole thing is a fabrication in the minds of the producers."

Amish Mafia is set and filmed in Lancaster County, in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country, where the Amish community plays a big part in agriculture and tourism — two of the region's biggest industries. With the show's success, others followed, including Breaking Amish and Return to Amish.

Earlier this summer, when Lancaster filmmaker Mary Haverstick heard there would be another new show, called Amish Haunting, she got fed up and started a Facebook page called "Respect Amish" to oppose the shows.

"And I kind of put out there the opinion that I think so many Lancastrians are thinking," she says, "which is, 'What in the world are these shows doing?' "

Discovery Communications declined to comment for this story. The New York City-based production company Hot Snakes Media, which created the shows, did not respond to repeated requests to comment.

The "Respect Amish" Facebook page rapidly grew into a movement. Groups ranging from the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce to the local Council of Churches voiced support, and Haverstick started to hear from members of the Amish community.

"The Amish elder who told me that these shows make them look like garbage — when he said that to me with clear pain in his voice, I think it's a moment I'll never forget, and I knew right then we were on the right track," she says.

Within a few weeks, every single politician representing Lancaster at the local, state and national level voiced support for the Respect Amish movement — including Pennsylvania's two U.S. senators and governor.

Confused Viewers, Offended Locals

Dan Stoltzfus is an Amish man who has a baked goods stand at Lancaster city's farmers market. He's never watched the shows, since the Amish typically shun modern conveniences like electricity, but he's aware of them and finds the portrayals offensive.

"It's all fake. It's not the real thing," he says.

Yet some people are still confused. The Lancaster City Police Department had to come up with a standard form explaining the shows are fake, in response to repeated questions from viewers about why they haven't done more to combat the "mafia."

Kraybill, the Amish scholar, says he doesn't object to negative portrayals of the religion; after all, the Amish are humans who sometimes commit crimes.

"But in this particular case, Amish Mafia is a deliberate misrepresentation of their religion," Kraybill says. "And to me, that is a line in the sand that Amish Mafia has crossed and never apologized for. There's no shame involved in it for them."

He thinks the Amish are an easy target, because they believe in turning the other cheek.

Meanwhile, Haverstick, the filmmaker who created the initial Facebook group, wants to shut down the productions. She's asked for a meeting with the Discovery Channel, and says her group's next move will be to put pressure on the show's sponsors.

Copyright 2014 WITF-FM. To see more, visit http://www.witf.org/.

Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Arun Rath is away. I'm Tess Vigeland. Two of the biggest industries in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, are agriculture and tourism and neither would be so successful without the Amish. But there's a growing backlash against what locals call Amish exploitation fueled by cable reality TV shows like "Amish Mafia" and, yes, "Breaking Amish." Marie Cusick of member station WITF reports.

MARIE CUSICK, BYLINE: It's no secret many reality TV shows bear little resemblance to reality. That's certainly the case with the Discovery Channel's hit show "Amish Mafia."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMISH MAFIA")

JOHN SCHMUCKER: The Mafia operates outside of Amish law, and the elders basically just look the other way.

CUSICK: In reality, the Amish don't liked to be photographed and rarely speak out publicly. The show is filmed on location in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch County, Lancaster County. It shows Amish youth and rebellion, racing horse and buggies and carrying guns. A man named Lebanon Levi is depicted as the mafia’s ringleader.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMISH MAFIA")

SCHMUCKER: Half the people in town think Levi’s a saint.

LEBANON LEVI: I brought some money to help pay the hospital bill.

SCHMUCKER: I know that his generosity doesn’t come without a price.

CUSICK: With the show's success other spinoffs followed including "Breaking Amish" and "Return to Amish." Amish scholar Donald Kraybill of Elizabethtown College says many of the people on the shows were raised in the community but never officially joined the religion. And the violent images are completely at odds with the group’s pacifist beliefs.

DONALD KRAYBILL: There's no Amish mafia. There never was. The whole thing is a fabrication in the minds of the producers.

CUSICK: Discovery Communications declined to comment for this story and New York City-based production company, Hot Snakes Media, which created the shows, did not respond to repeated requests to comment. Earlier this summer, when Lancaster filmmaker Mary Haverstick heard there would be another new spinoff called "Amish Haunting," she got fed up and started a Facebook page to oppose the shows called "Respect Amish."

MARY HAVERSTICK: And I kind of put out there the opinion that I think so many Lancastrians are thinking, which is, What in the world are these shows doing?

CUSICK: The Facebook page rapidly grew into a movement. Groups ranging from The Lancaster Chamber of Commerce, to the tourism board, and local council of churches voiced support. And Haverstick started to hear from members of the Amish community.

HAVERSTICK: The Amish elder who told me that these shows make them look like garbage. When he said that to me with clear pain in his voice, I think it’s a moment I’ll never forget, and I knew right then we were on the right track

CUSICK: Within a few weeks, every single politician representing Lancaster at the local, state, and national level voiced support for the Respect Amish movement - including Pennsylvania’s two U-S senators and governor. Dan Stoltzfus is an Amish man who has a baked goods stand at Lancaster City’s farmer’s market. He’s never watched the shows, since the Amish typically shun modern conveniences like electricity, but he’s aware of them and finds the portrayals offensive.

KRAYBILL: It's all fake. It's not the real thing.

CUSICK: Yet, some people are still confused the Lancaster City Police Department had to come up with a standard form explaining the shows are fake in response to repeated questions from viewers about why they haven't done more to combat the mafia. Amish scholar Donald Kraybill says he doesn’t object to negative portrayals of the religion. After all, the Amish are humans who sometimes commit crimes.

KRAYBILL: But in this particulate case, "Amish Mafia" is a deliberate misrepresentation of their religion to me that is a line in the sand that Amish Mafia has crossed and never apologized for there is no shame involved in it for them.

CUSICK: He thinks the Amish are an easy get because they believe in turning the other cheek. Meanwhile, filmmaker Mary Haverstick wants to shut down the production. She's asked for a meeting with the Discovery Channel and says her group's next move will be to put pressure on the show's sponsors. For NPR News, I'm Marie Cusick in Lancaster. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.