Professor Rawlins: Homelands in Television’s Last Frontier

Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Film Studies Justin Rawlins explores the impact of the Alaska television boom. Rawlins is also the faculty advisor for TU’s student-run media production lab, TUTV and a Oklahoma Center for the Humanities fellow. 

Alaska is in the midst of a 21st-century boom. It’s not the gold or copper rushes that have lured thousands of fortune seekers north over the last 100 years. Instead, it’s the state’s outsized place in US media culture that over the last decade or so has heightened Alaska’s status in the American popular consciousness. Put simply, Alaska is everywhere. Journalist Craig Medred said it best:

“The 49th state is quickly approaching a point where it has more reality shows than salmon—and there are a lot of salmon up here.”

 

This trend has only increased since Medred penned these words in 2014. There are currently dozens of Alaska-based shows available to TV audiences.

There are several actors responsible for bringing about the Alaska media phenomenon. The state’s Film Production Tax Credit Program offered incentives from its inception in 2009 to its premature end in 2016. Former governor Sarah Palin’s rapid ascent to the national political stage in 2008 also brought the state newfound attention (although Palin’s reality television series was among the shortest lived). These programs may have also found more interested producers and audiences in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis where, as Diane Negra suggests, the pluck and determination of white male workers represented in programs like Gold Rush offered redemption for the perceived disposability of their post-2008 labor and shored up gender instabilities by emphasizing their return to breadwinner status.

My research explores just what “Alaska” emerges in this media boom to those who call the state home and those who do not. Using “home” and “homeland” as a framework for making sense of this media construction, I argue, generates valuable questions and observations that shed light on the implications of this phenomenon for residents and outsiders.

There are many other media productions that are part of the recent boom in “Alaska” media yet diverge from more omnipresent reality TV fare. Here are a few examples: Indie Alaska / The Ketchikan Story Project / Kivalina / Attla / Kisima Ingitchuna

 

For spectators who visit Alaska as a televised destination, what values do resource extraction-oriented programs such as Deadliest Catch and Gold Rush project onto Alaska? What meanings do they evoke for those who call the state home? How do non-Alaskan audiences make sense of programs such as The Last Alaskans and Life Below Zero, which intentionally locate home in remote areas far from conventional communities? How do media programs produced within Alaska by Alaskans overlap with and deviate from these mainstream productions? What role does the state’s colonial history and its ongoing repercussions play in representations of Alaska as homeland, as extraction site, and as tourist destination? Given the centrality of the land and its resources to representations of Alaska, how are home and homeland mediated in relation to the Arctic’s accelerated experience of climate change? How do images such as those of Alaska Native coastal and riverside communities falling off eroding coastlines jibe with the mythologies perpetuated by narratives of triumphant gold miners?

“Home” and “homeland” are generative in part because they prompt these questions and observations, and because they invite audiences to weigh the impacts of media images and narratives regarding people and places they do not know versus those they do. These terms can therefore precipitate pauses in escapist fantasies often mapped onto mainstream “Alaska” television, and can provoke reflection on how outsiders make sense of its residents and spaces. They can spur long overdue considerations of the material impacts of the Alaska television boom—and the longer-term consequences of the region’s historical role as a colonial “rush” destination—for Alaska and those who call it home.