Communication Currents

​​​​Nat Geo’s Locked Up Abroad and the Burdens of the Past

February 1, 2013
Critical and Cultural Studies

The National Geographic Society (NGS) has long been associated with prototypical American ideals such as adventure, pioneering, exploration, and entrepreneurship. In the late nineteenth century, NGS members were some of the most influential figures in late US imperialism. They called for the US government to fulfill the “White Man’s burden,” to protect primitive cultures, guide them in the arts of civilization, and make use of their land and natural resources. In the yellow glossy-coated pages of their monthly magazine, NGS members debated the relative advantages of colonialism while readers were dazzled with cutting-edge photography of “primitive” cultures and stories of adventure. 

National Geographic now reaches a worldwide audience of 40 million people and is omnipresent in U.S. schools, libraries, bookstores, and doctors’ offices. The NGS of today, however, is most popularly known for its cable-television network that reaches 75 million households. Like the magazine, NatGeoTV is at the forefront of providing American viewers “real life” encounters with non-Western cultures, exotic landscapes, and harrowing tales of foreign adventure. With a slate of globally-oriented programming that includes TabooBorder WarsExpedition Week,Great Expeditions, and Locked Up Abroad, NatGeo has exchanged extolling the virtues of imperialism for educating audiences about global multiculturalism.

While the mission and medium of National Geographic has changed, has the institution and its discourses transcended its colonialist past? I contend the recurring image of white adventurers grappling with mystery and barbarism in exotic lands suggests the ghosts of colonialism may still haunt our media landscape.

I examined the reformulation of colonialist thought on the National Geographic Channel and one of its most popular features, Locked Up Abroad. Through six seasons, NatGeo’s Locked Up Abroad has chronicled ‘‘real life’’ captivity narratives of Western travelers incarcerated in the prisons of the developing world. Part documentary and part reenactment, NatGeo’s website explains the program “tells first hand experiences of unsuspecting travelers who embarked on what they thought would be a vacation, only barely to make it home alive.” The dramatic narrative of the program is both captivating and familiar. While undoubtedly traumatic, historically the captivity narrative has been used to rationalize Western colonialism. For centuries, tales of white heroism and conquest in foreign lands sustained misguided beliefs in the superiority of Western culture, the backwardness of non-Western societies, and the imperative to ‘‘civilize’’ the world. Volumes of colonialist literature recounted similarly harrowing tales of Western pilgrims, adventurers, and frontiersman heroically escaping captivity at the hands of bloodthirsty “savages.”

At its time, the genre was well suited to the civilizing mission of Western colonialism; yet, why does the captivity narrative still retain widespread appeal? I contend the persistence of these captivity narratives illustrates the remnants of colonialist ideology in contemporary media culture. I argue the captivity narratives presented in Locked Up Abroad advance a neocolonial rhetoric: discursively reformed justifications for colonialism that suit present-day ideologies. A neocolonial critique of Locked Up Abroad excavates the latent traces of colonial ideology in contemporary popular culture: the association between dark skin and savagery, the backwardness of the non-Western world, and the imperative to civilize it.

This essay’s analysis of Locked Up Abroad illustrates three key representational elements that mask and update colonialist assumptions about the differences between the First and Third World. First, the use of documentary techniques such as first-person narration and reenactments invite audiences to sympathize with the program’s subjects as they vicariously experience the pain and torment of foreign barbarism. Visual recreations help audiences feel the thrill of foreign encounter and the despair of their capture and incarceration. The reenactments do not merely conform, but amplify, the subject’s narrative by introducing dramatic elements, stark scenery, and threatening characters. 

The program emphasizes exceptional cases of individuals who are ‘‘out of place’’ in prison and away from home. Although they committed serious crimes, their behaviors are portrayed as youthful indiscretions. They are depicted as regretful about their transgressions and claim to have made major personal transformations since being released. The audience is left with the traumatic experience of ‘‘innocent’’ victims brutalized by dark-skinned predators. The program’s visual emphasis on excessive violence also overshadows how structural causes might explain the behavior of their tormentors. Conditions such as overcrowding, underfunding, and poverty receive virtually no attention in the program. Therefore, the violence portrayed in the program appears sadistic and irrational.

Second, the ‘‘out-of-control’’ foreign prison suggests more tightly controlled, modernized prisons are the solution to abuse. Incarceration in the West is represented as a marker of law and order; whereas, the same practices in non-Western societies signify disorder and savagery. The major problem identified with foreign prisons is that they are archaic and outdated. Furthermore, because the protagonists justifiably deplored the conditions of their confinement, they express a belief that incarceration in Western prisons is more civilized. In many cases, the subjects express desires to receive a transfer to the U.S. or Britain. These earnest expressions help craft a narrative in which the experience of incarceration in Western nations is somehow more civilized.

Finally, none of the prisons in the program features rehabilitation, yet the subjects are portrayed as learning from their experience. A closer examination of these narratives reveals a discourse of American exceptionalism, sustained through a ‘‘boot-straps’’ narrative in which hard work empowers individuals to overcome significant challenges. The program’s subjects are punished for their deviant behavior but then rewarded for their hard efforts to rehabilitate. This model of punishment is well-suited to the mythological structure of the American Dream in which protagonists overcome significant obstacles through an ethic of hard work, initiative, and self-reliance. The emphasis on personal transformation diverts attention from the structural elements of global incarceration, including the unprecedented expansion of global incarceration that has accompanied the U.S.War on Drugs.

Despite its vigorous prosecution across the globe, the Westerners featured in Locked Up Abroad are eventually granted the privilege of exception. This privilege, however, is not afforded to their fellow inmates, who will inevitably pay the price for their crimes. Overall, the show features exceptional individuals who are removed from the class and racial demographic that constitutes the global prison system. 

In sum, the documentary techniques and narrative devices employed in Locked Up Abroadconstruct a revised and updated colonial gaze. The NGS no longer provides alibis for US military conquest; however, its interface with foreign cultures remains haunted by fears of foreign marauders, the presumptive superiority of Western democracy, and indelible qualities of Western individualism. My analysis demonstrates how contemporary television refurbishes tropes of Western colonialism as a familiar mode of dramatization.  Viewers should attend to how film and television recycle colonial narratives to address important social imperatives, paying particular attention to depictions of race and citizenship. Such critiques might bring to the surface the implied, repressed, and inferential colonial logics in media texts to trouble the ongoing association between dark-skin and savagery, the imperative to police non-Western nations, and adventurism in exotic lands.

About the author (s)

Casey Ryan Kelly

Butler University

Assistant Professor