Posted by: Kristen Hicks | May 6, 2010

The Tourists in Treme

In the second episode of Treme, we encounter a group of young visitors to New Orleans, there with a church group to do some rebuilding after the storm. The responses of the local New Orleanians to these visitors are varied and serve to show us a lot about the character of the people we’re coming to know as the show progresses.

In a memorable scene in the episode, the tourists encounter a couple of street musicians and enthusiastically compliment their playing. One of the musicians responds by deriding the group: when they express sympathy for the 9th ward, he accuses them of never having heard of it before Katrina; when they express interest in hearing another song, he suggests “When the Saints Go Marching In” and then, in a total lack of self-consciousness, judges them for the cliche nature of his own selection.

You can guess quite a bit of my feelings on this scene from the description above. I found the musician in this scene, Sonny, to be a fully obnoxious character. I was surprised when I then read or heard commentary about the show in several places suggesting that other viewers thought Simon and Co. identified or expected us to identify with Sonny in this scene, rather than the tourists.

Other than mispronouncing the city’s name as New Orl-eens (which I’ve been told on good authority is a huge offense in the ears of locals), nothing these tourists do or say is disrespectful. As far as I can see, they are genuinely impressed with the music they hear, they are good intentioned in their being there and they are clearly making an effort to both learn about the city on their visit and help in whatever way they can find to.

Sonny, on the other hand, strikes me as considering himself immediately superior to the people in front of him on account of where he lives and just seems to exude an unearned sense of entitlement. Even his fellow musician and girlfriend, Annie, feels inclined to try to make up for his hostility with extra sweetness.

I see these characters as a means of testing our assumptions. There’s a very clear stereotype within our culture of the “obnoxious tourist”, the person who comes into your town and is ignorant or messy or disrespectful. There’s a tension encouraged between people who feel they belong to a place and those who visit and from therein comes the kind of hostility Sonny expresses to the kids from Wisconsin who have done him the great disservice of paying a visit to his city.

I admit that I’ve had moments of feeding in to this kind of hostility–I complain about the masses that descend on Austin for SXSW taking all the parking downtown and leaving trash in their wake, but I also love that I live in the kind of place that puts on a fantastic enough music festival every year to attract the masses. I feel a pride in the city I live in that makes me excited to share it with people who haven’t yet experienced it (as long as they don’t take all the parking on my street).

As someone who desires to spend much of my life as a traveler, visiting and learning about new places, I take issue with the kind of perspective that suggests anyone not currently living in a place doesn’t deserve to be there. I don’t believe that this is a perspective the show is condoning. In every other scene in which we see these characters interacting with locals, they are welcomed and shown a good time. In some of the more entertaining scenes of this episode, they have wonderful time experiencing the “real” New Orleans at the hands of born and bred New Orleanians happy to show them the ropes. It’s also notable that Sonny is later revealed to be from Amsterdam, which suggests that perhaps we aren’t to consider him a representative of New Orleans at all.

This brings us to the third episode of the series, which ends with a memorable and powerful scene that tackles the same issue from a very different angle. As Albert Lambreaux and his fellow Mardi Gras Indians meet to mourn the death of one of their own in traditional fashion, a tour bus makes its way through their neighborhood, stopping long enough in front of their ceremony to snap some pictures and get enough of a dirty look and scolding from those present to realize it should continue on its way.

There are considerable differences between the tourists we see in episodes 2 and 3. Most notably, the tourists on the tour bus aren’t characters at all; we don’t know anything about who they are or their intentions. This, combined with the context of the scene makes them pretty much impossible to relate to. On the one hand, it’s strange for Simon and Co. to set up a scene in which a certain group of people are so clearly the antagonist, but without giving us a sense of where these people are coming from. On the other hand, watching comfortably from behind their tinted windows, these people are making no effort whatsoever to interact with the people and culture they observe, thus setting themselves up as intentional outsiders and putting them in a distinctly different category than the tourists who go out of their way to meet locals and learn about the city.

This distinction seems to make it clear that the show recognizes the tension between locals and outsiders without coming down entirely on one side or the other–but rather acknowledging that there are clear nuances. Sometimes outsiders do behave in a way that demonstrates a clear disrespect for the people whose day to day lives are playing out in the place they see merely as a vacation destination, and other times they demonstrate a sincere interest in learning more about the culture and lives of these people. On the other hand, locals can be possessive and unwelcoming, or they can be eager to show visitors all that makes them proud about their hometown…and then of course there are all the in betweens.

In any case, I think viewers who are quick to assume the show is passing judgment on any outsiders coming into New Orleans in the months after the storm are grossly oversimplifying the show.

For further reading, you can see what David Simon himself has to say on the subject here:

You can read an analysis of the show that leans towards finding the show hostile towards outsiders:,40461/

To finish things on a different note, here is a gorgeous and poignant film short (from the feature length Paris Je T’aime) that follows a character that at a glance might be mistaken for one of the less sympathetic stereotypes of tourists, but once we’re privy to things from her perspective, it’s impossible not to see her desires and experience in Paris as beautiful and well deserved:

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