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Through a Screen Darkly: America’s Image Abroad

Through a Screen Darkly: America’s Image Abroad

February 6, 2014 10:00 am by: Category: Cultural Diplomacy, Featured, Nation Branding, North America, Public Diplomacy, Read 1 Comment A+ / A-

American pop culture pervades the globe, but do these far-flung products actually represent U.S. ideals and values?

The following is an excerpt from Martha Bayles‘s new book, Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad (Yale University Press 2014)

I spoke with Rosiana Silalahi, then chief editor at SCTV, one of Indonesia’s leading networks. A savvy journalist, Silalahi spoke staunchly in favor of free speech as the cornerstone of Indonesian democracy. But she also expressed dismay at the “cutthroat competition” between TV channels that was leading some to copy the worst aspects of American television. “As a woman, I hear complaints from mothers about the kind of shows that are on when the family is having dinner. One channel showed a sinetron [serial drama] right after the 5:30 PM news, where a woman hanged herself, and they showed her in close-up, gagging to death.”

The program in question was not American. But Indonesian producers take their cues from the world’s most successful entertainment industry—and so do their counterparts in almost every other country. And very often, that means more sex and more violence. Remarking at the speed with which American popular culture was “getting into society,” Silalahi told me that just a few years earlier, no young Indonesian girl would have dreamed of dressing in revealing outfits similar to those worn by the American pop singer Britney Spears. As for violence, in 2013 Silalahi told me that a number of Indonesian boys had been injured, even killed, while imitating the American T.V. show Smackdown! (an in-your-face fight show from World Wrestling Entertainment).

It is tempting to say, Get over it! Sex and violence in the media are the price we pay for freedom, and, compared with living under a dictatorship, it’s worth it. This is the implicit message of many news reports about foreign protests against US entertainment. Typically these reports present only two sides: the freedom side and the extremist side.

If these are the sentiments of extremists who reject freedom, then there are a lot of extremists in America, Europe, and Japan, not to mention other democratic countries. According to a 2005 Pew Research Center survey, roughly 60 percent of Americans are “very concerned” about the values that popular culture is teaching their children. Similar worries are found elsewhere in the world. In 2007, Pew’s forty-seven-nation survey of global attitudes found roughly 30 percent of Europeans expressing negative views of “US movies, music and TV.” Fewer Japanese, Israelis, and South Africans expressed such views, but over 40 percent of South Koreans and Indonesians did. And in Turkey and India, the figure was 68 percent.

throughascreendarklyAlthough survey data is unreliable in nondemocratic countries, it is probably worth noting nevertheless that a 2007 report from the World Public Opinion organization showed 78 percent of Iranians holding an unfavorable view of “American culture.” And according to Pew, negative views of “US movies, music and TV” are held by majorities in such strategically important countries as Russia, Jordan, Egypt, and Pakistan. Not surprisingly, poll data from most Muslim-majority countries show high percentages believing that the US government is using American culture as a weapon against Islam. For example, a 2009 poll by World Public Opinion showed 80 percent of Egyptians agreeing that one of President Obama’s policy goals was “to impose American culture on Muslim society.”

Because these attitudes are not typically held by English-speaking elites, they tend to be overlooked. In the words of Yuli Ismartono, a senior editor at the popular Indonesian newsweekly Tempo, “Americans always miss the point. For most non-Westerners America means fast food, Starbucks, cowboys, and sexual freedom. The real American persona is not well understood. I try to tell people that our traditional values are the same, but TV and movies send a different message.”

It is also tempting to dismiss these attitudes as hypocritical, given the tremendous global success of the US entertainment industry. Between 1989 and 2010, foreign sales of U.S. films and TV shows increased fourfold, from $3.6 billion to $14.2 billion. Today, Hollywood’s foreign box office earns twice as much as its domestic, and the gap is widening. In terms of impact, we should also count the illegal distribution of US entertainment. This cannot be measured with any precision, but one influential estimate comes from a 2006 report commissioned by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which estimates that MPAA members lost $6.1 billion to piracy in 2005, much of it due to major pirating industries in other countries, notably China and Russia.

Donny Gahraladian, a professor of philosophy at Indonesia University, recalled for me that, under Suharto, America was officially denounced as “materialistic, individualistic, promiscuous, and dominated by gangsters.” So he found it ironic to see those same stereotypes subsequently reinforced by US entertainment. At the same time, Gahraladian noted that his students, who come from diverse backgrounds in Indonesia and Southeast Asia, embrace American popular culture as “the common coin of social interaction, something everyone can talk about in the café or mall.” Hearing this, I remembered a meeting in Berlin with the eminent German journalist Günter Hofmann, who commented with a wry smile that part of the glue holding the European Union together was the younger generation’s shared passion for American culture.

What should we make of these contradictory reactions? Is American popular culture a destructive force, a liberating one, or both? How do its products shape global perceptions of the nation’s ideals, policies, and way of life? There is no simple answer to these questions. But a useful first step might be to imagine popular culture as a fun-house mirror, giving an exaggerated view of America’s faults, from sexual immorality to gun violence, political corruption to financial malfeasance. Americans may relish the exaggeration or recoil from it, but either way we automatically adjust the picture in the light of our own experience. A similar adjustment is possible for others who have access to accurate information about the United States, whether from travel, study, or exposure to its larger cultural heritage. The problem is, most human beings have no such access. So they cannot adjust the picture, and while they often find it entertaining, they seldom admire it.

This conclusion is supported not just by global opinion polls but also by the more fine-grained data gathered by media and advertising companies. These data are not available to researchers, but their overall findings were summed up for me by advertising guru Keith Reinhard. What foreigners object to, Reinhard explained, is not just the “pervasiveness” of American popular culture but also its “coarsening.” As he noted, “Much of our entertainment is promoting values not in concert with other people’s values and morals.” Reinforcing this observation is a key finding of the Pew survey cited above. In forty-two of the forty-six nations surveyed, a majority of respondents agreed with the statement “It’s bad that American ideas and customs are spreading here.” Since only a tiny percentage of the world’s people ever visit the United States, the question arises: where did these respondents get their impressions of American ideas and customs? The Pew researchers do not explore the connection, but the answer is popular culture.

Professor Bayles discusses her research for this book in a lecture at the American Enterprise Institute on March 18, 2013:

photo credit: bzfilm.com

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About Martha Bayles

Martha Bayles is the author of 'Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music' and 'Ain’t It a Shame? Censorship and the Culture of Transgression.' Her reviews and essays have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe, Weekly Standard, and many other publications. She teaches humanities at Boston College.

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