Three Flags, a 1958 painting by Jasper Johns, which currently resides at the Whitney Museum of American Art
For a while now I've wanted to write a column about American pop culture, soft power and global influence. But the problem I usually run into is that "American culture" is not exactly easy to define, since to be an American can mean a great many things. We are a pluralistic society, and not a single monolithic culture. We are an amalgam of many, many different cultures that come together, whether in a melting pot
or salad bowl
, to form a diverse collective identity. It's a collective identity that is constantly changing, evolving and growing. And while that has caused misunderstandings, prejudices and resentments over the years, it's also the source of our strength and appeal.
Our pop culture has been sent out to the rest of the world for the better part of a century through films, television and music. Each one of those products carries with it, at the very least, the possibility to color perceptions about the United States and its people either positively or negatively. Hundreds of millions of people around this planet wear, listen, eat, drink, watch and dance to something produced or promoted by the American entertainment industry. Our culture is being assimilated into others, and it didn't take a drone strike or the barrel of a gun to do it.
When you see a Super Bowl commercial with people of all colors, creeds and religions singing "America the Beautiful" in different languages, that's shouldn't make you pissed at Coca-Cola. And when people crawl across borders so they can have a better life and their children might be "Americans," that should make people proud. It shouldn't make you want to stand in the middle of the freeway like dipshits blocking buses full of immigrant children.
So tonight I thought it would be interesting to just throw the question of "What is American Culture?" on the table, and let everyone give their own opinion as a sort of Rorschach test. Jump below the fold for discussion.
Over the weekend, Americans celebrated the 4th of July. For a lot of people, it was nothing more than an excuse to barbecue and get shitfaced. However, it can also be a time to reflect on what it means to be an American. Dinesh D'Souza decided to add his commentary with the release of the film America last week, which posits that the United States and its culture proceed from a fundamentally Christian ethos and is responsible for every good thing that's happened in the world over the past two hundred years. In his own way, D'Souza is just as blind as Alex Jones and the tinfoil hat crowd that put out documentaries of lies that see every aspect of American culture with suspicion, and as an inherently malignant entity responsible for every bad thing that's happened over the past two hundred years. The truth is that American culture is responsible for some great things, and some not-so great things.
From David Ehrlich at the A.V. Club:
D’Souza’s film is cut off at the knees because he fundamentally fails to understand that being an American isn’t about bowing to the ideas upon which this country was founded. It’s about protecting them, nurturing them, and applying them to the modern world, even (or especially) when it’s inconvenient to do so.
Given the superpower position of the United States during the 20th century and the start of the 21st, as well as the popularity of American movies, music, TV shows, consumer products, etc. during that time, things like Mickey Mouse, McDonald's and Coca-Cola became global symbols of Americana and spread with other American trends, memes and tropes throughout the world. Remember all of those stereotypes and plot structures related to race, gender and genre that I've mentioned in past diaries? Well, they also spread around the world too.
When I was a kid, my knowledge of Australia was limited. All I knew was that it began as a prison colony, and Crocodile Dundee and Mad Max live there. So my view of Australians was probably a bit skewed. (Aren't all Australians criminals that drink Foster's and carry around big knives in a desert wasteland?) And that opens up the question of whether perceptions of the United States are skewed by foreign consumption of our pop culture?
Ever notice if there are any consistent traits to how Americans are depicted in a foreign films and television shows? Because don't we all either talk like we're from Texas or act like cowboys?
From Newsweek: America Should Export More than Pop Culture
"People who watch U.S. television shows, attend Hollywood movies and listen to pop music can't help but believe that we are a nation in which we have sex with strangers regularly, where we wander the streets well armed and prepared to shoot our neighbors at any provocation, and where the lifestyle to which we aspire is one of rich, cocaine-snorting, decadent sybarites," writes Jerrold Keilson, the author of a State Department study of international visitors.
It's always interesting to see how these things are assimilated. And sometimes the most perceptions about culture can are made by outsiders and how those outsiders use elements from that culture. Korean K-pop and Japanese J-pop are heavily influenced
by American pop music. And the exchange of ideas and music can come full circle too (e.g. "Oppa Gangnam Style
brooklynbadboy had a diary about the spread of American hip hop culture throughout the world. He made the point that "hip hop has even touched the hearts of youth in corners of the world where America the military power is hated." But it goes beyond music and hip hop.
Just last week, Iran's Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) was caught ripping off ABC's Modern Family. The Iranian show, Haft Sang, mirrors Modern Family almost frame by frame. The only difference is that the gay couple of Mitchell (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and Cameron (Eric Stonestreet) have been replaced by a straight couple.
From Aisha Harris at Slate
Phil and Claire are now Mohsen and Leila; children Luke and Alex are Shaahin and Shadi. (Haghighi notes that the latter actually resembles the actress who plays Alex, save for the addition of a head scarf.) Haley is now a teenaged boy named Amir. Nasir and Mehri take the place of Jay and Gloria, and Hamed is their son in place of Manny. Mitchell and Cam are now Behrooz and Elham, a husband and wife who are unable to have children due to Behrooz’s infertility. (This explains why the couple has adopted a child in the first episode, as Cam and Mitchell do on Modern Family.) Haley's dim-witted boyfriend Dylan is Anoush, a close friend of Amir's.
Alcoholic drinks cannot be depicted on these shows, nor can boy-girl friendships, “even for children of school age.” All women above the age of nine must wear a hijab on screen. “No man would ever touch a lady even if he plays her dad or brother or husband,” Haghighi tells me. “No matter what!”
Having a satellite TV signal receiver is illegal, though Haghighi [a professional video editor in Iran] says that many Iranians use them anyway. Plus, “downloading and watching American series with or without Farsi (Persian) subtitles is widely common in Iran,” he says. “So it won’t be more than a couple of hours after a show is broadcasted in the U.S. that people start downloading and sharing the show with each other back here in Iran.” Some of the biggest American imports in Iran, according to Haghighi, include Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Office, and, of course, Modern Family.
Of course, not everyone has been happy about all this. Europeans and others from time to time have bristled at American imports, seeing them as if they were Borg
cubes coming in to assimilate the entire population. Critics argue the purity of their "cultural identity" is threatened, and accuse the United States of "cultural imperialism."
For example, some Brits have complained about the influence of American English. Unlike French, which has a body (L'Academie Francaise) that rules on whether specific words make the cut of officially being part of the French language, English is like Wikipedia. It takes contributions from anyone. But some people don't like this. Apparently it's very demeaning to the English language to use the word "lengthy." Why? I don't know. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin thought it was a cool new word to use back in the 18th century, but some dude over at the BBC saw it as part of the loss of British English's "integrity." However, the very concept of "purity," an idea that's historically been fraught with problems when used in the context of race, ethnicity and nationality, is spurious at best and intolerant at worst.
From Will Self at BBC News:
Ambivalence shapes our response to almost everything that comes across the pond. This ambivalence would be just comprehensible were it to follow some sort of regular pattern, with the cultural repulsion of British conservatives neatly offset by their political attraction and the British left responding contrarily by loving to rock 'n' roll, while decrying the depredations of what is now the sole global superpower.
But in fact the British conception of America remains hopelessly confused. Love and hate are intimately co-mingled, and there is no single cultural artefact or presidential utterance that doesn't set off a dissonant chain reaction in the heart and mind of the average Briton, whatever his or her political standpoint.