Monday, January 16, 2006

Popculturama USA

Rereading that last post, it occurs to me that there's a larger phenomenon at work here. Over the last half-century or so, American pop culture has achieved a great deal of commercial success around the world. The bitter irony here is that the things that make the most money also tend to reflect very badly on us as a country. Take Hollywood action movies, for instance. Action movies cross cultural boundaries much more readily than comedies or dramas do, but imperfectly. A steady diet of action movies is going to give the viewer a warped idea of what life is really like where the movies are set. Imagine, if you will, what life in Hong Kong is like. Unless you actually live there, your mental image is probably derived in large part from the many movies that come out of there. I suspect that in real life, there are far fewer machine gun battles between warring Triad gangs than the movies would lead you to believe.

The same thing happens with our movies as well. When the latest big, dumb summer movie comes out, we think nothing of it. Some of us roll our eyes if we're feeling elitist, or if the movie's worse than usual, while others love the thing and see it a dozen times, but nobody considers it an important cultural document. When it goes overseas, it's another matter entirely. While your average European on the street surely understands intellectually that Hollywood movies aren't documentaries, a steady diet of nothing but Michael Bay movies and Big Macs (or teriyaki steaks at Trader Vic's) is going to give people certain odd notions about the US. So the next time you're in Paris, just remember that when the locals spit on you, they're really spitting on Sylvester Stallone. Which is not much comfort, I admit.

In the past we've tended not to care about this phenomenon, because there's a lot of money to be made in pandering to the global lowest common denominator. The rest of the world may think we're an ultraviolent cultural wasteland, but so long as they keep paying us handsomely for the privilege of thinking that, we're apparently OK with it. On the flip side, we import very little pop culture from elsewhere, so we have no definite ideas about much of the rest of the world. If their movies aren't playing at the local multiplex, we aren't 100% convinced they really exist. When a rare exception comes along, we form a shiny new stereotype, like the whole Crocodile Dundee thing in the 80's, or the current notion that New Zealand == Middle Earth.

Since I get a regular stream of non-US visitors here, I'd like to take this opportunity to correct a few misconceptions people may have gotten about us. Just a few off the top of my head:

  • Neither I, nor anyone I know, has ever shot anyone, or been shot, or even been a bystander while third parties were shooting each other. Spectacular gunbattles are quite uncommon here, and huge explosions are even more rare.
  • Many of us are actually quite strong swimmers, and don't constantly need rescuing, which is good because our lifeguards are generally nowhere near as attractive as you've been led to believe.
  • Southerners in real life are no dumber, fatter, crazier, or more corrupt than the rest of humanity.
  • The West is not cowboys-and-indians territory. I live in a western state, but I haven't the faintest clue how to herd cattle or lasso anything. There are neither cows nor pistol duels in our streets. BTW, for overseas readers, you should be aware that the word "cowboy" is not generally considered an insult here. If you try to use it as one, it just leaves us scratching our heads as to what you're getting at.
  • The mafia is not glamorous, and is far less powerful and widespread than you think. If you meet an American with an Italian surname, do not ask them if they know Tony Soprano. That is considered a serious insult.
  • Americans do not actually subsist on a diet of nothing but Big Macs, hot dogs, and soda. I haven't had a Big Mac in many, many years. Even if you just want a hamburger, there are far better options.
  • Likewise, it's untrue that all American beer is fizzy, yellow, weak, and tasteless. The big national brands you encounter overseas certainly are, but there's no shortage of better choices here.

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