A popular meme in American consciousness is cultural hegemony: the idea that American culture, as represented in widely-exported American movies, TV shows, fast-food restaurants, and brands, is overwhelming the traditional cultures of other countries. The fear is that this will eventually result in a sadly homogenized world in which everyone abandons their own customary foods and entertainments to eat at MacDonald’s and listen to hip-hop.
This theory seems to be popular on both sides of America’s own cultural divide. The liberal left worries that we are teaching the rest of the world to be destructively, mindlessly capitalistic and individualistic. A more conservative viewpoint worries that we are “exporting the wrong picture” of America, an argument propounded by Martha Bayles of Boston College in a Washington Post editorial (see below).
There are two problems with this theory.
The first is that it’s arrogant. It is true that American popular culture is widely consumed worldwide. This is not simply because American media companies are good at selling their products – no one is forcing people to watch American shows. In many countries, local cinemas and TV stations show American stuff because their customers want to see it. Some governments work hard to censor what their people see, for political or religious/cultural reasons (or both). Nonetheless, their citizens often go to great lengths, sometimes breaking the law, to obtain and consume American media. It’s not being forced on them by those evil capitalists in Hollywood.
The cultural hegemony argument is also a subtle put-down of other cultures: it assumes that they are so weak or ignorant that they cannot be trusted to decide for themselves what they should see and hear. That these people should, “for their own good,” be protected from invasive American culture, so that their “native” cultures will be preserved.
(Aside: Preserved for what? As a quaint playground for American tourists who want the “authentic” experience when they travel in other countries?)
The second problem with the theory of cultural hegemony is that it’s simply not true. I’ve been in many parts of the world and, while you do see signs of American/ Western culture everywhere, most people value their own cultures and work actively to preserve them, consuming local media, food, etc. alongside whatever foreign stuff they like.
India is a great example of a society which needs no special measures to preserve its traditional culture – unlike, say, France (said she mischievously). Indians love TV, and have plenty of it: at least two or three channels for every major language (of which India has 14 or 15, including English), and at least one each for Muslims, Christians, Jains, and Sikhs (probably Buddhists as well, though I didn’t see this), plus one for each of the major branches of Hinduism. In addition to news and worship, there are channels dedicated to Indian-produced TV series and movies, and channels of Indian music videos. A few channels show imported TV, movies, and music, plus CNN International/Asia and BBC World, but these are vastly outnumbered by local fare – no case to be made there for Western culture overwhelming India! Which is hardly surprising: India has been absorbing and subsuming foreign cultures for 3000 years.
If there’s any cultural invasion going on, it’s occurring in the opposite direction. A number of Indian directors are doing well in Hollywood, some with films you can’t tell apart from any other Hollywood product (M. Night Shyamalan), others bringing Indian or cross-cultural themes to Western audiences (Gurinder Chadha), and/or adding Indian spice to otherwise Hollywood-standard movies (Mira Nair’s “Vanity Fair”).
There’s a growing presence of American brands in India, but that doesn’t mean that Indians are adapting to American tastes. Reading a women’s magazine in Mumbai, I saw an ad for a very familiar American brand, Pillsbury. Attempting to sell devil’s food cake mix into India, you wonder? Nope. The ad was for a rice flour mix that could be used to make dosas, idlis, and vadas – distinctly south Indian treats. I’d be surprised if that product ever got to the US, and I didn’t see any ads for Pillsbury brownie mix or refrigerator cookies in India. American companies, far from trying to foist American tastes on Indians, are studying the local market and adapting their products accordingly. You don’t get to be a global brand by expecting everyone to like what Americans like – as most American multinationals are keenly aware, even if the American general public is not.
So, the next time you get worried about American culture taking over the world, look around you. If you can’t get to a foreign country to see what’s actually happening there, just look at your American hometown: how many “ethnic” restaurants do you have? And what is American culture itself, but a rich soup of the many cultures that Americans originally came from?
It’s not just Americans who buy into the “American cultural behemoth” myth: UNESCO has recently passed a resolution supporting nations’ rights to set a protected percentage of “local culture” to be shown in cinemas and aired on TV. Several nations have such laws, which Hollywood has been protesting as protectionist.
- see also Globalization vs. Local Culture
(via Jeff Jarvis)
Bayles’ articleso incensed me when I read it that I started to write a reply, then lost it for a month in the swamp of my email box. I don’t think I’ll bother sending it to her now, but here it is for your edification, though it’s slightly repetitive with the above.
Dear Dr. Bayles,
I read with interest your piece in the Washington Post, though not (yet) your book. I’d like to make a few observations.
Though a US citizen, I have lived overseas much of my life. I attended international schools, particularly, for high school, an international boarding school in India with students from all over the world. I did my BA in Asian Studies and Languages (including a study abroad year in Benares), and now live in Italy with my Italian husband and daughter.
In short, I think I’m qualified to comment, from personal experience, on how US popular culture is perceived in some other parts of the world.
I would first take issue with the study you quote:
One of the few efforts to measure the impact of popular culture abroad was made by Louisiana State University researchers Melvin and Margaret DeFleur, who in 2003 polled teenagers in 12 countries: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, South Korea, Mexico, China, Spain, Taiwan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Nigeria, Italy and Argentina. Their conclusion, while tentative, is nonetheless suggestive: “The depiction of Americans in media content as violent, of American women as sexually immoral and of many Americans engaging in criminal acts has brought many of these 1,313 youthful subjects to hold generally negative attitudes toward people who live in the United States.”
American women living normal American lives as depicted in films and TV are sexually immoral by the standards of some of the cultures mentioned. After all, in Saudi Arabia, it is not only immoral but illegal for a woman to ride unchaperoned in a car with any man who is not her husband or a blood relative. By such standards, almost anything a woman does outside of stay home, or hide her face when she goes out in public, would be immoral. How is the American film industry not to violate those standards and still depict American life as it actually is?
Depicting the freedoms that American women enjoy may be offensive to some cultures, but I would argue that those cultures NEED to be offended. Do you want to help protect cultural norms which oppress women as severely as Saudi Arabia’s does? What about cultures where any grown woman possessing a clitoris and the ability to feel sexual pleasure is considered immoral? Cultural relativism be damned – these women need to be freed, and if American movies help inspire them to fight for their freedom, I say bring on “Thelma & Louise” !
It is true that many American films and movies depict people engaged in criminal acts. Most of the time, these people are “the bad guys” and the plot has to do with bringing them to justice. Although there are films glorifying anti-heroes, I don’t think the majority of American films would lead any sensible viewer to the conclusion that American society condones criminal behavior.
From what I see in Italy, if Italian youngsters have a negative attitude towards Americans, this is more likely the result of America’s foreign policies than what they see in the imported media.
As for the depiction of Americans as violent – Americans ARE violent. As reported by Gregory S. Paul recently in the Journal of Religion & Society, “the U.S. is the only prosperous democracy that retains high homicide rates…” (as compared with other developed nations).
You go on to say:
…The 2003 report of the U.S. House of Representatives Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World stated that “Arabs and Muslims are . . . bombarded with American sitcoms, violent films, and other entertainment
I’ve heard this kind of argument many times, and my response is the same response I make to American parents who are “so concerned” about what children see on TV and in the movies: YOU HAVE A CHOICE. No one (outside of a Stanley Kubrick movie) is forced to sit in front of a television set with their eyelids propped open, helplessly absorbing hours of sex and gore. In America it happens because adults choose it for themselves, and don’t control what their children watch. In some countries, where much or most foreign media is censored, people go to great lengths to obtain American films, TV, and music, illegally and sometimes at risk to themselves. This is hardly bombardment on America’s part. The stuff is produced and people who want it, find it. American parents, not the media, are mostly responsible for what their children see and, even more, WHAT THEY LEARN FROM IT. The tendency in America lately is to want government to play parent and protect us from “bad stuff,” and now you want to export that paternalistic model to adults in other countries who, like adult Americans, are mature enough choose what they want to watch.
A final quote:
…much of which distorts the perceptions of viewers. The report made clear that what seems innocuous to Americans can cause problems abroad: ‘A Syrian teacher of English asked us plaintively for help in explaining American family life to her students. She asked, ‘Does “Friends” show a typical family?’
In describing the state of the modern American family, “Friends” is actually a good place to start. A group of young people in and out of relationships (both straight and gay), having children in and out of wedlock – yes, that’s pretty typical. If anything, these friends are fortunate: they form a de facto family that mostly stays together, there to support each other through the vicissitudes of life. Which is more than can be said for many multiply-divorced “traditional” families in America today. This isn’t a happy reflection on American culture, but it’s an honest one.
NB: I did email this letter to Dr. Bayles, but she has not so far (Feb 2006) dignified it with a reply.
Oh, those poor Indians – they’ve lost touch with their native culture! <big grin>