Cultural Hegemony: Who’s Dominating Whom?

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.

(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.

Cultural Hegemony?

Oh, those poor Indians – they’ve lost touch with their native culture! <big grin>

12 thoughts on “Cultural Hegemony: Who’s Dominating Whom?”

  1. You’re a privileged white idiot. You’ve never even been to a country that isn’t America, I’m sure, as cultures are being obliterated even in Canada. And what the hell is ‘the liberal left’?

  2. Never even been… sweetie, can you READ? When you’re ready for adult discourse, I’d be interested to hear about the cultures you mention. I am always happy to learn, in an atmosphere of mutual respect that admits the possibility of understanding, but you’ve blown that from the start here.

  3. Deidre – I assume you to be neither white, nor privileged, nor smug (although your blog might suggest otherwise). What is, however, all to clear, is that you are undereducated. You have employed the most reductionist, facile definition of hegemony conceivable in order to make your argument(s) work. I’d advise you read a little Gramsci before declaring, as though it were some sort of staggering insight, that Indians, Americans and others “have a choice” about what to watch, and what sense to make of same. Does the phrase “spontaneous consent” mean anything to you?

  4. White? Check. Privileged? In relative terms, check. Smug? Not usually accused of that; “arrogant” is the more common accusation. Undereducated? BA in Asian Studies and Languages, MBA, and all the “education” that comes from nearly 50 years of living – depends how you define it, I guess. Believe myself to have staggering insights? Never claimed that, I merely note that others appear to find this article interesting/insightful/etc., so Google ranks it high (how did you happen to run across it?). Will read Gramsci when I have time; defending my staggering insights from random attack is not high on my list of life priorities at the moment.

    Relax, dude or dudette, and, as you say, have a Guinness.

  5. ps I suppose you will be appalled at the state of American education to learn that this piece has apparently been recommended reading more than once in college courses, and that I was paid money for the privilege of including it in a textbook for Advanced Placement English, alongside the likes of Thomas Friedman. I didn’t solicit any of this, and find it highly amusing.

  6. I have to break down each paragraph because you are one of the reason why Americans pacify discrimination toward others who look different from themselves. You are “book smart” but you lack common sense, spirituality, and awareness of the full world and those within it.

    Hip-Hop hasn’t been produced in about a decade, if you did your research you would realize that Hip-hop is an advocacy, just because someone is black and/or African American and they aren’t country or jazz artists etc, doesn’t make it Hip-Hop. For you to say that about hip-hop and not refer to pop music which is the predominant case for youth lack of self-esteem, I can tell that you are simple-minded, and I see what group (its sad that people advocate for equality or change yet don’t consider everyone only a selective few) you have in mind when you advocate your thoughts.

    Who are you quoting for the liberal left? Where is your proof for this? You only quote a conservative right? “destructively, mindlessly capitalistic and individualistic”, that is an opinion of yours where you lie and say that it is liberal yet you have no quotation, so isn’t that plagiarism and forgery?

    Conservatives are concerned that “we are exporting the wrong picture”, yet Disney is conservative and in 1981 from an internal memo at Disney: “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.” – Michael Eisner, Disney CEO (1984-2005), Michael Eisner is a republican and a conservative, Disney owns predominately everything in mainstream media. So how is your statement true? Biases

    Conservatives are capitalists. The FCC does not work that hard I can guarantee you that, that’s why the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was established. There has been multiple cases, where doctors, scientists, psychologists have informed the government(FCC) the damage of all American culture (Food, Television, Video Games, Music, etc) Have you really done your research? For this statement you can check out the documentary MissRepresentation.

    With cultural hegemony, no one forces anyone to participate in any American culture, it is the consumer’s choice to that’s why its popular culture due to the fact that the majority of Americans are narrow-minded and insecure, and they allow themselves to live life that way, every individual has the choice to stand their own ground, many are incapable and rather be told what to do instead of taking it upon themselves to be on their own.

    Are you aware of Mahatma Gandhi? Do you realize that he died going through “special measures” to preserve traditional culture? Have you even been to India or was your observation about India based off of internet research? You definitely couldn’t have read texts on the Indian culture coming up with the example of its society. Once again you have no quotations to back up your opinionated statements, this is plagiarism.

    You consider a human born from another part of this country making a living out of something he is talented with a cultural invasion? Aren’t you undermining the humanity of M. Night Shyamalan, Gurinder Chadha, and Mira Nair? Would Alfred Hitchcock who was born in England started his film career in the U.K. but then came to Paramount later in his career, would he be considered a cultural invader to the U.S.?

    Pillsbury may have established in America but I can guarantee you the foundation of Pillsbury’s ingredients is not from AMerica, that’s why there is something called trade and sweat shops.

    Do you realize how undermining the word ethnic is, like I said before you are recognizing that because someone doesn’t have pale skin and thin hair that they are lesser than.

    I can see why you expressed yourself the way you did. But your argument is not well thought out, if I turned this in to my professor, I would receive an F based off the plagiarism, and your responses to the commentators prove how inadequate your thought processes are.

    Its sad that those who have influence think exactly like you, that’s what’s wrong with this world of media, the ruling class is simple-minded like yourself. With what you have published you will one day recognize the full truth and reality not just the biases of it. I pray that you really think through your advocacy and broaden your influence.

    It’s a disappointment as well as a college student preparing for my master’s degree and law degree, that a professional like Thomas Friedman would allow this to be published. But I am grateful for you, because I know what not to do, when I am a professional publishing materials to assist in the education of individuals working toward their prospective careers.

  7. I’m guessing that a professor assigned this to you to read and critique for a class? You might start your research by considering the context of anything you read. Such as the header at the top of every page on my site which states that the site is about “Countries Beginning with I: Italy, India, the Internet…” My bio and my resumé will give you a good start on understanding who I am and where I’m coming from.

    Note that “having no quotations to back up your opinionated statements” is not plagiarism. It might be poor research, but this was never intended to be a scholarly piece. Nevertheless, it has been assigned in many college classrooms, and even included in a textbook, alongside a piece of Friedman’s (or so I was told). He otherwise has nothing to do with my piece and likely has never read it. If you in fact are reading that book, I’m amused to hear it.

    The “research” on which I based this opinion piece was the evidence of my own eyes. Yes, I’ve been to India, and many other places, and I’ve done many things and talked with many people of all kinds. And that’s what I write about. I suppose that makes me a primary source, so, if anything, researchers might quote me. Or assign their students to read me.

  8. ps If you are reading this for a class right now, please tell your professor that I now live in the Bay Area and work in downtown SF everyday. I would be happy to come speak to the class if they like. Coincidentally, I was just interviewed for local TV last night, talking about Americans in India.

  9. There is absolutely no real threat to native Indian arts, culture, and entertainment industry as Indians vigorously practice, create, and consume Indian art first and foremost. As an Indian American who sees Indian art and culture thriving amongst Indian communities in the U.S. (and of course definitely back in our ancestral land), I can totally attest to this fact.

  10. I personally take a few problems with your theory, and I mean no insult to you personally. First, I would like to say that I agree with your concept at its core, but i agree much more vehemently with the concept of cosmopolitanism. Having established that I think its important to note that the sheer fact that some Indian directors are doing well in Hollywood in reality has no bearing on pop culture. In fact the successful director that you mentioned, M.Night Shyamalan, is noted in your article as being completely indistinguishable from the directors of America. As for Gurinder Chadha, I have seen none of her movies, have never heard of her, and I would be willing to bet that the majority of readers feel the same which therefore does not qualify her as being relevant in anyway to the culture of America. The influences of culture may come from a variety of sources but it is truly impossible to completely discredit a social theory on the basis of a few television channels and an oscar winning director.

  11. Nice article, too many negative comments. It was quite helpful in understanding the concept of cultural hegemony and the current state of cultures in the world.

    But one thing bothers me. Since consumers want American stuff (movies, tv shows, food etc.) a bit more than local stuff, does that really imply that American culture is superior and the survival of local cultures becoming more difficult and its importance reducing? After all, is a darwin-style “survival of the fittest” occurring here? You even used the term protectionist, which is what govts do to protect inferior industries from being wiped out from more efficient and bigger ones in the global market. While USA culture is not being forced on others, it is forcing local cultures away from their dominant position when it is chosen by consumers. It is often that the power may not be perfectly balanced between local and foreign cultures, and with these kind of cultural fusions, we still end up being more like America, a country with many conflicting identities, cultures and ethnicities (which includes American culture). There’s still the loss of a single, fundamental identity that isn’t acknowledged by your article. And taking India as an example will not really do as India itself is a cultural giant and like the little brother of America, spreading its culture across the world.

    So, yes, in the sense that even if American culture acquires 10-15 percent share in every culture of the world, it is still an increase from 0 and increases its dominance (hegemony), power and importance in the world.

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