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Is Hollywood really responsible for anti-American perceptions?

By Natasha Cica - posted Friday, 14 February 2003

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that mass-market cultural products from the US like Lethal Weapon 4, Sorority Boys and Meet Joe Millionaire send a less-than-flattering message to the youth of the world about what it means to be American. Some truths, surely, we hold to be self-evident. But, as Newt Gingrich and Peter Schweizer recently reported in the Los Angeles Times, Boston University academics Margaret and Melvin DeFleur have taken the time and money to collect some empirical data on the subject.

Interviewing middle-class high school students in 12 non-Anglophone nations from South Korea to Nigeria to Pakistan, they found that that cohort gives the American people a big thumbs-down. According to the DeFleurs, these kids' exposure to American movies and television shows has led them overwhelmingly to the view that "Americans are violent, materialistic, want to dominate, are disrespectful of people unlike them, not generous, unconcerned about the poor, lack strong family values and are not peaceful". They also believe that "many Americans engage in criminal activities and American women are sexually immoral".

Gingrich and Schweizer lay the blame for this astounding result at the doors of Hollywood, not Washington. They call for some self control on the part of US media moguls, notwithstanding their practically inviolable First Amendment right to say whatever they want, wherever and however they want. It's hard to argue with this particular call to balance the exercise of rights and freedoms with a pinch of restraint. It's not just Saudis, Mexicans and Chinese who might breathe a sigh of relief if they copped just a bit less of the worst of the televisual equivalent of American junk mail, and at a slightly lower volume. Not a few media consumers in Michigan, Melbourne, Manchester and Manitoba might be quite pleased too.


But Gingrich and Schweizer aren't really saying less American Voice is more. Significantly, they also urge the Bush Administration to put more effort into "public diplomacy programs" that put the world in touch with "real Americans", so that America's "largely undeserved" image in the world can change. Hmmm, that sounds suspiciously like a call for some serious counterspin, also known as government-sponsored propaganda.

The DeFleurs themselves recommend the inclusion in military briefings and related official news releases a reminder that "the exercise of military or economic power is being undertaken not for imperialistic purposes but to assist and protect others from unwanted circumstances and conditions". The "obvious" examples they cite of this assistance and protection include "plans to depose despots with weapons of mass destruction" (sic). The DeFleurs suggest this type of message "needs to be emphasised by all official spokespersons with great frequency and by all channels available". Is this Back to the Future, The Crucible, or what?

Astounded yet? Well, Melvin DeFleur also makes the jaw-dropping claim that "pop culture, rather than foreign policy, is the true culprit of anti-Americanism". Views can and do legitimately differ across this planet on many aspects of the conduct of US foreign policy. But it's clearly nonsense to suggest that a bright shining line can be drawn between matters geopolitical and cultural. It's even more ridiculous to suggest that the anti-American "global teen" mindset that allegedly is "one of the parts of the requisite foundation for next-gen terrorism" - the DeFleurs again - is really a by-product of bad sitcoms like The Nanny and Ally McBeal, and nothing at all to do with the way the US globally superflexes its military and economic muscle. How come these global-teen-terror-cells-waiting-to-happen don't seem to express the same knee-jerk revulsion for the people, cultural and sexual morés of France - the nation that recently gave the world Catherine Breillat's Baise-Moi?

The offending representations targeted by the DeFleurs, Gingrich and Schweizer do contain important truths about Americans, at home and abroad. Of course, there are other American truths as well because - to paraphrase Australian actor Judy Davis - all cultures are terrible and beautiful. America and its people are every bit as much Mike Moore in Bowling for Columbine as they are Arnie in Kindergarten Cop, every bit as much Wag the Dog and Kevin Spacey in American Beauty as they are Beavis and Butthead and Britney Spears in Crossroads. They are also everything sold and broadcast everywhere by CNN, Disney, DreamWorks and the Coen brothers, which adds up to a very complex set of truths indeed.

And lest we forget, all these entertainment products and more were made by Americans, and largely for (and for the benefit of) Americans. Collectively, Americans are responsible and accountable for the wider impact of the representations in these products - just as they are collectively responsible and accountable for the actions of their elected President. Just as that President now wishes to hold Iraqis collectively responsible and accountable for the actions of Saddam Hussein. You can't keep having it both ways, not in the real world outside your living-room DVD player.

Even high school students in Islamabad have figured that out.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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