Culture and media. Thoughts on pop. culture in the U.S.

Essay by jacoboUniversity, Master's March 2004

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Popular Culture

Popular culture is defined here as popular written literature and broadcasting,

popular music, consumer products (everything from trash compacters to

video games, from cars to religious videos), popular dance and theater, video

games, certain decorative arts, sports and recreation, and other cultural

aspects of social life distinguished by their broad-based presence across

ethnic, social, and regional groupings.

For students of popular culture, books and magazines are important, as are

music and recorded sound, television and radio broadcasts, prints and

photographs, motion pictures, newspapers, and a variety of artifacts and


The study of popular culture reveals American political patterns, of why

dominant hegemonic forms of culture often oppose/cause cultures of

resistance, those of marginalized races, gender discrepancies, and youth

aspects of culture. It would interesting to understand and discuss the

politics involved in the production and consumption of popular culture.

We Aren't the World

American culture is not dominating the globe.

In the mid-1990s, the well- known French filmmaker Claude Berri warned

that without protection from American cultural exports, "European culture is

finished." He had plenty of pessimistic company. In that era, French Culture

Minister Jack Lang spoke in terms of America's irrepressible "cultural

imperialism." The popularity of a work like Jurassic Park was identified as a

"threat" to others' "national identity." Strict programming quotas were

enacted to prevent U.S.-made TV shows from overwhelming foreign prime


Meanwhile, scholars such as Herbert Schiller had worked out theories

explaining how the American political empire was founded on its expanding

communications empire, and critics such as Ariel Dorfman were busy

publicizing the poisonous imperialistic messages buried in the adventures of

such despoilers as Donald Duck.

Today, similar jeremiads are blowing as strong as ever: The leading prophet

of cultural doom these days is Benjamin R. Barber, an academic growing

hoarse as he warns against the dull global "monoculture" he thinks is being

imposed by American capitalism. (See "Tempest in a Coffeepot," January.)

But mounting evidence suggests that all this fulmination has been entirely

pointless, and that cultural pessimists have been as clueless about the

processes shaping the world as were their social, economic, and political


In January, for example, The New York Times ran a front-page story

reporting that exported American TV programs had largely lost their appeal

for overseas audiences. According to the Times, these shows "increasingly

occupy fringe time slots on foreign networks," leaving the prime-time hours

to locally made shows.

"Given the choice," wrote London-based reporter Suzanne Kapner, "foreign

viewers often prefer homegrown shows that better reflect local tastes,

cultures and historical events." The problem, it turns out, is that many

foreign broadcasters had not been giving their viewers much choice.

Why not? Many foreign networks had been created in a wave of 1980s

privatization and lacked the financial and creative resources to produce their

own programming. For a while, the most effective way to fill their schedules

was by purchasing shows, especially American-made series. But as U.S.

producers continued to drive up the price of their products, the now moreexperienced

broadcasters opted to make their own programs.

In brief, the foreign broadcasters chose neither to whine about nor to spin

theories about American culture but rather to compete with it. As of 2001,

more than 70 percent of the most popular shows in 60 different countries

were produced locally. There are still popular American shows on foreign TV

sets (especially movies), but as one European broadcaster told the Times,

"You cannot win a prime-time slot with an American show anymore."

An even more dramatic shift may be going on with theatrical films. In 2001

"business for American films overseas fell by 16 percent against local

product," according to Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur. Writing last August

in the British newspaper The Guardian, Kapur noted: "The biggest success in

Japan last year was not an American film, it was a Japanese film. The biggest

success in Germany was not an American film, it was a German film. The

biggest success in Spain was not an American film, but a Spanish film. The

same in France. In India, of course, it's always been like that."

Kapur believes that "American culture has been able to dominate the world

because it has had the biggest home market." But the growing commercial

importance of Asia -- China, India, Japan -- along with the larger markets of

the Mideast and North Africa will change that, he argues. In other words,

cultural globalization is far from a recipe for American dominance; it is an

opportunity for other cultures and markets to assert themselves.

Kapur suggests this is already happening in such low-prestige areas as

beauty contests, where the Miss USAs have been giving way in the finals to

the Miss Indias. But Kapur also expects it to happen in such high-prestige

venues as international journalism, because much of the ad revenue and

investment will come from Asia.

"In 15 years from now," he writes, "we won't be discussing the domination of

the western media but the domination of the Chinese media, or the Asian

media. Soon we will find that in order to make a hugely successful film, you

have to match Tom Cruise with an Indian or a Chinese actor."

Kapur may be oversimplifying, but he is right about the effects of

competition. It is the smart cultures who are competing with the U.S.

Indeed, it is American producers who have lately been borrowing cultural

ideas, just to stay competitive. "Reality TV," surely the most reviled -- if

popular -- format now on American screens, comes from Europe.

American Television in Europe: Problematizing the Notion of Pop

Cultural Hegemony

Europeans are concerned about the possibility of American culture

dominating other cultures. Many Americans believe that their culture is

indeed the dominant culture in the world. The increasingly common terms

"cultural hegemony" and "monoculturalism" seem by default to refer to

American culture and its presence outside of America. In Europe and other

places, American culture appears in many forms, such as movies, music,

clothing, and television. But does the presence of these kinds of American

pop cultural items mean that a cultural takeover is happening, or happening


Obviously, America is an exceedingly powerful country. Its wealthy

transnational corporations, its power within international regulatory

organizations, and its military might give it a great deal of power in

structuring and controlling economic and other interactions all over the

globe. But, does it follow from this that cultural items such as American

television shows are equally controlling and shaping of other cultures? Does

America's economic and political power mean that its pop culture is easily

taking over the globe?

I believe that cultural takeover is not so easy, and that many barriers to

American cultural hegemony exist. I think it is important to acknowledge and

understand these barriers, to look at the interstitial spaces to see just what

happens in these sites where two different cultures meet. I myself occupy an

interstitial space, as I am not European, and not an American living in

America, but an American living in Europe. Speaking from that perspective, I

take American television in Europe as a case study to illustrate the barriers

and problems involved in the spread of American popular culture. Taking into

account various factors that I've observed while living here, I see the notion

of the unchecked spread of American pop culture as more problematic than it

is often depicted to be.

It is true that American television, movies, and music are all over Europe.

Here in Switzerland, at the local theater I can see Shrek, at the cafe down

the street I can hear Madonna singing about what it feels like to be a girl,

and while flipping the channels on my TV I can see Friends and Frasier. But

let's not hastily conclude that all of this equals hegemony. There are a few

details to note in this situation, details that may elude the casual observer,

especially one observing Europe from across the Atlantic. In my ten months

of living here, I have found that the presence of American culture is just not

a clear matter of hegemony and monoculture. To understand it, we have to

look more deeply at the context and form in which American pop culture

appears, how and if it is consumed, and how it is interpreted. Let's wipe off

the spectacles and give it a look.

No Blank (or Passive) Slate

First of all, we should acknowledge that American pop cultural imports don't

simply land in Europe like Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, placing the

first fresh footsteps onto an uninhabited world (and planting the American

flag). Europe is not a tabula rasa; far, far, from it. To assume otherwise

would really be somewhat imperialistic and shortsighted, wouldn't it? After

all, Europeans already have cultures, very long-standing, deeply entrenched,

rich, diverse cultures that have long had contact with and influences from

many other cultures, long before the U.S. even existed. This is nothing new

and nothing that Americans have invented.

Second, it's important to understand that Europeans are not simply passive

receivers of information. Rather, they choose to receive in certain ways, they

alter and interpret what is received, and there is really no one-to-one

correspondence between the transmitter and the recipient. Just because

American TV shows, channels, or other pop cultural imports appear in

another country doesn't mean that they appear just as they are in America.

Europeans do have something to say about what is received, how and

whether things are received and used (or rejected), and what the things

mean in terms of their own definitions and frameworks.

Same Bat Channel, Different Bat Channel

In other words, MTV here isn't MTV in America. CNN here is not CNN in

America. Looking at MTV in Europe is a "foreign" experience for an American.

The music played is largely different, a lot of it coming from European and

other sources around the world. Have you ever heard French rap? How about

German fatalism-minimalism-metal? How about British techno-DJ mixes?

How about music from India, Africa, and Japan? This is the rude awakening

Americans find when they tune in to European MTV: that not all music is

sung in English and much American music is not popular here at all.

Likewise, most popular music here would be very unpopular in America. Also,

the video jockeys (VJs) are not American. They're thoroughly European,

representing European cultures, clothing, trends, languages, and so forth.

The ads are not American and often aren't in English. And all those fatuous

American shows that MTV produces are rarely if ever shown here. Now, I

have seen an episode of Daria in French, but MTV here mainly just shows

music videos.

CNN, another American channel, is available in Europe. However, over here it

has many more non-American correspondents and stories. Familiar American

faces are replaced by people from all over the globe. The U.S. and its

perspectives are no longer the main focus of "world" news (with the very

important exception, of course, of the attacks on the World Trade Center and

the Pentagon which now dominate all news here). Watching CNN in Europe,

one finds that there are many other stock markets, other influential heads of

state, other celebrities, other economies, other political intrigues, other

elections, other problems. The U.S. begins to look like just one among many.

In fact, much American news starts to seem much less pressing than, say,

news of the recent assassination of Indian civil rights figure Phoolan Devi, or

of the terrifying escalations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (again, with the

very important exception noted above). The point is, just because American

television channels are in Europe, it does not mean that they are the same

channels that they are in America. Different cultures interpret, shape, and

use them in ways that make sense within their own milieus.

Language Barriers

Third, we have to consider the nitty gritty of how television really works in

Europe. There are quite a few important differences, the largest of which is

language. According to a European Commission report, only 29 percent of

Europeans on the continent speak English well enough to hold a

conversation. Obviously, most people speak, read, listen, think, and consume

in their native language. If you've ever tried to watch (and actually

understand) TV or movies in another tongue, even one in which you have

some comprehension, you know how utterly exhausting and difficult it is. It's

a mammoth feat to acquire a large enough vocabulary to grasp the dialogue

in movies and television, which is very rapid, casual, slangy, and accented.

And, the topics discussed in movies and television are very diverse and

quick-changing, requiring a heck of a lot of cultural knowledge. It's a huge

step beyond book-learning, simple conversations or even reading in another

language. To think that most Europeans watch American television shows in

English, then, would be ludicrous.

Further, the very large variety of languages spoken in Europe really

complicates the importation of American television. In Europe, every other

channel is in another language. Here in the Lake Geneva area of Switzerland,

we get 40-odd channels available via cable. But, unless you're fluent in about

14 languages, most of the channels won't matter to you. This is because

they'll be broadcast in various languages depending on whether they're

coming from American, British, French, German, Italian, Swiss, Portuguese,

Spanish, Turkish, Tunisian, or Croatian stations. And there are more. I've

come across a few shows in Romansh, an ancient Latin-based language

spoken by about one percent of the Swiss. We occasionally find shows in

various Swiss-German dialects (these are completely different from High

German and from each other). And, once we found a mystery-language TV

show. After about 45 minutes of intense study, we finally distinguished the

heavily accented language as English with lots of Scots words. We're still

wondering just what "ken" and "bairn" mean.

We have four U.S. channels here (MTV, Turner Classic Movies/The Cartoon

Network, CNN, CNBC) out of the 40-odd channels available. However, even

the fact that a channel is American in origin does not guarantee that the

broadcast will be done in English here. For example, all the movies and

cartoons on TCM/TCN are broadcast in foreign languages. You have to buy a

special kind of TV if you want to hear the English audio track (if it hasn't

been removed completely), and this usually only works on a very few movies

and shows. And, even on these American channels, many ads and other bits

are in non-English languages.

In American shows and movies seen on television in Europe, the voices have

often been changed and replaced by another language. You will see Marilyn

Monroe speaking German in Niagara and the cast of Friends speaking Italian,

not English. Sometimes subtitles are present rather than overdubbing, but if

you pay attention, you notice that the translations in the subtitles often don't

exactly match the meaning of the English being spoken. The translations

reflect European kinds of interpretations, humor, expressions, and

sometimes the meaning of the translation is quite different from the English.

You have to wonder how closely the non-English audio tracks match the

original English lines in the case of overdubs. You also have to wonder just

how much American culture is really coming through to the European viewer.

Other English-language shows here are British, as a few BBC channels are

available. However, as far as issues of cultural importation go, this probably

doesn't matter to most Europeans one bit since most continental Europeans

can't differentiate between a British and an American accent. I know it's

unbelievable to Americans to think that we sound even remotely like Brits,

but I've never yet met a continental European who could distinguish between

our accents (same with Irish, Australian, Canadian, and other Englishspeaking

accents). In fact, they generally assume I'm British (and I'm


Recently, I saw a TV show designed to teach English to French speakers by

having actors speak English slowly in various vignettes. The English being

taught was British English. In one scene, some British people had an

American friend visiting, and they were having a conversation with her about

sightseeing in London. The "American" friend had an extremely British

accent, no different from the British people in the scenario! So, given this

complete lack of differentiation between American and British English, can

continental Europeans differentiate between British and American sitcoms,

dramas or newscasts (even if they are watching these in English and can

understand the English)? Do they see any difference and do they even care?

They're probably watching their own sitcoms, dramas, and newscasts or

over-dubbed foreign shows in their own language anyway. This only further

clouds the idea of a clear transmission of American pop culture to Europeans

via television.

Programming Differences

Aside from the language issues, the way that shows are actually scheduled

over here is important to note. Rather unlike in America, here there's not

much consistency or predictability in television. In America, shows are

broadcast on the hour or the half hour, with lots and lots of commercials

(groan) set regularly in-between and during the shows. Timeslots are set and

religiously adhered to. But, over here, you never quite know what show will

be on, when it will start, or whether you'll ever see another episode of it

again. We're dealing simultaneously with channels from many different

countries, with different policies. Some channels show one program's

episodes one after the other for a few hours or over a few days. Other

channels seem to choose somewhat randomly when to show an episode. So,

though you might see an American show such as Friends or ER in Europe, the

episodes are usually shown out of order, are shown in various languages,

and do not appear consistently, making it really hard to get addicted. It's just

harder for a show to get entrenched in one's life here, again making it harder

for American pop culture to take hold through television.

Another fuzzifying factor involves just what shows actually make it over here.

The shows that make it to Europe are not necessarily representative of

what's popular or current in American culture. Many of the American shows

shown here now weren't even widely popular in America or are now very old

and outdated. Oddly, here one can still watch Urkel's silliness (Family

Matters), but in French. One can find Murder She Wrote and Columbo in

various foreign languages, and occasionally with an English track (which you

need that special TV to hear, of course). One can find Malcolm-Jamal

Warner's show Malcolm and Eddie in French. There is also Home

Improvement in German (no English track), but the kids are really young and

pre-heartthrob, so I guess the episodes are really old. Other than ER (George

Clooney is still on over here) and Friends (Ross' monkey was still on there

recently, and without an English track), most of the American shows shown

here aren't ones that are wildly popular in America now. Europeans don't

know this. Maybe they think Urkel is currently worshipped in America?

Further, what's seen on TCM or The Cartoon Network in the U.S. may not be

what's shown here on those same channels. Local programming can make it

onto the U.S.-origin channels. For example, although most of the cartoons

shown on The Cartoon Network here are American (with French names and

overdubbing), frighteningly, there are a few French-made cartoons shown on

TCN. These cartoons would make American children cry. Most of them are

about some badly drawn angular birds who live in a world where laws of

physics don't seem to work. The world is terrifying, deadly, and looks like the

aftermath of a nuclear war. The birds despondently try to survive and they're

perpetually depressed. Nothing is ever accomplished and each episode ends

on some melancholy note.

Turner Classic Movies here also has some programming that differs from TCM

in the U.S. Here, there was a well-advertised promotional week called

"Allons-y, Gay-ment!" week, meaning, roughly, "Let's go, Gay-ness!" week.

They showed great classic movies starring gay men all week long. I spoke to

a friend in the U.S., a TCM addict, who said that, unsurprisingly, there was

no such promotion happening on American TCM. All of these programming

differences reflect the fact that American pop culture in Europe just doesn't

happen in the same way or form that it happens in America, and it is altered

and shaped by European practices, interests, and interpretations. All of this

further problematizes the notion of American mono(pop)culture and


Cultural Influences Go Both Ways

Growing up in America, I didn't realize how many foreign cultural items were

part of American culture. I think many Americans assume that what they

grew up with was simply American, or aren't aware of the foreign influences

in their midst. For example, try to think of a truly, purely American food. It's

difficult. All I could come up with were large steaks and peanut butter. Most

of the other seemingly "real" American foods are awfully similar to dishes

found in countries from which early settlers to America emigrated. They

serve a lovely pot roast in Ireland and England. They also serve great apple

pie there and have been for a very long time. Other "American" foods, like

Cajun food, barbecue, pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, pretzels, chips, and so

forth also have roots in other cultures. Hmmm, maybe if we count Cheez

Whiz as a food?

So, the transmission of cultural influences is not uni-directional, with America

simply oozing across the world for all to gather, consume, and imitate. There

is a clear two-way (or thousand-way) street in existence. And, just as

American cultural items have their own meanings and interpretations in

Europe, so do European cultural items in America. Thus, French fries have a

wholly different meaning in America than in France where they are called

pomme frites and are usually served with fancy fish or meat dinners, not

hamburgers, and with Provencal sauce or sauce tartare, not ketchup for

goodness sakes.

Or, how about good old Nestle Quik? This American childhood staple is not

American at all. The Nestle company can be found in the Swiss Alps among

meadows of clover inhabited by dairy cows wearing large bells. In America,

Nestle Quik sort of fits in culturally among Saturday morning cartoons in

commercials featuring the bunny, and last-ditch efforts to prolong going to

bed by insisting on needing a glass of milk. In Switzerland, I've never seen a

commercial for Nestle, they don't even have Saturday morning cartoons

here, kids already stay up later here, and it seems that people usually make

hot chocolate rather than cold chocolate milk.

Thus, Americans have clearly also received, altered, and redefined things

from other cultures all along. Just because Americans have French fries, it

doesn't mean that France's entire culture(s) was (were) unproblematically

plopped down like a dollop of whipped cream onto America. It goes the same

way for American culture in other countries. Considering this, why would the

presence of some American pop cultural items (such as TV shows) in other

countries mean that American culture is easily and clearly taking over other


U.S. Culture is Important, But...

Now, having said all this, it's also not true that U.S. culture doesn't have an

impact on other cultures. It's true that America is a large, highly productive,

powerful, populous, monolinguistic mass. And, some people are worried

about it. In France, they're distressed about English (American, really) words

getting into their language. Some countries think that Friends is too sexually

explicit. But, I think that it's a mistake to simply and cleanly assume any of

the following: 1) U.S. culture appears exactly in its original form and has

exactly the same social meaning in other cultures as it does in America; 2)

other cultures really could (or even want to) understand American culture the

way it is in America--after all, the U.S. is 5000 miles away from Europe, 3)

other people don't have an existing culture, 4) other people don't reinterpret,

twist, reformulate, alter, and choose (and reject) what (and how) elements

of other cultures are received in their culture, how they are integrated, what

they mean, and so forth within the context of their own cultural meanings,

and 5) Americans are the originators and one-way distributors of culture, and

have a pure or purely dominant culture that hasn't been influenced by



Television, like anything else we come across in life, is what we make of it,

how we interpret it, how we perceive it, how, how much, and in what forms

it's accessed, and what meanings it has within a culture already set with its

own meanings, traditions, ideas and innovations. Life is so different here in

Europe that Americans just can't imagine it. This is why many Americans who

come to visit Europe have rather bad reactions to finding out that they're

actually not automatically seen as the best in the world, that they can't just

speak English and be understood, that absolutely everything is done

differently and thought about differently, and that being American often

doesn't work over easily here at all. America is so far away geographically

and even philosophically that most Americans are unfortunately rather

unaware of the vast numbers of cultures, of completely different ways of

doing absolutely everything, that they often have a rather hard time in


Europeans grow up in an entirely different world, in which many vastly

different languages and cultures (not to mention histories) swirl around them

continuously. Here is my list of just some of the areas in which I've observed

Europeans being simply and utterly NOT American: in approaches to work, to

community, to sharing, to views of time, to eating, to drinking, to sex, to

nudity, views of space and distance, views of individuals' rights, views of

responsibilities, views of community, views of workers and customers, views

of logic, views of inconvenience, views of personal space, views of friends,

acquaintances, and families, views of independence and individuality, views

of leisure and exercise, shopping and consuming, materialism, views of

culture, language, art, music, views of being, embodiment, emotions,

expression, gender roles, race, class, sexual orientation, views of absolutely

everything. These differences comprise something cultural that Americans

simply do not know about and just do not get until they've been in Europe for

a considerable amount of time (if we can ever truly get it).

We have to balance our views of hegemony and monoculture with a more

detailed understanding of cross-cultural interaction. As Americans we can't

simply assume that "our" culture is easily dominating the globe, gobbling the

world up like a chocolate chip cookie, Americanizing everything in its path. I

think that it's almost reassuring in a way to think that that is true. It's kind of

an ego-boost for some Americans to think that "our" culture is the most

popular, the most sought-after, the one that "rules." Let's face it, it's even a

bit of an ego-boost for at least some Americans who are opposed to the

global spread of American culture. This still posits America as the originating,

dynamic, innovative, powerful country that's taking over all the others. It's

still a colonial fantasy (and nightmare) of sorts. And it lacks insight into what

it's really like to not be American, and to not live in America.

Europeans should get credit for having their own complexities, ideas, and

cultures, and agency as well. And, when we examine those interstices where

two cultures meet, we see that there are indeed many obstacles and

difficulties in cultural transmission. I value having been yanked out of my

original American culture and landing in this interstitial space. Being

American, I know how these American cultural items appear in America, and

what they mean there. At the same time, being here allows me to see the

slippage, the differences in how the same items are located, used, rejected,

and altered in another culture. The concept of hegemony is quite complicated

and the more I inspect those interstitial spaces, the more problematic they