Europeans love Anerican Culture…and they’re not afraid to show it.
By Briana Kerensky
Shortly before Kate Coppola, a fine arts major at Saint Joseph’s University, studied abroad in London last semester, her parents received a pamphlet containing a few words of caution about British culture and what would make their daughter stick out like a sore American thumb. Things that, while more subtle than “Proud to be an American” T-shirts, would still manage to scream, “I’m a stupid Yank…please rob me.”
But while Ugg boots and hooded sweatshirts were major no-no’s for packing, anything involving Barack Obama, who would be inaugurated the week after Kate’s arrival in the UK, was given a green light.
Kate’s mom took it upon herself to make sure her daughter would blend into the British scenery. She bought a T-shirt emblazoned with a portrait of Barack and his wife Michelle and gave it to Kate as a Christmas gift.
The shirt is prime example of unlicensed merchandise gone horribly wrong. It’s black, and in gold, sparkly gothic writing says, “Obama: 44th President.” The president’s face is squished and stretched, and the shadowing on Michelle’s face gives her a pretty distinct five o’clock shadow.
“They tried to make the colors close to life, but I imagine that when they were printing it they had only a couple of colors to work with,” Coppola said. “The shirt attempts realism but it’s ridiculous to the point of…ridiculous. I know that makes no sense, but it’s a horrible T-shirt.”
Needless to say, Kate’s Obama swag managed to get crammed in the bottom of a dresser before she left the country. But upon arrival in England, she noticed British people were wearing pretty similar versions of her shirt, with no sense of irony as an accessory. “The area where I lived was [populated] primarily [by] immigrants from Jamaica and Africa, and the street markets where I lived catered to the Jamaican population. They sold a lot of posters and DVDs there, and ‘Hope’ with Barack’s face on it was ‘the thing.’”
Obama merchandise isn’t the only American product to saturate the global market. In fact, many facets of American culture manage to worm their way into the lifestyles of people all over the world. But what is it about American culture in particular that makes it so popular with the international community?
Kati Lustyik, a television-radio assistant professor at Ithaca College, attributes the almost obsessive relationship between other nations and American culture to various factors, the most obvious of which is the effect of media. “Why the U.S. is so influential is because the media are dominated by large multimedia corporations, and these media are U.S.-based,” Lustyik said.
Sebastian Itman Bocchi, a Uruguayan graduate student in communications at IC, believes American pop culture has become such a hit with people from other countries because of its ability to dominate the media.
“Uruguay is a country very like America. It was created by foreign people, and our traditions come from our grandparents,” Bocchi said, referring to Uruguay’s Italian and German roots. “But America dominates in media and advertising. The pop culture is everywhere on TV in Montevideo. Teenagers love to watch Friends, but I am from the generation of The A-Team. As a kid, I thought I was Murdock,” he said.
Another reason American culture seems to be so dominant, according to Lustyik, is people’s wish to be on the side with “the power.”
“There’s not anything particularly interesting [about United States’ culture],” she said. “But what the United States means for the rest of the world, whenever they consume U.S. popular culture, that lifestyle makes them feel like they’re on the winner’s side…that they’re being cool.”
Lustyik, who is from Hungary, sees this whenever she returns to her home country. “Whenever I go back to Central Eastern Europe, I see that people buy Coke because it’s a social symbol,” she said. “It says, ‘I’m a free person, I’m a cool person.’ It has nothing to do with taste. People consume food like McDonalds because it is associated with the Western lifestyle.”
But American culture isn’t just changing what people around the world are watching on TV or eating. It’s changing everything. In the last decade, the candy and costume decadence of Halloween has managed to make its way to the Rio de la Plata in Uruguay. Kids there wear costumes and decorate their schools. Nightclubs throw parties, stores discount merchandise and a holiday that originally had no history in the South American nation now has a major cultural presence.
“Celebrating Halloween started in the bilingual schools, then moved onto private and public schools,” said Bocchio. “It’s great for business, and even the lower, shitty bars celebrate. But it’s an impact for me to see even kids under the poverty line walk around in costumes.”
The culture of the United States, dominating the world with its romanticized image of celebrity, coolness and individualism, just seems to keep sucking people in. As citizens of the United States, we know that not all that glitters on television, under the golden arch or in the White House is gold. But for people who have never been to the States, America seems to still hang onto a bit of that old image of a nation full of curiosity and the possibility of change.
Kate experienced this relationship between the dream and reality of the United States’ culture while in London. “I guess I experienced a lot of this glamorization of American culture,” she said. “One of the girls in my class asked me if American life was like The O.C. or The Hills, and I had to explain to her that they are just TV shows. She was really disappointed about that, but a couple of weeks later, she was asking me about frat parties…”
Briana Kerensky is a senior journalism major, and she hopes that this article doesn’t expand Americans’ already-massive egos. E-mail her at [email protected].
Imperialistic Pop Culture
By Qina Liu
Through the force of globalization, American pop culture has permeated almost every inch of the globe. Here are just a few of the most noteworthy U.S. cultural exports.
McDonald’s: Fries, burgers, drinks and toys? People will always be impressed by the variety of options that fast food places have to offer. It’s no secret that McDonald’s has joints everywhere—from China to Australia to Costa Rica to Sweden. But next time you order a McFlurry from Micky D.’s, chew on this: The entire world’s lovin’ it.
Friends: From Chandler’s sarcasm to Phoebe’s out-of-tune sing-alongs, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand are friends with Friends…even now, when the show’s been off the air for over five years. American cultural landmarks like Jennifer Aniston’s iconic hairstyle, “The Rachel,” and Joey’s catchphrase, “How you doin’?” are perpetuated in the international community. Clearly, the producers had it right when they chose “I’ll Be There For You” as the theme song—with the rest of the world still enamored by the Friends, they may forever be there for us.
Abercrombie & Fitch: There were days when Abercrombie was as American as apple pie and baseball; JFK bought his blazers from there and Ernest Hemingway shopped for safari jackets. Since then, the A&F obsession has moved overseas, opening markets in Asia, Europe and Canada. So…time to turn up the music, spray cologne everywhere and shop in the dark on a global scale.
MTV’s European Music Awards: While MTV Europe streamlined in 1987, six years after the original MTV aired in NYC, the world is still infatuated with American music. Beyoncé ‘s “Single Ladies” topped the charts of the 2009 MTV EMAs. Other winners include Eminem as best male, Lady Gaga as best new act, Linkin Park as best world stage performance, Green Day as best rock and Jay-Z as best urban. So why does it seem like American music artists are overwhelmingly topping the charts? Well, as Kanye West put, “I’m sorry, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” Europe seems to agree.
– Qina Liu