The U.S. entertainment industry is a global force, so it must present foreign cultures with diplomatic sensitivity.
A recent article on Foreign Policy’s Transitions blog discussed how the newest season of the hit Showtime TV show “Homeland” has been criticized by Venezuelans for portraying their country as poor and backwards. While the Venezuelans certainly have justified concern that their already fragile image in the United States will take another negative hit, it is also important to remember that American television crosses borders. “Homeland” is already broadcasting in Canada, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Ireland, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Germany, Mexico, and India. Not to mentions this little thing called the Internet. In other words, the fictional image of Venezuela presented in “Homeland” will reach impressionable minds across the world. You cannot blame Venezuelans for being upset.
While the U.S. and Europe developed the film industry simultaneously in the early 20th century, World War I allowed the United States to corner the market with a flourishing Hollywood. American culture greatly benefited from this happenstance monopoly. Later, TV became a household medium just as the U.S. became a global power, and the “American dream” was broadcast farther and farther from home. This had an immeasurable positive effect on the American brand. As the years went by though and information became more easily available, the American ubiquity in film and television was held to much higher standards of scrutiny and critique. One could argue that today it is having a net negative impact on the image of the U.S.
Though this may be a few decades too late, it is my opinion that we need to move in the direction of being more culturally sensitive when creating TV shows and movies about other cultures. A fictionalized negative image not only makes the culture in question look bad, but it also makes those cultures view Americans as looking down upon them.
As was recently discussed on the PDcast, when the American military-industrial complex is shown in American movies, it is seen as a form of propaganda. The films “Pacific Rim” and “Transformers,” for example, portray the American military and its allies as undefeatable, even if they are faced with giant aliens or giant robots. This has a negative effect on our perceived culture abroad. Though the U.S. may be victorious in the end, we are seen as a war-mongering peddler of WMDs in the process. Granted, most of the world understands the difference between film and actual government policies, but it can easily be used as fresh meat for the commentators as well. America’s image abroad is already viewed as violent due its real military excursions and vocal gun culture; does it really need the entertainment industry to amplify this further?
We need to change the way we speak about other cultures and present our own culture in the entertainment industry. When discussing another culture or using a foreign location, it is important to be culturally sensitive in the presentation. Because whether we mean for it to or not, there will be an uncontrollable, two-way interpretation of what is put onscreen. As well, when we present ourselves in entertainment, we should not propagandize America as an unstoppable military machine. It only reinforces negative stereotypes. Fiction is a powerful force; it needs to be wielded with responsibility.