Pop Culture Offers Different Perspectives

(In today’s post: I once again look at why there should be Canadian movies and TV in a landscape dominated by Hollywood, tackle the concept that pop entertainment is nationalistic propaganda in the context of series like Scandal, Last Resort and others. And I ask why a Canadian should care about U.S. presidential debates and ponder which candidate should dress like Frankenstein’s monster…)

What tends to be a recurring theme on this blog (though I occasionally promise myself I’ll write about other things) is Canadian film & TV — specifically Canadiana, or Canadian identity, in Canadian film & TV (and the lack thereof). And as I ponder about these things, or I watch a British movie, or read a Swedish novel, my thinking tends to expand into the notion of cultural and national identities around the globe.

We tend to live in an American-centric bubble — particularly in Canada. In the United States they are currently in the midst of a presidential election and there was much coverage in Canada about the presidential debates, who won, who lost, who got in the best zinger.

The funny thing is: I didn’t watch the debates. Largely because I don’t really care. Oh, I care a little, I have a certain lurid curiosity…almost as much as I might care about whether, say, Lea Michele is pregnant. At least Michele is hot. Whereas Barack Obama looks like a black Alfred E. Neuman and Mitt Rommey, well, put a couple of bolts in his neck and he could dress as Frankenstein’s monster for Halloween. I don’t care-care because it’s not really relevant to me. I’m not an American citizen, so I can’t vote, so my opinion about who won, or lost, or who would make the best president is irrelevant. Whoever gets elected will get elected without me, so why fret?

Granted, like the majority of Canadians — according to a recent poll — my sympathies tend toward Obama, but as I say: it’s irrelevant. I can’t vote. Nor can one really be sure who might be better for Canada until they are in power. (Ironically, some media pundits claim that Canada’s Conservative Party would prefer a Republican president…but actually I suspect that’s not necessarily true. Conservatives are often criticized by Liberals and NDPers for being too close to the American government…so from a PR point of view it’s actually in the Conservatives interests to have a moderate president in Washington who’s popular with Canadians). Anyhoo…

Yet I suspect if I expressed my disinterest to a lot of people, they’d be shocked. Certainly I know Americans who would be appalled to hear me suggest their presidential debates aren’t really at the centre of my political concerns. And even a lot of Canadians, who slavishly devote themselves to all things American, would have trouble understanding my nonchalance. Even though they themselves watch the debates with the same eye they would bring to, say, Canadian Idol — as a pop culture spectacle rather than as serious politics.

But their, arguably, irrational obsession gives some idea of the social and emotional climate in which discussions of identity and cultural sovereignty exist.

Often when the issue of Canadian film & TV — Canadian pop culture to use an umbrella term — comes up, detractors and naysayers suggest it’s unimportant and unnecessary. America can take care of our entertainment needs, they say — an argument I’ve heard both from American quarters (with their own biases) as well as Canadian ones. Likewise, when I grumble about Canadian things that try and pretend they aren’t Canadian (usually by being set in the U.S. and pretending it’s an American production) the same response can crop up: it doesn’t matter.

But heres the thing: pop culture is propaganda. It serves a purpose above and beyond simply entertaining, sometimes deliberately so, sometimes just by accident. And, yeah — I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s an interesting topic to revisit…largely because I so rarely see it commented upon in the media.

American movies, books, TV shows, etc…present an American view of reality. And there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, that’s the old storytelling adage: “write what you know”. But it can be problematic when there’s no counter voice, when that’s the only view of reality being presented.

And the reason it’s kind of funny is because, of course, it’s so much a part of American pop culture that it’s rarely even recognized for what it is.

I was thinking about this catching a recent episode of the American TV series Scandal. Scandal is set within the halls of power in America, about a high priced PR firm that specializes in spin doctoring for their exclusive clients. I’ve only seen a couple of episodes and, so far, I haven’t really got into it. It’s certainly not a bad series, it just hasn’t quite grabbed me, the characters not quite firing my interest. But it’s in its second season so I’m guessing it’s doing okay for itself in the ratings.

Anyway, so I’m watching a recent episode and the story ends up revolving around the contentious issue of diplomatic immunity — a foreign diplomat has killed someone in an accident, and the show’s heroine (played by Kerry Washington) is trying to get justice for the dead girl’s family. Now, of course, it’s always a good plot to bring up: pushing all the dramatic buttons involving injustice and faceless bureaucracy and — best of all! — foreign villains! Here the villain continues to saunter about, flaunting his immunity (in one scene smugly waving his passport at a reporter) — I dunno, wouldn’t countries usually try and recall their diplomat in situations like that, precisely so as not to add fuel to the fire of an international incident? And, of course, such stories rarely delve into the historical reasons for diplomatic immunity which is, I assume, to prevent governments from arresting foreign diplomats on bogus charges as negotiating ploys (in other words, there was a legitimate rationale behind it).

Anyhoo…as I say, that’s the plot. An innocent American is killed by a soulless foreigner and the valiant American authorities are helpless to do anything about it. It’s enough to get the blood (and moral outrage) of any true American pumping — which is what good drama all about.

Of course, what the show didn’t acknowledge was all the times the shoe has been on the other foot. The times American personnel (and “contract workers”, ie: mercenaries) have been involved in — or accused of — crimes in foreign lands and are quickly whisked out of the countries in question by the American government, or given token slaps on the wrist…outraging the victims’ families.

Now, obviously — that wasn’t what the episode was about. You can only tell so much story in 45 minutes plus commercials. I suppose they could’ve thrown in some dialogue acknowledging how fingers can be pointed in various directions…but it probably would’ve been pretty clumsy if they did, smacking of an “info dump” rather than dialogue in service of the characters and the story.

But I suspect most Americans are completely unaware of any such incidents on foreign soil where it is their countrymen who are seen as the heartless monsters who hide behind red tape and bureaucracy. And because American pop culture dominates the global landscape (and especially the Canadian landscape) one suspects that even a lot of Canadians watching Scandal wouldn’t reflect on the irony and moral complexity of the dilemma.

Still later in the episode, the American president (played by Tony Goldwyn) remarks upon the fact that he is the “leader of the free world”. That’s a term you hear a lot — and, honestly, I’m not sure what it even means. But it gets repeated so often in American movies and TV shows, and then parroted in the movies and TV shows of other nations, that no one even stops to think about it.

I mean calling the American president the leader of the free world makes as much sense as calling apartheid-era South Africa a democracy. How can people outside of America regard the U.S. president as their “leader” and still be considered “free”…when they have no opportunity to vote for him? And, let’s face it, when push comes to shove, the American president will put American interests ahead of everyone else’s — as well he should! He’d be a pretty poor leader for his country if he didn’t. But as such, it’s hard to see him as a “leader” for the rest of us, eh?

And even the notion of being “leader” is debateable. It’s fostered by the fanciful notion (again promoted by American pop culture) of an American president who can sashay into any international conference and dictate global policy with the arch of an eyebrow. Which as should be pretty obvious to even the most casual observer of the global stage, ain’t the case. Nor can he really claim the moral leadership (the shining beacon on a hill, as American propagandists used to refer to America) as there are plenty of social and moral issues where other nations are waiting for American to catch up with them. Indeed, where they feel America is holding things back.

Yet that phrase “leader of the free world” is bandied about so often, it becomes its own tautology — as if saying it often enough will make it true.

I don’t know whether Scandal creator Shonda Rimes and her team sit around the bullpen and see their job as propagandists for America, their obligation to assure Americans they are God’s chosen people and America is, bar none, the greatest nation in the world. Maybe they’ve just grown up in the cocoon of American media themselves and don’t question it. Or maybe they just figure their ratings would take a hit if they applied a global perspective to their series.

Maybe they just figure it makes better drama.

And the thing is: there’s nothing inherently wrong with that — not at all. The issue becomes a problem though when that’s the only voice, the only perspective, being presented. And not just within in American borders, but in other countries, such as Canada where the majority of movies and TV shows are American in origin. And they present an American-centric view of issues — even to the point of distortion. I seem to recall back during the push to ban land mines internationally (because of their deadly impact on civilians and children), when the American government was finding itself criticized internationally for its refusal to support such a ban…there was a West Wing episode in which the characters blithely claimed America was a supporter of a land mine ban, even intimating it was basically America pushing for it against opposition from vile foreigners. So an American citizen would have a rather, um, skewed view of this international controversy based on the way the story was being presented to him through American media.

For that matter, an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine at the time did a plot dealing with land mines (metaphorically, it being science fiction) in which the heroes were in favour of them and villains sought to ban them. (In other words, they were tackling this global debate — and the American government position was the one that the heroes’ championed).

Now as I say: there’s nothing inherently wrong with this (well, except depending on where you stand on the issue). There’s nothing wrong with American movies and TV promoting America, presenting American heroes, and suggesting America is always in the right. Except when there’s no other point of view being heard.

And the sad truth is, it’s not like America is the only one guilty of this. Indeed, sometimes foreign journalists have remarked with surprise — and grave disappointment — at how the Canadian media is often remiss in covering international news stories that reflect badly on Canada. Stories of Canadian businesses in Africa or Latin America embroiled in scandals or questions of human rights abuses…which only occasionally seem to get reported upon in the Canadian press!

But even when American dramas can seem critical of America…it’s in a strangely jingoistically American way. In the current TV series, Last Resort, a U.S. sub crew goes AWOL, rebelling against the corrupt and sinister forces within the American government. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of motherhood and apple pie…yet in order to do this, the crew overrun and occupy a third party island, and commander the local NATO base. So even as it seems, on the surface, to be a criticism of American imperialism…the solution offered is simply more American gunboat imperialism!

The problem, the series’ makers seems to be saying, is not gun waving Americans who disregard international law…merely when it’s the wrong Americans waving guns and disregarding international law.

Where this becomes ironic is that when American movies and TV shows present this pro-American view, and depict foreigners as scheming, evil and duplicitous, it’s taken in stride. Or at least excused as simply entertainment. Yet when Canadian (or British, or whoever) movies do the same, depicting their country in a good light and perhaps being critical of America…right wingers (and it’s usually right wingers) immediately pounce on it, denouncing it as the vilest of incendiary “liberal” propaganda and should be wrenched from the airwaves (in Canada often leading to editorials demanding arts funding be cut if all it’s going to produce is “anti-American” crap).

Sauce for the goose, they seem to feel, is most definitely not sauce for the gander.

Of course, the reason sometimes Canadian and British things can veer into so-called “anti-Americanism” is, I think, because they often aren’t as comfortable with the kind of rah rah jingoism Americans take as bread and butter. They show their patriotism by being anti-American…because they are self-conscious about being too pro-Canadian!

Still, as I’ve written before, perhaps the reason there’s a need for Canadian movies & TV — and programs that freely and openly admit they are Canadian — is simply to remind audiences that there are other perspectives in the world.

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2 Responses to Pop Culture Offers Different Perspectives

  1. KO says:

    I dont think you’re giving the US enough credit, America is very critical of itself. And isn’t afraid to show its bad side when pushing for what is right. Our movies, tv, documentaries, news, etc. criticize our missteps all the time. One good example is HBO’s The Newsroom, yet no one calls that show and many like it propaganda. There’s a varying spectrum of tv and movies coming from the US, we lay our good and bad out for everyone to see.

    Plus I think “leader of the free world” is a phrase from the Cold War era, where the use lead freedom and democracy and Soviets lead communism.

    • Administrator says:

      Of course American shows deal with dilemmas and issues (Scandal included), you couldn’t have good drama if they didn’t. But it’s generally through an American bias. I’ve never seen Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, but his West Wing was a good example of a series that tried to explore tough and controversial issues…yet was equally prone to jingoism.

      As for the “leader of the free world” phrase, my point as usual with my posts is simply to ask people to think about things they are maybe used to just accepting without analysis. My (self-appointed) job, in a sense, is simply to pull back the curtain on the magic act, to open the door into the kitchen. Whether people agree or disagree with me is less important than just thinking about the whys and hows and whats.