D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) joins Kojo, Tom Sherwood and Mike DeBonis in the studio.
From “House of Cards” and “Breaking Bad” to Miley Cyrus and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” violence and vulgarity now pervades much of U.S. popular culture. As the U.S. has cut its public diplomacy programs, cultural critics say Hollywood — and the distorted image it exports -– has become the de facto U.S. ambassador, giving audiences abroad an exaggerated view of American values and lifestyle. We talk to cultural critic and author Martha Bayles about how our pop culture affects how Americans are perceived in foreign countries, and learn how those on the front lines of public diplomacy can alter that image.
- Martha Bayles Author, "Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad"; Writer; Lecturer, Boston College
Media Inspired By The West
China’s “Super Girl” Singing Contest
In 2004, the TV division of China’s Hunan Broadcasting staged “Super Girl,” a singing contest inspired by the Western “American Idol” format. “Super Girl” became a sensation in China, with a finale that drew more than 8 million text-message votes — a phenomenon that concerned Communist Party leaders. In 2008, “Super Girl” was cancelled to make room for the Beijing Olympics. Eventually the competition was restored, though the SMS voting portion was removed.
Iran’s “Parazit” Political Satire Show
Hosted by two Iranian Americans based in Washington, “Parazit” reached a significant audience, despite heavy jamming by the Iranian government. (Parazit means “static” in Farsi). It also circulated widely in social media. Parazit ended in 2012, reportedly because of disagreements between the two hosts.
Classical Cultural Diplomacy
In 2008, the New York Philharmonic visited the capital of North Korea in the first visit by an American cultural organization to the country. The orchestra’s program included works by Gershwin, Dvorak and Wagner, among others. As a finale, the philharmonic played “Arirang,” a North Korean folk song.
MS. JEN GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo. Sitting through movie previews these days can often feel like a surround sound assault on the senses. From gunfights to chase scenes and body behavior, Hollywood's two-minute teasers often highlight the most violent and vulgar aspects of our culture. While Americans shrug off these images in entertaining exaggerations, the impact on audiences abroad is a lot more complex.
MS. JEN GOLBECKIn fact, following the Cold War and major cuts in U.S. public diplomacy programs, pop culture has taken a leading role in spreading U.S. soft power. From the streets of Ukraine and Egypt to the halls of parliament, the ideas promoted by American pop culture can be as destructive as they are liberating. But does our pop culture reflect the best of America? How does Hollywood affect how Americans are viewed in the world?
MS. JEN GOLBECKAnd can those on the frontlines of diplomacy alter that image? Joining me to discuss is Martha Bayles, author of "Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy and America's Image Abroad." She's also a writer and lecturer at Boston College. Martha, thanks for joining us.
MS. MARTHA BAYLESIt's a pleasure.
GOLBECKYou can join the conversation as well by calling 1-800-433-8850. Martha, you say it's useful to imagine American pop culture as a funhouse mirror. Can you talk about what you mean?
BAYLESWell, sure. I've never seen a funhouse mirror and I suspect most listeners haven't. It was a 19th century thing they had at carnivals with these curved mirrors that made you look enormously fat with a little pinhead or enormously skinny with a great balloon head, that kind of thing. So they take what's there and they exaggerate it for effect. And that's my metaphor for our pop culture, that we see our -- mostly the vices of our society, mostly the things that we consider to be wrong or that we worry about, blown up for comic effect or for, you know, shocking effect.
BAYLESAnd it can be very riveting. And I think we make sense of it here in this country pretty well, although a lot of us are offended by some of it. But overseas it's harder to adjust the picture.
GOLBECKDo you actually see the reverse happening? So as I was reading through your book in the comments and some articles, I was thinking about how to put myself in a place to understand this and thinking kind of about the reverse where I'm looking at video footage from say the Middle East or Asia, which is really a culture that I don't have connections to. Do you think -- just so our listeners can put themselves in the context of the argument you're making -- that if we imagine viewing say entertainment programs from those cultures that we don't know that we might have the same kind of thing where we're seeing certain parts and can't put it in context?
BAYLESOh, that's a great question. We don't see very much entertainment from other countries. As you know, Hollywood and the entertainment industry tend to have a lock on distribution around the world, and especially here. We mostly see other countries through the lens of news. And that all -- like all news it tends to be sensationalist and focus on whatever has exploded this week.
BAYLESThere are ways in which people have been concerned about the representation of Arabs in American entertainment for example, or the representation of people from other Muslim majority regions. And Hollywood is rather attuned to that because over the years they've been reprimanded for misrepresenting women and minorities and so forth.
BAYLESBut in terms of whether the news has a bigger impact then the entertainment, I think for most people entertainment is more important. And there's just no comparing what other countries, other people see about America through entertainment with what Americans see about other countries. We don't see enough in general but the massive export, the massive piracy of our entertainment has -- is just by magnitude larger than anything else.
BAYLESSo it does sort of stand alone as a phenomenon.
GOLBECKYeah, so first off, the Oscars where the film "The Wolf of Wall Street" was a top contender for awards, there may not be another movie out in the past year that better exemplifies this funhouse aspect of American culture. In a piece in the Boston Globe last week, you used this film and its director Martin Scorsese to illustrate how graphic entertainment became so prevalent in this country. And what happens when it goes overseas. Can you give us a little history lesson using this film and its director as an example?
BAYLESWell, sure. Washington and Hollywood have always worked together. I compare them to an old married couple that fight in private, but in public they put up a united front. And that's how they have been toward the world since the beginning of the film industry, certainly since World War I. It's a very amusing and interesting story.
BAYLESSince the '60s -- well, since the (unintelligible) hearings on the '50s and then the Vietnam War in the '60s and the rise of the counter culture, Hollywood and Washington seem to be further apart ideologically often, and in terms of sensibilities. But it's surprising how much Washington has helped Hollywood over the years, especially during the '70s when many of the major studios were close to bankruptcy. And the government stepped in with huge tax breaks, all kinds of assistance in terms of helping the film industry get back on their feet.
BAYLESAnd for repayment you had the bad boys generation of Scorsese and others whose representation of America with the end of the production code in '68 became much more -- well, it was more realistic in many ways and many great films were made. But overtime that new freedom, I think, has been abused in many ways as well. And although I admire many of Scorsese's films, I think "The Wolf of Wall Street" represents an abuse of freedom.
GOLBECKAnd so now that "The Wolf of Wall Street" is going overseas, what happens to the naughty bits?
BAYLESAh, that's very interesting because a lot of the funding for that film came from a company called Red Granite. And one of the CEOs of Red Granite is the step son of the prime minister of Malaysia. And a lot of the money that went into the film is from Malaysia and from the Middle East and from Asia. So you have a lot of foreign funding in the film. And why is the film so long, people ask themselves? My answer is -- and this is pure speculation -- but my answer is so that they can cut a lot of it for export into these foreign markets, because you will not see the film in its entirety in Malaysia. So they will be able to cut a lot and still have a two-hour feature.
GOLBECKAnd what parts are they going to cut out?
BAYLESWell, I think anyone who sees the movie can imagine which parts they're going to cut out.
GOLBECKSo we know that Jordan Belfort's life isn't anything like that of the average American's. Are you saying that many people overseas would actually belief that life is like that in this country?
BAYLESWell, it's hard to say. Some people are credulous and have no real experience of America and believe the most lurid things that they see. Other people may have more critical capacity with regard to media. But their own media in their own country are telling them that America's like this. One of the striking things about our pop culture is how it feeds into a lot of the anti-American propaganda spread by governments that are not very friendly to us. So people get a double whammy. They get it from their own government and they get it from their entertainment.
BAYLESAnd I will tell you this. In some places in the world I found, because people are so accustomed to government-controlled media, they think the U.S. government is sending this stuff to them.
GOLBECKInteresting. So "The Wolf of Wall Street" would be propaganda produced by the U.S. government and sent. Interesting.
BAYLESYeah, I can't verify that but I have talked to people who said, oh yes, a lot of people here in Indonesia, for example, don't understand that American entertainment is not produced by the government.
GOLBECKI think a lot of us would say that the Oscars also highlight the very best of American artistic culture. Would you say that as violent as Hollywood has gotten, it's also at the top of its game with movies like "12 Years a Slave," "Gravity," "Frozen," and others like that?
BAYLESI would say so, yeah.
GOLBECKIf you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you think America's pop culture represents the best of this country, the worst? Is our entertainment too violent or do you think we take that violence to heart? Maybe brush it off as a Hollywood exaggeration? Let us know your thoughts. So Martha, if "The Wolf of Wall Street" has twisted the image of the U.S. financial industry, a hit MTV show has done the same for Washington politics. Many of our listeners might recognize these voices.
GOLBECKThat's villain Francis Underwood of "House of Cards." Last month actor Kevin Spacey who plays the scheming Democratic whip in the series, said he didn't think "House of Cards" was all that removed from what really happens in Washington. I supposed Spacey isn't doing U.S. politics any favors overseas.
BAYLESWell, first thing I have to say about the show is there are two peculiar things about it. One is, it doesn't address what's really wrong with Washington politics. It has nothing practically to say about polarization because it doesn't really have any Republicans in it. They're all Democrats. And Frank Underwood is representative of a near extinct species. He's a southern Democrat. So that's rather bizarre to start with. But that's not the important thing.
BAYLESIn China, there are about 3 million people watching "House of Cards" avidly on the Sohu streaming, sort of the Chinese Netflix. It's one of the streaming services. And to quote the Sinwa news agency in China, quote "A large number of our country's senior leaders in government and enterprises and opinion leaders highly recommend the show." And Chinese government has used American pop culture before for propaganda purposes. I could give you some examples.
BAYLESA columnist for the English language China Daily wrote recently -- he was trying to reassure his readers that the "House of Cards" was not anti-Chinese because there is a Chinese businessman who's kind of a bad guy in the second season. And he reassures his readers by saying, oh no, "House of Cards" is really a strong diatribe against the political system in the U.S., not in China, and so on.
BAYLESSo people in China are watching this, particularly the elites, I think. It's probably getting pirated and downloaded by a lot of other people. And they're -- if you judge from some of what's on the Chinese internet, they're concluding, oh well, America's just -- American government is just like ours. And they don't mean it as a compliment.
GOLBECKAnd this is an example of a show that in one hand -- on one hand it's playing into the Communist Party's hands and that it's showing the American system in a potentially unflattering light. But China would never air a show like this about their own political class, right?
BAYLESYou're absolutely right. One (word?) marveled that the show was even created in America and said, I'm amazed that their propaganda ministry isn't mad about this. This is another quote from the Chinese internet. And so, you know, that's the other side of the sword. It's a double-edged sword. The other side is that people are amazed that you can -- that Americans have the freedom to make a program like this. And I think that's important.
BAYLESBut lately it seems to me that one side of the sword is sharper than the other, the side that shows America in a negative light. Because it is so reinforced by so many other things, it's sharper than the side where it requires a little critical distance to say, oh well, but America must be a great place because you can do this. I think they're both still there but I think one side is sharper than the other.
GOLBECKAnd before we go to a break, I just wanted to read an email from Rebecca that reminds us "House of Cards" was a British series before it was a U.S. one. There's actually a lot of series like that that we've borrowed from the British but they've become much more popular, as the U.S. shows, than they were as BBC shows.
BAYLESWell, I'm going to revisit the British one. I think that the British one tends to be a little more low key and a little -- you know, the guy who wrote the original novel "The House of Cards" was thinking about Macbeth and Richard III, which is one reason why we have these Shakespearian asides in the show, which they had also in the British show.
BAYLESIt's more about one man's ambition whereas the one that's on Netflix, I think it's really trying hard -- and I don't think really successfully if you think -- it's trying hard to make the whole system look really bad. And almost even suggests that America has some kind of a deep state where an ambitious man like that can somehow through some way of getting his secret service guy to get to the FBI to get to this hacker, somehow he can manage to suppress journalists.
BAYLESAnd it fuels -- you talked earlier about lowest common denominator. Well, in this kind of area, the lowest common denominator is conspiracy theories and thinking that there's some villain behind everything.
BAYLESThis has a popular appeal. People tend to think that way. So it obviously is a good formula for entertainment. But one wonders when America's trying to defend certain political principles around the world, whether this is doing us a disservice.
GOLBECKWe'll continue our conversation after a break, but you can join us. Does "House of Cards" reinforce negative stereotypes about America? You can call 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo and we'll be back in a minute.
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm talking with Martha Bayles about her book "Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy and America's Image Abroad." You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850, by email at kojo@wamu (sic) or check us out through Facebook and send Tweets to @kojoshow.
GOLBECKAre you from a foreign country? And what was your impression of Americans before you came here? How did those impressions change? We have a bunch of calls coming in, but Martha, I'd like to turn a little bit more to what's in your book specifically. Is there a way to quantify or describe with data how other countries view America's pop culture influence?
BAYLESYes. Well, there's not a whole lot of data. There have been a few surveys done by Pew and by others not all that recently. In 2005 Pew did a survey of Americans. And 60 percent plus of Americans said that they were deeply concerned about what was in pop culture and what it was teaching their children. And then a few years later they did their big massive 47-nation opinion survey.
BAYLESAnd in that you found quite a few countries with a very negative view of American popular culture. Many of the Muslim majority countries that already were hostile to America in journal, but also India where the favorable opinion toward America was quite high but the unfavorable opinion toward our popular culture was quite high too.
BAYLESBut there's an interesting thing in that 47-nation survey which was conducted in 2007. And that is very high numbers in 43 out of the 47 nations about positive responses to the question, is it a problem that American ideas and customs are spreading here? And those numbers were -- they're very striking. they're all very high. And my question -- the Pew researchers didn't ask this question but I would ask it -- how do people form their opinion of American ideas and customs?
BAYLESOnly a tiny fraction of the human race has ever visited America. Ninety-five percent of the people in the world are not Americans. And a large proportion of people have never met an American. And the answer is popular culture I'm sure.
GOLBECKDo you think it's the case of -- this is an interesting statistic that 43 of these 47 countries were concerned about American culture and pop culture spreading there. Do you think that that would've been the case say 40 years ago when we're kind of in the middle of the Cold War and there's a very different perception of the west versus the east? Do you think that level of concern might've been there at that point, or was America thought of differently?
BAYLESThirty years ago, you say? Well, I'm just trying to date it because...
GOLBECKSure, 30, 40...
BAYLES...I think it matters.
GOLBECKYou can pick.
BAYLESThere's an interesting point of comparison, I can say in response to that. And that is in the -- you know, after the '60s and the rise of the counter culture, sex, drugs and rock 'n roll and all that good stuff, in the '70s when the entertainment industry sort of tried to catch up with that and began to cater to the baby boom generation, this large affluent market, our pop culture began to be -- also with the end of the production code and other relaxation of other forms of self regulation -- it began to get sort of out there like I mentioned before, Scorsese's generation.
BAYLESThis was surprisingly successful in eastern Europe, especially around the rock music. The State Department didn't send rock music over to Czechoslovakia but the plastic people of the universe who are a little dissident group -- little dissident rock group in Prague called their band -- well, they called their band the Plastic People of the Universe after the song by the Velvet Underground, "The Plastic People." I misspoke before but that plastic people was the name of the band.
BAYLESAnd they were great admirers of the Velvet Underground. And they became a sort of symbol of resistance to the regime because they refused to stop doing what they were doing when the Communist government told them to. After a while (word?) noticed and they became sort of heroes of the end of Communist rule. And that's -- there were other examples like that. Not the State Department, just our own pop culture.
BAYLESThis is one reason why we felt, I think, at the end of the Cold War that we could let Hollywood do this for us. We didn't need any public diplomacy because it...
BAYLESBut the point of comparison is how the same cultural influences began going to the Arab world and the Middle East at the same time, where they had an extremely negative effect.
GOLBECKSo not too different from some of the trends that you've described now in how we're perceived.
BAYLESWell, I think at that point it would've depended greatly on the region.
BAYLESThat's kind of what I'm trying to say with that comparison.
GOLBECKWe have a lot of calls coming in. You can also call us. We'll try to take all of your calls at 1-800-433-8850. Let's talk to Scott in Fairfax, Va. Scott, you're on the air. Go ahead.
SCOTTHi. I had a question about -- you've been talking a lot about how negatively America's portrayed. And there have been some movies lately where America is well portrayed such as "Lone Survivor" the one about the Navy SEALs. And I was wondering, when that movie came out. there were some people who criticized that as being too, I guess, pro-American, sort of a (word?) type thing. What -- there's obviously a line that America can walk pop culturally. And I was wondering what you thought that line is. And I'll take my answer off the air.
GOLBECKThanks for your call, Scott.
BAYLESOh, that's a great question. I actually don't know but I would like to know how much cooperation they -- "Lone Survivor" filmmakers had with the film liaison office in the Defense Department. Because there are a great many films that are made with full cooperation of the DOD. And the liaison office in Hollywood is a very big operation because a lot of filmmakers want access to the bases...
BAYLES...and the equipment, and sometimes to the soldiers. All the transformer animated films were made with full cooperation with the DOD. But what I would say about that, with the exception of transformers, most of these heroic films, whether they're made with DOD cooperation or not, they actually are not very popular overseas surprisingly. I mean, maybe not surprisingly. I think a lot of non-Americans see them as flag-waving kind of propagandistic things. So they tend to be successful here but they don't export very well. I think if they exported better they'd make more of them.
GOLBECKSo when I was getting ready for this show, I was thinking about, you know, what are some shows that I would want to export, if we were relying on popular culture and I wanted to kind of show America as great, I wouldn't have thought of movies like "Lone Survivor." But I was trying to think, what do I show that would be good? So I'll tell you my picks but I'd really like to hear yours.
GOLBECKMy two favorite picks would be "Dirty Jobs," which is, so Mike Rowe's show where he goes around and visits kind of working class, blue collar Americans. And he tries to do their job for a day whether it's, you know, cleaning out sewers or working with chickens or bagging food. I think is a great depiction of America in a lot of different ways. And then perhaps also part of the discovery conglomerate, but a different kind of thing would be "Myth Busters," which shows, you know, a lot of, like, American creativity and engineering spirit, and I think a lot of the ways we kind of think of ourselves.
GOLBECKSo those are my two picks, but I'd really like to hear yours. If you got to program American pop culture being shared, what would be some things you would have go out there?
BAYLESWell, first of all, I'm not sure anybody should have that power. I could talk a little bit about how I view censorship and government controls of it. I'm not in favor of that. But if you and I were informally in charge with a magic wand...
BAYLES...I think your picks are great. I especially like the "Dirty Jobs." In terms of drama series, I would nominate "Friday Night Lights."
BAYLESThat five-season long portrayal of Midland Odessa High School football team. And if you haven't seen that show, it -- one of the things that our entertainment industry does not do anymore very well -- it used to do pretty well -- is show -- I hesitate to say this because I don't want to be misunderstood but they don't show good people. And the coach and his wife in that series, and most of the other characters, are all frail imperfect human beings. There's no saints walking around in that show.
BAYLESBut they're the kind of people that we all know who are kind of a real mench, you know, a good guy. And through five seasons they sustained the coming and going of students and their problems and the people in the town and the poor football team that's, you know, always up against it and all the ups and downs. And the husband and wife never cheat on each other, when we all know people who don't do that.
BAYLESAnd you don't even notice it because it's not about that. It's just about -- and it's about race, it's about religion, it's about the poor folks and the rich folks. It's an extraordinary show and I have recommended it to foreign friends. And they sort of said, what? And then they watch it and they start emailing me, we can't stop watching this. It is such a great program about America. So when you and I get our magic wands...
GOLBECKThat's right. We'll put a list together. We have a call from Claudia in Fairfax, Va. Claudia, you're on the air. Go ahead.
CLAUDIAHi. Thanks for taking my call. This is just a comment. I listened (unintelligible) like the last ten years, but almost 20 years ago I was -- I'm from Peru. I was sent to U.S. as an exchange student and I was sent to a little town called Orchard, Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska. It's a very small town. And I was very disappointed when I landed in Nebraska. And when I got to know the community and what it was all about, 'cause I had the idea that all America was like "90210," (unintelligible) those shows that I watched as a teenager in my native country.
CLAUDIASo it took me a while to really adjust and to realize and understand not entire country is like those shows that are exported to countries like mine. So just a comment.
GOLBECKThanks, Claudia. And I want to follow that with a call from Kay who maybe had a similar experience. Kay in Upper Marlboro, Md. Kay, go ahead.
KAYHi. Thanks for taking my call. Yes. Just like Claudia, I grew up in the '60s in the Caribbean watching "Beach Party Bingo," Frankie Avalon. And I was shocked to find most Americans, when I came to New York, never even been to the beach. And there was no beach anywhere around except in California, didn't look anything like "Beach Party Bingo."
GOLBECKThanks for your call, Kay. So California not necessarily a bad image to be sending out there, right, that we're all on the beach all the time. But can you give a kind of broader comment to these?
BAYLESWell, I'm struck that both were disappointed that it wasn't like what they saw. So they were watching the kind of programs that make America look incredibly affluent and incredibly -- you know, everybody's having fun. And that is a big appeal of our entertainment. It's -- you know, the Hollywood people call it eye candy, you know, all the things that we have, our material possessions and the fun that we have and all that. And that's -- there's no discounting that.
BAYLESAnd I think people come here and it's winter and they're not -- you know, and they will be disappointed. But the State Department has an international visitor's program and they bring over a lot of people. And they don't always do study up -- follow-up studies of these people but in 2001 before 9/11, there was a study done of several Mexican visitors, our neighbor Mexico, people who had come on an IVP program.
BAYLESAnd the report that was written up on it has this paragraph, which I don't have in front of me, but in essence it says that the Mexican visitors were very emphatic about the fact that the Americans they met were not like the ones they had seen in entertainment. We were not coke-snorting sybarites who have sex with strangers on the slightest occasion and go around armed, willing to shoot our neighbors if they look at us funny. And the statement also went on to say this is not accurate and it's not attractive. And the Mexican visitors were quite sure that this was an impression they had gotten from entertainment.
BAYLESAnd these were Mexican -- these were our neighbor Mexico. And it was before 9/11 so it's a rather striking report. Somebody sent that to me a few years ago. And testimony from international visitors often have that coloration to it.
GOLBECKInteresting. You can also join the conversation. If you were in charge of programming the best of American culture for foreign audiences, what would be your picks? Do you think America can improve its image abroad through pulp culture? Join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Martha, you traveled to 11 countries interviewing people for your book. Can you share some impressions of what people in places like India and Indonesia said about Americans and our culture?
BAYLESYes. One of the things that I learned that I really would not have thought of sitting at home speculating was, you know, a lot of young people around the world are very, very preoccupied with what I call the urban singles comedy. Young people living on their own in the city.
BAYLESWell, "Sex in the City" would be a slightly more contemporary example. There aren't that many shows like that now except for "Many Girls" which I don't think has made its way into the world. But that format -- and I just assumed it was sexual titillation, you know, everybody sleeping with everybody with no real bad consequences.
BAYLESBut what I heard from the young people I met, the thing that really fascinated them about the show was this personal freedom depicted, and the fact that everybody -- you could live on your own at this age and have no -- not be overseen by your extended family and all your relatives. And have all this freedom to just do whatever you wanted to plus be affluent and not have to work very hard. And this was immensely appealing.
BAYLESBut then when you talk about it a little bit longer, you would get the downside because eventually people would say to me, well that's okay for Americans to live like that. But actually here in India we respect our parents and we feel strongly about our families. And we don't want to live away from our families. And if you start looking at these programs through this lens, as I have done, you're really amazed by the fact there's no grandparents, no aunts and uncles, no cousins. Very rarely are their parents mentioned and very often it's in a very negative light. They're sort of these comic bumbling figures, or they're terrible figures that you just want to get away from.
BAYLESI could go on. I mean, it's -- the hyper individualism of our youth culture and of our entertainment really kind of attracts but also repels young people in other countries.
GOLBECKSo that's interesting because I was -- you touched on it at the end, I was interested in -- these shows must be appealing to American audiences because of this hyper individualism that we value. And, in fact, if you look at people in their 20's, their parents are generally very involved in their lives. They're often living close to home. Some of them are still living at home. And so the shows can portray us as, I don't know how these people don't work, but they don't really have a lot to do with their job and they've got a lot of money and they're living in these New York apartment son their own.
GOLBECKSo that could be appealing to American audiences who are maybe aspiring to that. But then are you saying potentially they come across as, this is how American life is and that can be isolating to people who see themselves in a situation with their families around and can't quite identify with that?
BAYLESOr people who think the family's the most important thing in their life and who take their responsibilities toward their family extremely seriously. A great way to look at this is when you look at what's going on in Bollywood, the Indian film industry. Because traditionally the Indian film industry has always dealt with the issue of whether you're going to marry the person you love or you're going to marry the person that your family wants you to marry.
BAYLESAnd there's a million terrific Bollywood movies about this and some are really bad Bollywood movies about this. But in recent years, partly because of a shift in the audience demographics, the whole sense of an extended family, the village, all those people who took up part of the three hours of the film whose opinion mattered about who this young person was going to marry, they've kind of disappeared. And it's getting more and more focused on the young lovers.
BAYLESAnd I know a lot of people -- you know, people who know the Indian film industry really well who see this as an inevitable change but who are very sorry to see that social texture just kind of airbrushed out, in imitation of us.
GOLBECKYeah. Let's take one call from Jim in Frederick, Md. Jim, you have a movie that's going to represent the United States to the international community?
JIM"It's a Wonderful Life."
GOLBECKSo I have to confess, and I'm embarrassing myself by saying this, that I have never seen "It's a Wonderful Life." It was on 500 times during the Christmas season when I was a kid so I refused to watch it. And now it's on, like, once a year and I've actually never seen it. But, Martha, I'll let you comment on "It's a Wonderful Life."
BAYLESWell, it's a wonderful movie. But I -- and I do think that there's a place in a robust cultural diplomacy for, A, representing American high culture, our literature, our drama, our dance, our music, our finest jazz, our finest classical music and also what I would call our classical popular culture. And "It's a Wonderful Life" and all those wonderful Hollywood movies that stand out on the Turner Classic Movies Channel, for example.
BAYLESI love those things. But I see them as classic American culture. And the problem is not that we don't have a good past -- people don't know that we have a cultural past. A lot of people around the world don't think America has any high culture. But the problem is really the contemporary stuff. So to set an older movie like that against the contemporary stuff is sort of like sending another jazz tour, you know...
BAYLES...when people are concerned about, you know, some of the nasty things that are said in hip-hop, you know, or that certain kind of hip-hop. It's just, you know, it's our past and that's nice. But it's not going to address the problem now.
GOLBECKThat's a great point. We'll continue our conversation with Martha Bayles after this break. You can join us by calling 1 (800) 433-8850. I'm Jen Golbeck and you're listing to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Martha Bayles about her book, "Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad." If you'd like to join us, call 1-800-433-8850. So, Martha, "American Idol" didn't come from a group of American producers, but it's a format and the singing style is all-American. What kind of influence has this show and other reality shows based on talent had on overseas audiences?
BAYLESOkay. Well, first of all, allow me to correct you. At the risk of alienating our British friends, the idea of a talent show on which the audience votes is an American idea. It goes back to the Ted Mack original -- a talent show back in the '50s.
GOLBECKI was going to say, I don't know that one either.
BAYLESIt even goes back to American radio. Major somebody had a radio show. So its roots are American. And back then the BBC didn't do things like that, only commercial radio in America did, so...
GOLBECKSo point for us.
BAYLESThe roots are us. And I make a distinction between two kinds of so-called reality shows. And, one -- I think they're very different. One is a talent contest. In the Arab world, sometimes it's a poetry contest, because poetry is very important to Arab listeners and that, you know, it's a very central part of Arab culture. Every single country in the world has either a Freemantle franchise, that is the British company franchise of the pop-idol kind of format, or they have their own home-grown version of a singing contest. These are just ubiquitous, everywhere.
BAYLESAnd I don't think that's what we normally think of as reality TV, because it's real people, but it's based on talent. It's based on a kind of level playing field. Everybody gets a crack at it. It's not who your parents know, it's how good you are and how hard you work that gets you ahead. And it has this amazing component of public voting. And that's very different from other kinds of reality shows we can talk about in a minute. So I see that as actually a positive export. I don't always like the music. I find it a little on the bubble-gum side.
BAYLESBut -- and it's bubble-gum in every single country. It tends to be a version of bubble-gum. But it is, in countries that are not democratic and where people are not allowed to vote and young people do not have any kind of a sense of how they can get ahead by their own efforts really, these shows have had a rather galvanizing effect, even to the point of upsetting the government. And the prime example of this would be a show that was created in China in 2004 by the provincial Hunan Broadcasting Company, it's now called Golden Eagle.
BAYLESThe show has a great title, it was called "The Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Female Voice Contest," which I'm sure sounds better in Mandarin. And it got to be known as "Super Girl." And it was, by 2005, it was up on the satellite all over China and they had 120,000 contestants...
BAYLES...applying to try. And in the final segment of the show, which galvanized the entire country or at least the youth portion of a lot of the Chinese population. You had 400 million viewers and 8 million text votes. I mean, it would have had more text votes, except it cost money and not everybody could afford it. The winner was a kind of a tomboyish girl, slightly tall for a Chinese, with sort of spiky hair and a boyfriend shirt, who didn't wear a lot of makeup and sang songs that sometimes boys sang. And she was a folk idol. I mean, she just was, you know, adored by the youth because she was so unconventional.
BAYLESHer name was Li Yuchun. Well, this caused -- and I have this from the mouth of a highly placed official in the State Administration of Radio Film and Television...
BAYLES...in China -- it caused an urgent debate because of the voting aspect. Young people were going out in the street with, you know, and actually picketing in favor of their favorite performers and so forth. And the story goes on. Shall I continue and tell you? Because the first -- what they did, in stages, was they shut the program down.
GOLBECKYeah, well, let's hear a little of what this subversive show sounds like. We have a clip here of Super Girl.
GOLBECKListeners can see a full clip of this Super Girl performance at our website, KojoShow.org. So, Martha, why don't you continue telling us, what happened to Super Girl?
BAYLESOkay. Well, I can't help but comment, that girl had a very deep voice. She wasn't that much of a tomboy.
GOLBECKWas it -- was it all girls on the show?
BAYLESIt was all girls.
BAYLESIt was all girls. I don't know where this clip is from, but maybe they have a backup singer who's in front.
GOLBECKIt could be -- it sounded like, yeah, that there was a...
BAYLESThat was a guy, I think.
GOLBECK...the girl was singing -- she came in later over the male background singer.
BAYLESIt was all female contestants, origin -- back in 2005. Well, one thing that happened was the SARTF, the State Administration of Radio, Television and Film, had a press conference in which they denied that Li Yuchun was gay.
BAYLESAnd maybe I'm being too speculative here, but you know how it works. If you deny something like that, you also imply that it might be true. And I think that -- I think, this is again my speculation and also reflects some of the things I heard when I was over there -- that it was the first step in discrediting the show, because the Chinese public are still, you know, not very sympathetic toward gay performers or gay people in general. In 2008, all of these shows -- and there were several at that point -- were canceled because of the Beijing Olympics.
BAYLESAnd then they brought them back. Even Super Girl was brought back, but with one minor change: no voting.
GOLBECKThat's kind of the core aspect of these shows, right? That you get to vote.
GOLBECKSo, who voted? Did you have a panel then that was picking?
BAYLESA studio audience.
BAYLESAnd you can be sure that they were carefully selected.
BAYLESThere's a great line from the China Daily, when Li Yuchun won the contest. I'm not saying her name right, Li Yuchun. And the quote went like this: How come an imitation democratic system ends up selecting the least talented singer?
BAYLESThat was what the -- that was what SARTF wanted people to think.
BAYLESAnd I think there still are some shows like this and I've heard that some of them still have the voting. But I would like to look more deeply and see how this -- how the preliminary rounds are done. Because I think maybe they have the voting but they've kind of vetted the contestants a bit more.
GOLBECKYeah. So an interesting American export of democracy through "American Idol." You can join our conversation. Tell us what you think about American pop culture and how it represents us internationally. You can call 1 (800) 433-8850. Let's take a call from Arnold in Beltsville, Md. Arnold, you're on the air. Go ahead.
ARNOLDThank you. Is my phone active?
ARNOLDOkay. Great. Let me pull up. So I wanted to make a couple comments about American culture and other supported media. I don't want to forget to say that I saw the move, "Lone Survivor," and I'm retired military. And I particularly didn't care for the movie. I thought it was way too violent and it was stereotypical of just about everybody in the movie. Now, the hero is a real hero, and the book is much better than the movie. But what's new about that? And the other think I thought I'd mention is government -- not necessarily government -- sponsored assistance in movie production.
ARNOLDDuring World War II, my mother worked for Columbia and she met lots of, you know, Red Skeleton, Lucy Ball and all that, and nowadays, there are many more experts than just Lucy Ball and whoever. And, if you watch one of these movies, you'll see at the end of it, they'll tell you who their military or Air Force or whatever advisor was. And they list the name. And usually it's a retired general or something. But, you know, that's essentially my comment. The culture that we portray to the world, in my opinion, clearly is the worst 10 percent of American culture.
GOLBECKThanks for your call, Arnold. Martha, do you want to comment?
BAYLESWell, you're right. I'm curious to hear more, but I guess I'm not going to, about your mother's experience. Yeah, Washington and Hollywood worked quite closely during World War II and it's a great story. A lot of the -- what happened was, a lot of people went out from the Office of War Information to Hollywood and they were quite intimidated by the studio people. And they basically concluded: We can't tell these people how to make films. And so they kind of let the studios -- but there wasn't a lot of back-and-forth.
BAYLESAnd even during the war, there was some strikingly pro-Soviet films, because of course the Soviet Union was our ally.
BAYLESAnd, you know, in the HUAC hearings, after the war, some of the most pro-Soviet films had been made by people who were then investigated by HUAC. But during the war, they were doing it because they had been asked to do it by the government. So there's all sorts of twists and turns in that tale.
GOLBECKLet's take another call from Phil. Phil, you're on the air. Go ahead.
PHILHi, how are you doing? I just wanted to address the earlier comment of perspective -- the world's perspective of America. From my experience as recently, with immigrants coming here, especially from the African nations, and they just keep telling me that how America is viewed by the world as the place of promise, opportunity and (word?) From what I understand, we are the number one destination of all immigrants in the world. And, beyond that, when they come, of course, they're challenged by the newness of their environment and how to make -- take advantage of their opportunities.
PHILBut I would just like to say, in conclusion, with Ms. Bayles about the way our perceptions have been made by this pop culture. I think we've given it away to the movie industry and to the people with the loudest voices, rather than letting the standards of our country be put out by people of integrity, by places -- personally, myself -- of faith that have a standard and believe in a constant, perpetual goodness for all. Thank you.
GOLBECKThanks for your call, Phil. Martha, do you want to comment?
BAYLESWell, I think you're quite right that a lot of -- most immigrants come here because they want to. We don't force people to come here. We tend to try to keep them out sometimes, there are so many. And people come here for economic opportunity, primarily. Immigrants today tend not to come to America because of -- they are yearning to be free, to quote the lines from the Statue of Liberty. They come for economic opportunity. And that's fine. And we can argue about that. But I also agree with you that our pop culture shows only a very small percentage of our reality.
BAYLESAnd I think that's -- yeah.
GOLBECKSo we have nominations for drama, reality and comedy shows from emailers to go on our list. And they really cover a wide range of different things. So, for drama, Gabe writes and recommends, "The Wire." He says, it's a portrait of a city, American corruption, poverty, drugs, power, politics, and a lot of other things I'm not going to read. So I'll give you the full list and then you can comment on all three shows. So we have "The Wire" for the drama. Gabe also suggests "Shark Tank" for the reality show, which for our listeners who haven't seen that is small-business owners come in and pitch their business ideas to a panel of wealthy investors.
GOLBECKGabe says this is entrepreneurs in action. And Suji recommends "The Simpsons" as the best show to represent U.S. culture. It's a depiction of an imperfect yet ultimately moral family. So, Martha, what are your thoughts? "The Wire," "Shark Tank," "The Simpsons," pick any or all.
BAYLES"The Wire," is a tough one. I'm a great admirer of that show. I think it's really well done. For me, it's a case of how are our institutions represented? And it would be easy to characterize the show as one that sort of says: Well, the folks in city hall and the police are just as bad as the drug dealers. Maybe they're not -- maybe they're even worse than the drug dealers. And a lot of our entertainment portrays our cities that way. That I have a problem with. I think the wire does -- rises above that eventually. And it kind of does show both sides.
BAYLESAnd it shows the kind of battles that go on in our cities. And it's an artistic triumph. So, you know, it shows the bad stuff. I don't want just "Little House on the Prairie" out there or "The Waltons." I want to see -- I think people should see it. But, like I said before, we don't represent all the decent people going about their business. They get airbrushed out. And that's a problem. "Shark Tank," okay. "The Simpsons," we don't have to push that one out there. It's out there. It's extremely popular around the world.
GOLBECKAnd do you think that does a good job of portraying American culture in a positive way?
BAYLESWell, you know, there's a cliche about American entertainment. People always say, and I've heard it many times: Oh, they have all these action shows with explosions because people don't understand the subtleties of comedy. That doesn't translate well. That was said, like, 30, 40 years ago. It ain't true anymore. "The Simpsons" is enormously popular around the world and people actually file share it with their own translations. And I don't know how some, you know, some young student somewhere in Indonesia is going to translate it into Malay, but people do that.
BAYLESAnd they get it. I mean, it's remarkable how popular that show is and how many people, you know, relate to a lot of the comedy. So the one thing I would say is that it puts to rest that old cliché that people around the world can't understand subtlety in comedy because it doesn't cross borders. "The Simpsons" have crossed many borders. And so have our great animated features that contain a lot of rich humor and very little graphic violence and very little of the stuff I'm criticizing.
GOLBECKSo Disney, right?
BAYLESWell, yeah, Disney, as long as it's not too sappy. But, no, of course, the sappy stuff is very popular. But I'm not arguing for a sappy tone for -- the dominant tone of our pop culture to be sappy.
BAYLESBut sappy works.
GOLBECKMartha Bayles, it's been lovely talking to you. Martha Bayles is author of "Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad." She's also a writer and a lecturer at Boston College. Thanks so much for joining us.
BAYLESIt's such a pleasure to be on this show. Thank you.
GOLBECKI'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi today. Thanks very much for listening.
Most Recent Shows
Whether you like horror stories or cookbooks, poetry or works in translation, we consider a range of titles that will keep you turning pages. And we want to know what's on your reading list, so join the conversation on air or on our website to share the best book you've read this year.
With Burberry and Kate Spade stores now open at the new luxury-oriented CityCenterDC, we examine how mixed-use developments around our region choose and attract the retailers that are key to their success.
After five years in a Cuban jail, USAID contractor and Washington area resident Alan Gross is home. We explore the role the local Jewish community played in winning his release.