The Broad is Back!

April 28, 2007

I Saw it on Television, so it Must be True

Filed under: Old Broads — by maggiec @ 3:56 pm

Originally published Sept 26, 2002

One of the things that continually amazes me is the power of Hollywood. Now this is something I’ve been aware of for a long time. There’s always something in the papers or in journals about the effects of television’s negative stereotyping on (fill in the blank). Just concerning myself, I’m aware of stereotypes about blondes (dumb), women (inferior to men), scholars (too damn serious), college professors (stuffy and pompous or busy sleeping with students), and Irish-Americans (drunks, but great at a party or, alternately, IRA supporters).

Most of the time I tell myself it’s entertainment. Relax, don’t over-analyze everything, I say. Then come the echoes of undergraduate days and I hear, dimly, in the back of my mind, “Everything is political – everything makes a statement.” And then I wonder, should I boycott television? Should I write an academic article that 17 people would read? Should I spout off to my friends and end up sounding either pretentious (see college prof stereotype above) or too serious (ditto scholar)? Shut up and write my own television scripts that are politically correct in all ways? The choices are so depressing that I usually give up and do nothing, hoping that someday things will get better.

But when I moved abroad I realized that the power of Hollywood is far reaching. Imagine this scene: Early in my first semester teaching in Taiwan, I was sitting in front of my composition class while we were discussing differences in cultures and cultural stereotyping based on an essay we’d read on being a “Modern Asian”. One very intelligent and sophisticated student confidently announced, “Americans do not respect their parents.”

“How do you come to this conclusion?” I asked, thinking she’d come up with something based on Confucian precepts being at odds with American ideals of individual independence.

“Americans call their parents by their first names,” she stated firmly.

“Surely not all Americans?” I queried.

“Yes, all of them,” she replied firmly.

The rest of the class started murmuring their assent, and I confess to being a little bewildered at their confidence.

I could tell by the look on her face that bolstered by the support of her classmates, she was sure she had made her point. This was too much for me, so I blurted out the rather poor pedogological statement, “You’ve got to be kidding!”

A chorus of reassurance met my cries. The students were positive they were correct. More flabbergasted than ever, I asked, “But how do you come by this astonishing fact?”

“It’s in all the movies,” stated my student, the look on her face clearly telling me what she thought of the department’s newest teacher.

“And the TV shows, too, Miss,” chorused another in support.

“But that’s Hollywood – you can’t trust Hollywood,” I cried, deeply distressed at this point. The looks I got after this statement showed me they thought I was truly a babe in the woods.

“What about me?” I asked. “You all know I live with my mother and you’ve seen us together. What do I call her?”

After a few moments, someone said, “Mom?”

“Exactly!” I cried, hoping that now all would be made clear.

“But you’re the exception that proves the rule,” piped in one smart aleck, who had evidently been studying his English idioms. Have to say that stumped me, but only for a minute. Then I came up with the perfect answer.

“Okay then – and all Chinese people work for triads, know martial arts, and do well at math.” You should have heard the yells of protest following that statement. After a lively debate, we finally came around to the premise that Hollywood uses stereotypes as a kind of shorthand, and secondarily, that not all Americans call their parents by their first names. (I wonder what they are watching to have come up with the idea in the first place, and I’m still not sure they bought it that we don’t, but I did my best.)

And yes, this really happened. I promise you that I’m not embellishing to make a better story. And what’s more disheartening to me is that I’ve had far too many similar arguments in the years I’ve lived abroad and not just with students.

I know Americans complain about Hollywood not truly depicting America, and that it’s something we’ve debated internally for years and years. But it’s scary to realize that people in other cultures see our movies and TV shows and think that’s the real America.

I tell you, this has changed how I look at TV shows. Some innocuous comedy comes on, and immediately I’m thinking, “These characters are so shallow! So self-absorbed! So sex obsessed! They do not represent me!” I see myself taking a step back and looking at the big picture and thinking, “Yuck! I don’t like these people.” So many of the characters on American television are neurotic or carrying “baggage.” No wonder America’s worldwide reputation is slipping. Aren’t there any regular people out there? I mean, I’m not asking for Ward and June Cleaver, but isn’t there a happy medium that could get exported?

So what shows do we get over here? Lots, really, thanks to cable and satellite. In the past few years I’ve gotten: The X-Files, The Sopranos, NYPD Blue, ER, Ally McBeal, Sex in the City, Just Shoot Me, Friends, Seinfeld, Six Feet Under, and the strangely popular The Young and the Restless. Now I have nothing against these shows, and many of then are very high quality productions. Many of them I watch and enjoy, except for that underlying question that pops unasked into my head, “What is this saying about my society?”

Step back and think about the picture they give of America. Until Six Feet Under started this year (now there’s a nice normal family for you, and I don’t mean because they are funeral directors), The Sopranos was the only show with anything like a family setting, and it has the slogan, “If one family doesn’t kill him . . . the other family will.” Even I have to admit that it’s probably the show that is closest to my own life experiences, though you’d have to take out the Mafia, indiscriminate sex, extreme violence, drugs and incredible cash flow, of course. Other than that, they are a Roman Catholic family on America’s East Coast, just like mine. My brother and his family are even in Jersey. And I have a lot of Italian-American cousins and friends. But no, I don’t think that really counts.

And hey, I was a single woman in NYC, but my life looked nothing like Carrie and company’s. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that I’d want it to, either. And it was nothing like the gang on Friends. How do they afford those apartments? Nor was it close to NYPD Blue, though I did sublet from a cop. The Simpsons are pretty popular, and even though Homer and Bart are buffoons, in many ways they are a pretty typical family. Not the best example of Americans, but then they are cartoon people, so hopefully non-Americans will take that into account.

What scares me even more, though, is that The Jerry Springer Show has been available in two of the countries I’ve lived in, and through reading the snide comments in the international press, I know it’s available in many other European markets. My husband will sometimes watch it for a laugh, but I absolutely cringe with embarrassment when it’s on. That show is scary. Some of the other “talk shows” make it over here, as well, and people think it’s real.

Now I know for a fact that people lie to get on talk shows like that. When I taught in NYC, one of my students and her cousin constructed some fantasy dilemma and were on one of them. When she told me about it, she thought it was a big joke – and an hysterically funny one at that. She got to be on national TV, and she even laughed at how stupid and pathetic the people are who watched her and her, as she put it, “BS.”

Okay, for some of the sad souls on those shows, it is real. But they are a certain segment of the US population, and hopefully a small one. Every country has its idiots, America included. But why do we export ours as entertainment? Or should that be exploit ours?

So what are we gonna do? That’s the question, isn’t it? And no one has the answer, or we wouldn’t still be having all these debates about quality television and programming. And I’m also not saying that it is Hollywood’s fault that the people who watch its products are so gullible. But I think the point that I’m trying to make is that just as we shouldn’t believe the stereotypes were are given by the media about other cultures, we also need to see the big picture and realize that we’re not the only ones who are watching. Television stereotypes are like one of those internal company memos that get leaked. It’s bad enough to have to deal with stupidity in-house, but when it gets broadcast to the world at large, things can get really embarrassing.

“So what?” you ask. “Who cares what other people think of us?” Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Many people from other countries fall into the trap of believing that we’re neurotic, obsessed buffoons with no interest past the ends of our noses. Scary thought, because we’re not. Not all of us. Well, not most of us. And when defending my fellow Americans, I don’t want to ever have to listen to someone yell at me again, as I have in the past, that I didn’t know what I was talking about – I didn’t understand what Americans are like. I still haven’t come up with an answer to that one.

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