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Monday, October 08, 2007


What is it with American sitcoms?

More particularly, why is it that every US sitcom I've ever seen always casts the European love rival as doomed and/or evil?

I stopped watching Minnie Driver on Will and Grace after she made a comment about being English and being gay meaning the same thing - racism aside, it was simply too wide of the mark to be funny (I mean, we do reproduce somehow, you know) - but I was around long enough to pick up that she was evil. Carrie at the end of Sex and the City goes all the way to Paris to be with the perfect man, only to find it all falls through thanks to European cold heartlessness and goes back to her Yankee beefcake. Ross in Friends marries English Emily and - now this is really odd - while Emily begins as completely the victim of the situation, running off in horror after he says another woman's name during their wedding ceremony, she gets portrayed more and more as controlling and unreasonable, until finally he gets to leave her. It's too dispiriting to look for other examples, but I'll stake money that there are some. Turn up with an English or French accent in a US sitcom, and somebody there is going to love you and leave you - and they'll always be the leaver, not the leavee.

What is with this? There seems to be an underlying assumption that the Euro-love, who's usually a rival to an American suitor, has something resembling an unfair advantage. I'm not sure what that is; it seems to be either quaint cuteness or mysterious sophistication, possibly both. I hasten to add I'm not saying Europeans are either cuter or more sophisticated than Americans, but there seems to be this odd cultural cringe towards Europe: fall for a Euro, and they'll break your heart so bad you'll realise your mistake and go home.

I'm hoping my American brother-in-law doesn't decide to follow this path himself, but really, why is it that you so seldom see comedies portraying a successful relationship between an American and a European? The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Frasier, and the English girl in question is a) Northern, unusual in any US sitcom (stereotypes would have you believe we're all either Cockney or titled), b) burdened with a large and bizarre enough family to get some English-baiting fun in anyway, and c) working towards being a naturalised American, which sort of removes the stain of her birthplace.

So what's going on? Why is being born in Europe equated with being untrustworthy in love? Come on, enlighten me.

I don't really have an answer for this, but you see it in films too. English people in American films are generally either the villain or the comic relief. Possbily as a result of our plummy accents and penchant for tea and crumpets.

Actually, I've found a similar attitude within England. I lived with a girl from Bradford when I was at university, and she'd never met anyone from further south than Birmingham when she met me. She was convinced that everyone in Cambridge spent their days drinking champagne and playing polo, and was very upset to learn otherwise.
But I hate crumpets! They're like a bathroom sponge that decided to hide in the kitchen cupboard for fear of being washed!

Now I want a hot cross bun.
LOL, but you're English! You have to eat crumpets and have afternoon tea and keep a maid!
The corner shop seems to agree with you. They had crumpets but no hot cross buns.

I suspect American intervention.
I think it may largely be because any foreign characters in US sitcoms, regardless of origin, will inevitably be novelty walk-ins or there to serve some kind of narrative purpose.
Interestingly Helen Baxendale apparently left Friends earlier than they planned because her pregnancy meant she couldn't travel to America as much. Was the character's unreasonable behaviour created to facilitate the early exit? Or would she have got even worse?
More importantly, why can't I find any decent iced buns without dried fruit in them?
Because you aren't going to Marks and Spencer, that's why. They have white ones and pink ones.

I still maintain that she didn't have to be written as unreasonable if they wanted to write her out. There were other solutions. She could, perish the thought, dump him.
I think it's the inherent American yahooism that also makes it so that if you have two characters in a story who have different educational levels (say, one who went to graduate school), the one with the greater education is always the bad one.

For whatever reason, either Americans are or authors and editors assume we are in general afraid of education, sophistication, and urbanity. We want, supposedly, the salt of the earth, the home-baked meal, the uneducated nose-picker for a husband.

Or something like that.
But hang on a second - levels of education aren't necessarily higher in England or France than in America. There are millions of unyahooish Americans out there. (Including some who read this blog; hi guys. :-) Anyone who feels like speaking up for their nation, do weigh in.)
We are indoctrinated to think that the British accent -- any British accent, and possibly also Irish, Australian, South African, whatever -- make you smarter. And yes, that is a gross generalization. But smartness in a villain is desirable to get across the menace and sexiness/allure that makes a villain layered, I suppose, and an accent we find posh is a convenient shorthand. (We do a similarly stereotypical thing when we give a villain an accent from the Southern United States, and it tends to be equally if not more insulting -- "dumber than us" instead of "posher/smarter" than us.)

(LOL - when I was a kid I idolized England in particular because I sincerely thought everyone was still wearing hoopskirts, and GOD I wanted a hoopskirt soooooo bad. Stop giggling, I was seven.)

I could explain this more coherently if it were not Monday. But, do you know, I never really noticed this until it was pointed out to me by an English person. Even in cartoons like "The Lion King." To which my weak response was "But... but the accent is what makes him HOT!" And it was true -- all my favorite villains, the ones I wanted to stay onscreen or see sequels about, had some form of alternatively English-language accent. Or were John Malkovich.

There are indeed some American actors who are used to the same effect, actually -- rich voice=ultimate evil. But they tend to be... er... well they tend to be James Earl Jones. (Or John Malkovich. Whose voice it NOT rich. What's up with that???)

And I used to think that it was really sort of a roundabout compliment, not really meant as an insult. (Based on my subjective life experience, that little bit of the film "Love Actually" where the English boys go to a remote American town to use their accents to finally get laid? Not that far-fetched. It makes people coo. I have witnessed this. I terrified a young lady in Macy's just two weeks ago, asking if she was Irish. I am properly ashamed.) But now I think the shorthand is just really very lazy and should be stopped.

[Plus most sitcoms are not that good. :-) Not that I'm prejudiced. Some of my best friends are sitcoms. Or something.]

I have noticed, recently, a significant tapering off of Americans (well, British persons doing American accents) in British sitcoms being used as embodiments of not-good-traits, so that would be nice to see reciprocated over here.

I think Jack Davenport recently had a pretty morally-neutral role in a US film. Unfortunately the film was "The Wedding Date." (Google amongst yourselves; I'd rather not relive it.)
"Us" in that first paragraph ought to have been made more sarcastic, somehow -- I'm not trying to suggest that US Southerners are somehow not included in "us" -- in real life. Please assume I am making the proper explanatory hand motions.
Can't speak to sitcoms, since I don't watch enough to have ingested a representative sample, but I can speak to the English Villain Syndrome.

It's because the people in charge of Hollywood are all complete cowards.

Just about everything Hollywood does makes sense once you understand that.

That's why, in a Hollywood movie about terrorism, the terrorists are almost never Arabs, because that would be stereotyping Arabs as terrorists and that would be Racist and Wrong, and a good Hollywood coward cringes at the very idea of being called Racist and Wrong.

Likewise you can't have a black villain, because that would be stereotyping black people as criminals and that would be Racist and Wrong, too. So the black actor is cast as the by-the-book detective lieutenant whose stern advice is ignored by the free-spirited (white) detective who's the hero of the film.

Plus, the producers get to say, "Yeah, there's only one minority in the movie, but he's in a really important part!"

This is called Black Lieutenant Syndrome. Here's an article about it.


So you want some kind of International Terrorist Villain for your movie, and there are all these superb classically-trained British actors who are happy to cross the Atlantic and pick up a Hollywood paycheck, so you cast Alan Bates or Alan Rickman or Jeremy Irons as your terrorist mastermind, and what you have is a match made in . . . well, Hollywood.

It's not that we don't like Brits or that we find Brits particularly creepy, it's that we're =total cowards!=

And there's no Eurotrash Defense League to picket our films and call them Racist and Wrong.

Somebody should start one, really. And then Guys from Jersey would have to start playing all the international terrorists.
I'll attempt to stick up for America and mention that it cuts both ways - I just saw "Run, Fatboy, Run", in which pretty Thandie Newton dumps her rich American suitor after he turns out to be a cold jerk (although I have to say that the ex that she ends up with doesn't seem like much of a better man).

I'd guess that the foreigner is a convenient dumpee in most cultures. Romantic comedies are supposed to be reassuring, and what's more reassuring than very mild xenophobia? "I may be a squat, cranky, old (wo)man, but at least I'm Nationality X and nobody can take that away from me! Rah!"
Jessica's probably right, sigh. Xenophobia is frustrating.

'the black actor is cast as the by-the-book detective lieutenant whose stern advice is ignored by the free-spirited (white) detective who's the hero of the film.'

On the other hand, Britain is losing a lot of its best black actors like Eamonn Walker and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje to America, because there are more and better jobs for them there.

I think there are two things behind the English-villain syndrome; one, there isn't a big English population in America to make a fuss about it, and two, every time you get told why America is so great, I gather that Throwing Off British Tyranny is reason number one. From an English perspective, the Yanks are really sore winners - I mean, guys, you won that war, cheer up about it - but there does seem to be a slight tendency to assume that anybody with an English accent is trying to re-colonise anyone with an American one. The War of Independence is simply important to Americans in a way that it's not to Brits; the result is a kind of one-sided grudge match.

But what's with the assuming an English accent is automatically sexy? (Especially as another stereotype is that English people are supposed to be bad in bed.) That, I think, doesn't generally cut the other way. Possibly I'm over-stereotyping, but the American tendency to get worked up over foreign accents seems greater than most nations.

With the John Malkovitch-Lion King (ie Jeremy Irons) thing, I wonder if part of the effect might just be voice training. There's a long tradition of projection and enunciation in British stage schools, which does tend to produce a very sonorous voice tone that's attractive to listen to. Then again, if anything furrin-soundin at all gets a rise, perhaps it's just an assumption that anything from elsewhere is exotic.
"Possibly I'm over-stereotyping, but the American tendency to get worked up over foreign accents seems greater than most nations."

Can't explain it, can't deny it -- although, I was party to a situation on the Isle of Wight where, on the back of a haycart, when a friend of mine made a comment to me that I can't remember, a curly-haired, perky teenage girl turned to her with a huge smile and practically bounced and said (I kid you not) "Cor! You sound just like Rikki Lake!" (My poor friend was pissed off for the rest of the day. I don't think she should have been.) And another friend of mine has made lifelong friends like that in Australia: "OH MY GOD, i LOVE your ACCENT!" "no, I love YOUR accent!"

Of course, then there are those fun "Why do you Yanks pronounce everything WRONG?" conversations on the commuter train, with people you did not know and were not talking to in the first place. (I like to think that was because the friend on the trip with me that time was exceedingly hot and the guys just wanted to talk to her, but... no. Not endearing.)

I have heard the "bad in bed" stereotype, but only from English people. (Okay, and from ONE German student I had.) As well as the "American women will judge me by my fingernails!!" panic when my buddy came to visit me from London. Which -- unless she was going for a job interview I don't think she should have worried. I have also heard "Americans are bad in bed!" but that was in the Evening Standard. I wonder sometimes if Americans are actually just way more oblivious than other people think. I'm dead-up certain that until the past few years, most Americans had no idea we were as observed as we are -- we certainly weren't doing much watching of other people.

As for That War -- well, it's how the country began. You guys were around for thousands of years before that. :-) You've got more to play with. It's like a kid getting excited about their birthday -- Mom and Dad's life before that is simply not important. (Not that that's okay... plus the entire history book before that is filled with interchangeable explorers running across the map claiming shite that wasn't theirs -- the George Washington "GIVE ME LIBERTY, OO-RAH!" bits are where it all starts to get exciting and the class of bored ten-year-olds finally wakes up -- we know this guy, he's on the money -- we identify... we can pronounce his name...) I do think, though, that the English tend to underestimate the extent of the parental feeling that surfaces, over here. I'm not saying it's universal by any means (and Mel Gibson isn't helping), but it's there. (We think Robin Hood and Arthur et cetera are ours too. Or, for other groups -- I mean, have you SEEN the New York St. Patrick's Day parade? Which is why it kinda threw me when we had that "medievalism in fantasy" misunderstanding a while back -- I wasn't making enough of a mental separation between European/Western Americans and actual, modern-day, political-boundary-type Europeans.) All that to say, there is (I think) far, far less hostility on this end than you might think. (Except for Mel Gibson who has a problem.)

And yeah, come to think of it, I might guess that in the in the shows/pop culture of most nations, I'd wager the girl- or boy-next-door has the home-court advantage when it comes to love. A sort of 'settle down into adulthood and accept the status quo' thing? Our hero comes home after the adventure and settles down with nice girl mom picked from the start... (I have ingested a LOT of Japanese and Korean soaps where this is the case, so I could be looking at it a little skewed.)

"Exotic" isn't just foreign, either -- it's anyone who doesn't sound like they're from California, since that's the seat of the industry. Jared Padelecki only recently got a gig where he was allowed to use his own (Texas) accent.

You may not have Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje back, we are keeping him, so there. (I still have bitterness over the theft of Johnny Depp. So what if that wasn't you precisely.) Nor may you have Chiwetel Ejiofor. Sorry. For that matter, kiss Marianne Jean Baptiste goodbye, bwahahahahahaha! So as not to be selfish, I will think about letting you have Chris Eccleston on weekends. Maybe. (So what if I'm messing with categories. We Are All One.)

You can hang on to Madonna for the time being, though.
Hey, as long as you guys are giving our citizens better jobs than we are, I'm not bitter. I'd rather they were finding work somewhere. It just seems silly we have so many talented people that our industry somehow can't manage to employ.

I've never heard anyone say Yanks pronounce stuff wrong - we all hear the accent too much in movies not to be used to it - so I suspect it was a way of getting attention about one degree more sophisticated than pulling your pigtails and running away. I once spent an entire party with a guy following me around berating me for being vegetarian. Some suitors aren't quite sure how to start a conversation without starting an argument.

I think, having worked in a shop in Covent Garden and thus met a lot of tourists, it's the fact that Americans don't seem to observe others particularly that makes them so observed. Everyone's different, of course, but certain nations have certain quirks, and the American one is a tendency to comment on their surroundings as if they were the only ones there. My boyfriend and I were queueing in a bank last week, the service was slow, and there was an American woman complaining quite loudly that England was a 'socialist hell' and a 'third world country'. Exactly how she considered banks socialist rather than capitalist isn't clear - I mean, banks are where the capital gets put, they're the capital's happy place - but she did have an air I haven't seen so much with other nationalities, of feeling free to comment on the foreignness of everything without worrying if anyone was noticing, as if only Americans spoke English. The queue was entirely full of English citizens who were just as bored as she was, but she seemed to feel fine including us in her insults, as if she was the only one suffering. Now, she was just a rude person and would probably be just as rude back home (and you guys can have her back any time, just say the word), but there does seem to be a tendency with American tourists to act as if you can hear other people but they can't hear you, which is a pretty good way of being conspicuous.

Mind you, it was a pretty slow queue. Almost as slow as the immigration desk queue in Los Angeles airport. But then, that queue wasn't holding up any Americans, so presumably it didn't count.

Grr. Sorry. That woman got right on my nerves, but I realise it's not your fault.

The other reason, I think, is just the fact that America is the last remaining superpower with lots of weapons and an interventionist foreign policy. When you've got a big stick, even talking softly gets attention.
For the same reason that the black lieutenant has to have a black wife/girlfriend. People must stay with "their own".
Sigh. I'd like to see more international romances in comedy. If it wasn't for international romance, I wouldn't have been born...
My parents had an international romance, if that helps. They were pen pals. Sadly they were not on television, though.

I think what actually makes Americans so observed, one of the major things anyway (aside from the undeniable, inescapable, and very upsetting political stuff), is the fact that our TV shows come in bulk and are really cheap to syndicate (there's no other real excuse, for example, for me being in Umea, Sweden and hearing on the news about some dog down a well in Kentucky, that's just creepy). And I think that's a major reason, if subconscious, why yahoos on the trains get resentful of hearing our accent -- there was an Australian girl on LiveJournal a while ago who posted just how very effed up it was for her to be at home, in her own land, and actually notice and find it odd when she heard a TV show with Australian accents on her television -- the ubiquitousness of Yank TV made her an "other" not only in her own land but in her own brain. (Which is how I feel about most TV in general, so I felt pretty surprised and stung for her.) So however much I'd like to give the benefit of the doubt, likely Yahoo On The Train was just trying to be an ass. He's not the first to pull that one (lots of that stuff on the Internet) and he won't be the last. I think resentment is a major part of it. On the other hand, the media thing is not really the fault of the average American -- it's economic, supply and demand (World! stop demanding "Friends," oh my GOD! Why am I seeing episodes of "Friends" in the West Bank!!?? At Ramadan!?), and the folks at home don't know about a lot of it (or at least were much less aware pre-Internet. Things like "Independence Day" should NEVER play outside of the home audience!!! And who the hell decided to market "The Patriot" internationally??!! Oh lord. I have a whole apologia typed up for that, which I have had to post a LOT. Suffice to say, I don't believe that is a representative cinematic take on the subject).

So yeah, I blame "Friends" and its ilk for comments like "I'm sorry it's not your typical American mansion," (say what?! Woman, I live in the 'hood) when I visit my friend's aunt in Watford, and for the fact that really, the only unpleasant experiences I've had in England (specifically) were all about "Oh, you're American!" followed by an unrelated-to-whatever-situation-at-hand catalogue of what I think about a variety of issues (thanks for letting me know) while I just nod in a stunned sort of way, and informing me that I spell "lite" and "nite" wrong and should stop. Or feeling the need to explain to me that George III was the third king of that name and not the third film of a trilogy, because I am dumb. Or the guy on the Northern Line who spent an hour lecturing me on the evils of "my" New York hip hop and gangsta culture and how I was messing things up for the rest of the black diaspora in general, and oh by the way could he have my number? (Eww.)

(The cutest one, actually, was the fellow who looked strikingly like Craig Charles -- he was adorable -- informing me that Americans say "Have a nice day!" too much, when we don't mean it. To which I had no choice but to ask him if he meant it every time he said "I'm sorry." Then we had lager. It was lovely.)

But yeah, any nation's TV is going to give a pretty inaccurate picture of the nation in question. (LOL -- I say this as a manga reader and Britcom devotee. And, by the way, as a person who would never have left the UK if they'd let me legally work.)

I'm sorry and embarrassed for your experience in Covent Garden, but I don't think we have a monopoly on that. :-) I've seen some pretty bad behavior in, for example, the Sistine Chapel. ("THIS is what we've been waiting for???") I've heard... okay, everybody complains about everybody, really. I taught ESL for four years -- I got stories.

In America, there's a lot of expectation when it comes to the service industry just because it's been so streamlined, depersonalized, and have-it-your-way. (And you know, I can't even generalize there -- I was in Richmond, Virginia last week and was STUNNED at how leisurely everyone was taking things, and making eye contact with me, and asking about my day, smiling, calling me "honey," oh, the culture shock! I was uncomfortable.) So there are entitlement issues -- servicepersons will actually get mad at you if, when you get to the register, you are not already prepared to 1. Recite that you want a whole-wheat sandwich with turkey lightly toasted cheddar cheese no mayo mustard on ONE slice of the bread not the other and coleslaw in a paper cup not a Styrofoam plate to go please, and then 2. Move the hell down so the next guy can recite his insanely detailed order NOW. And they've more or less trained the public to demand this sort of thing, because they do make more money that way. (I've had Japanese students encounter this who thought they were actually the victims of racism, they were so unprepared to deal with it.) And the restaurant waiter will bring you your bill immediately after you've ordered dessert -- which the European will find rude, like they're being subtly kicked out -- while the American in a London restaurant will sit for hours, getting madder and madder because the waiter won't bring the damn bill, and the American feels he is being IGNORED and OPPRESSED and DISCRIMINATED while the London waiter... pretty much wonders why the idiot hasn't asked for the bill yet.

Oh man. Okay, I swear I am actually capable of writing short posts! Er, yeah, so this was about TV, right? So... um... This is why we should all read books! (Write more books please.)
This discussion is so interesting, even though it's gone a bit far afield of the original topic of love interests in sitcoms. Still, it is great to hear so many different opinions.

It's true, one of the American cultural quirks is that we feel free to make sweepingly general comments about anything that we find wrong/inconvenient/distasteful/whatever. But here's the thing. We do it at home too. And here's the most important thing--nobody takes it personally. Those overhearing know it is an unfairly broad generalization and they also somehow think that they, themselves, are exempt from the complaint. Weird, but true. It's just considered a conversational opener, nothing more.

I apologize for Americans. We mean well, but we don't always know how to behave.
Oh, I can take it very personally. ;-) We have plenty-plenty of own our share of identity politics issues and so on, Stateside.

It's a human trait to categorize, look for patterns (including those that don't exist) and fear or fetishize the unknown and unfamiliar, I guess. Sticking to noncombative "I" and "me" statements: I notice it more when it's directed at me, of course -- and I'll go out on a limb and say I doubt that's unique -- but I wouldn't assign it exclusively to any one group of folks. I've heard it from too many directions with my own ears.
"our own"! Good grief.
It's true, I think there is a lot of political anger in England that can get directed at perfectly unoffending Americans. I think it's the way the American government seems to expect us to support all their policies and send our soldiers wherever they want, while the American media spends a lot of its time, one way or another, insulting us. Between the two, we tend to feel colonised, which, with UK citizens who have no manners, may get taken out on Americans who had nothing to do with any of it. Like you said, the ubiquity is a problem; there's so much Americana around that I suspect some people just hear an American accent and think, 'Man, not another bloody Yank,' and then lash out. Not good, really; it brings them down to the level of the racist sitcoms and movies.

I actually liked Friends. It was funny, and at least the English character was played by an English actress, hence didn't have a hair-whitening accent problem, and was portrayed as moderately human. I don't think I would have noticed it if it hadn't been for all the other examples.
Hm. I've been working on a post that mentions Frank Miller's 300 in the context of Americana (among other varying stuff). Would my American friends feel overly pointed at if posted it this week, or shall I save it for another time? Votes?
I can respond to your second sentence only with blushing and the confession that I fervently believe we are all living in an alternative universe, and the real one... went away somewhere. I have abandonment issues, seriously. (And everything except one that I listed as an example was a 90s thing, btw -- a time where there was some degree of Clinton-love and I often heard European classmates assuming that America was already, or would soon be, part of the EEC. Don't ask.) And... other stuff I could say but this is not a political plot of the week blog.

About the other -- well, I honestly can't think of a nation where the media doesn't do some major insulting of some group, quite a lot. (There have been definite... er... perhaps brief?... periods in time -- although I'm not some big expert -- with British sitcoms that had fun dragging in an American character to show how racist/provencial/stupid and loud the Brits were not, in comparison. Again, I am looking through my American-born sunglasses, here.) It's just -- well, have the majority of Americans even seen these? (No, because we don't buy British television in such bulk, we just REMAKE everything, guh, a rant for another time.)

And the farther afield -- the less real-world experience two nations have with each other, the more egregious those slurs can be (or if the majority of people in a country have little to no experience with the alternative culture in question). What I've seen between Britain and the U.S. is downright fraternal in comparison -- going with what I am (vaguely) familiar with as my fandoms/hobbies, some of the inter-Asian anger stuff is downright whoa-nelly. And the pervasive drinking-the-blood-of-children rumors in certain areas. And a certain country I'll not name outright cannot seem to get a grip on the idea that European Catholic schoolgirls are really not all having sex with each other all day every day...

I distinctly remember having had a bit of culture shock in London, actually, at the lack of PC in some arenas (not the least of which were the cab drivers! Different topic), people much more willing to admit that they did NOT like each other and were not One Big Happy, with the rainbow-coalition moral tacked on to a lot of entertainment... But.... there's that big glut of our U.S. crap all out in public. We are all to some degree missing some of our... foundation garments, but the U.S. is also standing on a stool, jumping up and down, and giggling.

"Friends." Ah, "Friends." :-) I liked "Friends" until Ross became whiny. What was that, episode 6? My very first day in London, before I even figured out that the street signs were on the walls of buildings, the very first ad I saw was one of Jennifer Anniston and her signature 'do. I was... like... hurt. What was she doing there? Why was she following me when I was supposed to be experiencing a New Land? (That will never top the Ramadan Friends Marathon, though.)

(Can I just point out that there are people do moderately-competant to very-lousy American accents too? We can hear it when Lucy Lawless and Portia de Rossi and Jeeze Lordy Nicola Bryant slip up. Even if two of those three usually don't, to be fair. We're just a bit more forgiving of them because -- I don't know why... because they are Hugh Laurie and Eddie Freaking Izzard and therefore awesome by default? LOL -- because Cate Blanchett and Minnie Driver actually ARE flawless and we are desensitized to the rest? That voice-training thing? Because we like to pretend we are a classless society and that accent doesn't matter? Because someone can do a flawless accent and still have a pretty terrible performance going on?)

('Cuz that one irks.)
My vote --for me, I may very well feel pointed at? But it's your blog and my responsibility to be an adult about it, and respond as such. (Possibly with fewer paragraphs. I'll try.)
Ohhh, I want to see the 300 post. I really, really do and I'm American.

But I must point out, in all fairness, that you won't be the first one to say that 300 is a comment on the Iraq war....

I love my country but I distrust my government.
(Annnnd -- I'll get into all of THAT when you actually post. ^__^)

(And I second bran fan's last sentence, there.)
Okay, up it goes. But brace yourselves, because it's really, really, really long.

And actually, I more or less skip Iraq. How does she do it, I hear you cry? Tune in tomorrow, folks...
Just... This has been on my mind for five days now.

"I think there are two things behind the English-villain syndrome; one, there isn't a big English population in America to make a fuss about it, and two, every time you get told why America is so great, I gather that Throwing Off British Tyranny is reason number one. From an English perspective, the Yanks are really sore winners - I mean, guys, you won that war, cheer up about it - but there does seem to be a slight tendency to assume that anybody with an English accent is trying to re-colonise anyone with an American one. The War of Independence is simply important to Americans in a way that it's not to Brits; the result is a kind of one-sided grudge match."

I gotta ask though -- do we really go on about the Revolutionary War -- all that much? (I apologize if such is the case, or if that's what filtering back to you, because that's rude and tacky.) I was always under the impression that WW2 was the one we were being obnoxious about all the time, cinematically and otherwise. The only film I've seen (which admittedly is not saying much) was that Mel Gibson affair, and everything I heard about it -- from Americans; I didn't get any British take until a few years after -- was that it was 1. yet more self-glorification for Gibson, and 2. over the top. Before that film, nothing in my life or education every suggested that any of the English battalions would, for example, lock civilians in a church and set them on fire. And it did turn out to be a bunch of hooey, didn't it? Any other predominating imagery (I'm just talking imagery, here, in terms of informing modern attitudes) was always guys in coats standing in careful formation or large boats firing cannons from the harbor, not barbarity and savagery that we threw off somehow. Escalation of a legal dispute? "Continuation of policy by other means?" Certainly more of a philosophical experiment in government than any big Throwing Off of the Bloodstained Shackles. (At least, this is what was emphasized when I got it in school.)

If there is a grudge I've seen played out, it's simply the "Stop being an idiot" - "Stop being a snob" back-and-forth that seems to me so fraternal and so far removed from the actual hate one sees play out elsewhere between other groups that it blows my mind. (Surely the US-UK -- should I confine that to England? -- grudge is not bigger than the UK-France one? 100 Years War and all? and the latter is certainly not "hate" or "racism.") People are incredibly keen even to trace their roots back to parts of the United Kingdom if they can (and use it for cool points).

(I also keep asking myself why people -- of a variety of nationalities -- keep taking these roles. I know, I know, a paycheck. It's frustrating. There should be a letter campaign.)

There are a lot of things being assigned here as "American" traits (over generalizing; loudness; fascination with the "other"; privileging of heroes, heroines, love interests etc. of similar background in fiction; going to other countries and expecting to be catered to) that I have seen elsewhere, in other people, more than enough to seriously question this. We don't have anything like a monopoly on these things -- we do have Hollywood airing it all over creation. (Navel-gazing I will give you. We could stand to be a damn sight more curious. Less entitlement would rock. Tangent.)

I am also somewhat troubled by the use of the word racism in describing some of these aspects of the relationship between two predominantly [culturally? If not literally] Anglo-Saxon nations. Name-calling isn't racism -- it's far too universal, both inter and intra. It's not the institutionalized subjugation of a group of people based on DNA. It's bad, it's prejudice, it's harmful, it perpetuates wrong attitudes, and it's wrong, no question, and sure, it is a paler shade of worse stuff -- the gradual or systematic dehumanization of other people that leads to, say, unfair trade practices, sure. Foreign policy based on bullying and intimidation, definitely. And so on and so on.

That everybody calls names by no means makes it admirable, but it is still stereotyping in a sitcom, a genre based on broad strokes and shorthand, a genre of which the bulk, by far, is not "quality entertainment." Nobody actually comes across well in the average (not all, but most) U.S. sitcom. Accompanied by a laugh track, siblings hate each other and talk to each other like dogs as if it had no effect, children insist that parents are stupid and "don't get" anything, dads are all clueless boors and moms are all martyrs, girlfriends nag and entrap, blondes are still dumb or maneaters, gays are still flouncy or invisible, East Asians don't really much exist unless they are hot and female and South Asians are more or less still confined to cartoons, Latinos are "spicy," fat people smell and overeat and dress badly, and African-Americans are still loudly bopping around to a hip-hop soundtrack everywhere they go. (There are no Caribbeans or Africans-from-Africa.) Occasionally a kindly older neighbor dispenses wisdom, I guess. Nobody really has more than two traits. (And my rant on the prevalence of insult humor in sitcoms and how evil it is and why I now avoid all of them will have to wait for... er... my own blog. When I have one.)

The reason I am frightened and troubled by this is the rise of something extremely ugly I see occurring in my society, and have glimpsed elsewhere -- the word "racism" is slung around to such an extent that it loses meaning. "You have said something that offended me" is immediately translated into "You're a racist!" which immediately nets the response "No, I'm not! I don't feel anyone is inferior to me, I don't burn crosses, how dare you, I won't be branded a racist, you're the racist" and any real issue gets buried in a tide of self-defense, so when serious societal problems crop up, the victims are continuously accused of crying wolf. "That doesn't exist anymore, stop complaining." Racism is such a knife of a word that the accused assume they are being called the worst thing you can possibly be, and in the mad struggle to prove that wrong, the actual grievance is ignored and even belittled.

I find myself compelled to use this as an example: We've just found out over here that despite plummeting crime rates, we imprison more people than any other economically-similar nation, and that black Americans make up more than half of the prison population despite being only 12 percent of the general population (estimated to be even less at our next census) and less than 12 percent of habitual drug users (it's mostly drug crimes involved). I've sat through literally years worth of arguments on respected political (and liberal) sites where intelligent, rational people are stating that, scientifically, because of excess testosterone and the effects of the bell curve, or whatever, black people in every single nation are responsible, respectively, for the bulk of crime, and so we should not be offended at all and should stop complaining if people walk faster or cross the street when they see us coming, as it's merely statistical good sense. A senator last year tossed off the comment that aborting all black babies (just black ones, in particular) would reduce crime -- "It would be bad, don't get me wrong, but it would work!" he said. And was defended. There are people as far as the other side of the planet speaking of the US as a situation of "citizens..." 'citizens!' -- "held hostage by the black population." And now in the face of this huge block of evidence towards debunking this crap, exactly nobody is paying attention. Just black people playing the racism card again. Casual use of the accusation of racism is causing this situation to be treated as casual.

Please understand I am speaking only out of nervousness and discomfort, and am neither trying to disrespect you or undermine your feelings or opinions. I am not necessarily asking for a less-strong word, just a different one.

(Er... Kit? You would TELL me, or indicate displeasure in some way, if you found that I was monopolizing your blog, wouldn't you? I'm feeling disproportionately... unboundaried lately.
You're not monopolising the blog; I'm always interested to hear people's opinions. I might not be able to answer everything you say if you talk at great length, but I don't mind if you don't. Anyone else who feels monopolised is welcome to talk as much!

I'm happy to go with 'xenophobia' rather than 'racism' if we're talking about America, except it's a longer word to type. One reason why 'racism' keeps getting used, though, I think, is the way American politicians use rhetoric. You notice how public speakers will always say 'the American people' this and 'my fellow Americans' that - even when they're talking about events with international significance? Other countries don't do that. Nobody gets up and says 'my fellow Britons'; it would sound weird. The upshot is that from a foreign perspective, it can sound as if public speakers, at least, are using the words 'American' and 'human' interchangeably, which can make it sound as if 'American' is being cast as a race, or a sub-species, unto itself. I'm quite ready to believe that within the country, some sub-species are more equal than others, but from the outside, there's an element of America-as-race in the way American pundits talk, which is probably where the word 'racism' is coming from. If that sounds like saying 'they started it', it's because it is...

However, your point about over-using an important word is a fair one, and well taken. Maybe we need another word altogether; 'xenophobia' lacks punch.

I think we've wandered away from sitcoms and started talking politics. Hm.

I didn't actually watch The Patriot; generally I'll take being insulted for free, but I'm jiggered if I'm paying the price of a ticket for it.

I don't think there's much antagonism between the UK and France. We scrap about export regulations occasionally, and the UK has some Europhobes who are against joining the whole of the EU, but that's about it. I think being on the same side during the two World Wars wiped out the whole Napoleon debacle as far as grudges go.

It's just my opinion, but I do get the sense that the War of Independence is, naturally enough, deep in the American psyche, which leads to a reflexive fear that Brits will oppress Yanks, even though the balance of power has clearly and massively tipped the other way. Like the article I linked to in the post about 300 says, American mythology is heavy on triumph-of-the-underdog, which is an excellent thing - except that America, as an international power, is now the overdog, but still thinks it's an underdog. At its worst, this means it's using the rhetoric of oppressed minorities when it's acting like an oppressive majority. There's nothing so ruthless as someone who thinks they're a victim.

The neocons are primarily to blame for this, I think. There was far less hostility to America under Clinton; all those English villains were kind of irritating, but there was less genuine anger about it. In the time he's been in charge, Bush has changed America from a country generally well-thought-of in the West to a country that's genuinely hated and feared. Right-wing fundies think like third-world fanatics, but they're armed like the first-world superpower they are, and that's really scary. Again, it's thinking you're the underdog when you're the overdog, the way that wingnuts refuse to separate being disagreed with from being persecuted.

I expect it's hard to be a rational, civilised American and get blamed for the worst excesses of your government. I think if America had less power, nobody would notice this stuff, but as it is, I suspect the people that care most about what the rest of the world thinks - who are the people who aren't responsible for the problems - are copping the worst of the flack. Really not fair.
I expect it's hard to be a rational, civilised American and get blamed for the worst excesses of your government. I think if America had less power, nobody would notice this stuff, but as it is, I suspect the people that care most about what the rest of the world thinks - who are the people who aren't responsible for the problems - are copping the worst of the flack. Really not fair.

You understand me! I fall weeping upon you!

It occurs to me that that... individual has been the U.S. president for most of your adult life, hasn't he. *knocking head on desk repeatedly* I really, REALLY dislike the way the climate of my world has changed. (Because it is of course all about me. :-D) It all happened so fast.

(I actually don't think there's much antagonism between France and the UK either, or real, visceral antagonism between any two "major" Western states at present, although it varies. There is bickering. But the reason I picked them for an example is, those are the two countries aside from my own I've lived the most time in, the two languages I'm familiar with. And I've heard much blunter, less PC things out of the mouths of French people [l'Albion perfide!/"Ew, what the expletive are you going to do for a whole week in LONDON???"/ "The English visit here and call us foreigners."] than out of American mouths -- or at least, to be fair, the particular Americans that I know, deal with, talk to, and/or read on a regular basis.)

That and teaching ESL for four years taught me a lot about generalizations, who makes them, and how easy they are. And how universal. And I think the media of the U.S. is responsible for a lot more generalizations about the people of the United States than the actual people are. And it is so much, so much driven by money and profit (automatic lowest-common-denominator right there) more than any accurate reflection of actual people that I feel victimized. (Damn you, "Friends"!)

I honestly and for true do not feel that the war of Independence is anything like at the forefront of most U.S. people's minds when dealing with the U.K. or its citizens. I think what's at the forefront of most people's minds is "They think we're boors because we don't go to enough art museums," which can indeed become belligerence: "Well dammit we are cool and smart anyway, even if we do not attend soirees with tea" (yes it is still based in stereotypical foolishness, my point is it is not violent stereotypical foolishness) -- to be told we have no culture when a great many (Anglo Saxon, at least) Americans feel that they have a legitimate claim to English/British/sundry cultures in a line of continuity sort of thing. The War was a breaking away from a parent, not a throwing off of enslavement. When it's brought up, it smacks to me of a last-ditch taunt: "well, you're ugly and your momma dresses you funny!" (Remember, we're supposed to be the ones who think 50 years ago was irrelevant ancient history.)

(My poor mom, on the other hand, was nervous as HELL visiting me in Camden -- 1999 -- for the first time because she thought she would not sound smart enough when talking to the English. I dunno. Plus, we are Caribbean, which is a whole other kettle of fish. Anyway, she's shy at the best of times and loved every minute of her stay.)

I just wish it were more universally acknowledged that U.S. opinion, consciousness, and so on is simply not a monolith -- it can't be. And I blame the TV-ratings system and a money-hungry media that this is not recognized, a media that is far more biased toward gross oversimplification than it is toward right or left. (You guys have TV taxes to pay for certain types of programming -- we have only ad revenue and discretionary charity.)

There are about five distinct regions in the US with totally different viewpoints, travel between which can give you actual culture shock, not to mention 50 states with different laws, standards and economies, mashed up into one. Several of which really don't like each other very much. Not to mention there are over 100 nationalities represented in my home county alone, and all the linguistic variety that entails. Yet somehow -- and this predates Bush by quite a while -- the phrase "That's so American" has become an effective conversation-stopper, argument winner, in all kinds of arenas. I'll never know if I have a valid argument or not because my very act of arguing is American. Or something.

I say, "well, so and so did a study on [topic]," and I'm silenced with "That's such an American thing to say, that's such an American approach." I'm sitting in the common room watching television with buddies, and an ad comes on that says "Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's Maybelline," and my two best friends peal out with laughter -- "Oh my god, that's so American!" but to this day have not explained to me how. (I would sincerely like to know, I think there's probably a thesis in it.) All of which -- okay, it's not a problem to be told that one's own viewpoint is not universal. It's why one goes abroad to get educated in the first place, I'd hope. But then no one would ever explain what was uniquely "American" about it. How am I then to curb my putzery? It's code for "shut up."

(And yet I had to remind a classmate that I was indeed from a foreign culture and was not being facetious or bitchy when I asked him to explain what the heck he meant when he compared two football teams' respective jersey colors (red and blue) to their respective politics and social class. "Well, they wear blue! It's obvious, isn't it?")

That was the Clinton era.

My friend and her husband came to visit me during the *SIGH* current era -- and I'm not talking about random strangers, but people who have known me, my opinions and stances, and who I am for some years -- and refused to watch anything but the very biased, edited and doctored (in my opinion) FOX News, because, in their words "It's the most American." (Which to me is like judging England by The Sun.) So I had FOX News playing in my house, an event that has never taken place before or since, because RAGE! And also, we should stop saying we speak "English" and start saying that we speak "American." (That was new.) My opinion on a relatively minor international event that had just taken place: "You are [insert Anthrophile's race], you're [her ethnicity], you're [her erstwhile religion] -- why are you talking like a [notable religious minority]??" So essentially my identity defines any argument or statement I make -- my identity IS my only allowed statement, now.

After doing the British M.A. thing for two years, I'm particularly sensitive to that one, I guess. There's a particular turn of phrase I found used almost exclusively in British papers (it occurs in other languages, but that's because it's linked to grammar in a way that it isn't in English) -- The Americans. Not "America," which is a reasonable metonymy. Not even "Washington," which is a reasonable shorthand for the actions of the *sigh* administration. Even "Americans" with no article might work -- it's open ended enough. "The Americans" -- that tiny article forms a construction from which a dissenting group cannot exclude themselves. Viewed through my American-colored glasses, it was always so very jarring. Like an army on the other side of the hill: "The Americans are coming!"

The Americans think, the Americans say, the Americans want, "The Americans have spoken" (when close to if not more than 50% of us said something else. When you've got the CEO of a voting-machine-manufacturing company -- not a politician, but the maker of the machines -- saying aloud that he plans to "deliver the election" in a pivotal state to a candidate, and then lo and behold the state is delivered, one has to ask themselves some serious questions).

I think it would be appropriate for a leader to address "her/his fellow [insert nationality]" within a speech that had to do with the affairs of [insert nation]. There are definitely other groups -- national, cultural, religious -- that do this. Now, I have not listened to a political speech in seven years for fear of apoplexy -- I read news commentaries later -- so if they are doing it to address international audiences on matters of international import, I can only look on in bafflement and apologize. I understand that most Americans are still not really aware of how much we are observed, but politicians freakin' well should be, even if they are also jockeying for ratings (which I sadly suspect they are. I read my news -- I have a serious problem with our visual media especially, and avoid it as much as is humanly possible, It has put forth an astoundingly wrong picture of the way[s!] we are on nearly every conceivable level. In my opinion.)

I will tell you what, though -- "Leader of the Free World"? Who came up with that one? Who decided? Jesus Christ. I missed the vote. I first had that phrase explained to me when I was a teenager and it's just as appalling now. More apologies.

But you know? I think you get all this already, and I'm ranting. I'll stop.

(Ha ha -- I think the only other one I've seem dealing very much with the Revolutionary/Independence War, that I can recall right now, was "George III" a.k.a. "The Madness of King George," and... c'mon, everybody loves Nigel Hawthorne.)

(The underdog stuff I'll post in the appropriate place.)
I think what's at the forefront of most people's minds is "They think we're boors because we don't go to enough art museums,"

But that's the thing - no one over here says that about Americans. The only time I've ever seen English people act that way is in American-written sitcoms. America has produced far too many metric tons of art to be considered uncultured by anybody who thinks about it for more that three seconds.

You guys have TV taxes to pay for certain types of programming -- we have only ad revenue and discretionary charity.

True. I wish you guys had the same thing. The BBC is one of the few things in Britain, along with the NHS, that I'm genuinely proud of. Particularly the nature documentaries. Partly this is just because I'm a sucker for wildlife footage, but we don't tend to win very much when competing on the world stage, and I really do think that our wildlife documentaries are one of the few things that really do us credit.

'"Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's Maybelline," and my two best friends peal out with laughter -- "Oh my god, that's so American!" but to this day have not explained to me how.'

Well, I wasn't there, but at a guess: partly it's the accent, but mostly it's the aspirational element - which in the whispered 'Maybe she's born with it' sounds almost reverential. There's a kind of relentless optimism associated with advertising that's associated with America; British TV ads and announcements tend to rely more on dry humour. Gasping prayerfully at someone's fabulousness with a totally straight face isn't something you'd expect to play well with a general audience in the UK. You'd expect an avalanche of cynical remarks.

Have you seen the movie Outfoxed about Fox News? Total hatchet-job on what a dishonest propaganda machine the whole network is. Very angering, but very effective. Alas, though, I'd have to say that the Sun is very English. It's not the whole story, but it's definitely a big part of the culture.

Like an army on the other side of the hill: "The Americans are coming!"

The cultural monolith being the size it is, sometimes that's what it feels like. Very unfair on the Americans who didn't vote for it, of course, but I suspect you've actually put your finger on why the phrase gets used.

I think it would be appropriate for a leader to address "her/his fellow [insert nationality]" within a speech that had to do with the affairs of [insert nation].

I just don't think it would work over here. It sounds imperial, and we've got several centuries of bad karma to live down before we can start talking that way. But the other thing is, it's just an exclusionary-sounding phrase. It makes me uncomfortable. I'd rather define myself as a human being born and raised in England than as a 'fellow Briton'. It's weaselly: it implies that I have more in common with the politician speaking, however much of a scumbag he is, than with some charming American, French or Nigerian person I totally agree with over this issue, just because the scumbag happened to be born in the same country as me. It makes me want to brush off invisible leeches. Brr.

Not that you or your opinions remind me of any kind of leech, visible or not; I just have a very strong visceral recoil from being called a 'fellow Briton'. I feel like anybody who uses that phrase is trying to screw somebody over.
(I am so late with this reply it is, like, unconscionable. MONTHS. It's nearly April. I'm sorry.)

(Oh, and this is Anthrophile. Blogger hates me now for some reason.)

But that's the thing - no one over here says that about Americans. The only time I've ever seen English people act that way is in American-written sitcoms. America has produced far too many metric tons of art to be considered uncultured by anybody who thinks about it for more that three seconds.

I wonder if they would say it to you, or feel any reason to, though. This is the sort of thing that gets said it to one's face. "Well, you think, you say, you all do la di da di da." Posted preemptively on news and comment sites and in Amazon reviews and giggled about in the common rooms of London universities. (Is that just because the university experience encourages that much daily in-depth cultural analysis? It could be; it could be that grown-up and/or working people have more pressing things on their minds.)

(On the flip side, like I said above, I've never heard any Americans talk about British people's teeth, or fingernails.)

Very unfair on the Americans who didn't vote for it, of course, but I suspect you've actually put your finger on why the phrase gets used.

But then there are the Americans of, say, a sizeable minority or other who get kind of irked that this sort of thing seems to exclude them from their own country? (Because we feel excluded here quite enough.) "The Americans do/say/think/plan" -- it's no different than "American blond", "American tan", "American mansion" and the rest. It equates being rich, white, and Republican (I guess), with being a "real" American. (And the phraseology has been in use for decades, papers, media, entertainment; can't attribute that to people's current voting habits with any reliability.)

There's a kind of relentless optimism associated with advertising that's associated with America; British TV ads and announcements tend to rely more on dry humour. Gasping prayerfully at someone's fabulousness with a totally straight face isn't something you'd expect to play well with a general audience in the U.K.

See, now I would have looked at that commercial as more of a celebration of subterfuge. (Hah! The "Because I'm worth it" campaign going on now must be blowing people's MINDS. Must be a hair-dye thing.)

I would float the suggestion, though, that the dry humor thing could be more unique to Britain (or England, really) than the aspirational thing is unique to the States. (I can vouch for France, Japan, and maybe Korea a bit for the aspirational thing. Also -- though I've never seen any of their commercials, at least not with any kind of understanding -- for quite a few Eastern Europeans who've find the American use of irony/sarcasm/dry humor impenetrable. Which... well who knew?? I guess it's relative.)

I'd rather define myself as a human being born and raised in England than as a 'fellow Briton'. It's weaselly: it implies that I have more in common with the politician speaking, however much of a scumbag he is, than with some charming American, French or Nigerian person I totally agree with over this issue, just because the scumbag happened to be born in the same country as me.

I can see this. I really can. But on the other side (speaking with my own cultural lenses firmly in place, I allow) -- in some fairly expansive areas of the States, including where my mom was born, although thankfully not where she grew up, people of my ethnicity had to deal with things like layers of state laws unconstitutionally preventing them from voting, and this was still going on just a few years before I was born (which was only a few years before you were). So that kind of inclusiveness looks a great deal different, and pretty hard-fought-for; further, if the phrase were to prompt a cynical response of "yeah right," it would be motivated more by the idea that we aren't included enough in "my fellow Americans" and should be more included. (We also have always tended to discuss ourselves in racial and ethnic groups here, since we like to pretend that we are a classless society and that anyone can "move on up." That probably plays into it as well.)

I had some fairly involved responses to some things, which I think I've saved somewhere, but they wore me out, and then there were lot of end-of-year holidays, and I disappeared. I may have to pipe up and try to defend Malcolm Reynolds, though.
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