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Pop Culture: Enjoy… But Be Cautious

Stuck in Stereotypes

I once read that the majority of Americans don’t have a passport. As a European, I thought this was an incredibly shocking, if not dismaying, piece of trivia. On the other hand, presumably even those without passports know that Italians eat pizza and pasta and the typical French person cycles around with a baguette, wearing a black beret. An Irish citizen wears green and stumbles drunk down the street. Australians throw boomerangs at kangaroos. All the classic stereotypes.

These examples seem perhaps quite harmless at first glance, but what about the others—all Arabs are Muslim, all Blacks are poor, all Jews are greedy.

Stereotypes influence our decision making and are difficult to unlearn. Where do we form these ideas? How do we come to know—or think we know—so much about countries and cultures we have never experienced firsthand? The answer is through popular culture – the media of film, books, magazines, music and videos.

Mass Media: The Importance of Popular Culture

We cannot underestimate the power of mass media and pop culture in shaping our perceptions, ideals or prejudices of another culture. When it comes to ‘exporting culture’, there is both “High Culture” and “Low Culture” (a.k.a. Pop Culture). High Culture includes opera and ballet but reaches a smaller audience. Pop culture is much more ubiquitous and as a result arguably more influential. Let’s look at the most popular example—violence on our screens.

It is well documented that watching violence in film and on television could negatively influence the viewer. There is evidence to suggest this is true. Recently, a young man in the USA killed and dismembered his girlfriend after being inspired by a popular show about a serial killer, Dexter. On the other hand, Norway is regarded as a very peaceful country with low internal conflict. Is it a coincidence that the same country attempts to control, avoid and limit negative influences from its media? Crime is not sensationalized, television has little violence, boxing is banned from television. Even E.T. was rated too violent for viewers under 12.

Violence on television is a widely debated topic in the public eye. Why then, is less thought put into monitoring and researching the power of pop culture? Most people would look down at the importance of studying pop culture, believing it to be insignificant. Pop culture can be fun and educating but at the same time, it is a major factor in building prejudices and creating stereotypes. When original content is made by one culture and exported to another, we need to examine it carefully and make an educated decision on whether or not it is accurately portraying a culture’s image.

How are Asians usually represented in film? The men traditionally played the role of the villain such as Ming in Flash Gordon. On the hand, women tend to be painted as soft, feminine and desirable.

Film: Learning about Cultures without Personal Experience

While I have yet to visit most of the countries in the world, it seems that I already know so much about them. You probably feel the same. Those who have yet to visit Paris, New York or London all have wonderful images and notions of their streets and alleys. Bustling Asian markets, piranhas in the Amazon and tribes in Africa. We are all constantly learning about cultures without firsthand personal experience. This increases the risk of misshaping our attitudes.

Through mass media, I know that India, for example, is a colorful place with a rich history, delicious food and with wonderful landscapes and locals. I do however, also know that a series of high-profile rape cases have tarnished the country’s image over the past few years. This has lead to a decrease in tourism. I know this from reading the news or watching a documentary but often it is film that is the most widespread channel in delivering gateways into other cultures. Looking at India again, the film Slumdog Millionaire was criticized by Indians for showing the country in such a dim light. Yet friends who have visited there can’t speak highly enough of such a beautiful place. Who to trust more, media sources or those who have been there and done that?

Slumdog Millionaire presented the slums of Mumbai in a brutal but honest light. Still, it would most likely turn viewers away from India.

Taken, the Hollywood blockbuster about human trafficking in Paris, apparently led to a decline in annual tourism in France. Parents told the movie’s leading front man Liam Neeson, “I’ll never send my kids to Europe.” To Asia, after the movie The Beach was released showing Leonardo Di Caprio’s adventures in Thailand, tourism soared there. People saw what an interesting culture Thailand had to offer with friendly locals, crazy parties and pristine beaches. They also expected shots of snake blood, shark infested-waters and drugs growing out of thin air on their arrival.

Heading north, to eastern Asia and Korea, a French actress Brigitte Bardot highlighted that Koreans eat dog in the French media prior to the 2002 FIFA World Cup. This spread across the global media and painted Koreans in a barbaric way, despite their huge advances in modern technology and innovation. The eating of dog, although a separate topic, is a custom that has lasted centuries and is ingrained in local culture here. We shouldn’t compare cultures as being right or wrong, simply different. On a better note, Korean dramas have recently become huge in Cuba, of all places.

Phi Phi island in Thailand. Since the Beach, the area has received an incredible boost to tourism but local culture and the surrounding environment have taken a battering.

Media: Objective or Subjective?

In general, we often believe that the media—whether a newspaper, a television show or a documentary—is objective and reflect their subjects much like a mirror would do. However, in fact the media is more like a window. It is mostly subjective and only offers us one viewpoint. Another window from the same building may cast a different light. This is to say that when we consume foreign pop culture we must do so with an open mind. What we are seeing, reading and hearing may not represent the true culture of a nation. The media is usually affected by local constraints that we are not aware of such as religious, political, historical or gender differences.

Korean director Kim Ki-Duk has had great success at international film festivals but his movies have never been widely appreciated in his homeland. If someone was to watch just one of his films, they would have a misrepresentation of Korea. Traditionally African-American women were portrayed as domestic stereotypes like in Tom and Jerry (which now carries a racial warning to viewers). Often media that is ‘factual’ or ‘based on a true story’ is only telling one side of a tale. Others rewrite history altogether; Disney’s Pocahontas, for example, all but overhauled the tragic history between natives and European adventurers.

Media framing - what we see may not be a true reflection

Media framing – what we see may not be a true reflection

Keep an Open Mind

As technology improves, culture is spreading more and more. However, there is also a major global imbalance. Individuals from less populous cultural groups tend to import huge amounts of foreign content as it isn’t plausible to consume only their own. Societies that watch too much foreign media may lose touch with their own. On the other hand, major nations like America, tend to view or consume little or no foreign content.

Finally, for many of us, some cultures and some nations exist only through popular culture. Mass media and pop culture are major powers in building our perceptions of other cultures and can often be only somewhat correct and educational. Those who do use media as their primary source of learning about other cultures thus need to consume as much as possible with an open mind in order to see a wider, probably more accurate picture of a nation, group or culture. Still, the best way to learn is still to get out there and mingle with real people.

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Written by Peter Walsh

Hi everyone, my name is Peter. I'm from Ireland but I'm currently living in South Korea where i work as a teacher. I love to travel and meet new cultures. I've had a colorful past which included farming pigs, working in a power plant and running a reggae bar in Thailand. I want the world to get along more and learn from each other to erase our prejudices.

There is 1 comment

  • Razza says:

    Another excellent article Peter, I look forward to reading your next article.

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