Hollywood and Brand America



Richard Wike, Associate Director of the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, takes quite a sanguine view of Hollywood’s impact on the world.

Surveys consistently show that movies – and more broadly, American popular culture – are a strong suit of U.S. soft power. And, while studio executives spend considerably more time thinking about box office returns than public diplomacy, Tinseltown is actually pretty effective at nudging America’s international image in a positive direction.

There is no question that Hollywood, and its advertising counterpart, Madison Avenue, are Brand America bookends to the US national image in the world.  What’s not explored in this piece is the cultural hegemony that the US has over nations.

Many global populations support Hollywood film and television because it’s what they have come to know through its ubiquitous presence.  The omnipresence of American culture, and its homogenizing presence on native cultures, is downplayed here.

And what of Americans who wish to see non-US global media film and TV productions?  For a nation with so much influence in the world, we are woefully ignorant about the lives and lessons from many who do not ascribe to the pro-Western, pro-American way of life.

I wish this article had included more nuance and not so much ‘hooray for Hollywood’ absoluteness.  Alas, this is more of an advertising promotional piece for the Academy Awards, better known as The Oscars.


Japan: Much Love and Thanks

I cannot believe that our semester together at Sophia University is coming to an end.  I very much look forward to your final papers.  As you know, they are due Wednesday, August 1, 2012.  I’ve asked you to create something new out of your imagination.  Your paper is a blueprint for your own self-designed organization to tell America’s cultural story to the world.  (In the politics and policy class, you must tell America’s foreign policy story to the world.)

I am making you the architect, the visionary, and CEO of this new agency.  What is your main theme? What organizational divisions will you have, e.g., exchanges, international broadcasting, arts, online?  How is it different from the way I describe the United States Information Agency in Propaganda, Inc.?  Would you include celebrities in your public diplomacy?  Why or why not?

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time with you these past three months.  The time flew by, as it always does when one is having a ball, as I have been.  I love your culture, your manners, and your commitment to learning.  I hope that some of you will consider study abroad in the United States.  I hope you all will never stop learning.  I am your sensei, but always your student, as there is so much left for me to learn about Japan, its politics, culture, people, and yes, as “Lights of Japan” put it, its resilience.  Our time together has inspired me to learn some Japanese.  I’ll never reach a level of fluency but I plan to learn enough Japanese to show my respect for your culture.  (I’ve already ordered flash cards and three books!)

I don’t wish to get too overly sentimental about what this time together has meant to my life.  Why don’t I have Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders explain what I mean.  Thank you for helping to show me the meaning of the word.

America: No Guilt about Green

When I was a little girl my favorite color was green, including all its variations, forest green, green yellow, and yellow green, that might be found in the Crayola crayons 64-count box.  I loved nature, playing regularly outside in the sandbox or in my tree house.  I loved animals, not just home pets, but those animals whose natural habitat needed protecting.  My first letter-to-the editor in a Richmond, Virginia newspaper was at the age of 10 and I still remember the subject: my support for Earth Day.

My dream at about the age of 12 was to be an environmental rights lawyer or veterinarian.  My plans changed over time but I’ve always associated the color green with the natural environment.  Today going green, living green, or being green-conscious is automatically associated with having an environmentally sensitive outlook and attitude, but also acting in a manner that tries to minimize harm and reduces waste.

It disturbs me how much I waste on a regular basis, how much my modern, American consumerist lifestyle disproportionately impacts the global footprint.  Put simply, I feel guilty about the choices I make on a daily basis.  I’m not the perfect, eco-conscious consumer.  I don’t eat all organic. I don’t buy exclusively cruelty-free products. I eat meat occasionally.  I do recycle, especially here in Japan where recycling is more commonplace than in America.  When I’m in the U.S., I drive a compact vehicle, one I’ve had since 1998 (Honda Civic), that gets good gas mileage and is relatively less polluting than other cars.  So I guess I’m like the average American–not a superhero on the environment–but also not a superficially indifferent jerk.  This National Geographic report on American attitudes toward the environment reaches a shocking conclusion.  Americans don’t feel particularly guilty about the consumerist choices they make related to the environment.  My country ’tis of me, the United States of America, which consumes more material and creates more waste per capita than any other country in the world, has a population that is slow to change its behavior toward the environment.  Perhaps this is one reason why many global citizens are not looking to the U.S. as the ideal model for modern living.  We are not setting the best example to our global peers about how to live smarter with less.  Organic food for thought, you might say.

So do you feel guilty about not being as green as you could be?  If so, then what are you doing to make positive changes?

Japan Falling Out of Love with America

Well the truth is out.  The U.S. is no longer “cool” to many Japanese.  The Japanese language newspaper, Tokyo Shimbun, reported these conclusions in a late May edition.  The following is an English translation of the original article that was sent to me by Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer Sara Harriger of the US Embassy Japan.  Sara will speak in our American Culture class on July 11, 2012.  The article quotes my friend, Yasushi Watanabe of Keio University, whom I like to call the “Joseph Nye” of Japan.  Nye is the originator of the concept of soft power.

I believe that the U.S. materialism and consumerist model is losing appeal in a post-3.11 Japan.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own ancestry that includes American Indian Mohawk and Creek tribes.  The Native American philosophy is counter to modern American values of waste and excess.  As the former advertising executive and author Jerry Mander points out here, the Judeo-Christian model of culture has a lack of sustainability built into it that competes with the models offered by Indians:

Judeo–Christian religions are a model of hierarchical structure: one God above all, certain humans above other humans, and humans over nature. Political and economic systems are similarly arranged: Organized along rigid hierarchical lines, all of nature’s resources are regarded only in terms of how they serve the one god–the god of growth and expansion. In this way, all of these systems are missionary; they are into dominance. And through their mutual collusion, they form a seamless web around our lives. They are the creators and enforcers of our beliefs. We live inside these forms, are imbued with them, and they justify our behaviors. In turn, we believe in their viability and superiority largely because they prove effective: They bring us power.

But is power the ultimate evolutionary value? We shall see. The results are not yet in. Survival of the fittest as a standard of measure may require a much longer time scale than the scant 200 years’ existence of the United States or the century since the industrial revolution or the two decades since the advent of high technology. Even in Darwinian terms, most species become unfit over tens of thousands of years. Our culture is using its machinery to drive species into extinction in one generation, not because the species are maladaptive but because pure force wins out. However, there is reason to doubt the ultimate success of our behavior. In the end, a model closer to that of the Indians, living lightly on the planet, observing its natural rules and modes of organization, may prove more fit and may survive us after all. Until that day, however, we will continue to use Darwinian theories to support the assertion that our mechanistic victory over the primitives is not only God’s plan but nature’s.

Have you lost interest in the American culture? Is America more uncool than cool?

Japanese losing interest in U.S. culture Tokyo Shimbun
May 21, 2012, pp. 24, 25
By Yasuyuki Oguri

A shift away from American culture is taking place in Japan. Hollywood movies are no longer popular. American music is not creating any sensations and there has been a sharp decline in the number of students going to the U.S. to study. The U.S.’s “soft power” in Japan has weakened and experts point out that this has never happened before in history. Why has American culture stopped reaching the Japanese people?

Film journalist Hiroo Otaka points out: “American movies are not selling at all. They are doing particularly poorly this year. Not one movie has grossed over 2 billion yen, which is the benchmark for a blockbuster. This has never happened before. Japanese people even think that American movies are uncool these days.”

In the past, there were times when the list of the top grossing films consisted only of American movies. It can be said that the era when the term “movie” basically referred only to Hollywood movies has definitely ended.

Japanese movies have been doing better than foreign movies (also including movies from countries other than the U.S.) at the box office. Proceeds from Japanese films made up 53.6% of total box office revenues in 2010, with foreign films contributing 46.3%. In 2011, the ratio was 54.9% Japanese and 45.1% foreign. Otaka predicts that the gap “will grow wider” in 2012. Films from the “Harry Potter” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” series were certainly big hits, but overall, foreign movies have performed poorly at the box office.

There are a variety of reasons for this. Japanese movies produced by the TV stations can count on a lot of publicity through TV programs. Right now, there are also no Hollywood stars who are immensely popular. Otaka also says that “people are tired of entertainment-oriented American films that tend to feature spectacular special effects or fighting scenes.”

This situation is not only true for movies. The same goes for the music world. Compared to the period up to the 1980s, when every new song released by Madonna or Michael Jackson became an instant megahit, “made in the U.S.A.” has long lost its former allure.

According to data from the Recording Industry Association of Japan, in 2002, total production of CDs and other audio recording media consisted of 75% Japanese music and 25% foreign music. Last year, the ratio was 82% Japanese and 18% foreign. Lady Gaga, who was awarded the “Japan Gold Disc Award Artist of the Year” for foreign artists for two consecutive years, is just about the only foreign artist left who is really successful in Japan. It is therefore understandable that foreign music sections in CD shops, which were dominated mostly by American music until recently, have now been driven into a corner by Japanese pop music and other genres.

Keio University Professor (of American literature) Takayuki Tatsumi says that American novels are doing even worse. “Mystery novels and other popular literature are still doing okay, but serious American literature is not selling. For example, heroes like Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and J.D. Salinger used to be very popular. There are no writers like that anymore.”

Sharp drop in students going to study in the U.S.

The decline in the number of students going to study in the U.S. has continued unabated. Tatsumi points out that “even students majoring in American literature are not eager to go to the U.S. to study.” According to a U.S. research institute, the number of students going to the U.S. had stayed flat at about 45,000 until the second half of the 1990s, but this has dropped to 24,000 at present. While the declining birth rate and deteriorating economic conditions are certainly contributing factors, the desire to go to the U.S. is still weak. Even in terms of the nationality of foreign students studying in the U.S., Japan has been overtaken by China, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and other countries.

Of course Apple products are selling like hot cakes and technology originating from the U.S., such as Google and Facebook, is very popular. Still, “the status of American culture, which has consistently been popular in Japan” in the postwar period, “has declined unmistakably,” according to Tatsumi.

Popularity unchanged in China, other countries

Is this phenomenon also occurring in countries moving toward economic development? According to Otaka, Hollywood movies remain very popular in China and Russia.

Why have the Japanese shifted away from American culture?

Commentator Saburo Kawamoto offers the analysis that the main reason is that “the Japanese people have changed.”

“The Japanese sense of value has changed particularly after the Great East Japan Earthquake and the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. They have come to have doubts and abhor the American society of competition and materialism. The Japanese people are now moving toward a more moderate direction.”

Soon after World War II when Japan was still poor, big houses and cars and large refrigerators stocked with plenty of food used to fascinate the Japanese, and this partly explained the popularity of American culture. Kawamoto thinks that the Japanese are beginning to feel that such material affluence is not the most important value.

He has a harsh opinion of American films. “Since Hollywood targets the world market, it sacrifices quality. They are so childish and not suitable for viewing by Japanese adults.”

Professor Yasushi Watanabe of Keio University’s Faculty of Environment and Information Studies, author of “Bunka to Gaiko [Culture and Diplomacy]” and several other books who is an expert on the U.S.’s soft power, stresses that “the Japanese are no longer that fascinated with America and this has never happened before after Japan opened itself up to the outside world, except for a short period during World War II.”

Wars, disparity undermine the U.S.’s image

Soft power refers to a country’s appeal and influence not through its military or economic power but through its values, culture, and so forth. “U.S. soft power” is declining in Japan.

It used to be that not only the bright side of America, such as its technology, democracy, and equal relationships between husbands and wives, but even its counterculture, such as the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War, fascinated the Japanese. However, one event after another eventually gave the Japanese a negative image of the U.S. American “arbitrariness,” as manifested in the Iraq War, for instance, the disparity between rich and poor, the Lehman Shock, and so forth made the Japanese “think twice about regarding the U.S. as its model,” observes Watanabe.

He emphasizes, however, that the decline of soft power or the weakening of the “fascination” “does not mean that the bilateral relationship will go awry.”

It is hard to imagine the Japanese turning away rapidly from the U.S. in terms of economic ties or the security relationship. As a matter of fact, the Cabinet Office’s survey shows that the Japanese people retain strong positive feelings for the American people. As a result of “Operation Tomodachi” after the quake disaster last year, a record high of 82% said they had a “feeling of affinity” toward the Americans. It appears that the Japanese are unlikely to come to dislike America.

Kawamoto suggests that the phenomenon of Japanese shifting away from American culture may indicate that they have stopped looking at the U.S. as a model or viewing it with fascination, but have come to think of the bilateral relationship “as a natural relationship like the U.S.-UK relationship.” He goes on to say: “This may also signify that the Japanese people are in the process of searching for new values that are different from American-style material affluence.”

If At First You Don’t Succeed

In the spirit of America’s Independence week, I present to you this citizenship test.  Write down these ten questions from the U.S. citizenship test and answer them before you click on the answers.

In order to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, a person must correctly answer six of 10 randomly selected questions. Can you pass the test?

1. What are the colors of our flag?

2. How many stripes are there in the flag?

3. What country did we fight during the Revolutionary War?

4. What are the three branches of our government?

5. Can you name the original thirteen states?

6. What are the 49th and 50th states of the Union?

7. Who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner?”

8. Who signs bills into law?

9. What are the first 10 amendments to the Constitution called?

10. In what month do we vote for the president?

How did you do?

If you didn’t do that well, you are not alone.  It seems many Americans are not too aware of our history, much less our current government leaders.  Consider this quote:

However, the names of some of our current leaders slipped the minds of a few, for example, the leader of the executive branch (President Barack Obama) and his second-in-command (Vice President Joe Biden) seemed even harder for some.

Not to worry, however.  These types of press reports regularly appear to remind us of our ignorance.  They perpetuate the stereotype that Americans are either (a) oblivious to what’s going on in the world and at home or (b) oblivious to what’s going on in the world and at home.  (The choices are the same on purpose.)  While it is true that many Americans may miss a lot of these basic questions, I don’t believe that we should jump to the most negative of conclusions.  After all, it’s hard to keep up with the knowledge that Barack Obama is the leader of the executive branch of government and Joe Biden is his second-in-command when we have to keep up with the Joneses and the Kardashians. (Yes, that is the sound of sar hitting casm.)

Question: Why do I still love America?

Answer: Our potential.

Happy Independence Day

Today is the 4th of July (Fourth of July), a national holiday in the United States that commemorates America’s independence from Great Britain.  The Fourth of July is associated with traditional American food fare like hot dogs, hamburgers, and potato salad, outdoor grilling, baseball, picnics, fireworks, and parades.  The date coincides with the Continental Congress’ signing of the Declaration of Independence.  We associate this day with the only two future presidents to sign the document, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, both of whom died on July 4th, 1826.  I guess you could say that was their independence day too!

John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail and declared his hopes for the national holiday:

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.  It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.  It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.

Well, we may not be quite as religious about the holiday.  We’re more apt to shoot off fireworks and eat too much. Nevertheless, watch this highlight from the annual Capitol Fourth celebration in Washington, DC and tell me you don’t feel a little fired up.  I’ve been to several of these celebrations in Washington, since I lived in the nation’s capital for nine years.  This patriotic music can get my blood circulating and my skin full of goosebumps. Performed by country singer, Reba McIntire.

I make no apologies for loving my country.  It’s that love for country that makes me criticize it so often.  I believe we can always do better.  I am reminded of the words of one of my mentors, J. William Fulbright, who said, “In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith.”  He wrote one of the most important critiques of the Vietnam War in his book, The Arrogance of Power, on which my book, The Arrogance of American Power, is based.

If America has a service to perform in the world, and I believe it has, it is in large part the service of its own example. In our excessive involvement in the affairs of other countries, we are not only living off our assets and denying our own people the proper enjoyment of their resources; we are also denying the world the example of a free society enjoying its freedom to the fullest. This is regrettable indeed for a nation that aspires to teach democracy to other nations, because, as Burke said, “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.”

Andy Griffith: America’s Favorite

Where do I start with the life of Andy Griffith?  He defined American culture for decades.  He was the Hollywood star that everyone liked, the man we hoped to meet someday on a trip North Carolina, where he made his home.  He was “our” Andy, a quintessential American TV and film star who never let his fame go to his head.  And boy did he define the character of America with “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-1968).  The show featured Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor and included a cast of characters that we all could identify with as part of our own family or home towns.  We all know someone like the bumbling, can’t shoot straight Barney Fife.  We all have an Aunt Bee in our life, or wish we did.  Who doesn’t know a sweet little boy like Opie, played by the now famous Hollywood director, Ron Howard.  The show, shot in Hollywood, was set in the fictional Mayberry, North Carolina, small-town USA, modeled on Andy Griffith’s home town of Mount Airy, North Carolina.

Why did a show that featured two police officers in a town with practically no crime win America’s hearts?  Griffith said on CNN in 2003: “The basic theme of our show was love.  All the characters loved each other. And all the actors loved each other, too.”  You can see this love in the many YouTube episodes, including one of my favorites, Aunt Bee’s kerosene pickles.

In looking back at the shows, critics today say that the cast was too white (true), overly sentimental, and not reflective of the times.  Television has always functioned as an escape hatch for the American psyche, just as it also at times serves as a mirror to reflect our lesser selves onto us (Roots, All in the Family.)

Griffith represented an America we thought might never change.  He was the American we all wanted to be: good-humored, friendly, optimistic, decisive, a problem-solver with a can-do spirit.  Mayberry, North Carolina took us away from all the changes in the 1960s, the battles over race, the war in Vietnam, the rise of Rock and Roll and protest songs.  Sometimes we wanted to forget about the way things really were and take a trip to a small town where problems got solved in less than 30 minutes.  The New York Timesobituary on Andy Griffith is a great tribute.  Read some of the comments posted by the readers.  You’ll see why we are going to miss him.  For us Baby Boomer types, we all know Andy Griffith’s entire career and can whistle “The Andy Griffith Show” theme song.

Griffith would star in another show, “Matlock,” where once again he scored a big hit in the 1980s and 1990s, this time as a clever Atlanta-based lawyer who always got the bad guy and always seemed to wear the same suit.  Andy Griffith as Matlock reminds me of my mom and dad sitting in their side-by-side easy chairs in our family den in Birmingham, Alabama.  They never missed an episode and it warms my heart to think of the years my dad had in retirement watching not only “Matlock” but also “The Andy Griffith Show” in reruns on TV Land, the cable network that caters to the nostalgic who likes quality.

Andy Griffith died one day before our most patriotic holiday, Fourth of July.  How fitting, for he was America’s favorite son, father, sheriff, and lawyer.  He died in the early morning and was buried on his beloved Roanoke Island before noon.

If you want to see Andy Griffith’s acting range, then watch the 1957 film Elia Kazan directed, “A Face in the Crowd,” where Griffith plays an everyman turned demagogue named Lonesome Rhodes.  I love to show clips in class whenever I lecture on American propaganda and persuasion.  This film was a warning to America that we are easily duped, not only by the charismatic common man like Rhodes, but also by advertising and celebrity.  I’m afraid that we’re ever more like the Andy in “A Face in the Crowd” than we are like the Andy in “The Andy Griffith Show.”

The Busy Trap: Here and Everywhere

Slow down, you move too fast.

I hope you aren’t too busy to read this latest post.  I recall sometime this year that my landlady in California said that I’m the busiest person she knows.  Wow, I thought, that must mean I’m doing something important.  On second thought, it could have meant that I’m like many Americans, including herself, who is preoccupied with, well occupations.  We’re too busy to care, too busy to bother, too busy to matter, too busy to know that we’re too busy.  Get the picture?

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

Tim Kreider, The Busy Trap, New York Times

Do you feel like you are too busy?  Knowing your life as a full-time student, I would imagine that you must feel too busy.  How do you find time for yourself?  In an educational setting where the brain is on overdrive, we must take time to stop and enjoy the hollyhocks or just listen to the sage advice of Simon and Garfunkel or Mac Davis.  Now go grab that cup of matcha latte and relax.

Nora Ephron (1941-2012)

Nora Ephron (1941-2012) 

Nora Ephron is dead.  I find that a bit hard to believe because (a) I didn’t know she was ill and (b) she wasn’t that old where one started asking, “Gee, I wonder if s/he is still alive?”  Ephron was a 1962 graduate of one of the Seven Sisters, Wellesley College, in Massachusetts.  This link is her 1996 Wellesley Commencement address and you’ll find it very entertaining, which is what we all know about Ms. Ephron.  You can also read about her thoughts regarding aging here.

Nora Ephron was a Renaissance woman: novelist, writer, film director, comedian, playwright, and Huffington Post blogger.  She is remembered for many memorable films, Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, all three of which received Academy Award nominations for best original screenplay, and Heartburn, about her marriage breakup with Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein.

I’m very sad about the passing of Ms. Ephron, who I had the pleasure of hearing speak in 2009.  She introduced her good friend Arianna Huffington at a Manhattan event where Arianna was about to be presented with a lifetime achievement award.  Ephron was side-splitting funny.  She had no off button, as you will hear in the commencement address.  She is that unusual type of person, a real “woman’s woman.”  We don’t have enough of these women in the world: strong, funny, vulnerable in that secure way of knowing she is smart.  Ephron wrote and spoke from a woman’s point of view, which isn’t a bad thing.  She made women feel really good about being women.  I will miss her and am sorry she is gone at 71.  What stories did she have left to tell?  We won’t know.