The American media, a window on the civilization of America, has for years acted as a strong means of intercultural communication with the rest of the world. This difficult task however is fraught with a multitude of dangers and pitfalls, mainly: propaganda, distortion, brainwashing, exaggeration, fake news, and exoticism.
Rabat – However, the media, given the nature of the political system of this country, enjoys a tremendous amount of freedom and independence, and consequently, has more room for maneuvering and creativity. The image US media projects of the American society abroad undoubtedly has its ups and downs. On the one hand, it glorifies such American ideals as: freedom, democracy, equal opportunity, multiculturalism, and gender equality, and on the other, it disseminates distorted information that enhances the already existing stereotypes and misconceptions.
This analysis aims at investigating ways in which the media affects, positively and negatively, the world at large, taking Morocco as an example.
The impact of the American culture
Crossing physically from one culture into another can be a traumatic experience; the move is not only a difficult, but one also has to learn the focal language and its intricacies, adapt to the climate and, most importantly, understand the culture (known as the silent language) and the way of life of the target country. Storti, in a book entitled: The Art of Crossing Cultures, argues that:
“Before you can adapt to foreign culture, you first have to survive the move abroad. People who move overseas face a number of adjustments all at once. They must, of course, come to grips with the local culture, with the peculiar behavior of the natives. But they must also get used to a new job, a new community, and a new country.”
Nowadays, however, if one does not feel comfortable going to other cultures, some of these cultures, instead, will come to him in various forms and shapes. One such culture is the American Culture.
Indeed, today’s America, with its strong economy, technology, civilization and military might, has successfully spread its culture around the world to the extent that it has become universal, to say the least. Is it not the case that American fast food such as McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut, are taking the world by storm, not forgetting, beverages such as Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Seven Up,?
Needless to say, however, if American culture has become universal, the credit or the blame, undoubtedly, goes to the cinema and television shows that have over decades held the world’s breath with their good and not so good entertainment. Among the many other forms of American culture that have invaded us in the comfort of our homes we find music, dance, fashion, web and language. Nevertheless, one is made to wonder, to what extent that which we are subjected to around the world is truly representative of America, its people, ideas, philosophy and way of life?
Many foreign critics argue, quite vehemently, today, that the American culture projected abroad is only representative of that of the Whites/WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestants), albeit with some token representation of other cultures. Now that the concept of “political correctness” is spreading fast among the intellectuals all over the world, the critics are calling for true multiculturalism in America. Paul Gray , in an article entitled: “Whose America,” published by Time magazine on July 8, 1991, argues that:
“In the critical optic of this new “multicultural” perspective, American history as it was once written–those often tedious treks from Christopher Columbus to Dwight Eisenhower–leaves out too much, namely nearly everyone who was not a white male. Some adherents go further, questioning whether the Western ideas and ideals that gave birth to America discriminate against people from other traditions. A more radical school argues that those values are no more than the ethnic expression of Euro-centric culture and should be taught only as such.”
This means that the American culture, or should we refer to it as American plural culture, if we take into consideration not just the culture of the white man but, also, that of the African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, Puerto Ricans/ Latinos, and Amerindians, etc. may come to us in the next decades in different shapes and forms, with the possible rehabilitation of all racial minorities. As a matter of fact, the much-acclaimed film “Dances with Wolves” , which rehabilitates Amerindians and their culture is a true avant-goût of the shape of things to come in the future, hopefully.
The Magic of Window of the media
For decades, the media has played a major role in the glorification of American civilization and culture on a global level. Indeed, the cinema, since its birth up to now, has relentlessly spared no effort to publicize, the American way of life. Whether right or wrong the images that it has projected “subliminally” of this country will, in some cases, remain with many people, who do not have the possibility to travel and discover the country by themselves, for life. This undertaking was later reinforced by television and other means of mass communication such as the Internet.
The cinema and the magic of Hollywood
Hollywood and the cinema are two things that go together in most people’s minds. Hollywood has glorified the cinema with its magic touch, and the cinema has glorified Hollywood and made out of it a whole world of beauty and fantasy, unequalled in modern times. Because of their quality: the professionalism of the actors, the high quality scripts, the excellent level of dramatization and the perfect use of artefacts and artifices, films spawned in Hollywood are slick and attractive, and, as a result, enchant the world beyond belief, to the extent that the viewer is brainwashed into believing that America is what they see on the screen, no less and no more.
It is true that the cinema is just the cinema and the institutions should not be blamed for viewers’ interpretations, for that is a reflection of themselves and their values. After all, does not Shakespeare, while talking about theater, say, in Hamlet, that it is: “to hold, as’t were, the mirror up to nature…“ Maybe the cinema, because it is not the theater, in order to be convincing and entertaining, has to free itself from the restraints of everyday reality and raise fiction above everything.
The Moroccan public, most of whom cannot travel to the United States for financial and administrative reasons, is left to discover that part of the world through the “magic window” the cinema and television. Because they are not able to check what they are offered against reality, they are somewhat “brainwashed” into believing that America is what they see on the screen, and as a result many misconceptions are formed, sometimes for life.
The misconceptions of America that the magic of the cinema has spawned in the Moroccan viewers’ imagination can be summarized as follows:
– ridiculous wealth
– violent society
– excessive sex and love
– fast life
and, with time and more exposure to the cinema, these misconceptions became established truths that prove to be difficult to scrap or shed altogether. A brief look at each of these will reveal the distortions that the cinema willingly or unwillingly is responsible for.
Many American films, no matter what their theme is, do, perhaps unwittingly, display particular aspects of the American way of life. For many cinema goers in Morocco, the plot of the film is something they enjoy during the show and probably forget about afterwards, but what remains in their mind, for obvious psychological reasons, are the scenes that exhibit incredible wealth in the shape of grandiose mansions with servants and limousines, beautiful cars, yachts or private airplanes, women wearing expensive jewelry and designer clothes, and well-dressed men, puffing at huge cigars and drinking expensive champagne, while talking big business with other men looking just as smart and as rich.
This, is of course reminiscent of the literary classic turned into a successful movie: “The Great Gatsby” and the American Dream. On the nature of the novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 20s of the last century, James Topham writes what follows in ThoughtCo:
« The power of Gatsby as a character is inextricably linked to his wealth. From the very beginning of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald sets up his eponymous hero as an enigma: the playboy millionaire with the shady past who can enjoy the frivolity and ephemera that he creates around him. However, the reality of the situation is that Gatsby is a man in love. Nothing more. He concentrated all of his life on winning Daisy back.
It is the way that he attempts to do this, however, that is central to Fitzgerald’s world-view. Gatsby creates himself—both his mystique and his personality—around rotten values. They are the values of the American dream—that money, wealth, and popularity are all there is to achieve in this world. He gives everything he has—emotionally and physically—to win, and it is this unrestrained desire that contributes to his eventual downfall. »
It is true that there is great wealth and affluence within the American society as Clive James reveals, quite rightly, in Flying Visits:
“But as always happens, no matter how often one visits America, the really overwhelming thing was the affluence… We should always remember that when Americans talk about being in a slump, they mean a slump by their standards. For the visitor the sheer wealth of the country must remain the abiding impression…”
but certainly not as it is depicted in the movies. The educated viewer can use his good judgement and sound discernment to evaluate what he is exposed to. However, those people who do not speak foreign languages and therefore are in no position to understand the plot and the dialogue rely very much on the images and the visual effects, and these can easily invade their imaginations and turn what is probably fiction into sacred established truths, not to say of course clichés.
In the mind of the average Moroccan, the affluence displayed, quite often, in films has become axiomatic to the extent that a reference is made to it in a proverbial manner in Moroccan Arabic:
Wash tesHablek ana mirikani?
“do you think I am American?
(meaning: do you think I am as rich as an American).”
For years the American movie industry has cashed in, unscrupulously, on an innate instinct of love of violence among humans, and, as a result, produced thousands of films that surpass each other, only in their degree and various manifestations of crude violence.
The typical Moroccans, who can be squeamish about physical violence, believe that it is a second nature to Americans, for otherwise they would not glorify it in such a masterly way in their films and series.
Following films made about the Prohibition, bootlegging, wars between different Mafia gangs, and about such infamous gangsters as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, many Moroccans believe strongly that cities like New York and Chicago must be extremely unsafe, with gunfights commonplace in the streets. It is true that there is crime in these two cities, as is the case in all big cities, but not to the extent presented in films like “The Godfather” and many others.
More and more educated Moroccans believe that the reason the American films are so popular and so entertaining is due to the fact that directors, script writers and actors know how to make use of violence professionally in the entertainment. They may not mean any harm, but unfortunately it is extremely difﬁcult to foretell the effect of such films on common viewers.
Excessive sex and love
Prior to the outbreak of AIDS and the death of the film star Rock Hudson, most American films contained several scenes of love-making, while often the leading actor was portrayed as an individual capable of seducing and going to bed with any woman he fancied.
Furthermore, some of these films seemed to put the emphasis more on crude sex than on romance, affection and intimacy; to extol promiscuity and, in many situations, base sexual intercourse. Furthermore, sex and love were not presented as respected human feelings and functions but rather as destructive weapons used by wealthy and power-hungry people to achieve their ignoble aims.
In many of these films, women are all blonde, tall, beautiful, slim and rich. They are, also, tough and cunning, but they all have a flaw in their personality in the sense that they are emotionally prone to fall in love and have sexual intercourse with any men that come their way and attempt to seduce them as portrayed in the TV series “Sex and the City” (1998-2004) of 94 episodes and 2 films. “Sex and the City” has received both acclaim and criticism for its themes and characters.
Nowadays the male lead characters in films are less promiscuous than in the past, but women still appear to be easy to seduce. For people who are not very familiar with American culture, the films in question make them believe that American women are morally loose and are, in general, more interested in carnal pleasures than in romantic love and affection.
Taking films as a sure reference to go by, some people can put themselves in delicate situations when in company of American women, by the things they say or the moves they make which can be interpreted as sexual harassment, of course.
It is true that in America life is faster in tempo than in many other countries, but in the cinema it is even much faster than reality: people marry and divorce with alarming rapidity; people become wealthy or poor fast; politicians rise to power and fall into disgrace suddenly.
In America, time is very important, but what is even more important is knowing how to use it to make money and become successful, which in principle is within the reach of everyone according to the tenets of the American Dream philosophy.
However, for many observers and analysts this dream has, today, withered with the arrival of Donald Trump to power and the rise of White Nationalism. Therefore, to maximize its use, Americans developed fast cars, fast trains, fast airplanes, and fast food (the film saga “Fast and Furious” is a good example,) and acted likewise with emotions, feelings, ways of thinking, expression and relationships.
However, the cinema unwillingly gives the impression that life in the United States does not take its natural course because everything runs against the clock in a rat-race fashion, and that is why, perhaps, some Americans suffer from dire mental problems that are unheard of in other parts of the world and resort to violence, as a therapy, to unburden their pent-up emotions.
On this particular trait, Lawrence R. Samuel, writes in Psychology Yesterday:
“The assassination of Martin Luther King fifty years ago today had a direct, immediate effect on the perception of the American Way of Life. Almost overnight, our national character was infused with a recognizably darker and more sinister tone; many began making the case that we were a uniquely violent people, a position that seemed increasingly difficult to contest. The idealistic dreams of the counterculture seemed to immediately fade after that murder, making the tragic event appear to represent a turning point in American history. “This is a crucial time, and a test of the American way of life in the eyes of the world,” said Deborah Wolfe, a professor at Queens College in New York, in May of that year, blaming hate and ignorance for the violent act. The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in June added to the sense that America was a deeply troubled nation whose citizens had an unusual propensity to kill each other.”
Television: Selling American culture to the world
Following in the steps of the cinema, American television has achieved much success in the realm of home entertainment. Because of new technological breakthroughs in direct satellite broadcasting, American television is becoming a dangerous weapon of incredible political and cultural importance.
During the Gulf War, CNN managed to enter millions of homes around the world and kept millions of people glued to their TV sets seeking more information. One wonders to what extent CNN was manipulated (journalists were embedded by the American army) by all sides to achieve their political or military aims.
Today with fiber optics, American TV unrivalled series created by NETFLIX or HBO (“ Game of Thrones”), are reaching all countries of the world and their “subliminal effect” is such that people eat American, drink American, dress American and want to act American.
In Morocco, all young people want to learn American English to watch films and series in the Internet, and French, the language of the colonial power, that was until recently a hype language is losing ground dangerously, as a result.
On the topic of the “subliminal effect” of American media, Nicky LaMarco writes in Chron:
« Subliminal perception will be experienced by a consumer when they perceive a marketing message without their conscious awareness. There has been a raging debate for many decades about whether it really is possible to influence the decisions of consumers through subliminal perceptions. While the controversy continues and no conclusions have been reached about how effective the method is, many marketers still put subliminal images and words in their advertisements while others don’t really prioritize them. »
In many countries around the world, American programs, shows and telefilms are broadcast on prime time. What’s more, television stations across the world have adopted American TV techniques in presenting news, game shows, soap-operas, and debates. Cable TV, once exclusively American, has come now to homes all over the world. In Morocco, the long-awaited second public TV channel went private and became 2M, which commenced broadcasting in 1989, adopting in many ways an American outlook, for not only was it fee-paying, then, but it, also, presented the viewer with a slick package of programs in which American productions had the lion’s share.
The influence of American media on 2M was such that locally-produced programs were very much American in outlook. At the beginning, when the project was unveiled, few people believed that such an undertaking would achieve commercial success in this country; two years later, with 150,000 paying subscribers, this television channel was doing better than anybody imagined in could.
American television productions are undoubtedly the most popular around the world for their entertainment quality. The productions in question shown on Moroccan television channels can be subjectively divided into two main categories by their impact on Moroccan viewers: “positive” shows and “negative” shows.
In general, they are lighthearted sitcoms that provide entertainment for the whole family with no exception. These shows often deal with family situations and do glorify such an institution, as well as other positive social values and ethics. Two of these shows had quite a positive effect on the Moroccan viewer: “The Cosby show” and “Who’s the Boss”
“The Cosby Show” is a sitcom about a black middle class family in America and its daily life, expectations, cultural background and difficulties. This show, one of the most popular produced by American television industry ever, is seen as “positive” TV program because it portrays the life of a racial minority group that suffered, for centuries, from the white man’s discrimination and persecution, and for once it is shown in positive light and not as most films do, where black people are pimps, drug dealers, criminals or crooks.
“The Cosby Show” is pure entertainment and not a political manifesto. As for “Who’s the Boss,” it is another lighthearted comedy pertaining to family matters and dealing with problems of single-parent families, bringing up children in a liberal environment and with the work ethic in American society and it was well-received by Moroccans. These two shows have the merit of presenting American society in its natural form with no distortion or exaggeration and making it look as any other human society prone to problems, difficulties and mishaps but also happy, healthy, simple and normal.
These are the shows that distort reality and project a distorted image and help create misconceptions and stereotypes among the viewers. Among these we find: “Dallas” and “Santa Barbara.” “Dallas” left the impression, among Moroccan viewers, that all Americans are as rich and as prosperous as the leading family in the series, and that wealth in America is synonymous with jealousy, intrigue, adultery and murder. As a result, many people believe that to be successful in the American society one has to act like J.R., who is a living symbol of what the American Dream is all about, which, of course, is not the case. This, also, suggests wrongly that American high society can be above the law and get away with it.
The other show that gives a “negative” image of American culture is “Santa Barbara.” Very much like “Dallas,” it gives the wrong impression that American society thrives on illegal and immoral practices such as adultery, rape, sexual abuse, forgery, deceit and dishonesty.
The impact of television on the viewer is much stronger than that of the cinema for the simple reason that nowadays, TV is an important part of our life: it is a full member of the family. A member who has the power to tell us things, in ways we rarely question.
In Morocco for example, television has succeeded in entering most homes and has managed to change the habits of the society. Prior to its advent, people used to sit around trays of tea and tell stories and exchange pleasantries. Today, the traditional tea ceremony has lost its charm and, as a consequence, of the age of television, the round tea trays have other shapes and eating tables are not circular anymore because people want to eat and watch TV. So, to accommodate this new member of the family, the traditional tables had to become rectangular so that “The Cosby Show,” “Who’s the Boss,” “Dallas,”” Santa Barbara,” and “Sex and the City,” can be seated on the opposite side comfortably for the viewing pleasure of everyone in the family.
The impact of other media
It must be borne in mind that the impact of other media: press, radio, internet, advertisements, are today as important as the cinema and television.
However, like the television, they sometimes can be very efficacious in imprinting a variety of impressions on the audience’s mind. Advertisements, as a matter of fact, are such a strong medium for they interact with peoples’ choices and needs. For instance, some commercials that extol the qualities of a given soft drink, a beauty product, or toiletry, often give the impression that American society is a society of healthy, good-looking, and rich people who enjoy the pleasures of life, one of them being the product advertised.
For the viewer, this means that people who are plain, physically disadvantaged, aged, poor have no place in such a society because it is a society where only good-looking and somewhat rich people live.
THE IMPACT OF THE MEDIA ON SOCIETY
The media, in general, has a tremendous impact on society because it is a very “convincing” form of communication against which the individual has no defense or protection. The American media, owing to its advanced technology and its vast experience, has no difficulty in “convincing” the people of the world of the veracity of its messages.
In Morocco, for instance, cinema and television have left with Moroccans a number of stereotypes about the American society, some of these have already been dealt with earlier, namely: wealth, violence, excessive sex and love, and fast life. The other stereotypes are:
– selfishness: Americans are very self-centered and egoistical. They only care about others when their interest is at stake;
– individualism: “This is my space, this is my towel, this my space or “bubble,” etc. you are not supposed to use it under any circumstances,” is a common attitude among American people. No sense of sharing or communal solidarity;
– ego-centrism: Americans think that they set the standards and the world follows;
– no sense of alternative etiquette: Americans have no respect for social etiquette and cultural traditions of societies other than theirs;
– materialism: Americans think that they can buy with money anything they need or want. For them money seems to be everything;
– no respect for age: America seems to be a society that does not accept people who are not productive and active, so old age is considered as a serious liability;
– stinginess: Americans are very miserly people. They have no sense of generosity; and
– family values: America is becoming more and more a society of selfish individuals for whom the family is more like a biological reference. Divorces are as common as marriages. People marry more for the experience than for founding a family.
But besides its ability to create stereotypes involuntarily, the media also strives to present American culture in a good light. Indeed, it glorifies, quite rightly, such principles as:
– equal opportunity;
– respect of human rights;
– honor and respect;
– free enterprise;
– political, cultural, linguistic and religious pluralism;
– alternative sexual identities (LGBTQ), etc.
The media has spared no effort to glorify the American genius. In countless films and television shows, the creativity and the intelligence of the American man is celebrated to the extent that he is sometimes portrayed as an individual with incredible powers, someone like a demi-god.
This is illustrated by such popular films as: “Rambo,” “Captain America” or “Superman.” At the height of the Cold War, American soldiers, intelligence agents, scientists, etc. always triumphed over their Soviet counterparts who symbolized evil and dictatorship.
The media presents the American hero as someone intelligent, educated, polite, generous, magnanimous, handsome and strong. In a word, he is the super hero who knows no fear. He is always ready to defend his country and people with no hesitation whatsoever. For him, America is the ultimate symbol of freedom and democracy.
James Petras, on the subject of the impact of the American media on the rest of the world, argues in Global Policy Forum that it is some sort of “cultural imperialism:”
“U.S cultural imperialism has two major goals, one economic and the other political: to capture markets for its cultural commodities and to establish hegemony by shaping popular consciousness. The export of entertainment is one of the most important sources of capital accumulation and global profits displacing manufacturing exports. In the political sphere, cultural imperialism plays a major role in dissociating people from their cultural roots and traditions of solidarity, replacing them with media created needs which change with every publicity campaign. The political effect in to alienate people from traditional class and community bonds, atomizing and separating individuals from each other.”
And goes on to say forcefully:
“The principle target of cultural imperialism is the political and economic exploitation of youth. Imperial entertainment and advertisement target young people who are most vulnerable to U.S. commercial propaganda. The message is simple and direct: ‘modernity’ in associated with consuming U.S. media products. Youth represent a major market for U.S. cultural export and they are most susceptible to the consumerist-individualist propaganda. The mass media manipulates adolescent rebelliousness by appropriating the language of the left and channeling discontent into consumer extravagances. Cultural imperialism focuses on youth not only as a market but also for political reasons: to undercut a political threat in which personal rebellion could become political revolt against economic as well as cultural forms of control.”
However, one must point out that American social media Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. have been instrumental, no doubt, in the advent of the Arab Spring in 2011 and the political emancipation of the Arab millennials , in particular, and the Arab citizen, in general. Today, the Arabs stand free from the shackles of fear from government retribution but, also, patriarchal tradition and sheer tribalism of dictatorships and youth are fighting openly for political, cultural, sexual and religious freedom in this part of the world. The latest manifestations of this are the uprisings of Sudan and Algeria for the establishment of democratic forms of government in these countries. For Stuart Jeanne Bramhall, “democracy is America’s biggest export.”
The American media, a window to the culture and the civilization of this country, has for years acted as a successful means of intercultural communication with the rest of the world. This difficult task, however, is fraught with a multitude of dangers, including propaganda, distortion, and brainwashing.
The image this media projects of American society abroad has, undoubtedly, has positive and negative repercussions. On the one hand, it disseminates unwillingly distorted information that helps create stereotypes and misconceptions, and on the other, it publicizes and glorifies such American ideals as freedom, democracy, justice, etc.
The American media has also been successful in spreading worldwide democracy and the rule of law as well as the respect of human rights, gender equality, religious freedom and cultural emancipation by projecting American democracy worldwide in a pedagogical manner.
To cross cultures safely and positively, the American media has to be used with great caution to avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping, especially in the case of people who do not have access to other means of information or the possibility of cultural discernment.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.
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