American Television in Europe: Problematizing the Notion of Pop Cultural Hegemony
Issue #57, October 2001
Many Europeans are concerned about the possibility of American culture dominating other cultures. Many Americans believe that their culture is indeed the dominant culture in the world. The increasingly common terms "cultural hegemony" and "monoculturalism" seem by default to refer to American culture and its presence outside of America. In Europe and other places, American culture appears in many forms, such as movies, music, clothing, and television. But does the presence of these kinds of American pop cultural items mean that a cultural takeover is happening, or happening unproblematically?
Obviously, America is an exceedingly powerful country. Its wealthy transnational corporations, its power within international regulatory organizations, and its military might give it a great deal of power in structuring and controlling economic and other interactions all over the globe. But, does it follow from this that cultural items such as American television shows are equally controlling and shaping of other cultures? Does America's economic and political power mean that its pop culture is easily taking over the globe?
I believe that cultural takeover is not so easy, and that many barriers to American cultural hegemony exist. I think it is important to acknowledge and understand these barriers, to look at the interstitial spaces to see just what happens in these sites where two different cultures meet. I myself occupy an interstitial space, as I am not European, and not an American living in America, but an American living in Europe. Speaking from that perspective, I take American television in Europe as a case study to illustrate the barriers and problems involved in the spread of American popular culture. Taking into account various factors that I've observed while living here, I see the notion of the unchecked spread of American pop culture as more problematic than it is often depicted to be.
It is true that American television, movies, and music are all over Europe. Here in Switzerland, at the local theater I can see Shrek, at the cafe down the street I can hear Madonna singing about what it feels like to be a girl, and while flipping the channels on my TV I can see Friends and Frasier. But let's not hastily conclude that all of this equals hegemony. There are a few details to note in this situation, details that may elude the casual observer, especially one observing Europe from across the Atlantic. In my ten months of living here, I have found that the presence of American culture is just not a clear matter of hegemony and monoculture. To understand it, we have to look more deeply at the context and form in which American pop culture appears, how and if it is consumed, and how it is interpreted. Let's wipe off the spectacles and give it a look.
No Blank (or Passive) Slate
First of all, we should acknowledge that American pop cultural imports don't simply land in Europe like Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, placing the first fresh footsteps onto an uninhabited world (and planting the American flag). Europe is not a tabula rasa; far, far, from it. To assume otherwise would really be somewhat imperialistic and shortsighted, wouldn't it? After all, Europeans already have cultures, very long-standing, deeply entrenched, rich, diverse cultures that have long had contact with and influences from many other cultures, long before the U.S. even existed. This is nothing new and nothing that Americans have invented.
Second, it's important to understand that Europeans are not simply passive receivers of information. Rather, they choose to receive in certain ways, they alter and interpret what is received, and there is really no one-to-one correspondence between the transmitter and the recipient. Just because American TV shows, channels, or other pop cultural imports appear in another country doesn't mean that they appear just as they are in America. Europeans do have something to say about what is received, how and whether things are received and used (or rejected), and what the things mean in terms of their own definitions and frameworks.
Same Bat Channel, Different Bat Channel
In other words, MTV here isn't MTV in America. CNN here is not CNN in America. Looking at MTV in Europe is a "foreign" experience for an American. The music played is largely different, a lot of it coming from European and other sources around the world. Have you ever heard French rap? How about German fatalism-minimalism-metal? How about British techno-DJ mixes? How about music from India, Africa, and Japan? This is the rude awakening Americans find when they tune in to European MTV: that not all music is sung in English and much American music is not popular here at all. Likewise, most popular music here would be very unpopular in America. Also, the video jockeys (VJs) are not American. They're thoroughly European, representing European cultures, clothing, trends, languages, and so forth. The ads are not American and often aren't in English. And all those fatuous American shows that MTV produces are rarely if ever shown here. Now, I have seen an episode of Daria in French, but MTV here mainly just shows music videos.
CNN, another American channel, is available in Europe. However, over here it has many more non-American correspondents and stories. Familiar American faces are replaced by people from all over the globe. The U.S. and its perspectives are no longer the main focus of "world" news (with the very important exception, of course, of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon which now dominate all news here). Watching CNN in Europe, one finds that there are many other stock markets, other influential heads of state, other celebrities, other economies, other political intrigues, other elections, other problems. The U.S. begins to look like just one among many. In fact, much American news starts to seem much less pressing than, say, news of the recent assassination of Indian civil rights figure Phoolan Devi, or of the terrifying escalations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (again, with the very important exception noted above). The point is, just because American television channels are in Europe, it does not mean that they are the same channels that they are in America. Different cultures interpret, shape, and use them in ways that make sense within their own milieus.
Third, we have to consider the nitty gritty of how television really works in Europe. There are quite a few important differences, the largest of which is language. According to a European Commission report, only 29 percent of Europeans on the continent speak English well enough to hold a conversation. Obviously, most people speak, read, listen, think, and consume in their native language. If you've ever tried to watch (and actually understand) TV or movies in another tongue, even one in which you have some comprehension, you know how utterly exhausting and difficult it is. It's a mammoth feat to acquire a large enough vocabulary to grasp the dialogue in movies and television, which is very rapid, casual, slangy, and accented. And, the topics discussed in movies and television are very diverse and quick-changing, requiring a heck of a lot of cultural knowledge. It's a huge step beyond book-learning, simple conversations or even reading in another language. To think that most Europeans watch American television shows in English, then, would be ludicrous.
Further, the very large variety of languages spoken in Europe really complicates the importation of American television. In Europe, every other channel is in another language. Here in the Lake Geneva area of Switzerland, we get 40-odd channels available via cable. But, unless you're fluent in about 14 languages, most of the channels won't matter to you. This is because they'll be broadcast in various languages depending on whether they're coming from American, British, French, German, Italian, Swiss, Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, Tunisian, or Croatian stations. And there are more. I've come across a few shows in Romansh, an ancient Latin-based language spoken by about one percent of the Swiss. We occasionally find shows in various Swiss-German dialects (these are completely different from High German and from each other). And, once we found a mystery-language TV show. After about 45 minutes of intense study, we finally distinguished the heavily accented language as English with lots of Scots words. We're still wondering just what "ken" and "bairn" mean.
We have four U.S. channels here (MTV, Turner Classic Movies/The Cartoon Network, CNN, CNBC) out of the 40-odd channels available. However, even the fact that a channel is American in origin does not guarantee that the broadcast will be done in English here. For example, all the movies and cartoons on TCM/TCN are broadcast in foreign languages. You have to buy a special kind of TV if you want to hear the English audio track (if it hasn't been removed completely), and this usually only works on a very few movies and shows. And, even on these American channels, many ads and other bits are in non-English languages.
In American shows and movies seen on television in Europe, the voices have often been changed and replaced by another language. You will see Marilyn Monroe speaking German in Niagara and the cast of Friends speaking Italian, not English. Sometimes subtitles are present rather than overdubbing, but if you pay attention, you notice that the translations in the subtitles often don't exactly match the meaning of the English being spoken. The translations reflect European kinds of interpretations, humor, expressions, and sometimes the meaning of the translation is quite different from the English. You have to wonder how closely the non-English audio tracks match the original English lines in the case of overdubs. You also have to wonder just how much American culture is really coming through to the European viewer.
Other English-language shows here are British, as a few BBC channels are available. However, as far as issues of cultural importation go, this probably doesn't matter to most Europeans one bit since most continental Europeans can't differentiate between a British and an American accent. I know it's unbelievable to Americans to think that we sound even remotely like Brits, but I've never yet met a continental European who could distinguish between our accents (same with Irish, Australian, Canadian, and other English-speaking accents). In fact, they generally assume I'm British (and I'm Texan!).
Recently, I saw a TV show designed to teach English to French speakers by having actors speak English slowly in various vignettes. The English being taught was British English. In one scene, some British people had an American friend visiting, and they were having a conversation with her about sightseeing in London. The "American" friend had an extremely British accent, no different from the British people in the scenario! So, given this complete lack of differentiation between American and British English, can continental Europeans differentiate between British and American sitcoms, dramas or newscasts (even if they are watching these in English and can understand the English)? Do they see any difference and do they even care? They're probably watching their own sitcoms, dramas, and newscasts or over-dubbed foreign shows in their own language anyway. This only further clouds the idea of a clear transmission of American pop culture to Europeans via television.
Aside from the language issues, the way that shows are actually scheduled over here is important to note. Rather unlike in America, here there's not much consistency or predictability in television. In America, shows are broadcast on the hour or the half hour, with lots and lots of commercials (groan) set regularly in-between and during the shows. Timeslots are set and religiously adhered to. But, over here, you never quite know what show will be on, when it will start, or whether you'll ever see another episode of it again. We're dealing simultaneously with channels from many different countries, with different policies. Some channels show one program's episodes one after the other for a few hours or over a few days. Other channels seem to choose somewhat randomly when to show an episode. So, though you might see an American show such as Friends or ER in Europe, the episodes are usually shown out of order, are shown in various languages, and do not appear consistently, making it really hard to get addicted. It's just harder for a show to get entrenched in one's life here, again making it harder for American pop culture to take hold through television.
Another fuzzifying factor involves just what shows actually make it over here. The shows that make it to Europe are not necessarily representative of what's popular or current in American culture. Many of the American shows shown here now weren't even widely popular in America or are now very old and outdated. Oddly, here one can still watch Urkel's silliness (Family Matters), but in French. One can find Murder She Wrote and Columbo in various foreign languages, and occasionally with an English track (which you need that special TV to hear, of course). One can find Malcolm-Jamal Warner's show Malcolm and Eddie in French. There is also Home Improvement in German (no English track), but the kids are really young and pre-heartthrob, so I guess the episodes are really old. Other than ER (George Clooney is still on over here) and Friends (Ross' monkey was still on there recently, and without an English track), most of the American shows shown here aren't ones that are wildly popular in America now. Europeans don't know this. Maybe they think Urkel is currently worshipped in America?
Further, what's seen on TCM or The Cartoon Network in the U.S. may not be what's shown here on those same channels. Local programming can make it onto the U.S.-origin channels. For example, although most of the cartoons shown on The Cartoon Network here are American (with French names and overdubbing), frighteningly, there are a few French-made cartoons shown on TCN. These cartoons would make American children cry. Most of them are about some badly drawn angular birds who live in a world where laws of physics don't seem to work. The world is terrifying, deadly, and looks like the aftermath of a nuclear war. The birds despondently try to survive and they're perpetually depressed. Nothing is ever accomplished and each episode ends on some melancholy note.
Turner Classic Movies here also has some programming that differs from TCM in the U.S. Here, there was a well-advertised promotional week called "Allons-y, Gay-ment!" week, meaning, roughly, "Let's go, Gay-ness!" week. They showed great classic movies starring gay men all week long. I spoke to a friend in the U.S., a TCM addict, who said that, unsurprisingly, there was no such promotion happening on American TCM. All of these programming differences reflect the fact that American pop culture in Europe just doesn't happen in the same way or form that it happens in America, and it is altered and shaped by European practices, interests, and interpretations. All of this further problematizes the notion of American mono(pop)culture and hegemony.
Cultural Influences Go Both Ways
Growing up in America, I didn't realize how many foreign cultural items were part of American culture. I think many Americans assume that what they grew up with was simply American, or aren't aware of the foreign influences in their midst. For example, try to think of a truly, purely American food. It's difficult. All I could come up with were large steaks and peanut butter. Most of the other seemingly "real" American foods are awfully similar to dishes found in countries from which early settlers to America emigrated. They serve a lovely pot roast in Ireland and England. They also serve great apple pie there and have been for a very long time. Other "American" foods, like Cajun food, barbecue, pizza, hamburgers, hotdogs, pretzels, chips, and so forth also have roots in other cultures. Hmmm, maybe if we count Cheez Whiz as a food?
So, the transmission of cultural influences is not uni-directional, with America simply oozing across the world for all to gather, consume, and imitate. There is a clear two-way (or thousand-way) street in existence. And, just as American cultural items have their own meanings and interpretations in Europe, so do European cultural items in America. Thus, French fries have a wholly different meaning in America than in France where they are called pomme frites and are usually served with fancy fish or meat dinners, not hamburgers, and with Provencal sauce or sauce tartare, not ketchup for goodness sakes.
Or, how about good old Nestle Quik? This American childhood staple is not American at all. The Nestle company can be found in the Swiss Alps among meadows of clover inhabited by dairy cows wearing large bells. In America, Nestle Quik sort of fits in culturally among Saturday morning cartoons in commercials featuring the bunny, and last-ditch efforts to prolong going to bed by insisting on needing a glass of milk. In Switzerland, I've never seen a commercial for Nestle, they don't even have Saturday morning cartoons here, kids already stay up later here, and it seems that people usually make hot chocolate rather than cold chocolate milk.
Thus, Americans have clearly also received, altered, and redefined things from other cultures all along. Just because Americans have French fries, it doesn't mean that France's entire culture(s) was (were) unproblematically plopped down like a dollop of whipped cream onto America. It goes the same way for American culture in other countries. Considering this, why would the presence of some American pop cultural items (such as TV shows) in other countries mean that American culture is easily and clearly taking over other cultures?
U.S. Culture is Important, But...
Now, having said all this, it's also not true that U.S. culture doesn't have an impact on other cultures. It's true that America is a large, highly productive, powerful, populous, monolinguistic mass. And, some people are worried about it. In France, they're distressed about English (American, really) words getting into their language. Some countries think that Friends is too sexually explicit. But, I think that it's a mistake to simply and cleanly assume any of the following: 1) U.S. culture appears exactly in its original form and has exactly the same social meaning in other cultures as it does in America; 2) other cultures really could (or even want to) understand American culture the way it is in America — after all, the U.S. is 5000 miles away from Europe, 3) other people don't have an existing culture, 4) other people don't reinterpret, twist, reformulate, alter, and choose (and reject) what (and how) elements of other cultures are received in their culture, how they are integrated, what they mean, and so forth within the context of their own cultural meanings, and 5) Americans are the originators and one-way distributors of culture, and have a pure or purely dominant culture that hasn't been influenced by others.
Television, like anything else we come across in life, is what we make of it, how we interpret it, how we perceive it, how, how much, and in what forms it's accessed, and what meanings it has within a culture already set with its own meanings, traditions, ideas and innovations. Life is so different here in Europe that Americans just can't imagine it. This is why many Americans who come to visit Europe have rather bad reactions to finding out that they're actually not automatically seen as the best in the world, that they can't just speak English and be understood, that absolutely everything is done differently and thought about differently, and that being American often doesn't work over easily here at all. America is so far away geographically and even philosophically that most Americans are unfortunately rather unaware of the vast numbers of cultures, of completely different ways of doing absolutely everything, that they often have a rather hard time in Europe.
Europeans grow up in an entirely different world, in which many vastly different languages and cultures (not to mention histories) swirl around them continuously. Here is my list of just some of the areas in which I've observed Europeans being simply and utterly NOT American: in approaches to work, to community, to sharing, to views of time, to eating, to drinking, to sex, to nudity, views of space and distance, views of individuals' rights, views of responsibilities, views of community, views of workers and customers, views of logic, views of inconvenience, views of personal space, views of friends, acquaintances, and families, views of independence and individuality, views of leisure and exercise, shopping and consuming, materialism, views of culture, language, art, music, views of being, embodiment, emotions, expression, gender roles, race, class, sexual orientation, views of absolutely everything. These differences comprise something cultural that Americans simply do not know about and just do not get until they've been in Europe for a considerable amount of time (if we can ever truly get it).
We have to balance our views of hegemony and monoculture with a more detailed understanding of cross-cultural interaction. As Americans we can't simply assume that "our" culture is easily dominating the globe, gobbling the world up like a chocolate chip cookie, Americanizing everything in its path. I think that it's almost reassuring in a way to think that that is true. It's kind of an ego-boost for some Americans to think that "our" culture is the most popular, the most sought-after, the one that "rules." Let's face it, it's even a bit of an ego-boost for at least some Americans who are opposed to the global spread of American culture. This still posits America as the originating, dynamic, innovative, powerful country that's taking over all the others. It's still a colonial fantasy (and nightmare) of sorts. And it lacks insight into what it's really like to not be American, and to not live in America.
Europeans should get credit for having their own complexities, ideas, and cultures, and agency as well. And, when we examine those interstices where two cultures meet, we see that there are indeed many obstacles and difficulties in cultural transmission. I value having been yanked out of my original American culture and landing in this interstitial space. Being American, I know how these American cultural items appear in America, and what they mean there. At the same time, being here allows me to see the slippage, the differences in how the same items are located, used, rejected, and altered in another culture. The concept of hegemony is quite complicated and the more I inspect those interstitial spaces, the more problematic they appear.
Now it's time for Les Supers Nanas (The Powerpuff Girls) in French. Grab the fizzy water, slice up some Gruyere and a baguette, and let's observe.
Marnie Enos Carroll is an American living in Switzerland. This is Marnie's first contribution to Bad Subjects.