By Will Edwards
Headed back to Athens on a ferry from the Grecian island Aegina, where Minstrel Sports Editor Chris Shaddock and I had just spent the day tooling around on a four-wheeler, we met a young couple in their late-twenties from Chile. Our conversation, as they always seem to do with strangers while abroad, turned toward our nationalities and homelands.
Straight away, the girl half-jokingly insisted their country was a colony of the U.S., explaining how big the American pop culture presence is there. We all laughed it off, but her claim became more and more legitimate as she continued to rattle off all of the American produced media she and her boyfriend had consumed since their childhoods.
They loved “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “The Simpsons.” Now it’s “Breaking Bad” and “House of Cards.” They knew loads of American singers and actors and actresses both from today and generations past, to the point that the girl quipped that she and her boyfriend were more American than Chris and me. Heck, they even romanticized about the grunge movement of the 1980s and 90s when someone randomly mentioned Seattle.
How, I thought to myself, did someone who grew up thousands of miles away from me share such a common reality, at least in terms of the media we’d consumed?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized her case isn’t actually all that unique in the world. In Europe, America is everywhere if you look for it. Just the day before, for example, I drank a bottle of Coke while I looked at old posters of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe that some English speaking Greek street vendor was selling near the Acropolis.
And during business classes at my university in Lyon, France, we talk constantly about American corporations who have footholds in Europe, like Proctor and Gamble, Kraft, Apple and McDonald’s. Then there are the Hollywood films that are shown in abundance at the theatre down the street from the school. And, of course, all anyone talks about is Donald Trump.
There’s no denying the breadth of the presence of American culture in the world. Travel just about anywhere and you’ll see it. But would it be right to call it imperialism per se? And is this presence inherently bad? Or is it exactly our fault?
Well, to blatantly answer all three questions, not totally.
Cultural imperialism isn’t new or something America invented. Less than a mile from my dorm here in Lyon is a 2,000 year-old outdoor Roman amphitheater which certainly wasn’t the shining achievement of a bunch of pyromaniac Druids. Likewise with the script of letters you’re currently reading.
While, yes, the U.S. also shows its presence in the forms of physical structures (i.e. the McDonald’s down the street from the amphitheater), it’s important to note the distinction between America and the Roman Empire. We aren’t on an imperial conquest, parading about the world absorbing states into our own. With the Internet and smartphones, the spread of pop culture is inevitable today. And being that America is the world’s current epicenter of pop culture and economic prosperity, of course our content will be beamed out like light from the biggest bulb in the biggest lighthouse on the biggest cliff.
We also aren’t forcing anything on anyone from a business perspective. Apple or Nike wouldn’t continue to exist here in Europe if the people didn’t want to consume their products, just as there wouldn’t be three German car companies holding a big slice of the American luxury car market share if Americans didn’t want to drive their vehicles, or how the Beatles would have headed straight back to Heathrow after “The Ed Sullivan Show” if no one wanted to hear “She Loves You” anymore.
Plus, often times these businesses adjust the products or experiences they offer to fit the culture they are operating in. I quickly learned this when I was told by a McDonald’s cashier to sit down after I awkwardly stood at the counter waiting for my cheeseburger, like I would have done back home. Eating food seems to be a much more sacred ritual here than it is in America, and to have it be prepared or eaten “fast” wouldn’t really fly. So, McDonald’s has obliged and changed their service style, as well as their menu, accordingly.
After all, the French are much too stubborn to let any American influence how they do things. While American businesses and pop culture have reared their heads here, France is still France (really, it is, Mr. Trump, believe me) and that’s not going to change anytime soon. People’s pride in and affection for their nation and cultural roots act as a formidable check on cultural imperialism.
But okay, that’s Europe, a region of the world that holds its own in cultural and economic power. Where cultural imperialism is really a problem is in underdeveloped countries. There are the horror stories out there, like ones of Asian women getting plastic surgery done to make themselves look more Western. This would be when our influence has gone too far.
When people’s identity starts to get stripped from them and their culture starts to dissipate, action should be taken. Government intervention seems to be the only remaining effective way to do this, considering the prevalence of technology today. France has done this, for example, by instituting policies that make foreign companies that want to enter the French market pay into a fund that is earmarked for French film-making. They’ve also made it more difficult for Amazon to sell books in the country, in an effort to protect local bookshops.
We should continue to work with countries to prevent cultural influence from reaching too far.
World cultures are gems that should be preserved. What would be the point of studying abroad otherwise?