“When I say ‘America,’ what’s the first word that comes to mind?”
It’s a loaded question, and one that inevitably invites stereotypes. Maybe the political buzzwords pop into mind first: democracy, freedom, opportunity – “the American Dream” in all its infamous glory. But when Cut Video, a Seattle-based YouTube channel, sent their producer around the world to ask this question, he received much more honest answers. Forget democracy – it’s the land of Hollywood, Britney Spears and Jersey Shore. In a video titled “America Around the World,” Cut Video illuminates the overwhelming impact that the TV and film industry has on perceptions of American life and culture. For better or for worse, the industry’s perpetuated stereotypes have influenced how the world views American families, careers and relationships, surfacing truths that may be hard to hear.
Cut Video, a channel that features individuals of all ages, genders, sizes and races, produces videos that predominantly explore hot-button issues and cultural stigmas, such as transgender rights. Accumulating close to 200 million views, the mini-series has provided a platform for discussion as stereotyped groups are offered a voice to share their thoughts and experiences.
For the “Around the World” mini-series, the producer traveled across the globe to see what people think of America, collecting cliché descriptors that have engrained themselves into the U.S.’s cultural identity. Of the 11 individuals featured in the video, four think of food and obesity while nine circle around the American dream. “Is it a stereotype if it’s true?” a woman in Adelaide, Australia asked, as she called the American people “eternally optimistic.” Assigning a stereotype can make an abstract or complicated idea become more tangible, and when it comes to generalizing an entire country, the few labels that stick out are usually ones most prominently circulated. Not surprisingly, many of the video’s subjects point to the widespread influence of America’s television and entertainment industry. The chance of fame and success is not only gloriously portrayed in dramas and reality TV, but also off camera, as actors and actresses appear in advertisements and media campaigns all over the world. The pop-culture phenomena in the United States has transcended all borders, enhancing a specific and often misleading aspect of American life to those who haven’t experienced it themselves.
Global surveys have corroborated the impact of American TV culture, as the majority of European and Asian countries are reported to have positive perceptions of American music, TV and film. According to a 2012 survey collected by the PEW Research Center, ratings for American popular culture have continuously scored highly, with over 70 percent approval in Spain, Italy and France. Furthermore, results from a study conducted by GfK, a market-research firm that surveyed over 18,000 people across 18 countries, identified that 30 percent thought of American TV and film as the best aspect of American culture. By far the most popular answer, European countries alone attributed even higher marks, hovering around 40 percent.
Surprisingly, Americans had drastically different attitudes toward the effects of their television and popular culture than the rest of the world. The GfK survey identified a whopping 32 percent of Americans attribute film and television as the worst contribution to world culture, higher than any other country, and by far the most popular response among all individuals surveyed. This is alarming: why are Americans so out of sync with the rest of the world’s perceptions?
Perhaps, the discrepancies within these statistics come from knowing the difference between real life and a glamorized distortion. From “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” to “Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo,” these wildly popular reality TV shows document a narrow truth that is not applicable for most American citizens. Nevertheless, these multi-million dollar franchises are most widely distributed and, therefore, the source of the most prevalent stereotypes.
What America needs are genuine people on camera, like those featured in Cut Video’s projects. In a recent word association video, the YouTube channel gathered African-American men ages 5 through 50 to respond to “America” with a single word. Some of their responses were not so optimistic: “Free with an asterisk,” a 31-year-old subject said.
This represents the real America, and the very real people that are affected by its everyday policies. Life in the States isn’t an endless summer at the Jersey Shore or a bottomless pit of McDonald’s. So, instead of looking to “reality” TV and pop sensations for a taste of American culture, let’s turn the attention to outlets like Cut Video that bring to screen a more accurate vision of America today.