On the prevalence of US tropes in storytelling
[I’ve had this blog post in the queue for a bit, but was never in a position to publish it because I was too busy dealing with a zillion other things.
In case anyone is wondering, it’s definitely NOT related to my two-week stay in the US (which was stupendous), but rather to an over-consumption of Hollywood movies and particularly horrendous US books that dates back to before Worldcon]
OK, I apologise in advance: this is going to be a bit of a rant. It’s going to be reductive, like all rants; ie it’s going to have a number of sweeping pronouncements that do not apply to individuals or individual groups. But…
In short, I’m tired of being invaded by US culture. I’m tired of US tropes being cited as the norm (even when it’s obvious that the rest of the world doesn’t follow such tropes), of bookshelves featuring translations from US writers and movies following standard Hollywood fare–of the one-way street which means the US sets the tune for the rest of the world, and that anything that looks remotely worthy from non-US countries is given a local remake for those who can’t stand to watch dubbed or subtitled movies (guess what–we watch dubbed/subtitled US movies all the time in France). I’m tired of the way US culture and tropes have so pervaded popular culture that we no longer even question them, or even recognise them–and, worse, that people outside the US are actively aping them in search of the so-called “universal stories” .
And before you ask, yes, I know those are tropes, and I know that not *all* US books/movies/series follow them, just like not all French books feature, say, bumbling bosses or people going on strike–and that not all groups or minorities in the US agree with those tropes. I’m just commenting on something that, for good or evil, the US has managed to export abroad (thank you, Hollywood) and therefore is the perception of US storytelling from my window, and the window of a great deal many people in the world.
I’m tired of plots that value individualism and egotism above all else; of heroes that always have to be the masters of their own fates, to be active and not take anything that life deals at them lying down (whereas most of the time, we lie down, we accept, we deal with what we have been given); of heroes that have to be strong and only take marginal help from others to solve their own problems; of heroes that have a destiny, and of movies and books in which breaking up with all traditions is good so long as one finds and follow one’s own path (there are a lot of cultures where breaking up with traditions isn’t necessarily a good thing, and no, this doesn’t mean that they’re evil and backward). I’m tired of how genre(s) put(s) a disproportionate value on heroes who are active and not passive (and, by extension, belittles and dismisses every use of passive voice, and always asks for sentences to be frenetically punchy); of how the most important thing that can happen to a person is to be “given their own story”, as stories weren’t made up of a mosaic of people all interacting together; of how teams exist only either as a background and foil for a single hero, or as a compendium of individuals, each fighting to be outdo each other in stupid displays of heroism (yes, X-men, I’m looking at you).
I’m tired of the casual acceptance of violence as a valid answer to anything, of the proliferation of guns in movies and books, of how it’s always acceptable to go face the bad guys with a sword or a pistol instead of seeking a peaceful resolve. I am sick of the redefinition of narrative as violence, of how everything has to be a conflict in order to be valid–even to the point of defining conflict “against yourself”, which contributes to trivialising the use of the word “conflict”, not to mention twist it far beyond its original meaning. I don’t want my stories to be only about blowing things up, or about good guys facing off bad guys, and dispatching them while stubbornly refusing to think about the ethics of killing, and the fact that the world seldom comes in black-and-white. I want violence to have consequences, both for those who have recourse to it, and for its victims; not to be something you can shrug off in the morning as if it never happened.
I don’t want stories in which the main character has to be sympathetic and with the moral high ground  in order to be worthwhile; in which people have to change in order for the plot to be significant; in which women exist only to be sidelined or as surrogate men. I don’t want stories that can be described in neat little boxes, or novels which can be reduced to a high concept and a series of story arcs (and, especially, I don’t want to hear about the Hero’s Journey, or the Three-Act Plot, or the Thirty-Six or Fifty-Five Basic Plots as if they were all some kinds of Holy Gospel). I want novels which can be complex and organic like life itself, and which don’t have to be neatly pigeon-holed in order to be read and enjoyed.
Also, I am tired of people assuming that US notions of racism and class apply everywhere in the world, including in Europe ; that minorities from the US are equivalent to and in the same situation as people from non-Western countries; that it’s always better morally speaking to say things bluntly, as long as they are truthful and heartfelt (where I come from–both sets of cultures–if you do that, you’re a lout and a boor. I was taught to always be graceful–which doesn’t mean you can’t be pointed and/or truthful when the situation calls for it. Sarcasm and pointed allusions are always part of my repertoire, and unless the person facing me is really thick, they’ll get that I’m annoyed/hurt/angry).
And, finally, here’s a bevy of tropes that are NOT universal:
-Serial killers obsessed with killing young women in titillating ways. Sorry, nope. That’s Ted Bundy legacy. Our most infamous French serial killers prayed on old women and killed for money.
-Superheroes. Seriously. Those people forming justice leagues and trying to save the world by battling supervillains? They’re a quintessential US trope, and no amount of retconning local figures such as Adèle Blanc-Sec into the framework is going to erase that fact. And yes, there are superheroes elsewhere, and some terrific stories involving them, but remember what I said about tropes being adopted abroad?
-US people coming to a foreign country and being more talented than the locals at solving their own problems (I’d cite books, but there are way too many of those). Bonus points in sarcasm if the book or movie completely fails to get the local culture right (again, I’d cite books, but way too many of those. We can start with how Dan Brown messed up Parisian geography in The Da Vinci code, and work up from there).
-Plots featuring America as the centre of the world, where aliens land near LA–and decisions are made in NYC for the entire world. Speaks for itself…
There is more, but I think I’ve ranted enough. Feel free to comment (but do play by the rules of civility). I will be around, but I’m a. moving flats and b. trying to focus on my writing at the moment, which means I might also be lagging a little behind…
I’m not saying that the use of all those tropes equals crap stories–there are some very good stories out there that make use of them. I just want to point out that they’re hardly universal, and I’m personally in favour of other local tropes being used, rather than copying stuff from the US.
 Especially since “moral high ground” has different values for different people (I don’t think it’s bad to make the best of a bad situation, for instance, but there’s a subset of US tropes that think it’s far better to die while attempting to change said situation)
 Don’t mistake me. There is plenty of racism in France and in Europe. It just doesn’t follow the same fracture lines as in the US, and class is very much a bigger factor in France or in Europe than it is in the US. Also (and unlike the US), French racism hasn’t been so heavily shaped by discrimination against people of colour (we have racism against Eastern Europeans and Southern Europeans–and our latest wave of racism is against Maghrebi, all of which are considered White by US standards), so the whole White/PoC dichotomy is just… not applicable as is where I live?
And finally, at least in France, ethnic identities are just not as strong as in the US, so people don’t identify themselves as “fifth-generation Chinese-French”, for instance. They’re just French. (We can argue about whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but it’s a different dynamic).
(with many thanks to Tricia Sullivan, for encouraging me to put this into words and helping me with the first draft of this; and for Alisa Krasnostein, for sparking our twitter conversation on serial killers in mysteries)
(picture credits: Ami’s on flickr)
Sorry. Comments are closed on this entry.
Oh yes! Good point!
Hi there, interesting discussion. In re: the ‘threat’ of chinese expansion, i wonder if it is not possible that folks are putting ‘western’ tropes of the way powerful nations behave onto china. historically, china has never been an expansionist nation, even when at its most powerful/predominant. there are times when it has of course, but china seems to me to have a more ‘settled’ outlook culturally. Am i overreading the pullback after Zheng He? Perhaps, but worth considering. They certainly do not need territorial expansion to bolster their power or influence. Owning nickel mines in Cuba is easier than seizing countries with nickel mines. Also, the ‘Chinese Dictators’ meme, while in some ways true, is also constructed in a western way. I am lead to believe from friends in China that many of the population do not see it in the way the west does, that the ‘absolute rulers are fine, if they bring prosperity’ mentality is more widespread, perhaps leading back to the ‘mandate of heaven’ idea. Well, just stuff to chew over.
Aliette, all I can say is that you should blame the publishers. If we authors write a story about a character who doesn’t fight back when life treats them badly, or who isn’t violently exciting at some point in the story, we are told that the character is unappealing and the work won’t be published. Publishers have budgets set aside for subgenres like superheros and pro-america thrillers. They seldom, if ever, solicit or support thoughtful books with a world-wise point of view.
Culture is self-reinforcing. If a type of story sells, then the gatekeepers allow more of that kind of story to exist. New things are shunned unless they’re brilliant enough that their marketability cannot be denied, and then they are treated as one-of-a-kind accidents that do not improve the system. Authors have to make a living within this system. It’s not their fault if it drives them into conformity.
My advice is to accept the US tropes in US stories as a given, while admiring those stories that break out of the US-centric mindset in whatever small way they can manage it.
A very useful post that, as a kind of side effect, is also talking about the commodification of literature.
I’d say that the things you talk about, the cliches and standardized approaches, are very harmful to all writers, including those of us in the US (although, of course, it’s still easier for us). That it’s always bad when it’s perceived that “norms” only include limited ways to tell stories and express characters, etc. Time and again, when Ann and I present something to readers or to reviewers that is outside certain norms, a certain percentage tend to reject it because it doesn’t fit within certain parameters; the reaction is something like this: “This does not fit what I perceive to be of value in fiction. Therefore, it isn’t valuable.” Not, “Therefore, perhaps I need to think about what I find valuable and why.” If this is a frustration on our end, I can only imagine what kind of a painfulness it is for writers and editors outside of the Anglo sphere.
To reiterate, the U.S. is not a rich field for SF. It is SF. That’s a vital point, not to be subsumed into ‘reality’. Perhaps the U.S. does not see itself that way. Why would it? It is a profound and dynamic material culture based upon complex but in part spiritual foundations. Now, doesn’t that sound a lot like those American tropes? Why would it not?
In response to the “foreign fiction is hard to find” comment above…it’s true that genre imprints don’t publish much of it, but there is a lot of translated fiction published in the US, usually through literary imprints, and sometimes indies. And some portion of that is fantasy (less of it is SF, but some is). And you can find some portion of that in any bookstore. I think the other frustration I have personally is that the focus on the genre elements of a book obscure the fact there’s a ton of non-fantastical literature from other countries that people should check out…unless you absolutely have to have a dragon in your fiction…in which case I am happy to provide a general dragon description you can staple to a semi-appropriate page to get your fix…
There are several aspects of this rant I find troubling.
As a U.S. Latina writer who moved to the United States from Guatemala as a young adult, I understand well how pervasive U.S. pop culture can be, and how myopic its vision. On the other hand, the U.S. is hardly the only country with pervasive and beloved pop culture tropes. I’d point you to the telenovelas I grew up with in Central America, for example – a good, lower class young woman and good, upper class young man fall in love; the nasty (or misguided) upper class family does its best to tear them apart, and after all the machinations and misunderstandings, the couple finds its way back together. Sometimes the genders in the formula are reversed (as in the wildly popular Soy Tu Dueña telenovela – which had, by the way, tremendous ratings in the U.S.) but despite any variation, the motifs are familiar, the shorthand understood, and the outcome assured.
Should we dun the writers of telenovelas because they are creating products that rely on sometimes distressing but undeniably popular tropes? How about the also incredibly popular luchador movies that are rife with tropes? Or, the writers who riffed on the commercial success of some of the Latin American Boom writers and turned Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s (Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel Angel Asturias – you chose the preferred progenitor) motifs into the tropes we now all associate with magical realism? For that matter, should we dun the writers who want to cash in on the success of a J.K. Rowling or a Stieg Larssen and exploit the tropes those writers have engendered? Well, we can dun or disparage, but I think it’s disingenuous to do so. Every writer (filmmaker, artist) wants his/her work to be read/seen, and for it to resonate with people. Preferably a lot of people.
Yes, the uniformity of story and tone and motif in mass marketed U.S. SFF is both wearisome and distressing – if books reflecting Latino, African American, Native American, Asian American SFF writer’s voices aren’t published in the first place they have no chance to create new tropes. But unless I’m completely misreading (certainly possible) that’s not really what your rant is about.
In my reading, your rant is primarily about cultural invasion – and that, in my opinion, is dangerously similar to the arguments marshaled here in the U.S. by anti-immigrant forces decrying the way we – Latinos – are changing “American culture.” In my work with immigration advocacy I hear a lot of otherwise reasonable people rail about the way our art (religious practices, customs, you name it) are eroding the integrity of U.S. culture. (Music: “Do they have to listen to that horrible ranchera [bachata, cumbia, etc.] music? And, have you seen how they dance?” Art: “It’s so gaudy [primitive, morbid, second-class].” Religion: “Backward. And must they wear the symbols of their faith so openly?” Custom: “Can’t they try to fit in with us?” Language: “They don’t even try to learn our language.”) I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say that what these anti-Latino sentiments are really expressing is that the foreign “tropes” are dissimilar to the homegrown ones, and why can’t we stop them from crossing the border and impacting our culture? Sort of what you’re saying, no?
Ariel Dorfman’s seminal critique of cultural imperialism in Latin America (“How to read Donald Duck”) has been mentioned in the comments here. Though it was a hugely valuable work in its time, it is now an artifact of its time. The tropes you single out in your rant – the comic-book heroics, the shoot-from-the-hip way with language and guns, the insularity and the certainty – are still aspects of the U.S. “story” that are problematic and often destructive and at odds with much of the rest of the world. But it strains credulity to imply that their literary and Hollywood expressions are a unilateral effort at proselytizing and colonizing the way Dorfman outlines in his book. Access to the internet and the proliferation of mobile communications – imperfectly distributed as they are – have, thankfully, made unilateral propaganda a thing of the past.
Finally, you are undeniably right that as Americans we tend to extrapolate our understanding of racism and ethnic discrimination to other countries. For example, when I read about the mass expulsions of Roma from France late in 2010, and the early 2011 razing of Roma settlements in Italy, I immediately latched onto the similarities with the deportations and evictions of undocumented immigrants here in the U.S. It was easier for me to see the surface – the fact that the Roma are a culturally and ethnically distinct group who homegrown populations view as other – than to see an issue of class. Blogs like yours, and the more in-depth conversations they engender, are increasingly important in order to move our understanding from surface to something more complete.
Oh, yes. To everything you wrote, but particularly the stuff about shaping stories. And the superheroes. And… yes, to everything. Definitely.
Agreed, agreed, agreed… for the most part
But in defense of my country, I think what you’re railing against is commercialized tropes of American culture, and not necessarily the American experience which has given birth to it. Some of the most important American art (writing, music, cinema, etc…) I would offer up as completely contrary to your gripes. Most commercialized artforms in the U.S. subscribe to an advertising campaign selling the “American Dream”, and to that end, they’re able to successfully pull in readers, viewers, etc… by the numbers, catering to a lowest common denominator. Is this the American experience? No, absolutely not, its something else. There’s quite a big gap in what I would consider “entertainment” and what I would consider “catharsis”. I consume art based more on a cathartic emotional need than merely to fill time in the day, so it tends to make me pickier about what I chose to read/watch/etc…
America is a massive basket-case of a country, a rainbow of bizarre extremes, and a time-weld of cultural diversity, an experiment. To lump in a comment about “I’m tired of American tropes” means you aren’t searching hard enough in my humble opinion to find the antidoe. My favorite American movies/books/etc… have little to do with the tropes you’ve mentioned, in fact they fly counter to it or mock them.
We are not entitled and oblivious and “unaware” as a sterotype, Americans can compete with the most cynical irony-filled sarcastic black-humored group of folks the world can muster. As an American, I’m very much aware of the consequences of violence, I’m very much aware our nations rotten history of genocide, slavery, and total war, I’m also extremely burnt out on happy endings and cowboy-style Ayn Rand individualism.
For every trope there’s an ‘anti-trope’, you just have to seek it out.
Gully Foyle: If the idea of a nation seeking power and expansion, to have a huge area of influence and control, is solely a “Western trope”, then how do you explain Imperial Japan’s expansionist policies, from the 1920s through to the end of WW2? Japan was hardly a Western nation. They also treated all non-Japanese terribly, not least Koreans and Chinese. Japan’s aim was to control the entire Pacific (the South Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, as the Empire was called). China, ever since it became a (nominally) Communist state, has sought to extend its influence beyond its borders. Witness the massive Chinese military involvement on the side of North Korea, after the UN forces (and, yes, it was a UN war, to defend a nation which had been invaded) pushed the North Korean forces back towards the North. See also Chinese funding and military assistance to North Vietnam. If China is not seeking to expand its military influence, why is it developing aircraft carrier groups? This is not a matter of Westerners imposing a view of geopolitics on an Asian nation.
If Chinese people are happy to have no democracy and no civil rights, how do you explain Tianmen Square? Or the persecution of anyone who does not toe the party line? And if the workers are so happy, why are they trying to form real trade unions, which the government seeks to suppress?
China needs to expand its sphere of influence in order to feed its population and fuel its industry. It is eating the world, and if its expansion continues, there will be nothing left for the rest of us.
Thanks, Aliette. It’s exciting. All this talk of finding new stories and new modes. Even China, Chris. Even re-imagining the U.S.A. Re-imagining Europe (it’s just as ripe.) Let’s all go off and write one of those stories. Myself, I’m writing about Eastern Germany and Iceland, imagining new story-telling modes in lost cultural strands. It’s the future we’re building here. Thanks for the bricks. best, Harold
Brilliant post by Sabrina, thank you for saying what I thought, but better.
I can’t judge what cultures have to offer in any languages other than English and Russian, but between those two, the Anglophone oeuvre clearly comes off as more diverse, more inclusive, and more universal. A very rare Russian book or movie or TV show strikes me as comparable in quality with an English-language work – but Russian tropes of histrionics punctuated with self-importance wear even thinner than the part of American culture bred by Frank Capra out of Ayn Rand.
OK, wow, I’m overwhelmed… Thanks everyone for commenting and discussing. Just to be clear, because this has come up several times (it was already in the post, but not everyone has seen it): I am not ranting against American culture in general, I am ranting against the export-quality version, and the growing perception of storytelling (and of the world) as a monoculture following the tropes I mentioned–coupled with a certain lack of awareness (in the US and elsewhere) that this is happening, and impoverishing us all.
Again, I have no doubt that the US is a vibrant and diverse place and that not everyone writes those stories, but the ones I mention are those the US imperial machine exports, again and again and again (and yes, it’s an imperial machine that uses, consciously or unconsciously, its leading position in the world’s economy to export its books, movies and culture in general. It’s by no means the first–it was Britain before, as many people have commented, but that doesn’t mean I have to like what the US are doing now).
I’m not against cultural blending, quite on the contrary, but things are going one way, aren’t they? I can’t really think of a way French or Chinese culture is influencing US literature, to take just a random example… And while I am very sympathetic of the idiotic American mainstream’s rejection of Hispanic influence on their culture, I don’t think the example Sabrina @58 mentions works as an analogy, as this is a population of immigrants bringing their own culture into that of their host country. The US “export” of their tropes is a dominant country imposing a monoculture in other countries, without taking much in return from said countries.
Chris: I apologise for using old examples of SF, but it’s the only ones I could think of, though not the only ones I’ve read (normally I’d turn to my bookshelves for a better set of examples, but all my books are in boxes in preparation for the move). I’m puzzled by your mentioning racism specifically against Algerians, which I’m pretty sure is not happening anymore (we did have a wave of racism against Pieds-Noirs back in the Sixties, but the anti-Arab racism is against all Maghrebi, and if there is a specific nation targeted by it, it seems to be Morocco rather than Algeria, to the point that people tend to be referred to as “Moroccans” even when they’re not). On antisemitism: I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but my generation is far less impacted by it than we are by anti-Arab and anti-Eastern European sentiments. And on the class system: of course it’s more complex than that, but I still do not believe that the US class system and the UK & French class system have much in common… I agree that the US does have a class system, but I think it works on radically different dynamics as the British or French class system (which is normal, as the US has a radically different history). The class system also gets regularly left out of discussions on race and gender, which always puzzles me.
LauraC: more work in translation would be awesome, yes (though JeffV is right and there’s a lot of it, but not necessarily filed under genre). And yes, it’s hard to get rid of your own tropes–and even though a lot of people seem to be aware of those, it’s also hard not to take them in when you’re watching those movies and TV series all the time (I’ve noticed they’re seeping into my own work, and I suspect it would be worse if you were in a country where the availability of translations and indie films was limited, as it seems to be the case in the US–might be wrong, but mostly everyone in my LJ comments seemed to agree on this).
Ben: uh, I’m not sure about whether French dubs are an improvement over the original version. I don’t watch many dubbed movies anymore; I’m sure we get the top actors for animated features, which helps to get people into movie theatres. Couple of years ago, people doing dubs were fairly limited, which meant you got the same guy voicing Woody Allen and, say, Emperor Palpatine (this specific one probably never happened, but there have been hilarious instances of “OMG, this is xxx’s voice” when I was watching movies as a child). Now I think it’s better, but the dub quality can vary wildly (I suspect they’re less atrocious than British dubs though…)
JeffV & Aliette: I agree that there is a lot more translated literature on the “general fiction” shelves, but that’s easy to say and do because general fiction, by definition, is broad and more encompassing. However, most of the translated works I’ve come across happen to be related to WWII in theme, for some reason…which means we only want to broaden our horizons on a handful of subjects.
That said, being from Kansas, my access to indie books, publishers, and so on is extremely limited. (Maybe on the coasts there are a lot more foreign books easily available.) If I want any, I have to order it myself. Yet because the price tag of indie books is high + added shipping and handling + needing to KNOW about the existence of these publishers in the first place and track them down myself means that the general public does not have the easy access they need in order to have their horizons widened. Only those who already have a wider view of the world will think all of the above is worth it.
Easier to put more translated fiction where more people will find it–which includes on the genre fiction shelves.
And yes, Aliette, I think you’re right. I haven’t been through the LJ comments, but I back up that statement. It’s been true in my experience.
Also, you brought up an interesting point on cultural blending and importing/exporting cultures. I keep wanting to say Japanese culture is having an effect on American culture, but I’m not sure. For the past–two decades?–Japanese manga and anime has just been a subculture with a “cult following” of die-hard fans. But now I’m beginning to see more and more of its influence in more mainstream media. For example, publishers are putting out “manga versions” of famous book series, and N.K.Jemison, nominated for a Hugo, claimed anime was a huge influence on her book and writing.
I don’t know? Thoughts?
Laura: uh, hadn’t thought about anime. Indeed! I stand corrected; that’s something that’s starting to have influence in the US (we’ve also had anime-inspired covers such as the one to Erin Hoffman’s first novel with PYR). I do wonder why that one gets through while the other ones don’t?
(the immediate explanation is that manga is easily available in the US; it does make you wonder how come manga/anime got exported and no other aspect of Japanese media production did… Mmmm)
That’s a good question, let’s see…
According to a documentary I watched, anime started in Japan as a response to what Disney was doing in the US. An artist/employee from Disney lived in Japan for a while, teaching the techniques and ideas and other things they were doing in California at the time. So Japanese animation has about as long a history as Disney animation does here. That’s enough time for it to have really developed on its own.
But I wonder if the reason why we’ve developed a taste for Japanese animation and manga isn’t because we don’t have any other good alternative to animation and comic books here, or at least we didn’t until its arrival. Disney was the animation mainstay until we got Pixar, and even then their separation didn’t last long. Japanese animators developed a whole new set of rules on how to express emotions, etc. Where we used songs in Disney’s musicals, they used chibis and other drawing techniques? When the musical format began to die out here, we began looking for something else and Japan had already developed it?
And what if we needed an alternative to all of our superhero comic book industry in Marvel and DC Comics?
So there was a gap in what we had in U.S. animation and comic book culture and the Japanese had a strong, pre-developed alternative to fill that gap.
But that doesn’t answer why we didn’t adopt more of the French-style comic books instead…. We have Tintin and Astérix and Obélix, but there are thousands of good BD that we haven’t adopted. Maybe we found the short, hard-cover color French comics too expensive to gorge on? Manga are thick, black and white, paperback, and full of dynamics and expression. They’re not as rigidly drawn as the hero-comics we had before….
I don’t know! Just some thoughts.
Oh! Also, food for thought. A new subculture is developing here. Korean TV dramas, soaps, and serials. It’s not making big enough waves to affect anything mainstream, but it’s already building momentum.
As for Chinese imported influence… Kung fu movies. Now more than ever, U.S. action movies choreograph their fight scenes with a martial arts flavor, and Avatar: The Last Airbender animated tv series has a huge following. But perhaps that hearkens back more to Japan’s anime influence than to Chinese kung fu movies. Still, the main character Aang is a monk who keeps trying to find a peaceful means to resolve conflict rather than violence.
Laura & Aliette,
My daughter is an otaku – and the manga/anime conventions she goes to are HUGE. Almost all her friends are very engaged by manga and anime, and almost all her Japanese language class in high school is taking Japanese because of manga/anime. She subscribes to a grand total of three magazines – all of them manga or otaku magazines published in the U.S. for the U.S. market. She and her friends are huge fans of Miyasaki’s films, and of other Japanese films like Tampopo. And these are not kids from more urbane hubs like New York, L.A. or S.F. – they’re from the rural and exurban Pennsylvania that spans from the metropolitan corridor to the Appalachian valley.
The U.S. otaku also have a burgeoning tradition of taking popular non-Japanese animations (Adventure time is one) and otaku-izing them – not only cosplaying at cons and other less formal events, but also essentially treating them as they would manga/anime. A while back, the Power Puff girls was pretty popular here — a conscious attempt to have a U.S.-made animation try to look and seem Japanese.
Not as widespread but more Hollywood establishment (and with a different culture as impetus) Robert Rodriguez’s pulpy Desperado series brought the tropes of the violent Mexican melodramas by the likes of Gustavo Alatriste into the U.S. Hollywood vernacular. His subsequent Grindhouse and Machete have consciously placed those same tropes in a U.S. setting.
The success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is probably one of the reasons other Wuxia-inflected films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers were made.
To characterize the U.S. as monolith that exports culture but doesn’t import it, or isn’t influenced by it, is tempting, but fallacious. That we could import more, treat the imports with more dignity, and start thinking more deeply about what we can learn from the art that is being created in other regions of the world is certainly true.
And Aliette, I stand by my analogy I made in my original post. The fear that drives anti-immigrant rhetoric is precisely predicated in viewing Latinos as a supposedly monolithic block, threatening the homegrown majority with a massive influx of cultural influences perceived to be inimical to the existing or homegrown ones. From fashion to food, from reggaeton to the ubiquity of Spanglish, the impact of Latino influences on the U.S. has often been portrayed as a type of cultural imperialism – as the deliberate “Aztlan”-ization of America.
The term “cultural imperialism” – which could at one time reliably be understood to mean the process whereby U.S. and Western European cultures brought all manner of pressures to bear in order to shape less dominant cultures – can no longer be used without a nod to the fact the term has been co-opted and turned on its head in public discourse. In the U.S. it is a term most frequently and popularly (outside of academia) wielded by those decrying growing populations whose sheer numbers are thought to be enough to exert the pressures necessary to reshape the existing culture.
From the outside at least, it would appear to me that Europe hasn’t been exempted from this upturning of the old definition of cultural imperialism — what with all the fearful back-and-forth about Sharia law subtly reshaping Britain as the Muslim population has grown (I believe even the Archbishop of Canterbury got caught up in that discussion), or the hubbub about the impact of Muslim women wearing headscarves to school in France. But I’ve never lived in Europe, so my reading of these examples might be ignoring underlying subtleties.
Anyway, thank you for the interesting and thought-provoking virtual conversation.
Laura & Sabrina: To characterize the U.S. as monolith that exports culture but doesn’t import it, or isn’t influenced by it, is tempting, but fallacious. That we could import more, treat the imports with more dignity, and start thinking more deeply about what we can learn from the art that is being created in other regions of the world is certainly true.
Totally in agreement with this, and I’m sorry if I gave the impression of falling into this trap (it’s not obvious to say everything I want without putting my foot in my mouth).
I still think your analogy is missing a dynamic of dominant/dominee culture (the US might not be politically dominant in this discourse, but it’s still exerting a cultural and economic influence that cannot be on par with the economic and cultural role of, say, the Maghreb in relation to France), but that’s not to say I totally disagree with it. I certainly wouldn’t want to define anything as a monoculture, and I’m quite certain US culture is way more diverse than the bits of it we get a glimpse of. I would totally be in favour of more indie US movies, and I think they’d have quite a different flavour from standard Hollywood fare.
I have to admit I’m not quite sure what you mean by the overturning of cultural imperialism, if you could maybe give a specific example? (It’s possibly my English failing me. I apologise, it’s been a tiring week here).
At any rate thanks–it’s a fascinating discussion, and I’m glad we’re having it.
Interesting article and, as an American, I find many of your observations and criticisms to have considerable merit. However, I believe the interpretation is overlooking an obvious fact:
American-ized tropes are NOT invading world pop culture. They are not forced on the world, with the rest of the world’s consumers as unwilling victims in the whole process.
Rather, these works are being offered to the world in the marketplace of ideas and the people of the world are CHOOSING them over other forms of storytelling. Yes, there are huge marketing budgets behind many of these works…but if readers, viewers, consumers did not enjoy and choose to purchase them, they would not achieve the pervasive status you describe.
We live in a world where anyone can create a work of art — novel, film, illustration, whatever — and easily offer it to the entire world via Internet distribution. Creators merely need to create stories that the people of the world want to enjoy.
Hey, Bill, I think it would be fair to give more credit to the hard work of advertising and distribution networks, including book reviews, and so forth. Those guys have worked hard and deserve a round of applause. You make a good point about choice, but it doubt it goes as far as you propose. When a country is dominated by foreign media, which then distributes and advertises foreign media in preference over local media, including books, the public of this particular foreign country has few remaining choices that are not American, and the work of creating stories that the people of the world might enjoy includes the doubly difficult work of creating networks for their distribution in direct competition to profitable,existing networks. The Internet ain’t there yet as this fabled distribution network, and, besides, it does best at certain tropes of its own. Same problem. But, yes, you’re right: we need to create better stories. That we’re even having this discussion suggests that we’re working at that, right now. Best, Harold
Harold: You are correct in that I minimized the effectiveness of advertising and marketing and I do think it is a shame when local works are not given more prominence in their home countries…
I just see a lot more opportunities now for diverging voices to be heard. It’s really obvious in publishing now, with the advent of ebooks and the number of independent authors doing quite well for themselves. Lots of things that eventually become media darlings started as alternative/underground, pass along, word-of-mouth driven indie hits.
I didn’t mean to imply that cultural imperialism is an invalid concept. Nor did I intend to say cultural imperialism is dead. What I was attempting point out (badly, I regret to say) is that here in the U.S. (outside of the groves of academe) the people who most most frequently employ the terminology and argument of cultural imperialism have turned its original intent on its head and now very vocally use it to describe the way non-dominant cultures are forcibly reshaping the dominant one.
This is shored up by the spurious ancillary argument that the dominant Anglo culture is no longer dominant. (We see this in more than just discussions about cultural artifacts, of course, and it is the heartfelt belief of many Tea Party members.) Proof for this is always offered in alarming population numbers, not in actual measures of power. Bad scholarship, but that’s immaterial. It is how it is understood on a popular level.
In particular, it seems to me, this perversion of the concept of cultural imperialism plays popularly precisely because so many people are willing to understand the “aggrieved” previously-dominant-now-politically-corrected-into-nondominance-culture as monolithic – thereby erasing all of us non-Anglo Americans and our history, contributions, etc. When people outside the U.S. write about the U.S. as a monolith – no matter how valid the overall critique – the erasure feels further codified and set in stone.
Not that you, or anyone outside of the U.S., is responsible for what the idea of a U.S. monolith triggers in many of us non-Anglo Americans … but I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t point it out – albeit poorly and ad nauseam. 😉
As an American and a writer, thanks for this. I’m not saying I’ll be able to avoid these tropes in what I write (a lifetime of cultural indoctrination is hard to shake), but at least I can try and be aware of them.
Spot on, Aliette. I may be American, but living in Europe has certainly sensitized me to a lot of what you mention. One of the main reasons I wrote “Troy and the Aliens.” *g* Another thing that really makes me want to rant is language imperialism, but that’s not as pertinent to fiction, except when a writer assumes he or she can take a dictionary and create a correct phrase in a foreign language. Argh!
Rant on, my friend.
Ah, OK, that’s clearer, thanks! And eek. I understand why you reacted this way, if that’s the way the term has been re-appropriated. We don’t use the word in French that way, I’m pretty definitely sure (we have the same intolerant reaction to immigrant cultures, but not the same vocabulary. I don’t think we’re there yet in terms of accepting this is happening–which probably explains why we haven’t co opted a term for that kind of phenomenon here).
It occurs to me we’re trying to say the same thing, except talking past each other… I had absolutely no intention of holding those tropes as “the American culture”, which encompassed each and every American. Indeed, I tried to make that clear in the post: the “I’m well aware not all American follow those tropes” included, at the very least, the non-Anglo people, whom I thought must be grinding their teeth at Hollywood’s blithe ignorance of their own cultures (and, in a wider sense, many other Americans of Anglo origin who don’t particularly appreciate those tropes either).
What I was ranting at was the monoculture, and the way that it was spreading in a pernicious fashion across the world (not only the tropes, but the very idea of a monoculture). To be honest, it’s not the precise nature of the tropes that bothered me, but their spread, coupled with the wrong-headed notion that they were the “universal” values of story-telling. I don’t live in the US, but I imagine that you must also suffer from the homogeneisation and “normalisation” that comes with the overuse of those tropes, and quite probably don’t like it any better than I do…
Ruth: oh yes, language imperialism 🙂 If you want to write a blog post about people who get their foreign languages catastrophically wrong, I’ll be standing by the sidelines and cheering, at the very least…
I don’t disagree with your points.
On the other hand, what does it matter if American authors write books that don’t have these tropes if no publishers will buy them? I imagine that most authors enjoy things like eating and not being homeless.
The idea of the rugged individualist has been a long sell to both the US and the world. It’s roots are very deep in the culture and to sell something different to a mass-market audience here in the states would require a significant investment of advertising dollars.
aliette: Reading this post was like a breath of fresh air — I could almost feel my chest loosen and relax as I made my way through it. Vital, on-point, unflinching… and I know it must have taken a lot of courage to air these opinions, so bravo. I’m happy to have found this, it’s made my day.
tsel: I think you’re missing several salient points. One is that this is about the influence of US culture on NON-US creators and stories, and encouraging consumers to be more appreciative and aware of how cultural conditioning effects (yes, with an e) one’s opinion of narrative legitimacy. Stories that don’t adhere to US cultural tropes are often rejected or revised because of the overall intolerance of US audiences (and I think the “adaptation” of so many British shows alone — there isn’t even a language barrier! — is fair proof of this intolerance), and that this intolerance is also spreading a damaging prioritization of one kind of narrative over all others.
The other point is that there’s no one-to-one correspondence between rejecting popular tropes and not being able to sell your work. There are plenty of authors whose fame and popularity actually RESULTS from being experimental and different. If an author loves the old standards and wants to write them, they should, but let’s not pretend it’s a choice between their art or their livelihood.
What Sabrina said @70. It’s particularly amusing given that some of the biggest successes in US popular fiction (film and print) are from non-US sources: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Stieg Larson books, Hong Kong action movies, anime….in mystery fiction, Japanese and Swedish works in translation are huge.
And much of what you deride are hardly “US tropes”. Prester John? The world revolving around a particular nation as the center of culture? Pretty sure we didn’t invent those. Ted Bundy? Try Jack the Ripper, and remember that the quintessential American media serial killer is the fictional Hannibal Lecter, whose victims were primarily male.
I found this rant hugely disappointing because it simultaneously gives Americans too much credit for inventing everything before starting in “bloody Yanks think the universe revolves around them”.
Picking up what Remus and Jeff V said, I think most of standard demands and assumptions made by the US publishing industry under the delusion that it knows its readers better than the author does (gee, why isn’t every book a hit, then?) are pure, unalloyed hooey. You can have a perfectly good story in which the protag isn’t a proactive dynamo; you can write brilliantly in omniscient VP (John Crowley, anyone? Steven King dips into it also); and stories don’t have to be tied up in neat bows. These rules all stem from the arrogance of an elite looking for formulas they can repeat, and they are the narrow, hero-worshipping formulas favoured by Hollywood. There are legions of intelligent readers out there every bit as ready for stories and novels that don’t conform to this narrow ruleset as there audiences for Indie films that don’t conform to the Hollywood formula.
We might have the beginning of a manifesto here.
Re translated fiction:
Earlier this year, my in-laws were living in Basel for a semester (she’s a professor), and they offered to buy me books while they were there. I asked for one I saw while I was in Berlin last year but didn’t buy, then asked the internet (specifically my German friends and a German community on dreamwidth) for some German-original SF they’d recommend. I got a lot of recommendations for fantasy, which isn’t really my preferred reading, and one or two SF. According to my friends, most SF in Germany is translated from English. So I have a 1000-page political SF hardback, a children’s (ish) humor/fantasy (kind of like Terry Pratchett), and an alternate history/fantasy set in 1910s Paris (with a gorgeous Art Nouveau-style cover, which is what caught my eye when I saw it in the train station). I haven’t gotten very far in them, but now that my English-language backlog is diminished, maybe I’ll have a chance to start in.
Re someone upthread who lamented the lack of non-evil German characters: That’s why I’ve set the novel I’m working on in a future space Germany (which I sincerely hope isn’t too much like the future space Americas in the rest of SF). I’m tired of future space Americans, really.
Everyone has their personal preferences. Personally, I don’t mind a little bit of stuff from the US, just as I don’t mind sourcing entertainment from other places. I’ve always found that, for me, variety keeps me interested.
But the globalisation of entertainment can be annoying, I agree. I wish the Dutch had kept Big Brother to themselves! 😉
This was a fascinating post. It reminded me of many conversations I’ve had over the book/film Never Let Me Go. So many (American) people I talked to could not understand the fatalism that is so pervasive in the book–why would someone submit meekly to inevitably fatal organ donation? I had issues with it myself until I learned the author was Japanese with a British upbringing. Those two worldviews make the story as lucid and resonant as it needs to be, no more. A fresh example against the tide of mindless, piecemeal hegemony you’ve talked about.
PS–did you take the masthead photo yourself? It’s fantastic; very moody.
If you’re tired of it, then why don’t you look for something else and vote with your feet? No one’s forcing people to consume American media or buy American products. When I go to France I find it bizarre that I can see the exact same shows, subtitled, or that when I go to movies abroad it’s the same movies as at home. The truth is that if American studios didn’t do it, the quality of shows available would suffer; foreign countries often don’t have film-making industries of any caliber–American movies are sleeker, with better special effects, and bigger budgets–they’re just more entertaining.
That said, they are indeed incredibly dumb and simplistic sometimes. You gave Xmen as an example. They’re some of the dumbest movies around. Big budget entertainment panders to the lowest denominator.
Also, a lot of times when studios make movies, they’re set in the US, made by Americans with a certain worldview and a certain cultural standpoint valuing individualism etc and that’s just who they are and how they tell stories and how things work around there. To censure them because they don’t fit into the views of fascists or French socialists (or god forbid they depict places on earth with chaotic free markets and institutions and race relations) is not ok; it’s what they do in authoritarian governments.
Basically — if it really was so one dimensional and terrible, American media wouldn’t be making money and gaining audiences abroad. There’s clearly a monomyth there that can appeal to all cultures. E.G.: Some of the best Pixar films.
So, this is an extremely late comment, but I’ve just been linked to your post and I want to thank you. I am an American, but I’m one who’s felt a bit uncomfortable with some of these same tropes you highlight, and didn’t even pick up on others. I’ve been trying to sort of articulate in my own head what it is about a lot of these tropes that bothers me, and construct a better picture of what I do want to see, and you’ve done just that here quite beautifully.
Sorry for the belated and awkward comment, but I wanted to let you know this post still resonates.