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Media stereotypes drive international misperceptions of America

January 24th, 2011 Posted in Arts and Life

By Cassidee J. Cline
HNC European Correspondent

FRANKFURT-ODER, Germany—As you walk through narrow streets lined with small shops and restaurants, you look up at the old apartment buildings with flowerpots lining the balconies. A group of teenagers speaking German walk by and as they pass a few words reach your ears. “Homer Simpson,” you hear as they walk out of sight.

Ducking into the supermarket, American pop songs like Katy Perry’s “Hot ’N Cold” and Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” can be heard over the squeaky shopping-cart wheels as they mosey through food aisles.

Looking out the window, you see the ever-familiar double yellow arches of McDonald’s looming above the street. You can’t help but think about how much U.S. culture influences the rest of the world or wonder what the rest of the world thinks about the third largest country.

Alexander Schollbach, 28, from Brandenburg, Germany, is a student of culture studies. He says the United States has had a large impact in European culture. “When you look at the history of Europe and the United States for the last 60 years,” Schollbach said, “it is linked in a very strong way.”

Growing up in Germany, Schollbach said his childhood was influenced greatly by American media. “During Christmas we were watching movies like Home Alone and listening to Christmas songs like White Christmas,” he said.

“When I think about television, radio or American movies and songs,” he said, “I feel like it’s my own culture.”

After WWII, the United States played an important role in developing Western Europe and especially Western Germany after the Nazis lost the war.

American media are a big part of other cultures, but much of the media output from the United States has given way to stereotypes that shed both good and bad light on America and Americans.

Charlotte Sims, 22, from Birmingham, England, said most U.S. stereotypes include Americans as obese and the idea that America is power-hungry.

“[Americans] think their culture is the ideal culture and they want other countries to have Western values,” Sims said. She also said many anti-American people in Birmingham believe the acts of 9/11 and of the swine flu injections were government conspiracies to “reduce the population.”

Schollback said many of the stereotypes he hears about America also deal with America wanting power. “The government of the U.S.A. wants to be able to rule the world, ” he said. “When something happens that they don’t like, they want to be able to change it.”

U.S. involvement with Iraq and Iran, Schollbach said, has only helped to promote the image of American “love for war” and has only fed the stereotype that all Americans are obsessed with weapons.

Brazilian Mario Saraiva, 20, is a business student from his nation’s capital of Brasilia. America very popular in Latin America either, he said. Most Latin Americans, he said, think Americans are not very intelligent and not very knowledgeable about geography or about what happens in the world.

Saraiva said he used to have some of these same ideas when he was in 9th grade, before doing an exchange program for one year in Montana. “After studying in the U.S. for a year,” Saraiva said, “my perspective changed a lot.”

“The U.S. is a great place often misinterpreted by those who haven’t been there yet,” he said. “Unfortunately, the international media always portraits opinions and not actual facts, thus misleading a lot of foreigners.”

When all you see on the television in other countries is The Simpsons and Family Guy, it’s easy to say that entertainment media portray a bad image of the United States.

“When [people in Latin America] are building their opinions, they are influenced a lot by media,” Saraiva said. “And if the media has an anti-American view or a bad view on the U.S. than the people will also.”

But Karolina Kepa, 24, from Poland, said her country sees the United States as more of a land of opportunity rather than as a land of pointless mindless destruction. Kepa said she was part of a work-and-study program in New Jersey, and said living there was a lot easier than living in Poland.

In Poland, she said, people can work 10- to 12-hour shifts and only live in the lower-class bracket. In the United States, she said, her pay was low, but she could live comfortably. “If you work hard you can achieve a lot in the U.S.,” Kepa said.

Negative U.S. stereotypes come from movies, TV shows and even the news, these students agree. So what can be done about these global perceptions about the United States in the rest of the world?

International students here in Frankfurt-Oder say that doing a study abroad could help different cultures better understand one another, and possibly end the misconceptions.

“Everyone should get in the situation one or two times of totally changing their point of view,” Schollbach said. Saraiva and Kepa agreed that all people should go abroad at least for one semester; in fact, some universities, like Viadrina in Frankfurt-Oder, require students to spend at least one semester in another country.

It is expensive for students to study abroad, but internships, scholarships and exchange programs help lower costs. Some governments support exchange programs with other countries—like the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals, which provides funding from both the U.S. and German governments to help support students to study and intern in Germany for one year.

If you get an opportunity to travel, take it, Schollbach said. It could help change your view of the world.

Cassidee J. Cline is a USU print journalism major studying at Viadrina University in Frankfurt-Oder, on Germany’s eastern border with Poland.


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