Thursday, February 24, 2011

Just a kid at the Sorbonne...English Class Part 2

It’s time.  The oral presentations have started this week in English class.  The focus: American culture as represented in film.  The players: French students.  Here we go.

The first presentation was, appropriately, unplanned and the professor had no idea that the student had put for an idea.  She had, she said, expressed an interest in giving a presentation but had never specified a film.  “OK,” the professor said, “what film have you chosen?”

Update: He was never president, France.
For the next thirty minutes we were given a presentation on none other than the Simpsons film, which was arguably the most unfair and inaccurate reading of American culture I have experienced yet in France.  Apparently the notion of satire never snuck across the Channel from England, because as far as the student told us, the Simpsons film was a “good view into American society.”

Uh oh.

This is the part where I sound mean, but it’s not mean.  I don’t blame the girl for her ignorance.  She told us all, by using scenes in the film portraying a drunken Bart Simposn, that in America “alcohol is reprimanded” and that even though we “can’t drink until maturity,” “we all know that every young person drinks.”  Lots of things wrong here.  My family’s garage refrigerator is stocked with beer, hard lemonade, and some aged but still alcoholic spirits, so where’s the reprimand?  I’ll skip the notion of maturity for all of our sakes, but note that I didn’t start drinking like an “adult” until well after high school.  Do we drink wine with every dinner?  No, but we don’t smoke with every coffee, either.

Then there was a long misreading of a scene in the movie where an Arnold Schwarzenegger-esque character is shown as the president of the United States.  Missing the reference to our former Californian governor, she goes on to criticize the EPA for being corrupted for serving this Hollywood president.  She talks about nuclear power plants which are every where in the US apparently cause three-eyed animals in local ponds.  She neglects the fact that the majority of France’s electricity comes from nuclear energy whereas the US achieves just a small percentage relatively.  If this paragraph doesn’t make sense, then you understand my frustration.

Biting my finger in order not to laugh, but also slightly taken aback by the horrific interpretations of my culture, the presentation finally came to an end with one last jab.  Apparently, and I quote, “Americans don’t care about consequences,” especially with regards to the environment and other social issues.  I use the quotes here to emphasize that, indeed, that is what she said.

Rather than chalk this all up to being French, I blame myself and my culture.  There comes a point when "Oh, the French," just isn't a sufficient explanation anymore.  This blatant misreading of American culture, painting us as prude, conservative, alcoholic, environment-abusing idiots is exactly the picture you get if you watch the Simpsons without understanding its humor, satire, and sarcasm.  We can't expect the majority of society to see the deeper significance.  

It’s not fair that so much American culture is packaged nicely with a little bow and sent right over to France, and the rest of the world, for mass consumption.  “Here,” we say, “Enjoy.”  The poor French girl, forced to swallow all of this culture, has just one slight problem.  None of it comes with a users’ manual.  How the hell is she supposed to decipher and decode all of this rather complex social commentary without knowing the inner-workings of the American system and the American frame of mind? 

It’s like asking America to have a cheese for every day of the year.  It’s just inconceivable.

In the end, maybe we Americans have to share the blame for a lot of the misrepresentations out there.  After all, shoveling decade after decade of eccentric popstars and Hollywood merde in front of the French can’t work wonders for the image of the American society.  For every Woody Allen or Coen Brothers’ film that works in France, there are a dozen romantic comedies that they balk at because, inevitably, the majority of the humor and references fly right over their beret-topped heads.

Representations of the French in American film are much less varied, much less numerous, and much less liable to be misred.  We've been seeing the same stereotypes since Audrey Hepburn landed in Montmartre in Funny Face.  French girls are all sex-driven, French men all wear stripes and have horrendous accents when they speak French.  Rarely in American movies do we even see normal French characters.  Normal French characters reside in normal French films, and we don’t have a whole lot of access to them in America, either.

But the French see many of our movies and are left to form their own interpretations of what the films say about American culture without an arguably important American psyche.  So the result is a reading of a film that will leave many Americans with large teeth marks in their fingers while sitting in their English class at the Sorbonne.  The silver lining is that at least she never called us fat and lazy, and the French are warmer than ever towards America, but they still don’t quite get us.


Do I make it my mission for the semester to attempt to fix this or do I leave well enough alone?

4 comments:

  1. "prude, conservative, alcoholic, environment-abusing idiots" She's got it all wrong; that's only ONE HALF of the country!

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  2. um, fix it. that is all wildly inaccurate AND offensive.

    i can almost understand the misconceptions, or at least forgive them, because cultural differences, especially humor/satire, are hard to get a grasp on.

    but the nuclear power thing is the most ridiculous. france gets 3/4 of their energy from nuclear power plants -- the most by far of any country in the world. the us gets 1/5. so... yeah ok. (it's not even necessarily a bad way to generate electricity -- it depends on who you ask. but at least know your shit, french girl.)

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  3. If you have been in the same place for your entire life, it's difficult to have an image of a culture that is not your own. However, the American media is widespread, and so the image of Americans abroad relies heavily on it. This has both positive and negative effects. I think the best thing that can be done to counter this is to notify people when they're making unrealistic assumptions. Reasonable people will listen, assholes will keep living in their media dream world.

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  4. I agree with you, Lindsey, but the problem is that I am in a unique position to be able to do that. Normally, there'd be no one there to counter this position. The professor of this class is British, after all...

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