Friday, April 8, 2011

Just a kid at the Sorbonne...English Class Part 6: Americanization

Not your familiar McDonald's...
English class seems to be winding down a bit early in the game, with attendance dropping sharply.  Students are stressed with papers to write and internships to complete.  This has not, however, halted some fantastic presentations over the past two weeks.  My education on American culture continues as ever it could…

Perhaps the most striking lesson of the week came from a project on the film The Social Network about Facebook and its illustrious founder.  I watched this film, half drugged, on a flight back from Philadelphia this Christmas season.  I liked it.  I found it insightful if not scathing.  I really liked the presentation by my fellow French students, who revealed two major points on American culture that I never really reflected upon.

First, I got schooled on socialization in American schools.  It is, apparently, a universally accepted position that nerds cannot talk to girls.  I guess nerdy girls are condemned to a life of silence, in that case.  But the ultimate social lesson was that “getting punched is typically American.”  Spot on.  I opted for contacts exactly for that reason.

Secondly, the students theorized about Facebook and its effects on the world.  One student said that we have to think about the “Americanization of culture” and no longer the “spread of American culture.”  I thought about it, and he had a good point going for him, here.  I thought about the fact that nearly everyone in the class had a Facebook account and how they don’t really think of it as “American.”  It’s in French, they communicate with their French friends, the applications are in French, etc.  What about it would scream “American” to them?

When I see McDonald’s or Starbucks, I do think about the spread of American culture.  But a closer look reveals that, honestly, McDonald’s and Starbucks are not the same here.  It’s an oft-remarked observation by tourists.  These institutions are not promoting the American portions or the same American flavors that are available in the US, for example.

Ever try to find a pumpkin-spiced latte in November in Paris?  Impossible.

Instead, the local culture in these examples has been Americanized.  But is it a French spin on American culture or an American spin on French establishments?  Is Starbucks in Paris a “French cafĂ© with an American twist” or an “American coffee shop with a Parisian twist”?  It’s probably a mix of both.  But it’s interesting to consider how thickly that veneer of American culture is applied over foreign cultures. 
Well...not entirely...

While the influence of different cultures can be seen everywhere in Paris – German cars, Egyptian obelisks, Japanese sushi, Roman columns, British tea rooms – American is the superpower today that is nearly synonymous with globalization.  Still, I always wonder if back in the first century A.D. if “Romanization” could have been coined for the same effect…

I often walk by the American Apparel store in my neighborhood and realize that I rarely see French girls dressed like girls in New York who shopped at American Apparel.  French girls go there, they buy things, but it’s not pure consumption of American culture.  Are they Americanizing their Parisian wardrobe or Fenchifying a bit of American style? 

Again, it’s a hen-or-the-egg question.  I’m thinking, however, of how much influence America does have culturally over other nations like France.  We always think that Americans are shoving culture down French peoples’ throats.  But I sometimes wonder if the French are secretly hiding in their cheeks and then, when we’re not looking, they spit it out and cut off the fat to consume carefully and stylishly the parts they deem most worthy. 

After all, Parisians go to Starbucks but rarely take it to-go.  Maybe they just like to change it up and have a caramel macchiato from time to time, but they still sit and enjoy it in the typical French fashion.  Who can say?

Facebook is just another invention in the long history of inventions that has international appeal, but it doesn’t necessarily come with the same sort of force that Hollywood did after World War II.  No one is forcing the French, this time, to embrace a bit of American culture, but they are consuming it and making their own. 

Is that still Americanization??

1 comment:

  1. Wow, really interesting question. I think there is a different between imposing American culture and ADOPTING American brands, trends and shops but then properly adapting them to the local culture. Starbucks will forever strike me as American since I used to work there BUT the service in Paris is decidedly French. They also make the drinks wrong much of the time but I won't get into that :)

    That said, I'm not sure if Americanization is the more accurate term for what we're seeing here or if it's merely just the overarching, GLOBAL term for exporting American ideology and culture (which ends up interpreted differently in each local culture anyway).

    {side note: French brands are slowly starting to become more available in major U.S. cities, starting of course with New York. Fashion brands are probably the most profitable - like Maje becoming available in NY - but I think you'll see New York gals integrate French fashion differently into their overall style and wear their pieces in ways French women might not}.

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