Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad

Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad

by Martha Bayles

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Why it is a mistake to let commercial entertainment serve as America's de facto ambassador to the world

What does the world admire most about America? Science, technology, higher education, consumer goods—but not, it seems, freedom and democracy. Indeed, these ideals are in global retreat, for reasons ranging from ill-conceived foreign policy to the financial crisis and the sophisticated propaganda of modern authoritarians. Another reason, explored for the first time in this pathbreaking book, is the distorted picture of freedom and democracy found in America's cultural exports.

In interviews with thoughtful observers in eleven countries, Martha Bayles heard many objections to the violence and vulgarity pervading today's popular culture. But she also heard a deeper complaint: namely, that America no longer shares the best of itself. Tracing this change to the end of the Cold War, Bayles shows how public diplomacy was scaled back, and in-your-face entertainment became America's de facto ambassador.

This book focuses on the present and recent past, but its perspective is deeply rooted in American history, culture, religion, and political thought. At its heart is an affirmation of a certain ethos—of hope for human freedom tempered with prudence about human nature—that is truly the aspect of America most admired by others. And its author’s purpose is less to find fault than to help chart a positive path for the future.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300123388
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 01/21/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 11.60(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Martha Bayles is the author of Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music. Her reviews and essays on the arts, media, and cultural policy have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Boston Globe, Weekly Standard, and many other publications. She teaches humanities at Boston College.

Read an Excerpt

Through a Screen Darkly

Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad

By Martha Bayles


Copyright © 2014 Martha Bayles
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-12338-8


The American Way of Sex

Speaking at a conference in London in spring 2011, I suggested that it is one thing to defend the rights of women and quite another to advocate American-style sexual freedom, and that, in some parts of the world, it might be prudent to separate the two goals and concentrate on the first. This provoked vehement disagreement from a young woman in the audience, a US-educated Lebanese who insisted that the two goals were inseparable. When I asked her what she meant by sexual freedom, her reply was blunt: "To have sex with whomever I want, whenever I want." To my follow-up question—"Even after you're married?"—her reply was, "Yes, I plan to create my own marriage, make it unique, an open marriage or whatever." How naive, I thought, how 1970s. But all I said was, "We tried that in America, and it didn't work."


However naive, this outlook thrives in the sweet spot of American culture: the interlude between childhood and adulthood when university-bred youth live apart from their families, presumably starting a career but also enjoying a degree of affluence and personal freedom, including sexual freedom, unknown to most of their age peers around the world. Americans now see this interlude as temporary, a period of transition between the first stage of sexual maturity, which is pleasure, or individual gratification, and the second, which is commitment, or love and fidelity between partners. The third stage, generativity, brings the burdens and joys of caring for children, aging parents, and other relatives. Because generativity is so crucial, most societies give it priority over the other two, especially pleasure. When this meets resistance from the young, as it inevitably does, it is the task of adults to demonstrate, by persuasion and example, the rewards that come with growing up. This task is always hard, but it gets harder when popular culture sends the opposite message.

Recent evidence shows that the families of highly educated Americans are more stable than those of their less-educated countrymen. In a significant change from the 1970s, the well-being of lower-middle-class families has declined, making them almost as fragile as the families of the poor. While this development is presumably related to the growing income disparity between the wealthiest Americans and the rest, it also reflects the cultural changes of the past forty years. The recent economic downturn has been hard on families, to be sure. But in the past even the poorest Americans struggled to hold their families together, because that was what was expected of them. Today the expectation is quite different. Indeed, the loudest message we hear, especially from popular culture, is that sexual autonomy and pleasure constitute the ultimate human good, overshadowing all others. If highly educated families are better at holding together, it may well be because they have the resources to push back against the legacy of the sexual revolution.

The American sexual revolution can be traced to the 1920s, when a generation of artists and writers began self-consciously to reject the strict sexual morality of the nineteenth century. By the 1950s Americans had heard of Freud, and although Freud himself took the tragic view that sexual repression was necessary for civilization, his name was invoked by Paul Goodman, Allan Ginsberg, Herbert Marcuse, William Reich, and other social critics for whom erotic liberation was the key to a radical transformation of the social and political order. This being America, erotic liberation soon acquired a post-millennial flavor. Indeed, in the hands of sexologist Alfred Kinsey, Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner, and journalist Helen Gurley Brown, the idea became a quasi-religious summons to smite repression, free the libido, and build an erotic utopia.

Today that summons is all too familiar, and for many of its critics the only solution is to bring back the old puritanical morality of the nineteenth century. This is not my position. That morality was frequently blinkered, biased against women and minorities, and unnaturally strict. Instead of turning flesh-and-blood human beings into saints, it too often turned them into silent sufferers or moral hypocrites. It did, however, have one point in its favor: it expressed a certain prudence toward sex that is more in keeping with the American ethos than the reckless optimism that replaced it.


After the attacks of 9/11, dozens of studies were done of America's image in the Arab world. One of these, headed by former ambassador Edward Djerejian, quoted an English teacher in Syria: "Does Friends show a typical American family?" The question is puzzling, given that Friends, a popular sitcom that ran on NBC from 1994 to 2004, is notable for not showing a family. On the contrary, it belongs to a genre of TV show, the urban singles comedy, that focuses on the sweet spot—that is, on the lives of young, unattached men and women living in pleasant urban settings with a comfortable income, a huge amount of personal freedom, and little or no contact with their families or communities of origin. The genre is summed up by the creators of Friends in their original pitch to NBC: "It's about sex, love, relationships, careers, a time in your life when everything's possible. And it's about friendship because when you're single and in the city, your friends are your family" (emphasis added).

When I started my research, Friends was not uppermost in my mind. But the more I traveled, the more I saw the extent of its global appeal. The producer of Friends, Warner Brothers, estimates that the program has been telecast in 135 countries and "key territories," reaching an average of fourteen million viewers per telecast. And these figures are only for the lucrative markets of Europe, Australia, and East Asia. They do not include a host of other countries where Friends is carried by satellite and terrestrial channels. Nor do they reflect the incalculable distribution of Friends via illegal downloads and pirated VCDs. When pressed, they estimated that the total number of "hits" (individual viewings of a single episode) was in the neighborhood of seventeen billion!

The people I interviewed cited two obvious reasons for the popularity of this genre. One is the sheer display of affluence. These shows are replete with what the veteran producer Aaron Spelling called "eye candy." In more recent programs produced in the era of high-definition television, such as Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, the eye candy is even more enticing. In Sex and the City, for example, the four protagonists, single women in their thirties, inhabit a Manhattan whose cutting-edge fashions, trendy apartments, stylish boutiques, hip restaurants, and immaculate streets are made to look as luscious (and lily-white) as possible.

The other obvious appeal is titillation. Friends is full of sexual innuendo and (to quote the film rating system) "implied sexual situations." But as a network program, it must respect the parameters set by the FCC. Less restrained is Sex and the City, which, as a production of the cable channel HBO, is able to include lascivious language and explicit bedroom scenes. (It does stop short of nudity, however, giving the bizarre impression that promiscuous New York women never remove their brassieres.) In one episode, the lead character, a newspaper columnist named Carrie, asks, "Is sex ever safe?" In this sanitized Manhattan, the answer is yes. Carrie and her friends have frequent encounters with men they scarcely know, but the worst that ever happens is that the sex is less hot than the women had hoped.

But eye candy and titillation are not the main reasons put forward by most of the young people I met overseas. For them, the whole point is a chance to live vicariously in the sweet spot. Here it is worth reporting an observation made by an Indian senior executive working for Sony whom I interviewed in Mumbai. When asked about the general pattern of Indian channels localizing US programs, the executive commented that shows like Friends were the exception, because the lifestyle they depict had no equivalent in India. In most countries, young people have neither the resources nor the adult approval to experience the sweet spot. To quote a British editor I met in Cairo: "That bit between family and marriage doesn't exist here."

At the same time, prosperity has brought change. Since the 1990s, writes Kay Hymowitz, a "New Girl Order" has arisen in Europe (including the post-communist countries) and East Asia: "In Shanghai, Berlin, Singapore, Seoul, and Dublin ... crowds of single young females (SYFs) in their twenties and thirties ... spend their hours working their abs and their careers, sipping cocktails, dancing at clubs, and (yawn) talking about relationships. Sex and the City has gone global." What's driving this New Girl Order, says Hymowitz, is not "American cultural imperialism" but "a series of stunning demographic and economic shifts," including greater educational and work opportunities for women, urbanization, and a worldwide trend toward later marriage and lower fertility.

Hymowitz is right: American culture is not the only factor causing these global changes. But it is arguably an important one. As suggested by her allusions to Sex and the City, American popular culture is often the lens through which individuals make sense of social change. For example, a professor at one of China's top universities told me that unmarried Chinese graduate students, male and female, are beginning to share apartments. Adding that most were not telling their parents, the professor unhesitatingly attributed the wish "to cohabit, to not have children, to make their own choices" to "the influence of American culture." Despite widespread belief in America's decline, the United States is still the world's model, both positive and negative, of the future. On the positive side, we could point to the American struggle to fashion a more equitable path to marriage and adulthood. But on the negative side we must ask: how can people learn about that struggle, when their view of America is through the entertaining but distorted lens of television?

To begin, the urban singles comedy makes commitment look next to impossible. In Friends, all six characters fail at relationships outside their own circle, and when that happens, they retreat back into the circle. When romance blossoms inside the circle, which it does with dizzying frequency, the lovers immediately lose the ability to communicate, regaining it only when the romance sputters. In Sex and the City, the character most scornful of commitment, Samantha, is also the most glamorous, a gorgeous blonde pursuing casual sex as gleefully as Hugh Hefner in a hot tub. Samantha's shamelessness is held up as a foil to her three friends, who yearn to marry before the sweet spot turns sour. But she is also lauded for "putting her sexuality out there." Indeed, in the opening episode she leads her friends in a vow to quit caring and "do it like a man."

Another global favorite, Desperate Housewives, focuses on married couples but treats commitment as laughable. Lacking the wit and pizzazz of Sex and the City, the show relies on the 1950s-era cliché of sexual secrets simmering beneath the bright surface of a picture-perfect suburb. This seems to strike a nerve among affluent Chinese. A recent college graduate whom I interviewed in Shanghai told me that her friends felt "deprived" when they couldn't watch each new episode of Desperate Housewives the day after it aired in the United States.

These shows are played for laughs, of course, and the purpose of comedy is not to depict exemplary behavior but to exaggerate and perhaps correct human folly. Most Americans, knowing our own society, take these programs in that spirit. We understand that they are distorting reality in order to make a point. Lacking this understanding, many foreigners take these programs at face value. For example, a Chinese media executive told me that many Chinese viewers do not see these programs as comedy but rather as therapy: "A lot of Chinese people have emotional problems with sex, and there is very little psychiatry available. So shows like Sex and the City offer a way for people to deal with their problems."

If this comment can be taken seriously, then what is the therapeutic message being delivered by Sex and the City? It could hardly be more clear: put off commitment as long as possible, and avoid generativity like the plague. To be sure, the four characters in Sex and the City do marry and bear children, but rarely in that order, and never without a freight of anxiety more suited to a suicide pact than to a wedding or birth. Of the four, only Charlotte wants children; the others shudder at the mere thought of attending a baby shower. When Miranda gets pregnant by her ex-boyfriend Steve, she decides to have the child only if he promises not to play a fatherly role. Eventually Miranda and Steve marry, but to judge by the two feature films that followed the series, their happiness is far from assured.

Generativity also extends to the old, and here the young people I interviewed pointed to a stunning disconnect. In Cairo, a former exchange student from a Bedouin village who had spent a year in an American suburb told me that she was astonished to see how much time Americans spend with their families. "In the media," she said, "there are no families, just individuals." Through firsthand contact with American society, this young woman understood how dramatic some media distortions really are.

I heard similar comments in Turkey, the Arab Emirates, India, Indonesia, and China—often accompanied by a description of how the speaker's own life was enmeshed in a tissue of extended, multigenerational family relationships. These comments opened my eyes to this aspect of American popular culture. In Friends, for example, the families are kept strictly offstage, the only exceptions being the brother-sister tie between Ross and Monica, and an awkward encounter between Phoebe and her estranged birth mother. In Sex and the City the few parents depicted are made to look ridiculous, manipulative, pathological. And all other relatives—siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins—are airbrushed out.

It is true, of course, that single city-dwellers tend to hail from other places and have little daily contact with the folks back home. But these shows turn distance into willed oblivion. "My family lives in Philadelphia and I don't like them," says Miranda in Sex and the City. Charlotte is devoted to the idea of having a family, but at her joyful wedding to the equally devoted Harry, we get nary a glimpse of the families that presumably instilled that devotion. Most astonishing is Carrie, who seems to have sprung from the pavement of East Seventy-Third Street, as Aphrodite from the sea foam. Midway through the fifth season, Carrie mentions in passing that her father abandoned the family when she was small. But in ninety-four episodes, two feature films, and two weddings in which she is the bride, there is no mention of Carrie's mother or any other family member.

How to explain this disconnect? One answer is the abiding prejudice against old people found in America, and American media. So pervasive is this prejudice I was startled, when watching television in India, to see gray-haired grandmothers in commercials for fruit juice and house paint. On American television there are no gray-haired women. And if you see a gray-haired man, he's either the villain of the piece or selling Viagra.

Another explanation, noted by Time magazine, is that "gay writers ... are behind the TV shows that are most provocatively defining straight relationships." To some degree, the estrangement from family life historically suffered by gay Americans has been projected onto these non-gay characters. For example, when Miranda's mother dies, her grief seems mainly directed at her family for rejecting her as "a single woman in my thirties." The pastor mischaracterizes her as a sister-in-law, and the only person willing to escort her from the church is her friend Carrie.

This note of exclusion, even shame, at being single may strike a chord in societies where women are still expected to marry by a certain age. But it rings false in 1990s America, and the only way to make it ring true is to imagine Miranda as a lesbian. The awkwardness of her family, and the distance from family and community felt by characters like Miranda, are best understood in terms of the old Hollywood saying, "Write gay, cast straight." Today that saying is less heard, because Hollywood is more inclusive of gay characters. But the habit of treating familial estrangement as the norm persists—and the price of doing so, at home but especially abroad, remains high.

Excerpted from Through a Screen Darkly by Martha Bayles. Copyright © 2014 Martha Bayles. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part I The Fun-House Mirror of Popular Culture

Prologue Cultural Export-and Pushback 21

1 The American Way of Sex 28

2 Empire of Special Effects 47

3 Television by the People, for the People? 69

4 From Pop Idol to Vox Populi 88

Part II Goodwill Hunting

Prologue The Lesson of Odysseus 113

5 The Washington-Hollywood Pact 122

6 "The World's Worst Propagandists" 136

7 US International Broadcasting 158

8 Bearers of Glad Tidings 188

9 "Freedom's Just Another Word" 210

Conclusion 233

Acknowledgments 259

Notes 263

Index 307

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