Friday, February 21, 2014

Does America have a cultural identity problem?

The new Godzilla poster that came out this week makes Godzilla look bigger than I have ever seen him. The tallest skyscraper in the shot barely comes up to his elbow. It makes me ask a couple of questions. The first (and most obvious one) is: Does this poster intentionally mislead its intended audience? I mean, the previous Matthew Broderick incarnation also had a huge Godzilla foot superimposed with cars and that movie's catch phrase was "Size does matter." So everyone that's been making Godzilla movies agrees that at least "size matters" for this particular kaiju film and that "bigger is better." And the 1976 King Kong had Kong so huge he was straddling the World Trade Center while holding a jet fighter. But we all know that Kong was never that big (not to mention that there wasn't a jet fighter getting caught).

The other question that pops up in my mind (again related to size and importance) is this: do Americans suffer from a cultural identitity problem? The gargantuan prominence of "Godzilla" (Japanese icon) in a clearly American city such as San Francisco makes me truly realize how much we borrow from other cultures to create our own kind of absurd take on things.

Let's just take a jaunt around the web to other bloggers (who are American) and see what we find. At Matthew MacNish's place abbreviated the QQQE we discover that Matthew identifies with all things Japanese. If we go over to L.G. Smith's blog, it's the British Isles. I am reminded of the time when Mitt Romney (as the Republican presidential challenger" said, "We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage" and hinted that he'd like to restore a bust of Sir Winston Churchill to the White House (when no restoration is needed because it's still there).

And then we have Katy Perry's new video.
It's tacky, cheesy, and I still love it. We've got the twinkies pyramid, a tattoo-inspired Isis at the end, neon and smurf-colored Egyptians, and it all screams "Bitch, we're fabulous" in volumes. Seriously, you should watch this video.

I guess my point, which really was started by staring at the Godzilla poster, is this: What is American exactly? I have trouble pointing out a distinctly American style because it all seems to be borrowed from something else. On Squawk Box yesterday on CNBC (I watch it in the morning because it has the best stock market news) one of the announcers said that Ralph Lauren is a distinctly American brand. Okay, so does that mean Polo shirts and all things Ralph Lauren are what Americans are supposed to look like?

Or is Ralph Lauren borrowing its fashion designs from some other culture?

When I travel to the southwest, I see a "style" of building that seems to have a very strong Spanish theme to it. When I look at our government buildings, I think "Greek." I mean, our capitol does have a resemblance to the Parthenon in Athens. Louisiana is of course very French. And Las Vegas is well, such a hot mess that it defies description.

Maybe Google's home page is the most uniquely American thing ever. It just says what it is in color and then is surrounded by a blank page. Maybe that's what America is: a blank page. And anyone can color it to be exactly what you want, which is arguably the most fabulous thing ever, but kind of boring too.

What are your thoughts on this topic?


  1. We've always been a melting pot. I guess that's our style. (Really hope 'Southern living' isn't our style.)
    That new poster is awesome. Even if he's not really that big.
    And as the previous Godzilla movie discovered, it's not size. Plot does matter.

  2. Yeah really the "Great Melting Pot" has been around since the 19th Century. Cultural assimilation is what happens when people of all races and cultures mix together. Though it's hardly unique to the United States; ancient Rome assimilated a lot from other cultures--including Christianity. Basically any culture that has contact with others will begin to adopt some of its customs and mannerisms.

    There's today's lesson on anthropology.

  3. We're a nation of immigrants, obviously, and many of us still have ties to our cultural roots in other countries. I'm mostly just an anglophile, though. :)

  4. @Pat and @L.G.: But if we didn't want our cultural roots in other countries because we had at least two generations here, what would that even mean? Like...could we actually be "culturally" American? I don't think it's possible because I don't think there is an actual "American" culture.

  5. I think other nations would say we do have an American culture. One of gun-toting, loud-mouthed, warmongering, sexually repressed prudes in sunglasses and flashy white smiles. :D

    And we sometimes make good movies. And coffee...

  6. @L.G.: Oh! That explains everything then. I've been in homes that decorate with guns and flags. Those are the real Americans.

  7. I suppose you could ask people from foreign countries what they think of as the typical American. It would probably be some obnoxious, loudmouthed tourist.

    Japanese culture shifted quite a bit once Americans began visiting in the late 19th Century. For instance we introduced baseball to them.

    Exporting our movies and music and fast food restaurants has had the same impact on Europe, China, India, etc.

    Except for some isolated tribe in the Amazon that's never seen white men there's really no such thing as a pure culture. Every culture has a little bit of other cultures, especially now that everything's so connected with the Internet and such.

    Now to do an Andrew Leon and turn this into a writing metaphor: it's like when someone says, "Oh your book is like [so-and-so]'s book." Well so-and-so's book is probably like another person's book which is like another person's book and so on and so forth. There's a whole holistic gestalt connectedness to everything. Or whatever.

    Personally I'd rather watch Godzilla trash Tokyo because that's the tradition. Having him trash San Francisco is like setting a Batman movie in Paris.

  8. It may be hard to pin down exactly, but there certainly is an American identity. My children are American and speak with a purely American accent, yet they have never lived in America. When we visit America they identify with it on some level but also feel distinctly out of place.

    My wife and I are quite worried about how they will handle life there once they move to the U.S. to go to college. The only truly violent episodes I have personally encountered in my life have all been in America, whether it is drunks throwing bottles at me from passing cars, or hostile idiots wanting to pick a fight as I am walking by them at a bus stop. This stuff has never once happened to any of us overseas in the many countries we have visited or lived in, and my children are such peaceful guys that I really worry how they will handle such crazy occurrences.

  9. I think the melding of so many cultures into our society is what America is about. Now if we can only be more tolerant of the differences between us.

  10. Whoa! I have a thing! That's kinda... cool.

    But I digress. There are a few distinctly American things: comic books, jazz, hamburgers.
    But the thing that is most distinctly American, and is still how a lot of the rest of the world sees us, is cowboys. The Old West and Cowboys were carved out of American soil and is probably the only really distinctive Americanism. And, yeah, we've carried some of that over into what L.G. was talking about. The gun-toting, anyway. The sexual repression is actually a European thing that we dragged over with us. However, I think we dragged -all- of it over here with us.

    So, yeah, we both do and don't have an identity issue.

  11. I'm speaking as an outsider, eh? I would say there's a certain, uh, cultural style that I see as distinctly American. It's a complete stranger coming up to you in the street and holding a personal conversation with you. That happens WAY more often in the States than it does in Canada. It's people asking you what your deal is based on the expression on your face as you walk down the street. Again, that does tend to happen here. It's a certain outgoingness?

    This is a gross generalization of course, and your mileage may vary. I've found such encounters both charming and offputting, depending on how the exchange goes.

  12. Is fat and self-obsessed a culture? Because I think America has that in spades. Or at least that is the perception I think.

    The truth is probably that we don't have much that is uniquely American culturally. Although I'd argue that we do influence much of the world artistically, whether through music, movies, or literature.

    But that might be the self-obsessive thing I mentioned earlier. I mean, if we really like something a lot, we just take it and say it's ours anyway. Like music, or myths, whatever.

  13. America is a bit of a mishmash, like hip-hop and Tarantino movies. You did give us cowboys though. And McDonalds. Thanks for that.

    Moody Writing

  14. Like others have commented here, we're a nation of immigrants, so foreign influences is inevitable. But America also has certain art, architecture, music (jazz and the blues), literature and so on that's uniquely ours. Funny thing is, go to some other countries and people there often bemoan too much American cultural influence.

  15. The U.S. is unique in the world. Our *culture* is a glorious mix. We are not afraid to accept new people, new ideas, and even new words. We are a mutt nation that carries in its DNA the best of all the various breeds.

    We have given the world ALOT. Everything from flight to penicillin, the telephone and television, the sewing machine, cars and the measles vaccine. THAT, if nothing else is our *culture.*

    I think of us not so much as a melting pot (because we are not a single homogeneous whole)but rather like a tossed salad. We are lettuce, tomatoes, bacon, cheese, onions, olives, ham, croutons, eggs, sunflower seeds, etc. etc. etc. (with favorite dressing) all mixed together in a unique bowl.

    Do we have a our own culture? I say yes.

  16. This semester I'm taking a class all about this topic: Multicultural Education. (The title is longer than that and one I can never recall.) What is American? Is it all of us? It can't be just one ethnic identity superimposed over us all.

  17. Awesome post, Michael. And I'd say yes, we have a HUGE cultural identity crisis. When we have places (and people) in the country getting upset over America the Beautiful being sung in different languages in a Super Bowl ad, that tells me we have a whole crap-ton of people with no clue about who they are and how the US was actually created.

    The exploration and settlement of three very different European cultures (Spanish, French, and English), blended with a healthy dose of the native population, is how this country began. We've been a melting pot society since day one. Why this troubles people now, I've no clue.

    And I believe the cultural confusion is only going to worsen as we go forward. We're becoming a country dominated by two languages, and it seems a lot of folks are insisting that we choose a "side". In reality, I think we're seeing the birthing of the 'new American' generation. Which might ultimately be a good thing, because there'll come a day soon when labeling people simply as "white or brown" is going to get very difficult. Of course we'll find something else to haggle over at that point. :)

  18. America is everything. We weren't left alone to develop our own culture for hundreds of years (of course, the Native Americans were here, but we all know how that went...) like the "Old World." We have always had a continuous flow of cultures coming into and going out of our country.

    However, one distinctly American trait, I think, is our magnitude. By this, I mean we do everything "bigger." We're a bit...crazy.

  19. I need to talk to some of my French friends again, (those who have and have not visited the US)and ask them how they would describe American culture. It's come up in various conversations over the years, but it would be interesting to revisit the question now that I'm a bit older.

  20. Look at stuff that is supposedly AMERICAN, like baseball. It's borrowed from cricket.

    I think America is one big borrower, but that's pretty cool. We're a big mix of cultures that borrows from others, and that's what makes things interesting (like a pyramid made of Twinkies).