Meet the Author: Martha Bayles
Martha Bayles is Associate Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at Boston College, as well as a member of the Public Diplomacy Council and a contributor to The Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe, among other periodicals. Her books include Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music (1994), Ain't That a Shame? Censorship and the Culture of Transgression (1996), and Through A Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad (2014).
Why is your book Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad crucial reading for public diplomacy students?
The book bridges two gaps rarely bridged: first, between the study of popular culture and the study of public diplomacy; and second, between the complex reality of American life and the way that life is portrayed in much of our exported entertainment.
I have long defended the artistic value of America’s best popular culture. But based on hundreds of in-depth interviews with thoughtful observers in seventeen countries, I have become convinced that our worst popular culture causes millions of non-Americans to judge this country by an ugly caricature, or bad selfie, in which its vices are magnified all out of proportion to its virtues.
This ugly caricature distorts perceptions even in free societies. But in places where people are barraged by propaganda from violent jihadist groups or hostile authoritarian regimes, the same caricature plays into the hands of those who seek to discredit liberal democracy.
You call the U.S. entertainment industry/Hollywood "America's de facto ambassador to the world," much to America's detriment. Could you name some of the more destructive Hollywood exports in recent years?
The obvious answer is that brutal violence and explicit sex – now standard fare in American movies, TV shows, and video games – are deeply offensive to millions of socially and religiously conservative people around the world. Less obvious but potentially more worrisome is another standard ingredient: a deeply cynical portrayal of American civic life and institutions.
Case in point: House of Cards, the slick Netflix series that paints the American government in creepy, conspiratorial colors that appeal to popular audiences around the world – including in China, where the series is widely pirated but also available legally through SohuTV.
When President Xi Jinping alluded to House of Cards during a speech in Seattle, the audience ate it up, no doubt because they wanted to believe the old Cold War trope of foreign dictatorships being subverted by Hollywood. But consider this comment by Bill Bishop, editor of the influential newsletter, Sinocism: “As corrupt as DC may now be, it’s not nearly as bad as [House of Cards] depicts it. Millions of Chinese may come away thinking that US politics are not that much cleaner than those systems closer to home.”
What about any recent cultural exports, from Hollywood or perhaps independent productions, that you view as creating beneficial PD for America?
In a radio interview shortly after the book was published, the host asked listeners to call, email, or tweet their suggestions of cultural products that do a good job of representing America. The response was enthusiastic, and I remember thinking: What a great question – we should ask it more often!
David Jackson, the former head of VOA, praises the new Ridley Scott film The Martian for being “the best American public diplomacy message in years.” In the last few months I’ve persuaded several overseas friends to try the TV series Friday Night Lights. Without exception, those who did watch it declared themselves not just hooked but also deeply affected by its rich and humane portrait of life in a small Texas town.
Any surprises or unexpected discoveries during the researching and writing of the book?
Something I didn’t realize until I traveled was the global popularity of American TV shows that focus narrowly on young single people living on their own, with zero connection to family, community of origin, or religious tradition. In Turkey, Egypt, the UAE, India, Indonesia, and China, I heard a lot about how alluring these shows are for young people expected to live with their extended family before – and sometimes after – they get married to one of the candidates selected for them by their relatives.
But I also heard the flip side: the not-so-alluring impression, created by these same TV shows, that Americans care nothing for family, community, or faith – and live only for sex, alcohol, money, and power.
Is there a way out of the damage incurred by the events you describe in your book (from the U.S. mistreatment of Iraqi civilians and prisoners at Abu Ghraib to the cultural tone deafness of Eve Ensler's work in the Congo) via American cultural exports?
I am glad to see this question, because it tells me you read the second half of the book! That half is not about popular culture but about public diplomacy, and it takes a hard look at several of Americans’ non-mediated interactions with the rest of the world – as businesspeople, diplomats, journalists, missionaries, soldiers, students, volunteers, democracy advocates, students, professors, etc.
So the answer is no, I do not think our cultural exports can reverse the damage done by tragic blunders in foreign policy, or misbegotten efforts to transform the customs of others. Americans suffer from chronic obtuseness toward the 95 percent of humanity who are not us – and unfortunately, it shows.
Photo courtesy Martha Bayles