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Does Aussie culture need protection from US cultural imperialism?

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 8 July 2003


American culture is part of Australian mass consumer culture, like it or not, dude! It dominates our television, radio stations, movie theatres, fashion and our imagination. We are effectively governed from Washington DC with our cultural menu set by producers in Los Angeles and designers in New York. Resistance is futile and likely to mean you are totally uncool. In short, we are all Americans now.

This summary of affairs is, of course, an exaggerated view of reality, although plenty of Australians probably watch American sitcoms, own American CDs and DVDs, and dress in American fashion labels right down to their Calvin Klein underwear.

Those who reject claims of American cultural imperialism in Australia might respond: Isn't talk of American songs or underwear an overly nationalistic outlook? Isn't a lot of American culture just part of mass consumer culture, as the US has the biggest studios, media empires, fashion companies, and marketing machines? And don't American talent houses draw on the best ideas and individuals from around the globe? However, such responses present only part of the story.

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Global and Australian culture clearly has been Americanised, particularly since World War II. Although put-downs of American culture often run roughshod over the sheer diversity of American cultural output, it is entirely understandable that people worry about local business and art being overrun by American cultural icons such as McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Time AOL and so on.

Others worry about our obsession with middle-class American life via the tube. The world of TV viewers often knows far more about American high schools and colleges, American court rooms and police precincts, and American hospitals and office life than they know about their own society. I worry that Australians are familiar with Frasier's Seattle and Ally McBeal's Boston but have no popular equivalents set in Darwin, let alone Jakarta. Familiarity may breed contempt (recent outpourings of anti-Americanism are a case in point) but familiarity can also lead to greater awareness, comfort with difference and a sense of who we are.

My university colleagues sometimes remark that the basic knowledge students have of how the American legal and political system works is often drawn from Law and Order or West Wing rather than from their own high-school education. It certainly is hard to compete with American TV.

One of my students recently commented that lecturers in my department needed to be more like American professors. I told them that with make-up on and viewed on TV, I sound a lot more impressive. I am not sure they were convinced; maybe I need to work on my New England accent.

The relative size of the American cultural industry makes it an increasing part of Australian language and the way we describe ourselves - for instance, an Australian is just as likely as an American to say: "Lleyton Hewitt is like such a Rocky wannabe." Faced with this situation, is resisting American cultural colonisation futile - the cultural equivalent of being a Luddite?

I favour a dialogue between cultures, recognising that our culture is fluid and open to outside influences. But dialogue is difficult when you're the smaller and poorer cousin. Because of our size we have to keep asserting our differences and supporting local talent, ideas and products. To have a vibrant Australian culture, particularly in the entertainment and arts industries, we also need to subsidise local performances and artists, and maintain Australian content regulations. The lure of freer trade with the US is certainly no reason to back down on these cultural values.

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I worry about the conformity and blandness that comes with much American popular culture. I would add to this concern an unease with the power of American advertising and marketing. Because of this, parents feel pressured into buying their children expensive label clothes, teenage girls starve themselves to look like Video Hits dancers, and every second individual seems to think that "Whatever!" is a witty way of telling someone you don't want to listen to their point of view. These superficialities aren't solely the fault of American culture but it does deserve a fair amount of the blame. For me they reflect a worrying conformity in our culture.

My gripes aren't meant to imply a total rejection of American popular culture or a retreat to some mythical Aussie alternative; like most Australians there are aspects of American culture I loathe and aspects I love. My point is that while American products are highly entertaining and accessible for many people, these products often have unrivalled distribution and marketing advantages in our society. That said, and given that the commercial power of the American cultural industry is likely to continue well into the future, a sense of local pride and government support of Australian talent is undoubtedly needed to maintain our own distinct, and evolving, culture.

Brendon O'Connor is organising a Fulbright symposium on anti-Americanism and Americanisation at Griffith University July 14-15. Click here for more.

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This article was first published in The Courier Mail on 21 June 2003.



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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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