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Imaging ‘America’: the View from Eastern Europe

America has dominated the world of images and information through its vast media-industrial complex – movies, TV, music, the Internet. (Gardels 110) There is hardly any corner of the world where people have not been subject to American media influence. Given all these influences, how do foreigners perceive the U.S.? How does this mediated perception match the reality on the ground? And why does it matter? In this essay, I use the context of the recent U.S. presidential elections to explore attitudes towards the U.S. of my compatriots from Eastern Europe in order to demonstrate how and why their views on America changed after they actually visited the country.1 My purpose is to identify a few trends in how ‘America’ is constituted in the subjectivity of people in a newly-emerging part of the world.

It has long been known that the mass media (primarily Hollywood films and television shows) have been a key means of spreading Western ideas around the world. Now, when the access to the media is more free and easier, it might be argued that the familiarity with America is becoming greater. For example, during 2008 presidential campaign in the US, Barack Obama gathered donations for the campaign through his web-site (https://donate.barackobama.com/page/contribute/dnc08splashnd). This idea was followed by the politicians of other countries, for example, by Benjamin Netanyahu from Israel. He even made very similar design to Obama’s website (http://www.netanyahu.org.il/?section=StopIran:English). However, in other respects, this turns out not to be the case, as we find below.

 Michael Eisner of Disney said in 1995 that “the Berlin Wall was destroyed not by force of arms, but by force of Western ideas.” Discounting the bluster of a movie moghul, one might still say that he is right to some extent. According to Nathan Gardels, the editor of NPQ and Global Services at Tribune Media Services International, American entertainment plays the most important role in spreading ideologies of consumerism and political life for those to whom these shows become metonyms for America. For example, the American film, 12 Angry Men,  by Sidney Lumet focuses on a jury's deliberations in a capital murder case. A dissenting juror slowly manages to convince the others that the case is not as obviously clear as it seemed in court. This movie, based on the idea of justice and a fair court, was copied by Russian film director, Nikita Mikhalkov. He took the plot and slightly changed it according to Russian realities, but the main idea remained. 

So, what are these American idea(l)s? To give fresh coloring to this imaginative landscape, I decided to conduct an informal survey of students from Ukraine, Russia, and Bulgaria to gather their views of America prior to, and after, their visit to this country.

Before I describe my findings, however, it is useful to provide an overview of the media scene in Eastern Europe and the role played by American entertainment and news programs in local media consumption. Before the 1990s, due to the political confrontation of the Cold War, the influence of American media on the above- mentioned countries was very low. American media was narrowed to movies; moreover, not all the movies could be shown at that time. American movies and tv shows which were on screens in Eastern Europe were mainly comedies with no political coloring. However, in 1942 the Office of War Information had created the radio broadcasting service Voice of America. In 1947, Voice of America started broadcasting in Russian with the intent to counter more harmful instances of Soviet propaganda directed against American leaders and policies (Whitton 151). The Soviet Union responded by initiating aggressive, electronic jamming of Voice of America broadcasts. But people continued listening to this radio. The information released over the radio along with the undisguised ban of the radio from the government increased people’s belief in certain ideas shown in American media.

The first and foremost idea shown and propagated through American media is the idea of liberty – the liberty of a country as well as personal liberty. According to Nathan Gardels, this “liberty worship” was mainly created as a factor to bring down repressive regimes and such media programming may be said to have achieved the pre-conditioning for such goals. Through propagating the idea of liberty, America is seen as a really democratic and free country. Films and television programs always showed America as a free land, where liberty and democracy flourish. Liberty and individual freedom are a theme in many movies and TV shows, books and records. For example, the movie Forrest Gump by Robert Zemeckis propagates an American lifestyle, as well as the idea that everybody is equal and anyone can reach success.

Interviewing young people from Europe gave results that the majority of them, being exposed to movies and other entertaining American media had certain imaginings  about the US which turned out not to be so in reality. Talking about politics, their imagination of the U.S. was not far from reality, though it was rather idealized: “The U.S. is a country where state power belongs to the people and in which the core values include but are not limited to the freedom of speech and press”; “USA is the world’s most powerful and influential democratic state,” though some Europeans admitted that “the American democracy is considered to be in great danger, especially after George Bush’s two-term presidency, that is why the 2008 elections are very important.” After living in the U.S., most of the interviewees admitted that American society is not as ideal as it seemed: though it is democratic, there are some “internal” issues which interfere with the image of a really liberal country. According to Michael C. Desch, the September 11 attacks and the war on terrorism have made the United States less liberal. “Illiberal policies in the United States [include] the pursuit of global hegemony, launching of a preventive war, imposition of restrictions upon civil liberties in the name of national security, and support for torture under certain circumstances” (Desch 8).

Socially and culturally, Europeans imagined the U.S. as a country where “people are really fond of burgers and cola”; “ a country of workers and money, where everybody cares only about himself/herself”; “a country of parties”; “a country where those who are underage ask to buy alcohol for them”; “a country of “war” between African-Americans and whites,” etc. All these stereotypes were created by the U.S. itself through the media. Among all the interviewees only one said that it was always her dream to travel to the U.S. and live there for some time, hence she read a lot about it and its people and her idea of the country was very close to what she got to see later. That means that if people are not really interested in the issue and do not do research for themselves, they believe all the images created by the media and take the implied messages for granted. 

The second important idea propagated through American media is the notion of the American Dream. Much has been said about this, but mostly for what it means for the citizens of this country rather than for outsiders. I found that non-Americans are no less vulnerable to the seductions of the American dream. According to interviews with some young people from Eastern Europe, their perception of the American Dream changed after they traveled to the US. Because of the media to which they were exposed, Europeans imagined the American Dream as comprised of consumerism and affluence: “lawn, house, family, a few cars, picnics, baseball, burgers, smoothie,” “fulfilling of all the dreams,” “money,” and “immigrants who left their countries seeking a better life in the U.S.” After interviewees traveled to the U.S., lived here for some time and experienced life here for themselves, their perceptions changed:  they felt that “the American Dream is pride and family values,” “it is harmony attained by a person,” “it is the feeling of being American,” “it is based on freedom of thought and belief leading to success and recognition.” The change in their opinions is based on the fact that those who traveled to the U.S. saw a very different picture from that of their own countries. The majority of the people they encountered belonged to the educated middle class which tends to be prosperous. This is not the case in most of the Eastern European countries. Besides, here Eastern Europeans were exposed to a huge number of television channels which give a lot of diverse information. This is impossible in their home countries, as they do not have so many TV channels.

Speaking of the 2008 presidential campaign, the interviewees were able to access a huge amount of information about political candidates and their political, social and personal lives. At the same time such information could not be possible in such countries as Russia, for example. Moreover, in comparison with Russian and Ukrainian election campaigns, American candidates have official debates, which were widely covered in press and in all the media. According to Justin Lewis, “news media have a lot of power, because they choose what questions to ask and what questions not to ask,”  thus playing an agenda-setting role. “Public concern about issues tends to follow media coverage of those issues, rather than any changes in the real world” (Lewis).

During 2008 election campaign, there was a huge political impact through Facebook, which European youth also felt. According to Reader’s Digest, a popular magazine outside its country of origin, “poll shows that nearly half of young people have attempted to influence the vote of a friend or peer in this election, often by using Facebook, and that one-fourth of Millennials have lobbied one or more of their parents on politics” (Cannon). Thus, in the context of recent US presidential elections we see the significant role of the media in shaping people’s opinions.

Studying the views of Eastern Europeans about America we can conclude that they are mainly shaped by the media people were exposed to. In the U.S. they saw great cultural and social differences from the views they had prior to their arrival. As in all enduring mythologies, the distance between ‘America’ and America remains a real one.



1This is an informal survey of only a handful of respondents and therefore not statistically significant. I hope to expand this sample and consider in more detail how cross-cultural perception is shaped by American media abroad.


Works Cited

Desch, Michael C. "America's Liberal Illiberalism: The Ideological Origins of Overreaction in U.S. Foreign Policy." International Security 32:3 (Winter 2007/08): 7-43.

Gardels, Nathan. “Hollywood in the World.” Aspenia Italia. Fall 2004.

Lewis, Justin. “Constructing Public Opinion: How Politicians and the Media Misrepresent the Public.” 2001. Media Education Foundation.

Nestler, John E. “The American Dream”. The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty. 23.10 (1973) < http://www.fee.org/publications/the-freeman/article.asp?aid=6391 >

Whitton, John B. “Cold War Propaganda.” The American Journal of International Law, 45.1 (1951), pp. 151–153.

Category: My articles | Added by: admin (2008-12-24) | Author: Shushanik
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