I’m leaving the office shortly to give a talk about the successes and failures of American popular culture to a group of Chinese officials at the Wilson Center. That is a tall order for a 15-minute speech, though I imagine the question-and-answer session will be lively. But in attempting to pare down my speech to a few essential points, I found myself mulling over a question I had not considered in quite this way before. As American pop culture gets more niche-oriented at home, representing more kinds of people and telling a wider range of stories, how well does the portrait of our country that appears in the culture we consume match the American idea we are exporting overseas through our movies, television and books?
I am curious about this in part because the movie industry pitches itself as a tremendous exporter of American values. As Motion Picture Association of America chief executive Chris Dodd put it in an opinion piece he published this year, “The movies and television shows we create … often serve as de facto U.S. ambassadors to the world. For many people, their first exposure to our nation has come through watching a film or television show. With themes of free expression and America as a land of opportunity, these films and TV shows have played at least a small role in the decision of many to seek our shores.”
But if we look at the top-grossing movies worldwide in the past five years, it is clear that a lot of our pop culture, including those stories that are successful overseas, are not particularly about America at all.
In 2010, for example, only three of the 10 highest-grossing movies around the world were even clearly set in America. “Toy Story 3,” which came in at the top of the list, is absolutely a movie about American ideas, with Woody the cowboy doll and astronaut Buzz Lightyear representing first a competition and then a reconciliation between the ideals of America’s distant and slightly less-distant past. “Iron Man 2” is certainly a story about the idea that a driven, self-made man can turn himself into anything, even a superhero. “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” does take place in Washington state, but it is essentially a European fairy tale. Beyond that, the other movies that hit big were either set abroad or in fictionalized settings.
2011 did a little better: Apparently, international audiences like seeing Americans fight giant robots (“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”), spy on other people (“Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol”), steal cars (“Fast Five”), drive cars (“Cars 2”) and get drunk (“The Hangover Part II”). 2012 was a big year for American superheroes, at least — the Avengers, Batman and Spider-Man all cracked the top 10 list, while Bella Swan continued to be a big draw with “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2” — and that trend would continue into the next year, even as Princess Elsa ruled the box office in “Frozen.” And so far in 2014, the theme is the wreckage of America, whether by more giant robots, a divided corps of X-Men, the Winter Soldier and the super-intelligent apes of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”
The one real testament to American inventiveness to capture international audiences’ imagination on a grand scale in the past five years is “Interstellar,” Christopher Nolan’s story of a desperate attempt to find a new home for human life. And interestingly enough, “Interstellar” seems to be more appealing to viewers around the world than to Americans themselves, and by a wide margin.
I want to be clear that in most cases, movie audiences at home and abroad are turning out in big numbers for the same things. Comparatively few Americans are watching movies such as “Obvious Child” and “Margin Call” or television shows such as “Transparent,” “Looking” or even a bigger success like “Scandal,” all of which represent a broadening of the American conversation.
But as international audiences become more important to movie studios and television companies alike, it certainly seems like we might be setting ourselves up not just for changes in the stories these entities want to sell at home, but in a split between the stories we tell ourselves at home and the ones we tell the world. It will be fascinating for us to try to reconcile this fractured self-image.