By Olson, Scott R.
The World and I , Vol. 16, No. 2
Scott R. Olson is dean of the College of Communication, Information, and Media at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
There was a time not long ago when Hollywood was the apotheosis of indigenous, authentic culture, and that view is still held by cultural elites in many countries. In one round of GATT talks, France famously tried to limit the amount of American media programming allowed within its borders. Most fear of American media is based on the premise that American values are being exported within the media, like soldiers in a Trojan Horse, but recent studies have found indigenous cultures to be quite resilient in their interpretations of Western media. The era of throwing up barricades in resistance to imported media has for all practical purposes passed, replaced by an interest in the hybridity or interstitiality of contemporary cultures. Hollywood is now too ephemeral and omnipresent a foe for a barricade to keep it out.
The reason for the holes in this wall are simple. Hollywood has become an aesthetic and is no longer just a place in California. That aesthetic has been increasingly adopted by other media production centers in other countries around the world. Contrary to what is commonly reported, the Hollywood aesthetic is not particularly an American aesthetic, at least not anymore. It is a global aesthetic, and that sums up its transnational appeal.
California is joined by Brazil, Hong Kong, and other production centers in the scramble for global audiences, and they are all in a way "Hollywood." It means adopting a certain way of engaging audiences with media texts, a way that allows vastly different kinds of audiences to make sense of the same media texts.
Hollywood has so transcended geography that its name has been appropriated and is now used to describe media capabilities in countries outside the United States. For example, the film production center in India is now commonly called Bollywood, and in Hong Kong it is called Dongfang Haolaiwu, or "Hollywood of the East."
THE GOLDEN MEAN OF IMAGES
Understanding how this Hollywood aesthetic evolved can best be illustrated by a metaphor. In 1990, an interesting research project took place at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Arkansas. Judith Langlois and Lori Roggman took photographs of thirty- two different faces representing a mix of ethnicities, then used computer imaging technology to "morph" (that is, blend the features of each into a new coherent whole) these images into a single face, resulting in a new, synthetic image and the thirty-two real, original faces. These thirty-three images were then shown to audiences, which were asked for their assessment of the images' attractiveness: Which face do you rate the most beautiful?
Interestingly, the raters were most attracted to the composite face, which to them seemed warmer, softer, prettier, and more familiar. Part of its beauty must have been in the fact that the raters could see themselves in her. Langlois and Roggman concluded that averageness1-- features normed across an entire population, or even the human race-- must in part form the basis for attractiveness.
A later study found that a certain amount of cultural distinctiveness combined with the averageness led to optimal attractiveness, but the scientific consensus remains that averageness is the basis of attraction. One need not be a behavioral scientist to see the metaphoric significance of these findings. For those interested in culture, the message is fairly clear: Appealing images have a prevailing norm underneath the surface, the coming together of diverse idiosyncrasies to form an attractive and familiar whole. This metaphor says something about what is attractive in movies and television programs that cross national boundaries and succeed in the international marketplace. To be intelligible, they have underneath them a normative mode of communicating. …