American Popular Culture and Emerging Nationalism in New Zealand

By Lealand, Geoff | National Forum, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

American Popular Culture and Emerging Nationalism in New Zealand


Lealand, Geoff, National Forum


In an increasingly homogenous world, little seems to remain unique to a country except climate, topography, and remnants of museum culture. The television programs and films we watch, the things we buy, the food we eat, and the beverages we drink, even the sports we enjoy, are commonplace and universal. Wherever we step off a plane, there is always McDonald's, Pepsi, and Roseanne. The lingua franca of the late twentieth century is American; our public and private narratives are American; and our obsessions are American. Or so it seems.

Many celebrate the expansion of things American across the globe; MTV, Macintosh, and McDonald's are the full realization of the triumph of advanced capitalism satisfying international demand. Popular culture, after all, must be popular; if you are not popular, you are irrelevant. But in many countries, the heady presence of American popular culture is also a matter of concern, a source of agitation and agonizing for cultural policy makers and the intelligentsia. The talk is still of cultural imperialism, disappearance of the "local" or the "authentic" under a tide of "imported culture." Solutions lie in strategies of protectionism (quotas or exclusion zones), most recently manifested in the French response to the GATT Agreement.

Globalization, Americanization, and Envy

In this scenario, "globalization" (the convergence of cultures and the spread of monopolistic multinationals) is synonymous with "Americanization" (the domination of consumption and demand by American cultural products). But this scenario assumes universal adoption and universal domination, ignoring the fact that ownership and distribution are now often without a clear geography; a product may signify "American," but it could be made in Korea, distributed from Taiwan, with profits returning to Germany.

The Nation-against-the-Other stance of contemporary anti-cultural imperialists raises a large question: in whose name are national and local cultures being defended against globalization or Americanization? National cultures are neither uniform nor necessarily coherent; they are structured and segmented along class, generational, and gender lines. Levels of domination exist within national cultures: those who have a self-interest in proscribing cultural identity, and those who struggle against such definitions. The historical appeal of exported American popular culture has been to the latter population. In Britain, for example, the success of American films in the 1930s and 1940s, and the arrival of commercial television in the 1950s (modelled on American commercial television) provided attractive alternatives to the class-based and elitist culture that excluded British working-class youth.

American film, television, and popular music continue this historical role of representing materially better, freer, and more exciting worlds. They provide escapes both from something and to something; thus, complaints that American television drama is not "realistic" may be missing the point. The complaint may demonstrate a greater dissatisfaction with the "real world" than with the shortcomings of fictional worlds; life does not stack up well against television drama. Envy may be the key.

Envy, in its various shades of meaning, may be behind the current manifestations of American popular culture in New Zealand. This small nation of nearly three-and-half-million people--a mixture of descendants of British immigrants, the indigenous Maori, and a large migrant Polynesian population--are certainly voracious consumers of American popular culture. In 1993, for instance, the seventy locally-owned McDonald's franchises sold more than 25 million meals, more than seven for every New Zealander in one year.

On the streets, the favored garb for New Zealand youth in 1994 is American sportswear: caps, jackets, jeans and basketball boots bearing the logos of the LA Raiders, Chicago Bulls, or Orlando Magic. …

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