Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 9
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Cultural identity cannot be marketed

Here’s a true, albeit deeply embarrassing, story: I had to Google “England vs. Britain” to find out what the difference between the two was. I’d previously thought they were the same thing, as I’ve been using the words “English” and “British” interchangeably.

So, as Angela R. of Yahoo! Answers kindly clarified, Great Britain refers to the island of Great Britain which includes Wales, England and Scotland. The United Kingdom is composed of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (For the record, it was another American who posted the question.)

As embarrassing as it is that I know so little about England and the UK, it’s not entirely surprising. Sadly, it seems that globalization hasn’t so much led to an overall increase in cultural awareness as it has to an increase in other countries’ awareness of American culture.

What was most striking to me upon arriving in London was just how many proliferations of American culture exist at every turn. The tube is plastered with billboard-sized advertisements for American TV shows (“Boardwalk Empire”, “Mad Men”, “Twin Peaks”) and movies (“The Dilemma”, “Black Swan”, “Blue Valentine”). Looking at the TV listings in the Evening Standard, there are almost more American shows than British ones–even shows such as “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy”, which heavily reference American pop culture.

It’s not just American entertainment that’s crossed the Atlantic; McDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC are everywhere. I’ve probably seen more Pizza Huts in London than I’ve ever seen in the United States. Music from the states plays in stores and coffee shops. Marquees in the West End advertise tickets to “Jersey Boys”, “Wicked” and “Legally Blonde.”

In my Circuit of Culture class at City University, we’re working on group projects which focus on the representation of certain brands and products. My group was discussing the appeal of Starbucks: what makes Starbucks more successful or appealing than, for example, Costa Coffee (a competing chain)? One of my group members said, “It’s American.”   Puzzled, I asked why that would make the brand more appealing in England. She explained that it wasn’t that American brands were more appealing because of their American-ness, but that they were more visible, due to the amount of American media that the British consume. “I mean,” she said, “More people watch ‘Desperate Housewives’ than ‘EastEnders’.”

Maybe none of this is surprising to other people, but I was expecting London to be more, well, English. I’d often heard London described as a cosmopolitan city, but I hadn’t realized how much “cosmopolitan” meant “American.”

Granted, America has its share of English imports as well–most notably comedians and actors (Monty Python, Ricky Gervais, Colin Firth), but also brands and shops (Burberry, The Body Shop, Pret A Manger).  Still, these things give us a limited and muddled impression of Englishness. The English are witty and possibly fashionable. They say “trousers” and drive on the wrong side of the street. They might drink tea and worship the Queen.   In American cinema they’re often portrayed as uptight villains (in contrast with the wild, freedom-loving American). Based on these assumptions alone not only do we fail to get a distinct picture of Englishness, but based on a heavily commercialized central London, it seems like Englishness isn’t actually very different from Americanness.

But beneath the superficial similarities there are deeply significant cultural differences stemming from the differences between our institutions. From their government to education to the arts, English institutions operate in ways that are often overlooked by, and definitely foreign to, Americans. As a result, these institutions produce conditions which may not be apparent to the American tourist, but which ultimately shape English culture and make Englishness what it is.

What does it mean that the drinking age in England is 18?  That despite being a secular and relatively more socialist society, England still has a royal family? That the English don’t have a constitution?  That the English government, through Arts Council funding, basically pays artistic endeavors to fail? Or, what are the implications of even the simple fact that England has been around for approximately 800 years longer than the U.S. has?

Although Americans may be aware of these English particularities, the ways in which they manifest are subtler than that which can be immediately perceived.  So while the English are not tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking villains, neither are they Americans with bad teeth and funny accents. What they are, or what Englishness is, is  harder to define. Perhaps, and just possibly, as hard to define as “Americanness” is.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All Whitman Wire Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *