Public opinion surveys around the world consistently show that many people overseas find Americans overbearing, aggressive and domineering. Often this is ascribed to American foreign policy that is said to have offended so many. As it turns out, the problem may not be in Washington at all.
Instead, think Hollywood.
Hollywood, if nothing else, is prolific, churning out films and television programs that often appear on screens large and small around the world. These shows frequently present the only perspective that international viewers get of what Americans are like.
A new study demonstrates that, thanks to Tony Soprano, "Sex and the City" and young pop divas, Hollywood has given us our unflattering image.
As reported in "The Next Generation's Image of Americans," Boston University communication professors Melvin and Margaret DeFleur surveyed 1,259 teenagers from 12 countries about their attitudes toward Americans. What they found is astounding.
Few of those surveyed had any direct contact with Americans; only 12% had visited the U.S. But they did have access to American television programs, movies and pop music, and based on that exposure, most of these teens considered Americans to be violent, prone to criminal activity and sexually immoral.
The study found that the more access countries had to American programs, the higher their negative attitudes toward Americans tended to be.
Our popular culture, far from endearing people to us, is actually severely hurting our standing.
For example, a much higher percentage of Mexican and South Korean teenagers agreed with the statement "Americans are very materialistic" than did teens from Nigeria, China and Pakistan.
When the statement was made that "many American women are sexually immoral," teens in Taiwan, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and South Korea agreed much more frequently than teens in China and Pakistan.
"These results suggest that pop culture, rather than foreign policy, is the true culprit of anti-Americanism," Melvin DeFleur says.
Why should we worry about what foreign teenagers think about us? Aside from the fact that these young people will soon be adults and influence politics in their countries, the DeFleurs point out that teens "are the ones who are trained and equipped to conduct terrorist acts."
Yet we shouldn't expect much self- reflection or change from Hollywood. The major studios and record companies make big money selling their products to the world. And, of course, they exercise their 1st Amendment right to produce what they want. But to paraphrase the old saying, entertainment has consequences. Hollywood should at least be asked by our public leaders to accept responsibility for the damage it is doing.
What the Bush administration can do is reexamine American public diplomacy efforts overseas. The recent launching of Radio Sawa, which will bring Britney Spears to the Middle East, is not likely to enhance our reputation in the region -- quite the contrary.
Instead of a quick fix, we need to rethink our public diplomacy campaign entirely. We need public diplomacy programs that put the world in touch with real Americans, not celluloid Americans. Only then will our largely undeserved image in the world change.