A cultural critic in numerous publications and a faculty member of the Arts and Sciences Honors Program, Martha Bayles recently published her fourth book, Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad.
In her book, Bayles expands her arguments about the decadent image of American pop culture and the lack of a general sense of constructive criticism against it.
“It’s about the way American popular culture is shaping the perceptions of people around the world and of life in the United States,” Bayles said. “[American popular culture] seems to have become the main influence in how people see America, and it’s good in some ways, but in other ways it’s not so good.”
After travelling to 11 different countries and interviewing many experts in various fields, Bayles compiled what she learned from the process into a 340-page book in which she applied her critical lens to certain misleading images created by popular culture.
“Our pop culture flooded into the rest of the world at a time when the U.S. government was no longer really trying to communicate what’s good about the country,” she said. “That takes you to looking at pop culture, and what does it say about America.”
Although she began her writing career as a great admirer and defender of popular culture against cynical critics who would dismiss it as a mere commercial product, she started to develop her doubt about America’s reputation in the world following Sept. 11.
“I would defend what I thought was good stuff and that was my main purpose in writing about pop culture, to sort of defend it, particularly music,” she said. “That was my starting point but then came 9/11, and it turned out that a lot of the world really doesn’t love America or naturally gravitate toward America.”
While she expressed her grief over the overly optimistic and naive outlook on the cultural character of America in the world, she recognized certain aspects of it as worthwhile to be widely spread in the global popular culture market.
“I call that the American ethos, and I would describe that as a kind of hope for peoples’ ability to flourish and thrive under conditions of political liberty in a free society with democratic institutions, but combined with a kind of caution and prudence about human nature and the limits of how wonderful you can expect people to be,” she said.
Using The Wolf of Wall Street as an example, she pointed out that American popular culture has become a distorted image of Americans, which exaggerates the faults in U.S. society and creates it simply as a source of entertainment and laughter.
The problem, she states, is that many parts of the world may take a mere “funhouse mirror image” as the reality facing America and misunderstand the playful portrayal of social phenomena in America.
“I would like to see some awareness on the part of the entertainment industry of some of the messages they’re sending out there, and I would like to see more criticism of it,” she said. “I think we need to offset those images with something that … gives them an accurate picture.”
Bayles also argued that mending the U.S. image abroad could not be more appropriate in the current state of the world when savvy, authoritarian regimes still suffocate citizens with little or no political rights and nominal cultural freedom.
“I think the one thing that America should stand for in the current world is notions of people having political freedoms and rights there that the government cannot tap on,” Bayles said. “And that’s just not true in a lot of countries. We talk about it, but then we project all these images that say
‘Well, you know, America’s really not that different from all these other countries,’ so it is extremely pertinent to today’s world. That’s why I wrote it.”