Why is europe portrayed so badly on US TV?
October 10, 2007 5:01 AM   Subscribe

Why is europe portrayed so badly on US TV?

Watching Heroes last night, I noted that yet again, the UK (specifically Ireland in this case) is portrayed as it was in somewhere around the late 1800's. Dark, rainy, accents that no longer really exist, dingy pubs, everyones a 'ruffian', everythings grimy and dirty.

'Alias' was always amusing for its portrayal of foreign locations - and they did a dingy "Oirish" pub. Lost is better, although the UK ones have been inaccurate but always stereotypical. The list goes on.

Sure some of that kind-of exists, and of course it still gets dark and it rains a fair amount, but I'm saddened again that a program with the high calibre of heroes resorts to ancient old sterotypes. I'm fairly sure that other countries are portrayed just as badly, although 17th century Japan looks kind of cool.

I understand that even wildly successful TV programmes have budget and location restraints, but that ep is just another ..sigh...

I'm reminded of how on the 20 or so visits I've made to the US, and in the 30 odd states I've been to, I've had the same conversation - usually along the lines of "So you like the soccer there eh? You like the manchester team? Oh you go to the matches? Isnt that dangerous? I mean with all the fighting and all?"... wtf? When questioned, each American almost universally believes that Soccer=Violence and all mainstream news items are usually about fighting.

So is it just dumbass producers? Ignorant networks? Fat yanks? Is it part of the usual American media 'conspiracy' to ensure that everywhere outside the US is portrayed somewhere along the lines of "theyre be beasties 'ere". What do real people think? I am particularly interested in how US'ians who have never been there think of Europe in terms of its aesthetics.

Diclaimer, I'm in the UK, yes I've seen the most recent US broadcasts of Heroes. How? Ssssh. Secret. And I love the US. Well the people anyway and the TV. And the breakfasts.
posted by daveyt to Media & Arts (41 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Because stereotypes make for easily understood shorthand in order to move the main plot along, especially for a mainly US-based viewership, the majority of whom have never (and will never) step foot outside their own country?
posted by Thorzdad at 5:08 AM on October 10, 2007

Since the average American has never been to Europe, you gotta sex it up a little, accentuate the differences. Otherwise, we just won't get it. "Where are they? Is that Boston?" If a show were to have a scene shot in Barcelona, and it looks 95% like San Francisco.. well, why the hell bother?

I agree that American television tends toward a highly distorted view of the outside world as dingy and backward. However, TV never gets anything right when they go on location. I'm from DC, and as you may know if you've visited, not every spot in the city has the Capitol building visible in the background. I think that's similar to how a European city is portrayed. Come up with a handy shorthand image for the location, and don't stray too far from that.
posted by bluejayk at 5:17 AM on October 10, 2007

I think it all goes back to the Revolutionary War (like Eddie Izzard said :) ); Brits were the bad guys then, and they have been in media ever since over here.
posted by tigerjade at 5:18 AM on October 10, 2007

Maybe watch better TV? I've never noticed this. If anything I always thought Americans had a bit of a cultural (as opposed to political) love affair with Europe (shh! Don't tell anyone!). Watch some commercials with all the talk about "German engineering", "European design" (oddly, this applies even to mattresses), and cosmetic creams with French names. Even ice cream isn't immune (e.g. the exoticized New Jersey-made Haagen Dazs). Paris is always portrayed as glamorous and Italy as exquisitely exotic. Etc. Maybe what you're seeing is just a caricature of UK weather.

Also, the shows you're talking about seem to be more preoccupied with the "underworld" - maybe that leads to emphasizing the darker aspects? As for soccer matches, I think a few highly publicized incidents could color our perceptions. But that just reflects the tendency of American news to sensationalize everything.
posted by walla at 5:23 AM on October 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

This isn't just USian TV that portrays the UK badly. UK films designed for export to the US market also depend on these stereotypes. I'm thinking particularly of Richard Curtis movies.
posted by roofus at 5:23 AM on October 10, 2007

Thorzad said it better than I could.

It's unfortunate stereotyping, but I think it goes both ways. Some Europeans I know seem to believe that the United States is the Wild Wild West. That we're constantly shooting people up and we're terrified to leave our homes.

When you think of the state of Florida or California, what do you think of first? Sunny skies and warm weather or hanging chads and hurricanes and earthquakes?

I don't think it's a "conspiracy" at all. Obviously we Americans think Europe is beautiful since we travel there in hordes. I've only been to England and I thought it was the most modern, hip, beautiful, place I've ever visited. I didn't encounter any of the stereotypical rain or gray days or rotten food(OK, rotten food once, but that can happen anywhere). We Americans know the UK and other European countries are modern and advanced. We know that you aren't over there tending sheep and playing yer bagpipes.
posted by LoriFLA at 5:26 AM on October 10, 2007

Lost did a woeful job of portraying Australia, especially with geography and even with really simple things (apparently the Opera House is visible from every single place in Sydney, and 100 km from Melbourne is The Outback). But having said that, I've known Australian and British TV to give very stereotypical views of the US as well. I think it's just a thing that TV drama does - we can't explain or represent the rich diversity of another culture in twenty seconds or less, so here, have a stereotype!
posted by andraste at 5:27 AM on October 10, 2007

FWIW only Northern Ireland is part of the UK.
posted by methylsalicylate at 5:33 AM on October 10, 2007

Great answers all around. /me hugs askmefi.

Additionally, don't expect anything close to reality in "Heroes". If varying base-pairs in a strand of DNA can cause the organism to violate the laws of physics, then another country can look worse than it really is.
posted by cmiller at 5:37 AM on October 10, 2007

I think this question almost touches on how trusting we are of TV. We expect what we see to be true... because... well... it was on the TELLY! So when we see something that we personally know to be untrue we wonder whats up...

TV is about entertainment, that being said...

if it makes you feel any better, the US is often depicted as "over indulgent, excessive, unintelligent and rude" when shown from Europe’s & other countries perspective.

Its all about playing up stereotypes and persepctives to create a "drama" and keep the money rolling in.
posted by crewshell at 5:38 AM on October 10, 2007

I'll admit that my perception of Britain, especially London, is straight from the reason seasons of Doctor Who.

If you look at American tv, though, we do it to ourselves. People from the South are Rednecks, Midwesterners are naive, etc.

I didn't really take the scenes at the pub at face value- they have Peter prisoner, and there are never any customers.

I don't really think that all blonds are stupid, or that all American Italians are in the Mafia, or that Southerners are rednecks.

But these stereotypes can be useful. The people I knew when I lived in California had never hunted, but maybe fished. The people I knew in the Midwest and the South have almost all hunted and fished. This gives me a handy shorthand to use as conversation starters. Just like tv show directors and producers use this handy short hand to quickly get across something visually.
posted by Monday at 5:39 AM on October 10, 2007

Maybe the producers are thinking about Sherlock Holmes' dingy underworld, or maybe Shakespeare and the bawdy jokes? People don't inject reality into dramas randomly, so when they decide to involve England in a drama of some kind, it'll be to achieve some kind of dramatic effect, to signal some kind of mood. I'm sure Asians don't recognize Asia in its protrayel in American or European dramas, where it functions as a place of quiet timelessness and philosophy or something equally abstract.

As far as what people "think of Europe in terms of its aesthetics" ... if you mention "aesthetics" then Americans probably think of a different Europe than narrow alleys and Sherlock Holmes' Baker Street boys, they probably think of the Mona Lisa and cathedrals.
posted by creasy boy at 5:40 AM on October 10, 2007

I agree with walla's point that it is related to the type of show. For example, when Ugly Betty went to Mexico, the stereotypes emphasized comedy/soap-opera dynamics and family. It was similar when Everybody Loves Raymond went to Italy, except that the country came off as a wonderful, sunny, romantic place with crazy family (just like at home) that I would love to visit. And when Friends went to the Caribbean and to London, it was the same old stuff except in a hotel.
posted by Robert Angelo at 5:43 AM on October 10, 2007

To be fair, it's not just US programmes that portray other parts of Europe in a negatively stereotypical way. Eastenders, a UK soap, got heavily criticised a few years back when it shot some episodes in Ireland, and basically portrayed the locals as alcohol soaked sod turning peasants.
posted by jontyjago at 5:47 AM on October 10, 2007

The thing about the Capital Building and the Opera house always being visible is repeated in San Francisco and Paris where the Golden Gate Bridge and the Eiffel Tower respectively are always in the background.
posted by octothorpe at 5:47 AM on October 10, 2007

To a US based show a foreign trip is almost always some type of MacGuffin - a device to help move the plot along but which we will not end up caring about too much in the long run (after the action has come home again). As a film maker you do not want to spend the bulk of your budget on a MacGuffin and it therefore must be tempting to block in the outline using clichés, Your dialogue set in London can either take place in a typical office or one which happens to look out over Big Ben and the Millennium Wheel. By using the latter you save the need to do other establishing shots and dialogue to tell people where they are.
posted by rongorongo at 6:08 AM on October 10, 2007

Another way to put all of this:

Why is [nationality A] always portrayed so badly on [nationality B]'s [media]?

...you only noticed this particular instance because it meshes with your life.

And there's a reason: things take time to explain, and usually there isn't enough time or money. So people take the quick way out, which is stereotype and overgeneralization.

We all do it -- after all, you did it when you posed this question.
posted by aramaic at 6:12 AM on October 10, 2007

Television does a bad job of portraying pretty much anything. When Northern Exposure was on, a friend of mine who lived in Alaska (where that show was supposedly set for those of you unfamiliar with 90's TV) said that a radio station in Anchorage would spend the morning after a new episode was broadcast picking apart the inaccuracies in the way Alaska was portrayed. I myself avoid watching medical shows because I just end up yelling at the screen about how ridiculous things are.
posted by TedW at 6:23 AM on October 10, 2007

Thorzdad is right, except that it's not Europe that's portrayed in this way in American media.

Everywhere is portrayed this way in American media -- take some stereotype and accentuate it for easier plot, so that viewers can get a quicker and easier understanding of less-important characters.

For that matter, I expect that everywhere is portrayed like this in everywhere's media.

One possible exception might be Torchwood, which half the time feels like one of those old long advertisements -- Thoroughly Modern Cardiff, Easy On Business, Great Cultural Opportunities, And Ample Parking!

I've had the same conversation - usually along the lines of "So you like the soccer there eh? You like the manchester team? Oh you go to the matches? Isnt that dangerous? I mean with all the fighting and all?"... wtf?

Congratulations. You've had the same experience that lots of Americans have had when foreigners ask "So what kinds of gun do you have?" or "Goodness, it seems dangerous on tv. How do you keep safe?" or "Oh, you live in Texas? Oil or cattle?"
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:24 AM on October 10, 2007

I didn't read the other comments but I just wanted to say:
other nations stereotype the U.S. greatly in their media as well. That's just how things work.
posted by zephyr_words at 6:25 AM on October 10, 2007

A lot of US TV and film, especially lower-budget items, are shot in places that really look nothing like the actual setting in the plot.

Many old Andy Griffith episodes, shot in California, look nothing like the North Carolina piedmont, especially if the characters have to go outside Mayberry. Episodes of the X-Files, shot in Vancouver, sometimes look laughably like British Columbia when they're supposed to be set in Iowa or D.C.
posted by gimonca at 6:27 AM on October 10, 2007

One possible exception might be Torchwood, which half the time feels like one of those old long advertisements -- Thoroughly Modern Cardiff, Easy On Business, Great Cultural Opportunities, And Ample Parking!

Heh. That is the first thing I thought of when I came into this thread.

It is all about communicating as much info as possible. Why do it all through dialog when a good percentage of the work can be done with visuals and by tapping into well-know archetypes/stereotypes? Heck they do it with characters, why not with settings?
posted by Rock Steady at 6:41 AM on October 10, 2007

I agree that a lot of it is shorthand. Heroes, for instance, introduced the Ireland plotline by showing a bunch of buys robbing a shipping container. That would have been any port-side town in the entire world.

So out come the Oirish 'oh-me-wee-leprechauns-and-handguns' accents to explain, as quickly as possible, that one of the heroes is in Ireland. It's not like they could drop it in following episodes -- it would be weird continuity-wise, and anyone who missed the first episode would be lost. So the heavy-handedness continues. I'm gritting my teeth about how the New Orleans plotline is going to turn out.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:11 AM on October 10, 2007

all fiction to degree is stereotypes. You're just noticing this example because you're familiar with it. The other bazillion stereotype don't bother you because you haven't figured them out.

Stuff like is why I find fiction next to worthless. If you're like me you may want to shift your media consumption towards nonfiction like documentaries.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:15 AM on October 10, 2007

Americans as a group are not that well traveled even within the US. Northerners hold plenty of stereotypes about Southerners, for example - I can well imagine the upthread "Cattle or oil?" question being asked of a Texan by a Rhode Islander, for example.

Having said that, I'm sure a lot of British and Irish views of Texas are still firmly defined by Dallas, so...

Unfortunately, television is not an adequate replacement for television, which in turn is not a cultural education mission. It's entertainment on a specific per-episode budget.

Which does not make it any less irritating when Americans ask how to go about adopting Irish babies, since we're obviously living in an impoverished 3rd world economy. And I keep waiting for the US Irish American drama series that depicts "the troubles" as being seated in Dublin or something.

As an expat American living formerly in the UK and now in Ireland, I get to be irritated by this on multiple fronts from both directions. Hurrah.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:24 AM on October 10, 2007

Pretty much any setting in time and/or place is stereotyped, including those within the US. Many (not all) of the settings entries at TV Tropes talk about these.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:24 AM on October 10, 2007

*television is not an adequate replacement for television should be television is not an adequate replacement for travel.

Note to self: no posting before coffee.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:26 AM on October 10, 2007

Also television is a limited medium. With 22 minute run times and scripts written for the largest lowest common denominator penetration, how would you portray "Robbery on the docks in Ireland." Do you think the writer had some deep vision about this and the director and production crew managed to screw up his grand vision? Come on. TV writers arent know for their fine art skills. TV writers know fans. Fans dont want realism or quality or originality, they want melodrama and lots of it.

Realistic TV would bore Heroes fans. In real life you dont encounter dramatic villains and conspiracies. In TV and movies its all melodrama so you better create some shoddy characters and pit them against the hero. It turns out that street crime is pretty good for this. This is why I suppose the American Mugger and the British Hooligan are popular stereotypes.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:30 AM on October 10, 2007

Each American almost universally believes that Soccer=Violence

As an American in Europe, I have to say that this doesn't strike me as being far off at all. Wouldn't you agree that European soccer matches are far rowdier than the average NFL game? Ultras and hooligans are distinctly European; I can't even imagine American sports fans lining up to form a fucking human swastika or making ape noises at black players during a match. (And doing it regularly.)

And of course there are organized fights between supporters -- the fact that European teams can't even play without riot police deploying in near full force speaks volumes about the sport. If anything, I think the average American doesn't know how barbaric European soccer truly is.

Otherwise I do know what you mean. These types of stereotypes are tedious and television does seem to constantly reinforce them.
posted by Ljubljana at 7:51 AM on October 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

The tribe on the other side of the island is ALWAYS a bunch of Cannibals.

Makes us think WE are better.

THEY think the same in reverse.
posted by Freedomboy at 8:18 AM on October 10, 2007

Last I checked, Coronation Street was the same way.

Every impression Americans (I dare say all non-Britons) have of Britain is due to whatever British pop culture flotsam makes its way across the Atlantic. This is not an American TV problem, it is a British PR problem. Blame the BBC.

(I take it Teletubbies is more true to life?)
posted by Reggie Digest at 9:47 AM on October 10, 2007

Yep, it's everywhere, not just Europe.

The stereotypes people have of Texas are ridiculous. . . You'd be amazed how many times I've been asked things like "where are all the horses?" in the middle of Austin, or Houston.
posted by Espoo2 at 12:26 PM on October 10, 2007

This happens to every place portrayed on TV, and people all over the world fall for it. I don't know how many people have been surprised that San Francisco is not like stereotypical California as seen on TV, Americans and non-Americans alike.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:53 PM on October 10, 2007

Also: confirmation bias.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:56 PM on October 10, 2007

To speak to the original question - or part of it -

" the UK (specifically Ireland in this case) is portrayed as it was in somewhere around the late 1800's."

Seems to me that the last time Ireland was part of the UK was right about in the late 1800s/early 1900s. So they might be being accurate.

posted by Sk4n at 2:14 PM on October 10, 2007

I think you're being overly sensitive. Heroes stereotypes the US, too. It's absurd.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:34 PM on October 10, 2007

As noted above, all things in fiction are stereotypes... cultures, technologies, even the individual characters themselves are usually no more than 1 or 2 stereotypes put together to give them "depth."

Learning too much about something inevitably means that it will piss you off to see it portrayed in fiction. I am this way with computer-related subjects in television/movies/etc. The only somewhat realistic portrayal of computers I can ever remember is in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. Even that isn't completely accurate, just not skull-crushingly ridiculous.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 3:15 PM on October 10, 2007

"1 or 2" should be "2 or 3." You can't put 1 stereotype together... and if you did, you definitely wouldn't get depth out of it.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 3:16 PM on October 10, 2007

As an Australian, I'd have to say that geez, it took you this long?

*I* can't recognise so-called 'australian' accents in movies or on TV. Take the recent movie Transformers, for instance. Up until the point it was explicity said that the blonde/bronzed chicky was an aussie, I was having serious difficulty figuring out where in the world she could be from, since I couldn't for the life of me place her accent. I've been over most of this country, and it sounded nothing like any of the regional accents I'm familiar with.

The portrayal of regions of the world in media is heavy-handed, unrealistic, and over-the-top, as well as being frequently unrecognisable by natives of said region. There are very rare exceptions.
posted by ysabet at 5:50 PM on October 10, 2007

The UK scene was actually supposed to be in Cork, Ireland.

I've really enjoyed Heros up until that episode, the attention to detail was non-existent!

First, Irish armoured trucks (or security trucks) don't look like US ones.
Secondly, security guards aren't armed there. Only certain members of the Garda (Police) and the Army (who used to protect money deliveries in parts of the country until the 1990's).
Thirdly, the accents were atrocious, just brutally awful.

Methinks, it's dumb-ass producers, incompetent writers, bad management, paltry budget or a writer/producer/director who visited Ireland in the 70's or 80's.
posted by zaphod at 9:55 PM on October 10, 2007

Zaphod: Just out of curiosity; how, then, do security guards... secure anything if they aren't armed?
posted by Hargrimm at 9:25 PM on January 1, 2008

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