Friday, November 15, 2013

Interlude V - The Marriage of East and West

Why are certain cultural products globally popular while others are not? What are some of the SPECIFIC QUALITIES or CHARACTERISTICS that make cultural products (books, music, films, sports) most accessible to global audiences?

While the United States happened to be uniquely positioned at the dawn of globalization to produce cultural products like films, television, and music that could reach cultures all around the world, the last couple decades of experience have been excellently instructive as far as which products are truly global in their appeal, and which are limited to the West, or even the US in particular, in their scope.

In the example of Avatar, one of the two highest-grossing feature films of all time, the movie was the quintessential merging of numerous global sensibilities into a universal product that would be familiar to many cultures without being too specific to any one. Set in the far future, it embodied the promise of technology—a theme that also has universal appeal in the present due to the internet and popular music—in both the high-tech universe of its story and in the groundbreaking-yet-real technology that brought its universe to the big screen (and in three dimensions, no less).

But tempering that promise was, as Professor Hoberman noted, a very anti-imperialist, philosophically-Eastern narrative and moral message. The worldwide success of American cinema demonstrated that global audiences were happy to embrace Western-style storytelling from the get-to, so adding a layer of non-Western themes only upped the ante and enhanced the film’s palatability to far-flung cultures. The lesson to take from this going forward is that even the most universal experiences and messages—love, honor, autonomy—can benefit from being filtered through the proficient delivery system that is American cinema.

A different sort of success has been found by Cosmopolitan magazine, but one no less worldwide in its reach. What Cosmo, as it is known colloquially, has done is to distill its own essence down to a core message—that of feminine pride, independence, and self-assurance—and tailor that to the individual boundaries of a wealth of different nations and cultures. An article about having great sex, for example, could be seen as passé in Sweden yet appalling in Saudi Arabia—but it would be right at home in America. As such, each nation’s editors have been able to translate the same core principles according to their own respective mores in a way that retains the same positive, forward-leaning position in each respective culture; without inciting riots, of course.

From these examples, one may conclude that there are multiple avenues through which the producers of cultural product can appeal to global audiences. While the United States remains in an exceptional position thanks to the length and breadth, and generations-long experience, of its creative industries, the force-multiplier that is universal experience (not to mention diverse casts of characters) cannot be underestimated. Not only will a marriage of both Eastern and Western storytelling strengths produce more globally-appealing commodities, but it serves to further universalize their messages, as well—something that cloistered Western audiences can benefit from as much as the East can benefit from the West’s technology.

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