Sunday, May 2, 2010

In which Naomi Wolf thinks America is tops...

I like Naomi Wolf, really I do. I own a copy of "The Beauty Myth" and agree with a lot of what she has to say in it. I can't say that I've read much of her political writings but what I have read has been thoughtful. That's why I was disappointed to see this op-ed about what makes American culture compelling to the rest of the world. Now, I'm certainly not claiming to be an expert on every single popular culture worldwide but I will say that I spend a fair amount of time with Bollywood and other Indian pop cultures (not to mention 日本の文化) and really didn't like the dismissive attitude Ms. Wolf expressed towards them.

Although I do know a bit about East Asian pop culture, I'm going to stick with discussing the Bollywood-angle just to keep things focused.

She starts off:

After all, much of what America once monopolized in Hollywood movies and other pop-culture exports is now being reproduced locally. Bollywood competes with California in terms of glamorous stars and big production numbers; Japan and South Korea mint their own pop singers and fashion trends.

First of all, this makes it sound as if every place in the world once only followed American popular culture but now for some reason (
George W. Bush?! ZOMG!) all these other countries are now quaintly making their own cultural products. American never monopolized popular culture in India and, in fact, Bollywood exports quite a bit of popular culture on its own. After World War II, when Bollywood really began booming, those "local films" were the movies that traveled to places in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South East Asia, and Africa.

While Hollywood actors may be honored during "international" film festivals in places like Cannes, the Russian government recently bestowed honors on 1970s Bollywood superstar Rishi Kapoor and Malaysia just conferred the title of Datuk on the Badshaah of Bollywood, Shahrukh Khan, the equivalent of a Knighthood. These countries aren't honoring Bollywood actors because Hollywood all of a sudden stopped producing good movies, they are honoring Bollywood actors because Bollywood has
always produced movies that resonated in those places.

Bollywood doesn't now "[compete] with California in terms of glamourous stars and big production numbers" because Bollywood is already in places where Hollywood never reached. Of course, these days that is changing a bit as films like
2012 penetrate the Indian box office but that is a very, very recent phenomenon and says more about the quality of Bollywood movies coming out these days than any new invention in filmmaking on the part of Hollywood.

But let's get to the meat of her argument:

One of America’s last competitive cultural exports, it seems, is the post-adolescent male escape fantasy.

Oh, really. Okay, let's see where this is heading.

As you survey the rest of global culture, the male-escape scenario is hard to spot emerging from any other place. Save for the recent hit film 3 Idiots, Bollywood doesn’t send groups of Indian guys off on merry, irresponsible adventures.

*record scratch*

Wait just a minute here. Bollywood can and does send groups of Indian guys off on merry, irresponsible adventures together. Let's name a few of the easy ones shall we?

Dil Chahta Hai (2001) - a group of Indian guys goes off on a merry, irresponsible road trip to Goa.

Sholay (1975) - a couple of Indian guys goes off on a merry, irresponsible adventure to Ramgargh.

Caravan (1970) - a couple of Indian guys travel the country having merry, irresponsible adventures and are joined in the process by a caravan of gypsies and Asha Parkeh.

Heroes (2008) - a couple of Indian guys go off on a merry, irresponsible road trip across India to discover what being Indian is all about.

DDLJ (1995) - a group of Indian teenagers go off and have merry, irresponsible adventures in Switzerland.

How exactly did Ms. Wolf do her research for this op-ed? A quick google search of "Bollywood" and "Road Trip"? Then she should have also come across
Road Movie (2010) and Zoya Akhtar's upcoming road trip film that will be shot in Spain.

Yet men all over the world tune in to American-made fantasies of male bonding and male escape—escape from the bonds of work and domesticity, and, if only for a youthful period of the male lifespan, from long-term commitment to women themselves.

Ah ha. So, her point is that men worldwide want to escape long-term commitment to women if just for a little while. This is where drawing generalizations about every single culture in the world in relation to American popular culture is just wrong and unhelpful. Bollywood produces road trip movies but they mostly end in the protagonists realizing that domesticity or death is the end game. The exception being, of course, the amazing
Caravan which ends with Asha Parekh giving up her fortune and running away to leave a life of happy abandonment with the guys who have merry, irresponsible adventures.

But the thrill of freedom is still there.

Bollywood doesn't need
Easy Rider to learn how to let go of responsibilities.

Here is the iconic road scene from
Easy Rider:

And one from

What was that you were saying, Ms. Wolf, about only
3 Idiots had scenes of male escape and bonding?

Other countries’ lack of male escape fantasies in their popular culture may be no less historically rooted: less transient, more traditional societies will not warmly welcome homegrown films and pop songs about local young men taking off and fleeing their responsibilities.

In Bollywood films there is actually a big tradition of men leaving their
gaons and heading off to the big city to earn their fortune and plenty of songs about it. Sometimes they leave to earn money for their families back home but sometimes they just go off seeking.

Mumbai is a city
built on people leaving their home villages and coming to make their fortunes - and has been so for far longer than Los Angeles. Just like Hollywood, Bollywood pulled talented individuals from all across the country - they arrived from places that the US military is now bombing in Pakistan and fled as refugees from former British Burma. If that isn't transience than I don't know what is.

At least as far back as the 1950s there have been songs drawing on the freedom of the road.

At its best, this genre is part of America’s gift to the rest of the world. At its worst, it is part of America’s curse. That whiff of careening, heedless adolescent fecklessness is part of what makes the archetypal American male presence alarming when he is equipped with a global cudgel.

I'm not saying that she's wrong about the careening, heedless adolescent fecklessness of the archetypal American male presence but I am saying that the idea of the road movie is not strictly an American invention. Not only that, I'm saying that at least when it comes to Bollywood, Hollywood influence on the road movie genre is strictly negligible.

Ms. Wolf, talk about American culture all you want but please leave Bollywood out of it as clearly when it comes to Masala Pradesh, you have no idea what you are talking about.


Prathmesh said...

Ah! ..I like the entire 'over-view' of this write up. 'True indeed! Firstly, there ain't no such thing as follow (up) of any culture or trends, inspiration must be (to the very least).
But, in some sense the fervent comment on trip movies and Bollywood, 'I do feel the same. The sense (non actually)doesn't seem to be working and whatever being produced (hollywood to bollywood adaptation)is a total crap.

^$$$$ >>> rating for this^

Christine Menefee said...

Great post. I hope Wolf sees it - and her editor. Her piece is a good example of how the major media "favorite" certain authors and give them space on account of their name. Even if Wolf didn't fact-check in her enthusiasm for getting her riff down (which strikes me as the worst sort of old fashioned "armchair travel"), her editor should have - and as you say, would have found the holes in her argument. I'm sure that in the future Wolf will wish she'd never been indulged in this way, as she's sure to be embarrassed by it.

I admire Wolf too and in fact, male-bonding road movies aren't my favorite genre either, as they feel rather pernicious to me usually. But they aren't an American export except insofar as Hollywood dominates the world market. I don't like Bollywood ones any better than Hollywood ones (unless they star Arshad Warsi and Naseeruddin Shah) - and I've seen a couple of French ones that REALLY made my female blood run cold.

Filmi Girl said...

@prathmesh Thanks! :)

@christine I totally agree about favored authors getting space even when they are talking out their butts - Christopher Hitchens and David Brooks are two of my least favorite culprits in this regard. :P

Male-bonding films leave me cold about 90% of the time and if she had written about how they are treated with oodles of respect in Hollywood while female bonding films are relegated to the chick-flick ghetto, then I would have been totally cool with that but she honestly is just talking nonsense in trying to draw conclusions based on Easy Rider and world culture.

Why, oh why do academics think they can apply their pet argument to things outside their disciplines?

Rum said...

Brilliant post Filmi Girl! I really hate when uninformed journalists don't do their research it just gives the profession a bad name! Road movies is one my fave genres and its the world over and this article is soo pompous and grrrrr-worthy!

lvrplfc4l said...

The road movie genre is a subset of the hero quest. It's American only in the sense that American movie makers took the hero quest and put them in a vehicle. In movies like Easy Rider they make them antiheroes and movies like Star Wars heroes.
As for the hero quest Americans are late to the show; stories like The Odyssey, Aeneid, and Ramayana are the precursors to road movies. What many American movies miss about the hero quest is that the journey is an internal quest with the road as metaphor for the journey to self knowledge. Unfortunately in many American road movies the only knowledge gained is puke outside the car. For me Dil Chahta Hai is a great example, yes they have the fun trip to Goa but the rest of the movie is the journey to self discovery.

d said...

Wow, NW's article is pretty ignorant.

One nitpick: while American never dominated Indian popular culture, you are focusing on films here, so it's worth mentioning that American silent pictures actually did dominate before the 1930s.

Filmi Girl said...

@d That why I say "post-World War II" :)

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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