The challenges of culture in the globalized world

In the early nineties, when I was an undergraduate in college, my mother sent me a tape recording of a very popular Salsa band. Their name was Orquesta de la Luz, and they were Japanese.

Now, salsa music is not something anyone would associate with Japanese culture. In fact, when I think of Japan, I see images of Anime, Hello Kitty, and Japanese game shows. Yet there it was, a Japanese salsa orchestra, and not only were they really good, they were singing about a new, borderless culture, which characterizes contemporary life.

The world, we are told, is becoming smaller, more interconnected, and as barriers fall and markets open up to trade, the idiosyncrasies of an indigenous culture fall to the wayside. In fact, some warn that the local is being replaced by a uniform global, and that globalization, with its emphasis on efficiency, uniformity, control, predictability, and calculability replaces idiosyncrasy with McDonalization (Ritzer, 1993). Ritzer, wearily, warned that this process would limit us to an instrumental rationality, which is dehumanizing for, among other things, its lack of diversity:

Another dehumanizing effect of the fast-food restaurant is that it has contributed to homogenization around the country and, increasingly, throughout the world. Diversity, which many people crave, is being reduced or eliminated (Ritzer, 1993, p. 138).

Before Ritzer coined the term mcdonalization, cultural critics were talking about cultural imperialism. The main contention in this view of society is that a powerful center imposed itself, its institutions, its beliefs, and its way of life over less powerful countries. Mass media was one of the vehicles through which domination was predicated upon, as countries with underdeveloped media systems of production and distribution imported massive amounts of content from the United States (Nordenstreng and Varis, 1974). The consequences, it was argued, were frightning because when everyone, in every corner of the planet, is exposed to the same content, they  develop the same views. At the end of the day, the result was a more appeased, more compliant, consumer.

However, the flows of media content are no longer dominated by one single country. This began to become clear in the 1980s. One landmark study, by Antola and Rogers (1984), for example, showed that in countries like Brazil, Venezuela, and Chile, US cultural imports had declined significantly. In their place, these countries were either developing their own productions, or importing from other Latin American nations.

Appadurai (1996), furthermore, noted that the trend in the global world was not towards greater uniformity, but towards greater hybridization. Cultural products, in other words, are not merely taken as they are. They are adapted and infused with local touches, which make them recognizable and acceptable to multiple audiences. In the process, the global and the local intertwine, and each influences the other:

In hybridization, global forces bring change, but that change is adapted into existing ways of doing things via historical process in which existing local forces mix with new  global ones, producing neither global homogenization nor authentic local culture, but a complex new hybrid with multiple layers of culture (Straubhaar, 2007, p. 6).

This is, in essence, what Chiara Ferrari’s article describes. She explores how the Simpsons, now the oldest running prime time show in American television, was adapted for the Italian market. There are several important lessons to be learned from the experience:

  1. Successful adaptations involve local talent and know-how and global concerns, which invest on the local talent, and sanction the version as an official product.
  2. Translation does not equal localization. Language is not the only variable to be considered when you localize a product. It may even be secondary to culture, which is why Willy the groundskeeper, in Italy, is no longer Scottish, but Sardinian.
  3. A successful adaptation will adapt to the local culture, not the other way around. There is an awareness of small nuances, which are important and appealing to viewers.
  4. Characters that are not attached to any “specific ethnic, racial, or political identity” are like an empty canvas, which, in terms of narrative, are readily adaptable to different contexts. However, what makes the Simpsons especially prone to an adaptation is the fact that supporting characters, which represent specific stereotypes, provide ample opportunities for localization. For example, Ferrari suggests that many of these supporting characters are dubbed to Italian using regional accents, which, in turn, are linked to familiar stereotypes.

As I write, The Simpsons twentieth anniversary special is on television. I certainly did not plan it, and it’s a fortuitous coincidence that just as I’m getting ready to talk about the Simpsons as a global product, Morgan Spurlock is doing the same thing. The difference is that he is focusing not only on the global appeal, but also addressing global controversies. Brazilians, he explains, were very upset about an episode which Rio de Janeiro came under a negative light.

The cartoon characters found that Rio de Janeiro is a city where all men are bisexual, where fearsome monkeys roam the streets, and tourists are kidnapped by taxi drivers and mugged by children (Bellos, 2002).

Brazilians did not find the depiction particularly funny, and according to Morgan Spurlock, 8 years after the original airing you can still find Brazilians that have not forgotten. James Brooks apologized for the content, in order to avoid a lawsuit from the Rio de Janeiro board of Tourism.

Television production in a globalized environment is obviously accountable to higher standards of cultural sensitivity. And it is not a matter of appeasing unreasonable demands by people who have no sense of humor. The key issue is, at the end of the day, one of economics. Programs like The Simpsons have been very successful in international syndication precisely because they can be localized, and because they are perceived as products that appeal to our global sense of the universal. In other words, international buyers purchase them because they assume that the audiences they cater to will recognize themselves (see Havens, 2002).

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References

  • Antola & Rogers (1984)
  • Ferrari, C. (2009). Dubbing The Simpsons: Or how groundskeeper Willie lost his kilt in Sardinia

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