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Week 9 – Commerce, Coercion, and America’s Empire

My favourite quote in this week’s readings is from “From the Noble Savage to the Third World.” Dorfmann and Mattelart write: “There are two forms of killing: by machine guns and saccharine.” The United States was not only a military overlord, but a cultural influencer on the largest scale. The US infiltrated Latin America, and much of the world, without using guns or even sending soldiers to these places. The US created media that was so appealing, so glamourous, that the whole world desired to be a part of the club. It didn’t matter that other cultures were ruthlessly stereotyped. The world devoured American media. Local celebrities could be lured to America when it suited America, leaving behind their own communities for the lights of Hollywood. Then the US could mold them into whatever image they wished, while the transplanted celebrity remained overjoyed at his or her good luck.

Disney capitalised on this idea by selling stereotypes. Cultures from the Third World were portrayed almost as children, dazzled by American ingenuity, innocent, and easily influenced. This accomplished a cultural victory that was far more profound than a simple military takeover. In the mind of Americans and the larger world, these cultures were reinforced as primitive and non-threatening. This form of conquest is a powerful way to ensure that everyone is aware of their place in the world order, and that no one group attempts to dominate America. Killing by saccharine. Evoking sentimentality in the depictions of Third World cultures ensures that these non-threatening stereotypes continue in America and the world.

America became a master at marketing, not only stereotyping other cultures to sell imported goods to Americans, but rebranding American goods to suit local communities elsewhere. The example Dawson gives is the selling of Belmond cigarettes in Mexico. By incorporating local elements into an American advertisement, the US could appeal to Mexicans by maintaining the allure of the American product but appealing to local sensibilities, a plan that was resoundingly successful. In America, the image of Carmen Miranda on bananas appeals to the American desire for the exotic romanticism of Central America. Though Miranda’s image is a way of flattening the real cultures of Central America, to many American’s this image is the only association they have with Central America. The reduction of a culture to one sexualized image was an effective way to sell bananas a century ago, and it remains the case today.

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