The Distorted Mirror of America: Imagining the US on Finnish Television

Image courtesy Rupert Brun

Popular culture is an uncanny mirror of society, but it is always a distorted mirror that reflects who we are in our most spectacular and hyperbolic dimensions:  for instance, science fiction projects contemporary social apprehensions into futures and fantasy worlds; sports provide a clarity of rules and resolution we rarely secure in our everyday lives; and Lady Gaga funnels myriad discourses invoking gender, sexuality, and commercialism that we all recognize in prosaic everyday forms.

Few popular cultural discourses have more influence on how we see the world than television.  The reflection of America as seen in the mirror of Finnish television is, at best, disorienting and maybe a little demoralizing.  A media economics scholar could explain the marketing reasons for why a specific range of American television shows have made their way to Finland, and the perpetual repeats of Criminal Minds, Alien versus Predator, and Storage Wars hopefully has little to do with Finnish culture.  Yet the array of television shows appearing in Finland cannot be entirely arbitrary, and it certainly provides a distinctive picture of America and perhaps even Finland.

Finns watch an average of three hours of television each day (Americans watch roughly 34 hours each week), and of course much of it is in Finnish, but Finns watch quite a lot of English language programming.  More than 70% of YLE TV1 programming (23.3% share) is documentaries, news, or educational programs; MTV3  (21.8% share) and YLE TV2 (16.9% share) show a slightly broader range of entertainment shows that include Finnish and English-language shows.  But the range of other Finnish channels like Fox, Jim, Sub, and TV5 show many English-language shows including lots of American programs bearing the heavy burden of introducing Finns to America.

Finland’s primer on America comes from an incessant stream of reality shows in situations that do not have any easy analogy to Finland.  Storage Wars, for instance, chronicles people who wander around California purchasing the unknown contents of storage lockers.  In this oddly American treasure hunt people buy piles of things that somebody else couldn’t fit in their house, so they placed it in storage only to abandon the locker or simply find themselves unable to pay for it; the unlikeable Storage War stars then swoop in to claim it. Some of the American offerings are fascinating in an odd way like Doomsday Preppers that shares with our Scandinavian allies the anxieties of those Americans awaiting an electromagnetic pulse, earthquake, or inevitable rioting following Obamacare.

But many more are absolutely banal:  Pawn Stars features a stream of people desperate for money (or deluded that their things are valuable) aspiring to sell stuff to a pawn shop; America’s Toughest Collectors are a couple overbearing guys who just storm into people’s homes to purchase their things; Shark Tank witnesses the persistent stream of Americans who think their entrepreneurial inspiration should be supported by a bunch of rich guys; Paris Hilton’s World has already bored America; and Inked aspires to weave a narrative around the flood of Americans who want butterflies inked onto their hips.  The picture painted in these shows is of a monotonous America peopled by overblown and largely unsympathetic personalities committed to wealth.

The British programmers do their best to match America’s offerings to Finland with the likes of Embarrassing Bodies, which features an array of festering privates, swollen scrotums, and startling disfigurements; and the digestively detailed You Are What You Eat.  Australia adds their creativity with their version of Beauty and the Geek, in which beautiful airhead women and uber-nerds are thrown into the same whirpool.  Like many American reality shows focused on crime and the seamy underside of life, Finns have Poliisit (i.e., Cops), and Finnish Customs, The Border Wars,and Australia Border detail the amazing number of people who try to pass through customs with 10 pounds of cured meat or packages of swallowed drugs.  Air Crash Investigation makes a weekly case for taking the train; competitive chefs face off in Master Chef Australia and Master Chef Finland, with the wrinkle of Junior Master Chef;  and many more cooking shows include Home Cooking Rachael Ray’s Way, Single Dinner, and the world’s most overbearing culinary ethnographer, Anthony Bourdain in the World.  It goes without saying that there is a flood of dance and talent shows and the ever-present Big Brother, which has its own Finnish version that appears to be as reflective as its American peer.

Zygmunt Bauman has argued that it is too easy to simply blame TV for providing such fare, suggesting that “there is little point … in asking whether the presence of television makes the world better or worse.”  Instead, the “astonishing headway” made by TV “would be unthinkable if the world were not ready to absorb it.”  In the classic study Television Culture, John Fiske argues that “Television does not `cause’ identifiable effects in individuals; it does, however, work ideologically to promote and prefer certain meanings of the world, to circulate some meanings rather than others, and to serve some social interests better than others.”  The enormously boring TV offerings in Finland perhaps seem monotonous only because I anticipated some quite different media and popular cultural discourses and instead found the familiarity of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, South Park, and Finnish advertisements aspiring to resolve irregularity.

We could conclude that Finns see this TV and use it to form a picture of American society, and that is a reasonable conclusion.  Indeed, it may actually be the truth that the odd stereotypes in reality TV are in fact sensitive portrayals of Americans in all our genuine monotony, brashness, and weirdness.  Yet perhaps the more interesting implication is that even though the reality is that Americans are much more complex than these stereotypes, those overblown representations of the US may be precisely what Finns expect to see as America; that is, perhaps the ridiculous stereotypes in American TV have assumed reality in the minds of many audiences, including Americans.  We have perhaps watched enough reality crime show that we now have been socialized to believe this is a dimension of who Americans are, even if we always seek to distinguish ourselves individually from those caricatures.  I now feel self-conscious when I pass through airport customs; I am grateful the plane did not go down; I fancy myself capable of evaluating good entrepreneurial proposals and assessing how much collectibles are worth; and I have learned all the dangers of nuclear fallout.  So perhaps I have imagined America is all I see on Finnish TV.

Zygmunt Bauman

2000 As Seen on TVEthical Perspectives 7(2-3):107.122.

John Fiske

2011 Television Culture.  2nd ed.  Routledge, New York.

Statue watching TV Helsinki image courtesy Rupert Brun

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