Wednesday, July 29, 2009
The trouble with Finnish people and American television
Americans, by and far, make very good television programs, and Finnish people, by and far, believe that they are all literally true. I know this, because when I go to Finland, people invariably lecture me on what life in the United States is like. They never ask me what it is like - never, once - and they get really mad if I try to correct something they say.
When you live in a small country, it's very difficult to imagine what life in a big country is like. If I try to talk about how there are big regional differences in the US, Finns nod impatiently and tell me they understand; they've seen it all on TV and they point out that it's not like there aren't regional differences in Finland. (There aren't. Those are not differences, they are slight variations of the same thing.) One Finn gave me a long lecture about the "Deep South", during which it turned out he had not realized that any black people live in the South.
Finns know in theory that there are African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Caribbean Americans, Russian Americans, Indian Americans, Native Americans, and many, many, other kinds of Americans. But it doesn't make much practical sense to them. There are more American space aliens on their TV than there are, say, Asian Americans or Latinos. The picture Finnish people see in their mind when they think "American person" is always a white person. A white, stupid person who has married his cousin and goes on the Jerry Springer Show to rant because she is actually a man. Sometimes Finnish people remember there are black people who work in sports or entertainment or deal drugs. One of my Finnish friends told me that as far as he knows, African American people are constantly having barbeques. I told him I know African Americans who are vegetarians, and he shook his head in dismay. This was not what he had learned from Boston Legal.
A well written TV show or movie creates a believable, powerful world that seems whole and real. A multitude of great, well written shows create a powerful illusion of a place called "the United States". It's not the real Unites States, not even close - but it shares some aspects of reality, and it's really engaging and it seems really real. For a person with no actual experience of the United States, it begins to seem like that must be what it's like to live there. If I tell Finnish people something that contradicts what they saw on fictional TV shows, they simply tell me I am wrong or my experience does not represent "real America". "Real America" is Six Feet Under and Sex in the City and Doctor Phil. A lot of people in this world believe that the '80s in the USA were actually like Dynasty and Miami Vice.
The other problem with American television is that it has turned Finns into psychobabbly whiners. Finns have this self-image of being very stoic, quiet and dignified people, but try asking one how they are doing. They simply won't shut up. They complain and complain about how difficult and challenging their life is in one of the richest countries in the world, with free health care, because they are so very oppressed by having to learn Swedish. Finns already thought they were a deeply victimized people (because Russians and Swedes used to take turns running our country until 90 years ago), and now American talk shows have given them the language to not shut up about it. At all. Especially middle-aged Finnish men, you might have guessed, have discovered that their civil rights have been entirely trampled by feminists and immigrants, and they demand therapy.
I saw a letter to the editor in a Finnish newspaper, in Finnish, addressed to President Obama. I swear some people there know more about the internal workings of the White House - from West Wing - than about the Finnish presidency or parliament. Their lives are filled with American stories and American ideas. They participate, amongst themselves, in American debates about American issues with American terminology, thinking that they actually understand America. I'm not blaming Americans for this. The program buyers for Finnish TV stations are, obviously, Finns. The journalists reporting celebrity culture as news are also Finns. The people basing their opinions on fiction and not questioning their own culture are, guess what, Finns. It's mostly the intellectual laziness of Finns that is slowly turning Finland into a cartoon version of the United States.