Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Reel American Heroes

One of my friends, teaching English in Thailand, watched the latest Twilight movie with her students, and afterwards one of them asked her, very solemnly, if people in the United States are "like that?" Assuming he wanted to know whether all Americans were vampires, she burst out laughing, but she quickly realized his actual question was whether people in the United States really kiss before they get married. Because everything -- even cute anecdotes -- gets me thinking about international communication these days, her story made me think about cultural diplomacy and how it's frequently inundated by the tsunami of pop culture materials generated by the U.S. entertainment industry.

Frankly, I'm not sure I want Edward Cullen representing our country as a cultural ambassador. His eyebrows alarm me, for one thing. And then there's the whole undead influenza victim thing. My prejudice against the broody hemophile got me thinking about which film characters I would want to represent the country and I came up with three. They're fairly different from one another, but I think each embodies a particularly "American" character. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. Atticus Finch: Finch comes in at the top of the AFI's list, for obvious reasons. He's wise, steady, courageous and passionate for justice.

2. "Cool Hand" Luke Jackson: Granted, he was arrested for public drunkeness and vandalism, but Luke was a man who refused to stay down, even after he'd lost the fight.

3. Norville Barnes. His story follows the traditional American rags to riches cycle, with a few Coen-esque twists. What he lacks in savvy he makes up for in spades with innovation and enthusiasm. At the end of the day, he's a great role model. You know, for kids.

4* Dottie Hinson (A League of Their Own): Not only is Dottie a farm girl who supports the troops, she's an incredible athlete who supports the war effort by hitting fast balls in a short skirt. She's got brains and heart and cat-like reflexes. What's not to love?

5* Diana Guzman (girlfight): Not to inundate the list with athletes, but there's something about the sports movie that lends it to American Dream narratives. Guzman scrabbles to the top with little more than hard work and determination. She may lack Dottie's easy charm, but she trumps her in toughness.

This isn't a comprehensive list, by any stretch of the imagination. But it's late and I'm tired, so I'll pose the obvious question: Which character would you add?

* Predictably, I received a few comments regarding the absence of any women on my list, so after a cup of coffee and some inspired reflection, I've added two names to the list.

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