This is a topic I have been trying to avoid writing about, insisting that it doesn't bother me as much as it really truly does but after reading an article today in a British publication, I really feel provoked to do some sharing.
The article in question was about the show Downton Abbey and it asked a question that has been repetitively asked of the show's creators, actors, and, apparently, random newspaper staff who fancy themselves culturally savvy individuals: "Why do Americans love Downton Abbey?" Now, I should specify that there have been many wonderful answers to this question, in particular I remember a smart answer from Robert James-Collier, who plays Thomas Barrow, where he pointed out both that English imperialism has lead to most countries of the world being able to claims ties to English/British culture and that America, being a new and idealistically modern country at the time of its creation, would likely take an interest in traditions that are older than the nation itself and of the sort that the country deliberately separated itself from.
So what answer did this publication give? That Americans like to be proven right about their ideas that the British are uptight and intensely hierarchical and have poor dentistry. It then goes on to say that this is actually satisfying to the British because it feeds their own perceptions that Americans like overly dramatic period dramas. You see, it's funny because stereotypes are true!
I don't think many Americans quite realize what the perception of them is in England unless they have actually experienced this firsthand. Many Americans have a tendency to somewhat idealize the United Kingdom and British culture both for the reasons Mr. James-Collier gives and because of the idea that British culture is classier by way of its more dignified reservation (I guess as opposed to Americans who are in your face and uncensored) and its impression of being more intellectual than American culture (which only serves to prove that they've never heard of Georgie Shore, Cher Lloyd, or chavs). One could argue until they're blue in the face about the accuracies of these ideas but one thing does seem to be apparent the more time I spend around British culture: the construct of the ugly American is alive and well.
I guess now it's story time. The first time I went to England in 2012 I had a particularly positive experience in regards to the locals which in hindsight I can now attribute to the fact that I pretty much spent all my time talking to either my British boyfriend, his parents who both immigrated to the United Kingdom in their late teens, and various waiters at London restaurants who had a wide variety of accents, almost none of them British. I really didn't spend any time talking to actual British nationals aside from the one who already thought I was good enough to date. The only exception was a friend of his parents who mostly spent her time asking me hilarious country-comparing questions that seem to ignore globalization like, "Do you have Cheerios in America?" and "Have you heard of Jimmy Page?"
It was on my second trip to London last year that I started to realize that the so-called "special relationship" between America and the United Kingdom is dwindling more than people realize.
On my first day there I went to a pub in Richmond for lunch with my boyfriend and one of his closest high school friends. It was a normal outing: good conversation with greasy and curious British food. We parted ways on amiable terms and "it was really nice to meet you" and I didn't really think any more of it. It wasn't until a week after my vacation had ended that the day came up again while talking to my boyfriend. He mentioned that he had talked to his friend and that he really liked me and that he had said, "we were worried when we heard you were dating an American but now that I've met her, she's cool." Naturally I assumed what he meant by this was that because we had met on the internet, he thought I might turn out to be a middle aged man or something; what friend wouldn't be wary in that situation? My boyfriend replied, "Well, yes. That. But also, you know, because how Americans are." "No, I don't know" I replied with a sense that I should be angry, "How exactly are Americans?" I asked if it was a question of weight because while I am certainly larger than the average British girl, I know I'm not the morbidly obese person that even Americans sometimes think of as characteristic of their own country. He assured me that I wasn't fat (which wasn't my concern) and said that I was partially on the right track. I asked if it was because I was educated and he agreed that was more so what he was getting at but that it was somewhat education and somewhat awareness of the world.
Suddenly I was flashing back to all the other times on my trip that I had seemed to surprise someone with small facts like that I could back up with historical accounts how the laws in America that foreigners find most objectionable to be the ones that are completely misinterpreted from the founding fathers' intentions or that I happened to know the names of the current and previous president of France (even if I couldn't pronounce it with a proper accent). The fact that I knew what I considered to be fairly basic ideas about domestic and foreign politics shocked both diverse British college students of my own generation and the upper class circles my boyfriend's family roams in.
There is a pervading idea in the present day United Kingdom that Americans are, aside from the usual fat and lazy, also ignorant about foreign affairs and culture, overly complacent in their global position, and are just overall too patriotic for critical self analysis. From newspapers to movies, a good portion of the media put out by the British in the last decade or so has fed into this idea and played it up to the point where it can be seen as an accepted fact. Steven Moffet who runs some of the most internationally popular British shows like Doctor Who and Sherlock (he's essentially the British Ryan Murphy) only ever seems to feature American characters who are either violent, ignorant, or prejudiced and are always an antagonistic force in the main plot. And this is an idea that is so ingrained in current British culture that my boyfriend didn't even think he would need to explain it to me.
So, of course, this begs the question of why? How did this come to be our overseas reputation in a country that we once (and possibly still do) consider to be our greatest ally?
I asked my boyfriend this very question and he thought about it, thinking back to his youth compared to his present and realized that it really was a change that happened, or was at least elevated, in his lifetime. And the reason started with the Iraq War. I was only 14 when it officially started and my boyfriend and his friends were even younger but even then I knew that I didn't support the war and didn't support the president who started it. And yet, this War and the accompanying way that the United Kingdom got involved in it with Tony Blair's support of George Bush was the cause of a foreign relations shift that still hasn't been recovered in the minds of the people. We are all George Bush.
Well, I for one am not. I have lived my entire life in New England which is often seen as the most liberal part of the country (we had gay marriage long before the UK did). I have a general American accent which is often seen by Americans as no accent. I come from a poor family but I went to a good college and I try to keep up with the news which isn't too hard when you live on the internet. I also was never old enough to vote for Bush and wouldn't have if I was. He doesn't represent me any more than Tony Blair represented British adults of around my age.
So UK, I'm asking you to throw us a bone here. Not all Americans are Tea Partying, gun-toting, religious, homophobic rednecks and while a lot of Americans don't know about your more embarrassing contributions to pop culture, most are well aware that you aren't all tea-drinking, stiff aristocrats and manic football fans. Can you please stop portraying us as such? Can you try not to continue this stereotype that is years out of date and doesn't even relate to current young adults? Maybe have a likable, open-minded American character on an intentionally popular show that doesn't take place 100 years ago? We don't need the media driving apart our international relationship any more. Politicians can do a fine job of that on their own.