FEATURE : The Great Escapism

NEW YORK – Barack Obama, however mixed his accomplishments to date as US president, has sought to rebrand America and reclaim its former signature asset: its ability to embody universally admired values.

NEW YORK – Barack Obama, however mixed his accomplishments to date as US president, has sought to rebrand America and reclaim its former signature asset: its ability to embody universally admired values.

As popular culture is usually the way those values are transmitted, it is worth considering what it is about American cinema, music, and popular literature that makes them so compelling to many other parts of the world.

After all, much of what America once monopolized in Hollywood movies and other pop-culture exports is now being reproduced locally. Bollywood competes with California in terms of glamorous stars and big production numbers; Japan and South Korea mint their own pop singers and fashion trends.

But consider Entourage, the American TV show that centers on a rising male film star and his posse of dudes. Or a recent article in The New Yorker about two scruffy young chefs who have set out across the country to start the great adventure of running their own crazy restaurant, called Animal.

Or Swingers, the 1996 worldwide hit movie about a twenty-something guy in Hollywood and his band of male friends who drag him to Las Vegas to mend his broken heart.

One of America’s last competitive cultural exports, it seems, is the post-adolescent male escape fantasy.

Ever since Huck Finn took his friends down the Mississippi River on a raft, American men have created and consumed fantasies of setting out with their males friends for parts unknown, or of traveling in an all-male group to have adventures closer to home.

In the 1950’s, Jack Kerouac took his buddy careening across the country in On the Road. A decade later, Ken Kesey took his buddies, the Merry Pranksters, across the country in the other direction in their painted bus (granted, with female hangers-on).

From Easy Rider in the 1960’s to the Harold and Kumar movies today, the “buddy film” – typically involving travel-based adventure – has become an established genre.

Savvy American politicians even make use of it for their own purposes. Both John McCain and George W. Bush cleverly tapped into this fantasy – with its easy bonhomie and absence of wives and kids – to capture the hearts of the male journalists aboard their campaign buses, who could imagine themselves once again as tough, unfettered, and venturesome Kerouac figures. President Obama even gave the actor who played Kumar a job in the White House (which he has now left to return to Hollywood).

As you survey the rest of global culture, the male-escape scenario is hard to spot emerging from any other place. Save for the recent hit film 3 Idiots, Bollywood doesn’t send groups of Indian guys off on merry, irresponsible adventures.

Male protagonists in French films don’t take off together in convertibles for the Pyrenees; they stay home and urbanely have affairs.

Nor does Japanese pop culture manufacture escape fantasies aimed at Japanese men.

Yet men all over the world tune in to American-made fantasies of male bonding and male escape – escape from the bonds of work and domesticity, and, if only for a youthful period of the male lifespan, from long-term commitment to women themselves.

This fantasy, derived, no doubt, from American history – from westward expansion and Manifest Destiny, from the Gold Rush and a settlement policy that valorized staking a claim to the wilderness and subduing it – is powerfully appealing to men in general, and to many women as well.

Indeed, American women have recently begun to film and export their own versions of this fantasy – starting with the groundbreaking 1991 film Thelma and Louise and continuing in a growing trend of girl-group travel and escape packages.

Other countries’ lack of male escape fantasies in their popular culture may be no less historically rooted: less transient, more traditional societies will not warmly welcome homegrown films and pop songs about local young men taking off and fleeing their responsibilities.

But, judging by the appetite shown worldwide for this narrative, it seems clear that identification with such adventures is almost universal. It seems to speak to a deep longing in men – and in the women who also enjoy these films and TV shows – for a time in one’s life when one could dash toward freedom, adventure, and self-reinvention, unencumbered by social ties and family obligations.

At its best, this genre is part of America’s gift to the rest of the world. At its worst, it is part of America’s curse. That whiff of careening, heedless adolescent fecklessness is part of what makes the archetypal American male presence alarming when he is equipped with a global cudgel. To the rest of the world, those same qualities are part of his charm only so long as he stays safely up on the screen.

Naomi Wolf is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.