The “Typical” American?

A student in my Australian Literature and Film class said that he refused to see Australian films “on principle”. When the professor asked who in the class purposefully avoided reading Australian books and seeing Australian films because they “knew they wouldn’t be good”, everyone but the two Americans raised their hands. As we began to discuss why they felt that way, a clearer picture of what is perceived as “typical” Australian literature and film emerged: the quintessential Australian, as depicted in Australian literature and films, is strong, outdoorsy, and very tough; he is masculine, and not typically very verbose. He is Crocodile Dundee, he is a drover, and he is a bushwalker. The “typical” Australian is a conqueror of nature…he is also white. And, of course, he is a man. More and more, the younger generation of Australians, it seems, simply cannot relate. And while my own country may attempt to portray itself as “politically correct”, the truth is that many of the problems with the discourse regarding the “typical” Australian can be seen in the verbiage used to describe the “typical” American as well. And this does have real-world ramifications.

For instance. One of my professors described an encounter with a student he had a few years ago—the girl was Asian, and he’d assumed she was from Singapore or Malaysia. Quite reasonable, as many students from Singapore and Malaysia do go to Australia to study abroad. This assumption turned out not to be correct, however, and he related his shock when he later heard her speak with an American accent. As it turned out, the girl was from Minnesota. Now, of course it is not indicative of latent racism for my professor to have assumed the girl was from an Asian country; rather, his shock that she could have been from America reveals a problem in how people think of what an “American” looks like. Similarly, last week my American flatmate forgot her passport on a night out, and the bouncers were kind enough to let her into the bar anyway. As we walked away, one of them said to the other, “Yeah, well, they’re Americans. It’s not like they’re Muslims or something.” Now, the Australian in our group was disgusted by what the bouncer had said, and denounced him as an idiotic racist—much as I’d have done had a similar incident occurred in the United States, as is not at all improbable. The point of these little stories is that people outside the U.S. seem to have a specific picture of what an “American” looks like, and that picture does not include Asians or Muslims. Australians are, after all, avid consumers of American media. And so we must ask ourselves why this is the case—how exactly do we represent ourselves to the outside world—and to ourselves? Who gets showcased in our media, and who gets left out? What are the repercussions of representing ourselves as a homogenous, white society when that simply is not the case? In stepping outside of my country I have been faced with its shortcomings. I knew, of course, that there was/is a problem of minorities being underrepresented in American media. But now I can see the affect that this underrepresentation has on the rest of the world—how the very conception of what it is to be “American” has been kept exclusive to one facet of our population, and what this could mean for the American abroad who does not fit this mould. And I’ve met people for whom this has been an issue—I met a girl from California, and her parents are Indian. She said that the people here seem very surprised when she tells them where she’s from; she said many of them ask her, “Yes but where were you born?” as if to suggest that she couldn’t really belong to America. And I wonder how this would feel—it must be a peculiar sensation of homelessness, to be denied your country by strangers. It has been an eye-opening experience to see how another culture views my culture, and one that I am very glad to have had.