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Martha Bayles - “The urban singles sitcom offers the world a new version of the American dream”

Academic and writer Martha Bayles speaks to Salzburg Global about the perpetuation of myths through American television exports

Martha Bayles at the SSASA symposium "Images of America: Reality and Stereotypes"

Martha Bayles at the SSASA symposium "Images of America: Reality and Stereotypes"

Jessica Franzetti | 07.02.2017

The ubiquity of young Americans living independently in affluent urban areas seems to be a common thread among many popular American sitcoms from the nineties through to the present. 

“As I discovered through talking with over 200 informed observers of pop-culture in many different countries, the urban singles sitcom, from Friends to Sex and the City to The Big Bang Theory, now offer the world a new version of the American dream,” said Martha Bayles.

Bayles, a writer as well as a professor in the Arts and Sciences Honors Program at Boston College in the US, spoke about the impact of American cultural exports, namely, television shows and movies, on other countries perceptions of Americans, during the session, Images of America: Reality and Stereotypes, held by the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA) at Schloss Leopoldskron in 2016. 

Speaking at the session, Bayles noted: “The original American dream was about ordinary people working hard to give their children a better future. That dream is now global needless to say, but so is the new American dream portrayed in these urban singles sitcoms. In the new one, there are no ordinary people, very little hard work and certainly no families. There is a fantasy of young, unattached men and women living in affluent urban settings, with little or no contact with their families or communities of origin and enjoying personal freedom, including sexual freedom, that is unheard of in most societies.”

Bayles has long studied and written about American popular culture. Her most recent book, Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad, considers the spread of American culture spread to most corners of the globe and how what is viewed on the screen creates images of America that are often juxtaposed with many Americans’ realities. 

In discussing American sitcoms, she references the highly popular nineties sitcom, Friends, saying, “According to its producers at Warner Brothers, this sitcom about young, single Americans living in New York has been telecast in 135 different countries, reaching an average of 14 million viewers per telecast.

“What I learned through my travels is that this [image] is rather alluring to many young Nigerians, Egyptians and Indians, but that allure also has a downside. I spoke with a young woman from a Bedouin village about her impending visit to America, and as she put it, ‘Americans don’t have families, in the media they are always alone.’” 

Bayles remarked that people who had never been to America were likely to believe that the sitcoms and entertainment they watched from the US were largely reflective of America as a whole: “Some of the people I spoke to were big fans of US popular culture and some were not, but even the biggest fans – if they had not been to the United States or did not know many Americans – tended to assume that the values portrayed in popular culture are shared by most Americans.”

While the divergence between reality and perceptions of America exists in regards to American cultural ideals of youth, freedom and connectedness to families, its largest, most potent gap appears in reference to images of Americans with deadly weapons as well as a perpetuation of violence. 

“More poignant than this image of Americans without families, was this image of Americans with deadly weapons. To Europeans, there is probably no aspect of our popular culture more unsettling than this ever vivid blood and gore. Yet while America is more violent than most modern democracies, it is nowhere near as violent as the images portrayed on the screen,” Bayles explains.  

Bayles highlighted a concern raised frequently during the session: how does popular culture and the multitude of images portrayed in American media perpetuate misconceptions as well as form opinions about America and American society?

“In my mind, screen violence, is only a symptom of a deeper problem, namely the entertainment industry’s present obsession with the most lurid aspects of American life – drugs, crime, family breakdown, and dysfunctional government.”

Bayles believes that the over-exaggeration of these parts of America, making them seem more prevalent than they in fact are, creates great friction in how other nations may view a modern America – often analyzing these facets in cultural exports as a depiction of US modernity – as they question what modernity means in their own societies.


Martha Bayles was the keynote speaker at the session Images of America: Reality and Stereotypes, held by the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA) at Schloss Leopoldskron in 2016. 

07.02.2017 Category: FACES OF LEADERSHIP, IMAGINATION, SSASA
Jessica Franzetti