Through a Screen Darkly (2007) Book Review

Book Review of Through a Screen Darkly (2007) by Martha Bayles

Martha Bayles, one of the most acclaimed critics of our current world decided to write a book about how the world views America. The book hit high rates and received a lot of appreciation from the US, but how about the rest of the world? After reading this book, as a non-American, I had a lot say. As much as I appreciated her movie reviews and “funny” stereotypes she snuck into the book, there were a lot of things that should not be accepted in a scholarly book like this. No matter who’s opinion it is, and what type of a book you’re writing, one has to keep a respectable position.

One of the main points that I want to stress in this book is that the author uses a very opinionated language. I understand, this is her own view on the current American media, but it’s very important to keep a, more or less, neutral language. Mostly, it struck me as very irritating the way she spoke about other cultures. It might be because I’m not American and it stood out to me more, but she keeps using the horrible stereotypes of the current generations. For example, the way she talked about Russians when she discussed “localization” of McDonald’s. “The Russians do not just dislike being smiled at, they also find smiling suspicious.” (p.22) As someone who grew up in a half-Russian family, I have to say this was one of the most offensive and irritable things I have ever had to read, because that’s not true. Russians are friendly, welcoming and loving people. Sure, some current stereotypes create a different view, but this woman is writing a “scholarly” book, she doesn’t have the right to use such type of stereotypes. This makes her book look unprofessional and laughable from a non-American viewpoint. Russians do like to smile and do like to be smiled at. What are her sources when she talks this way about Russians? She doesn’t provide any sources at all for this statement. She brings out a lot of other stereotypes about different cultures, like the French. I’ve lived in France and I can tell you, people love coca-cola there as much as any other culture, no one looks down on anyone for liking soda.

But that’s not the only way her language vexed me. In the introduction, she calls Eastern Europe “information-starved” (p. 8). Maybe it’s because I’m from Eastern Europe that this made my nerves tingle, but when one is writing a book trying to show that the Americans are not as crude and violent as the TV presents them to be, one should be very careful with the words they choose. Because again, it’s very unprofessional to talk like that about any other culture. Unprofessional and slightly racist. If you want people to stop stereotyping America, stop stereotyping other cultures. She’s a hypocrite. She keeps putting America on a pedestal throughout the whole introduction and first part of the book. Saying that “The United States had long been the world’s largest exporter of optimist.” (9) What I got from this was that if not for America, the world would be in despair and depression, with nothing to look forward to, that the world learned what optimist was when Columbus stepped on what he thought to be India.

But language is not the only problem here. In the first part of the book, she discusses how the world stereotyped Americans through Hollywood and pop-culture. The stereotypes that were created due to the media, were quite offensive. Seeing Americans either as fat, burger-eating, world-traveling, dumb people, or violent, sexual, materialistic and blood-thirsty. I know this, since some people in my culture also view Americans this way. She discusses a lot of movies and TV shows in detail, which in my opinion is just wasting time. Instead of proving that Americans are not the stereotypes that are shown in the media, she just keeps talking about different movies that show different cultures represented in America. She discusses how the American media gave a chance to other countries to develop their media depending on the US, like Latin American soap operas and Bollywood. But that’s not the point of the book. She shouldn’t be trying to prove that the Americans gave a chance to other cultures to develop their own media (even though it was a nice gesture). She should be fighting the battles of stereotypes, because that’s what she keeps talking about in the introduction – how the world’s view on Americans is wrong.

In the third chapter of the first part of the book, she speaks about the different types of TV programs that the US “invented”. Such as late night talk-shows and reality TV. Aside from the fact that the subtitles of each individual chapters for some reason become very frustrated, she again summarizes different types of TV programs and their meaning to the US, and how the rest of the world made their TV programs after watching the US. It can be noticed how much she adores America. It’s understandable, it’s her country, she grew up there and that’s her opinion. But she’s always demeaning towards other cultures. The subtitles “Talking trash in Russia” (p.76) and “‘Low-end entertainment’ in China” definitely show how much she looks down on anything outside the US. When she talks about Russian talk shows, she calls the anchors “would-be liberal reformers” (p. 77), that’s offensive. Not every anchor is a government controlled person, they really are liberal reformers. It’s clear how much aggression she has towards Russia, and her opinionated tone and language, makes the book lose it’s professionality and scholarliness.

She always ends up bringing everything back to America. How America created everything in the current world. “Why include a British TV format in a book about America’s cultural footprint? Because its roots are American” (p.88), “All have much in common with older forms of American popular culture” (p.36)… Her arrogant language and perspective makes it look like she’s trying to justify America. It would be easier to say that the world laughs at our media, but in the end they base their media on ours rather than say presumptuous statements mentioned above.

Towards the end of the first part, she starts to discuss how the stereotypes are not the way to look at Americans. When she speaks about the social media, she makes some good points regarding the American stereotypes. But the problem with this book is that she discusses too many irrelevant things. She shouldn’t be talking about how good or bad the movies are, or how the French look down on people who like Soda. She should have gone straight to the point in the beginning. I could see a potential for this book, only if a lot of what’s between the introduction and the fourth chapter are taken out.

Part II

In the second part of the book she starts to discuss the Odysseus and how America’s story is very similar to the one described in the ancient writing. She speaks how the US has problems with public diplomacy and how US is the only one using fast diplomacy. She doesn’t even talk about the other countries, she focuses on the US and makes it seem like they are the only ones with the problem right now. She herself admits that the US uses a very sneaky type of diplomacy, “the combination of alertness, guile, and deception pervades US government’s peacetime relations with other nations” (p.113). She basically says that the US should not be trusted, that the us sees the world as a “high stakes poker game” (p.113). Aside from the fact that she neglects to speak about the rest of the world, she somehow jumped from discussing stereotypes in media in the first part to the philosophy of diplomacy in the second part.

Then she goes on to tell the reader about the history of Hollywood and their relationship with the rest of the US. She makes this book look like a film studies textbook, discussing so many movies and history of show-biz. The whole fifth chapter she keeps discussing different movies and how Hollywood impacted the change in the attitude of the movies. She should be discussing on how these movies shaped the American stereotype and how it can be changed and challenged, not discussing how one movie is better than the other. She began the book by stating that those stereotypes were wrong, by far she hasn’t proven how or why they are wrong.

In the beginning of the sixth chapter, she summarizes it by “this chapter focuses on the relationship between the persuasive and seductive sides of US diplomacy” (p.137) but ends up summarizing the different ideals and views of soviets and Americans. Telling different stories of people who found “liberty” by learning about Soviet-American relations and discussing it without being judged. She makes interesting points, but I have to say – throughout the whole book she goes all over the place. The title of the sixth chapter is “The World’s Worst Propaganda” yet all she talks about is how America brought the world into the light by showing them that Soviets were evil. She completely forgot the main point of the book, which was to prove that American stereotypes were wrong – at least that’s what she made it seem the main point of this book was.

The seventh chapter discusses how the US introduced journalism to the rest of the world, how if not for the “free and liberated” people of the US, Europe would not know anything about the rest of the world. We all appreciate the innovations the US introduced to the rest of the world, but America was not who taught us about journalism – we had our own ways of getting news around. People were aware of everything that was going on, and even though radios made it easier for us to learn, doesn’t mean that we weren’t aware of what journalism was. The rest of the chapters, she keeps putting the US on a pedestal, making it look like if not the US then the whole world would be curled up in a hole. We all appreciate what the US did, but they did not teach us how to live and how to be optimistic.

In her own conclusion, she doesn’t mention anything about what she talked about in the first part of her book. She just gives ideas and advices on how to make the world a better place. How to use the American public diplomacy the right way (not the rest of the world, just America). The two parts of her book are barely related, they slightly connect with how the rest of the world views US, but she never discusses how the stereotypes can disappear and how all the movies she previously discussed in the book are important. She makes it seem like she wrote book for the pages, not for the quality. In my personal opinion, this book has no point other than an elderly woman lecturing the rest of the world on how the US is the best country. It’s her country, she loves it, it’s understandable. But she can’t talk as a hypocritical feeble person who judges the rest of the nations for her nation being judged. Her book tries to discuss a lot of topics, where in the end she can’t discuss any of them. It could work as a short essay if a lot of the book was cut out, but as a book it doesn’t make any sense.

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