Why Watch International Media?

With more Americans than ever watching international television and movies, the question is raised: why?  Why do we here at With An Accent love international media so much, and why are we not alone among a growing American public doing the same?  We cover that in brief on our “About” page, but now seems like just the right time to go into it in more detail.

The question can be answered with two main points.  The first, and more complex, is that international media is educational.  I don’t mean like documentaries or “edu-tainment” specifically designed to teach.  I mean that we can learn a lot about other cultures from their media.

Definitely not what comes to mind when Americans think of British afternoon tea.

Definitely not what comes to mind when Americans think of British afternoon tea.

Think about it: Hollywood movies and shows are exported around the world.  People from countries across the globe can name our biggest stars or some of our latest flicks.  They recognize some English, and that’s not just because it’s an international language, or because schools in some countries require English classes.  How much of your high school French or Spanish (or German, or whatever) can you summon up?  Speak in?  How often do you think the average citizen in a non-English speaking country has to conduct an international business transaction in English?

The answer to most of these is: little to none, not that often if at all, etc.  Some knowledge might be for these reasons, but some if it could also be from exposure to our media.  It’s the same reason many people in other countries know our biggest stars, but very few in ours could name the biggest stars from other countries.  I don’t mean to say that I expect anyone on the street in any country to know who George Clooney is, but there are few Americans, for example, who’d know Jang Dong Gun (whom I’ve been informed holds a similar A-list status and image in Korea).

There’s an assumption that American media and the American entertainment A-list are the world’s media and the world’s entertainment A-list.  It’s safe to say, then, that people in other countries know more about life and culture in America than we know about life and culture in theirs.

The thing is: there’s no real reason why America ought to be the dominate cultural force.  Setting aside that idea, however, it’s still important that we learn more about other cultures. A great way to do that is from their media.  It’s perhaps not as quick of a process as reading or watching actual educational materials, but it’s more fun, and the trickle-down effect is still valid.  Sometimes I learn about important facets of other countries, like how age relates to hierarchy in Korea (thanks to Baby Faced Beauty), and sometimes I just pick up on small curiosities, like how Kelly and Nathan having chicken nuggets for “tea” in Misfits made me want to explore what that term really means.

Obviously media isn’t a 100% accurate portrayal of everyday real life; that’s just as true for the television and movies of other cultures as it is for ours.  But just as our society might want to emulate the type of life portrayed in our movies, the same is true all over the world.  And we still learn some things, even about the history of other countries if we watch historical pieces.

We might have to take everything we see with a grain of salt, because it’s entertainment and stories and not documentaries, but it’s still a valuable learning experience.  That’s one of the greatest things we can take away from international media: a connection with other cultures, a back-and-forth cultural exchange instead of just one-way.

Red Cliff, one of my top favorite historical films, ever.

Red Cliff, one of my top favorite historical films, ever.

The other primary reason to watch international media is that it’s good.  Beyond an Anglophilia cultivated in childhood, I first really started watching international films, like so many others, in college.  Studio Ghibli movies really kicked it off.  I wanted more fantasy films, but I felt like I’d run out of good American or British ones.  Someone mentioned Spirited Away to me, and that’s really where it all began.  As I was still exploring Ghibli I expanded into other anime like Cowboy Bebop.  Lush historical live action pieces, like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, followed.  The obsession started as a way to experience even more from the genres I loved, when I couldn’t find anything new in my own language.

Since then I’ve stopped viewing international media as an alternative to my own.  Now it’s just more television and movies, not just there for when I run out of appealing stories from my own country, but as part of my regular rotation.  Thanks to my Netflix and especially my kdrama obsession, I watch at least as much international media as I do domestic, if not more.

The Internet has really helped change things.  Before international media might have been viewed as more of an edgy alternative because it was harder to find. One had to go to limited showings in movie theaters in big cities, or purchase special cable packages in order to watch it.  Now it’s easier for me to access than shows on American cable, especially thanks to the commercial-free Netflix.

I love seeing international films and television jumbled up with domestic ones in my Netflix recommendations.  It just proves the point: this stuff is good, just as good as the content produced in Hollywood.  In most cases if the summary appeals to you, there’s no reason not to watch it.  In fact, in many ways, there’s more.  It’ll teach us about the world around us, we’ll be entertained as it’s happening; I don’t really see a downside.  Come watch international media along with us, and With An Accent will always be a fun and thoughtful place to discuss what we’re seeing and learning.

What are some of your favorite international shows and movies?  Let’s get the discussion started in the comments below.