It is incredibly hard to gain an idea of what a country feels like without actual experience there. To make up for it, I guess, we tend to use sources of information that are very, very indirect.
So it happened that Albanians started crossing the strait into Italy, fooled by Italian soap operas into thinking that every Italian lives in a marble palace, and that even the poor can afford a bedroom for each child. Imagine the shock when they landed into one or the poorer parts of the country and found laundry hanging from the balconies, and the cars tiny and old.
Before coming to America, I had a similar image of the place, grown from decades of watching American movies and TV shows. I did know that the wealth displayed in the movies was an ideal (mostly since we had the same type of fiction in our own movies). What I didn’t know was that the America that comes across in Hollywood productions is similarly fictionalized when it comes to attitudes and customs.
I’ll give you a glaring example: any decent Hollywood movie has to have at least a car chase scene, a gun fight, and a sex scene. This is such a powerful trope that those three have to be inserted into movies even when they don’t make a whole lot of sense to the story. Why is there a car chase on the freeways in the Matrix Trilogy? How do you get to gun fighting in the Star Wars universe? Surely, nobody would be dumb enough to randomly shoot in a starship, right?
Why does a Hollywood movie have to have those three elements, though? What is it about the gun fight, the car chase, and the sex scene that is so important?
Drive around in America, and you’ll notice that drivers are incredibly safe, on average. Even where the drivers are famed for being rude and aggressive (in L.A. or New York), they are tame by comparison. I notice this most when I fly back to Italy after a long absence: the first few hours I am hunkering in the passenger seat, terrified at all the cars shooting past us, while my brother zips in and out just inches (sorry, millimeters) from other vehicles.
Car chase scenes are fascinating to Americans because they never really happen. When there is a police pursuit, the nation is glued to the TV screen, because they never get to see that in real life.
When it comes to guns, Europeans think that America is drenched in them. It is definitely true that guns are freely available to a degree uncommon in some other parts of the world: I can go to the local WalMart and there is a whole section devoted to guns and ammo.
Many people have guns in their cars and homes. It is part of a mentality of self-defense that is a child of the general sense of independence, and ultimately loneliness, that pervades the frontier mentality. You are on your own. If you don’t have a gun, nobody is going to protect you.
While that is true, it’s also true that those guns are seldom used. In the fifteen years I have lived in America, the only mention of gun use I have ever encountered is when I was told such-and-such had been gunned down by a crazed security guard/neighbor/relative. I don’t know anyone who was killed while a crime (other than the shooting) was committed. I don’t know anyone who claims to have been saved by a gun.
Given my limited experience, I would say guns are about as relevant to the daily life of Americans as they are to the daily life of the Dutch. That is, not at all. They are there, and they are useless – in the literal sense of without use.
Sex scenes have a strangely similar function. It’s not that Americans don’t have sex – they certainly have birth rates that prove otherwise! Americans never encounter sex on a daily basis. While an Italian woman may glance longingly at my hind quarters passing me on a street in Rome, or a married man may give me a neck massage for no apparent reason, in America that’s all considered impolite.
Sex is there, it does happen, but it’s hidden. It doesn’t come up in polite conversation, and desire is something best concealed. Parents wait for their children to be out of the house to sleep with each other (at least they say they do). Mothers pretend their children don’t have sex until they are out of the house. The very idea that a boyfriend and girlfriend would be sleeping in the same bed seems odd here. Not under my roof!
So, you see, Hollywood portrays an America that is ideal – to Americans. Americans want to have an exciting sex life. They want to be able to use those guns. They would love to flaunt the rules of the road and speed like demons chased by blue lights. But they don’t.
America’s idealization continues in many ways. Smoking, for instance, is considered taboo. Drugs are invariably something evil. People climb out of bed after sex wearing their tighty whities. Teenagers – even in shows that are about teenage romance – hold out for the right guy.
The one exception to this idealization is alcohol. Alcohol flows freely in Hollywood movies. Drinks are everywhere, people are constantly at bars, and no meal goes unpunished without bottles of wine spilling everywhere. I hope that changes, since alcohol is a real threat to the fabric of American society.
In conclusion, comparing the real America with Hollywood America gives me one strong impression: that Americans are mostly bored with their lives. Movies bring excitement: speed, danger, passion. And you as a foreigner coming to America should read them as that, wishes more than reality.