On the Map: Traveling Soon? Don't Forget to Pack Your Stereotype Repellent!
"There are three sure things in life," Toni's joke began. "Death, taxes, and Aussie girls." It was Christmas Eve and there was load shedding, so a group of travelers gathered around a tiny generator-run space heater and tealight candles sipping Everest beer inside the shared lounge of our guesthouse in Kathmandu. A veritable United Nations, the group consisted of Toni, a Kiwi woman working as an urban planner in Abu Dhabi; newly dating Irish couple Garry and Roisin; Nepali guesthouse owner Pujan; two Londonites living in Dubai; a pair of Germans teaching English in Bangkok, and three Americans, recent college grad Matt from one of the flyover states, my partner, and me. Having racked up a fair amount of globetrotting amongst the eleven of us, we were swapping stories about stereotypes we'd heard or experienced while traipsing around the world.
One thing we all agreed on is that Australian women have the worst reputation--no matter what country you're in or from--for sexual promiscuity, with American women sliding easily into second place. I've written quite a bit about my own experience with this phenomenon, so I won't go into detail here, but I will say that the MTV and Hollywood contrived images of American women don't only affect the perception of who we are and how we should be treated in our own country. They also effect the perception and treatment of women from the US while traveling, studying, and working abroad.
A recent Global Post article* examined the "sexporting" of stereotypes held about American women by men and women in Tel Aviv, France, and Rome. An Italian bartender and club promoter told the journalist that his customers think "American girls are always drunk, and they are really easy, horny, and good in bed," but insists he doesn't hold that belief himself. The journalist also spoke to an American women going to school in Paris about the source of these commonly held notions in France, and Meaghan Dill replied, "A lot of French people think that America is like MTV, like 'The Hills,' 'Next' and all of that. Many French people ask me if my life is like MTV." Dill goes on to say that she was sexually harassed at the Eiffel Tower when men heard her American English accent, and my own experiences living in India mimic those of Dill's.
Unfortunately, verbal annoyance isn't the worst that can happen when cultural misunderstanding and sexist entitlement collide. The image of sexual permissiveness can sometimes compromise American women's safety while traveling in ways that don't equally affect American men--or at least not ones who are straight. I've been told by a handful of gay friends that similar stereotypes exist for them and these falsely applied notions have similar outcomes for them during their travels. It should also be said that the negative media images exported of people of color--essentially, that they're poor, violent, oversexed, and uneducated criminals--makes an impact on how they are viewed and treated as well, which my Haitian American friend experienced when she came to visit me last month.
So how are women instructed to handle these frequent so-called misunderstandings (which are really less misunderstandings than intentional misrepresentation on the part of American media)? From the Lonely Planet to study abroad guidelines, women are told to simply alter our behavior when traveling in order to reduce the likelihood of unwanted advances and hostile incidents, which is a lot like putting a band-aid on a wound that others are constantly ripping back open. Yes, behaving modestly is a harm reduction strategy that can have some degree of effectiveness for those of us who choose to enact it out of cultural respect, but if the American media machine fails to accurately represent the diversity of American women (and other foreigners confirm the stereotypes), then the overall picture that is exported will continue to remain the same.
* Thanks to Jess Frank for sending us the Global Post article that prompted this post!
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