This week, in Visual Culture and Modern Publics – a joint course with the History M.A. program at Trent – we discussed the rise of American mass culture, and specifically the international popularity of the exhibition (which, historically, was a national event that displayed the most innovative technological advancements and products of the time) and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show tour. As Robert W. Rydell and Rob Kroes explain in their book Buffalo Bill in Bologna, these shows were a key contributor to globalization of American culture around the world. Just after the United States of America unified as a nation, it needed to create an identity for its citizens so that they could take pride and feel connected to “America” and “being American.” Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show provided the opportunity to build this image of the “ideal American” through the cowboy figure’s exploration of new frontiers and building up of the capitalist “American Dream” of progress and domination. Buffalo Bill, and this spectacular show, became a consumable form of mass culture that American society and the international community could buy into; also adopt the capitalist ideology and consumerist lifestyle. This past weekend, the legendary annual sporting event, the Super Bowl, took place. I see this sporting event as our generation’s version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show for a variety of reasons:
- The sport of “football” is quintessentially American. Don’t be confused – this version of “football” is nothing like the British version of “football.” American football is a sport, along with baseball, that is specifically associated with American culture, and the football player is an “All-American” figure similar to Buffalo Bill. American mass media constantly portrays the stock “popular jock figure” in film and television as a football player, and football scholarships are seen as incredible achievements that allow students “free rides” to university.
- The Super Bowl has advertisements for its advertisements. Consumerism is a key part of the Super Bowl experience. Companies produce commercials and pay handsomely for a spot in the commercial line-up. Even though these ads are not aired in Canada, they appear to be getting attention and more Youtube hits than the game itself.
- The half-time show of a football game is a concert. Much like in the traditional exhibition (as mentioned above) and Buffalo Bill’s tour, the States can show off its spectacular high-tech production skills through the full concert that is inserted into the half-time show. This year, Katy Perry – along with Lenny Kravitz, and Missy Elliot – blew audiences away with her spectacular (and mildly confusing) performance, which you can watch here.
So, the United States seems to need to use spectacular performances, such as the Super Bowl, in order to reassert and reaffirm an identity built on “American”-ness.