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Sexporting an image of American women

Did MTV pave the way for Amanda Knox's guilty verdict?

American student Amanda Knox has been sentenced to more than 30 years in an Italian prison. (Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

In the movie "Love Actually," a geeky British guy bets everything on a plane ticket to the American midwest, betting that American women are beautiful, friendly and ready to have sex with the next British accent that walks through the barroom door.

He is not disappointed.

When he returns to Heathrow Airport in London, he brings the busty Denise Richards, who plants a big wet one on his friend as an introduction.

“When we think of American girls, we think of pillow fights and girls running around half-naked,” laughed Nir Meir, a 28-year-old Israeli from Tel Aviv. Young Israelis see American women just like the women seen in movies about "typical" college life, he said.

“These movies bring out the most extreme stereotypes about women, but that’s where we get our impressions," he shrugged. "I’m sure that most Americans don’t actually act like this.”

American students dance on a bar in Taiwan. (Jimmie Collins (University of Texas)/GlobalPost)
American students dance on a bar in Taiwan. (Jimmie Collins (University of Texas)/GlobalPost)

Meir doesn't sound entirely convinced, and when you're abroad, it's easy to see why. Images of young, scantily clad, hip-thrusting American girls have been exported far and wide for decades through video, movies, television and print ads.

“He really loves women like that," said American student Miro Cassetta about her 14-year-old host brother in France, an eager consumer of MTV and VH1 videos. "And he thinks that’s real. He thinks that American women are going to be like that.”

Critics of Amanda Knox, an American study-abroad student in Italy convicted of murdering her British roommate, cited her alleged American hyper-sexuality as reason to convict, despite little physical evidence tying her to the crime.

In this video, students explain in their own words the meaning of "hooking up."
By Chrissie Attura, Allen Irwin, Julie Mitarotondo and Sara Sorcher (Tufts University)


"A lot of French people think that America is like MTV, like 'The Hills,' 'Next' and all of that," said Meaghan M. Dill in Paris.

Although "The Hills" and "Next" are promoted as "reality TV" by their producers, media critics have pointed out that episodes are loosely scripted and characters are actors pretending to be real. In America, most viewers understand that reality TV is not ... real.

"Many French people ask me if my life is like MTV," Dill sighed. 

Stereotypes of loose, stupid American women arriving in Europe just to shop and drink are not new. In his book "Seductive Journey" published in May 2000, Harvey Levenstein describes this perception as far back as the late 19th century. Henry James' novel "Daisy Miller," about a girl whose flirtatiousness led to her early death, became a byword for American tourists in France in 1878. Even the word "flirt" became popular in France specifically to describe Americans.

Today, the picture is painted of girls gone bad, spending their time overseas wantonly without the judgmental watch of parents, professors and society. Smiling and friendliness — as American as McDonald's, another popular export — sends the wrong signals abroad. In the Middle East, American women who smile, maintain eye contact and extend a strong handshake can be seen as offensively aggressive. 

Reality and fantasy often swirl in hazy and inaccurate smoke signals across the Big Pond and beyond.

Kikko Lombardo, a popular DJ and bartender in Rome who promotes parties for international students through Facebook, described the typical stereotype in Italy as "American girls are always drunk, and they are really easy, horny and good in bed."

"Not me," he wrote in an email. "Those are stupid Italian stereotypes that Italians say. (Not me, I don't.)"

American women in Italy are "loud, drunk and easy. They come to Italy to take a semester-long vacation," said American Alyssa Johnson after the Amanda Knox verdict.

At bars and clubs where American students get to know local students outside the classroom, cultural cues can be confusing and misinterpreted.

"Americans bump and grind their private parts while freak