Sexporting an image of American women

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 dancing," said a student who studied in Madrid in spring 2009, "Europeans maintain some distance from each other. Their dancing is more chaste; less sexual."

Freak dancing is defined as bumping, grinding and dry humping one's body against another's, according to the website www.lovetoknow.com. "In Puerto Rico, it is known as 'perrero,' which comes from the Spanish word for dog." The word "freak" is a synonym for a four-letter word starting with F that GlobalPost declines to publish.

American women studying abroad defend their gender, saying little more than American friendliness and openness can result in odd social encounters with men. Some say being recognized as an American is enough to get accosted.

Touring the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Dill was harassed by strangers when they heard her accent.

“It was just very bizarre," she recalled. They said "you are Americans, we want to take you home.” She said she did not believe it was to meet their mothers.

Leah Weyers and Katie Schumacher, American students in Rennes, France said drunken Frenchmen proposed paying them in exchange for sex. They said they were touched inappropriately.

"I don't believe the Amanda Knox case has had any impact on the image of American women abroad," said Andrea Vogt, a freelance journalist based in Italy who covered the case.  "Aside from her role in the murder, there were also a number of cultural differences at play that led some to brand her as the stereotypical American college girl abroad — sexually uninhibited, naive and perhaps a bit culturally out of step.

"It should be noted, though, that thousands of American women go abroad each year who do not fit that mold. This case is definitely outside the norm."

Rachel Fein, who also studied abroad in Italy, said she thinks Italian men perceive American women as innocent and naive.

Italian men "think we don't understand their culture, and are more vulnerable or easy to manipulate," she said. "They also made me feel stupid for not being able to speak their language. At certain places, like restaraunts or stores, it was expected that you know Italian. If you did not, other Italians would look at you funny."

Based on student evaluations after their study abroad, students are often culturally shocked and surprised, said Eka Gabelia, assistant director of admissions for SIT Study Abroad.

"In some countries, women receive more male attention maybe then would be culturally appropriate in other cultures. Like it might be culturally appropriate for a man to follow a woman in one country whereas in the U.S. this would not be," she said. "Also our American students also smile a lot and that smile might be interpreted as more than just a friendly gesture."

Language, or lack of it, is a huge barrier, agreed Ali Kruvant, a junior at Oberlin College in Ohio who has studied abroad in France and will study abroad in Italy this January. Many students who go abroad don't know the native language at all, or as well as they think they do, while international students who come to the U.S. cannot get by without being at least conversational in English.

"If you don’t know the language and make no attempt to learn it while you’re living somewhere for months, I think that is just disrespectful," said Kruvant. Amanda Knox "was living with friends, smoking a lot, and didn’t know Italian, which proved to be a problem for her during the trial," she said. Knox was able to address her jury in Italian only after learning the language in prison.

"Orientation is very important, cultural realities are very, very, different depending on where they go," said SIT's Gabelia. "At orientation after arriving in the host country, we also go over safety, security and health information. It's important to have these orientations because some of the things they do might be interpreted differently."

The stereotype Italian men have of American women is wrong, said Charlotte Alter, a sophomore at Harvard University who studied abroad in Florence. However, "American girls come to Italy with an expectation of fun and romance, much like the movie 'The Roman Holiday.'"

In that 1953 classic, "a bored and sheltered princess escapes her guardians and falls in love ... in Rome," according to the popular movie website IMDB.

"These girls who come from — and I felt a part of this a lot — predictable, great, comfortable, conventional lives think that they are going to come to Italy and get swept up in a romantic adventure," she explained.

Some young women seek out exotic romances, she said. Some women are easily seduced by the soundtrack of accordions, flowers thrown from second-floor windows, a sexy foreign language whispered into the ear, and promises that will not be kept.

"It plays into the fact that girls think that they are living in a movie," she said. "It’s a perfect set up for guys who are trying to pick up girls!

"You think this is so romantic, but in reality, it’s totally not. It’s not a real thing. It’s just a pickup."

Meir, the Israeli,  defends the American women he's met in his country.

"Every American I’ve met has been smart, friendly, and not at all slutty," he said. "Unfortunately.”

This report comes from journalists in our Student Correspondent Corps, a GlobalPost project training the next generation of foreign correspondents while they study abroad. Students Ariana McLean (Tufts) and Louise Ward (Boston College), and recent graduate Sara Sorcher (Tufts) contributed to this article.