Saturday, July 11, 2009

French View of American Cinema - Cultural Values

Cultural exchanges serve a variety of purposes. They can be used to bridge political divides, increase the understanding of another nation, or provide an export market for products and services. When one culture's domination of a particular medium exists, their may be mistrust and resentment when it is exported to other parts of the world.

In the United States, the making of films is considered an industry. In this view, Los Angeles is a factory town that produces films, television shows, and musical recordings in the same way that Gary, Indiana produces steel and refines oil. In other parts of the world, however, the making of films is considered an art form much like writing a novel or poetry. Nowhere is this cultural divide more apparent than the consideration of cinema in the United States and France.

The French view of American cinema is well expressed by film producer Marin Karmitz. Karmitz has stated that, "the U.S. movie industry is big business, but behind the industrial aspect, there is also an ideological one. Sound and pictures have always been used for propaganda, and the real battle at the moment is over who is going to be allowed to control the world's images, and so sell a certain lifestyle, a certain culture, certain products, and certain ideas" (Francesco 441). Is French culture threatened by the importation of American films and entertainment? A closer examination of the two competing cultures, and the role of the cinema in each, is important in finding the answer.

American and French Cinema

The Role of the Cinema in France

The Battle of France and the resulting German victory in 1940 led to an era of intense internal examination of French culture as a means of finding an answer, and fixing blame, for the defeat. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the case of the 1937 film "Le Grande Illusion" (which was banned by the French Government in 1939). Jean Renior's film was one of the most popular French films of the interwar years and was the culmination of a series of anti-war films that began with Gance's "J' Accuse" in 1919. The "Grand Illusion" is that war solves anything (Jackson 148). After the defeat, this movie, along with novels by Proust and Cocteau, were blamed for creating a pacifist culture in France that led to the defeat. Marin Karmitz's comments about the power of film quoted above, therefore, are well grounded in French history and culture.

The Motion Picture Industry in America

In contrast to foreign filmmakers, the American film industry views its products as a commodity. The object is to make a film, market and distribute it, and reap the profits (Francesco 442). While "Slaughterhouse Five" and "One Flew over the Cuckoos' Nest" are examples of American filmmakers producing thoughtful, philosophical pictures, these are exceptions rather than the rule. Most American films are produced purely for entertainment value and, at the same time, do well financially both in the U.S. and overseas.

Contrasting French and American Culture

As stated in the text, "organizational and national cultures influence organizational behavior" (Francesco 13). An understanding of the differing views of the entertainment industry between the United States and France can only be arrived at by an examination of their cultures.

Hofstede's Dimensions of Cultural Values

Hofstede's Dimensions of Cultural Values provides a useful tool in examining the differing cultures in France and United States. Based on his analysis of over 100,000 IBM employees across the world, Hofstede determined that there are dimensions to explain differing cultures: individualism/collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and masculine feminine.


In individualist societies, people are more concerned with themselves and their families than with others. Reflecting this, organizations attempt to honor the individual and base promotion and compensation on individual effort. This holds true even when individuals are part of a team.

In collectivist countries, the overall good of the group is paramount. This holds especially true in the former Soviet Union and its satellites despite their conversion to free market economies. The expectation in these societies is that individuals will subordinate their goals for the good of the group.

Under Hofstede's analysis, both the United States and France are individualist societies. In both countries, individual initiative is important and rewarded. Applying this analysis to the film industry, it is easy to see that films in both countries are primarily identified by their lead actors and producers.

Power Distance

Power distance is defined as the level to which less powerful members of an organization accept that power is unevenly distributed.

A small power distance society is uncomfortable with power distances. These distances may be based on economic wealth, education, or organizational ranking. It is considered positive behavior for someone in a high-level position to treat someone at a lower level as an equal. Organizations in small power distance societies tend to have more participation at all levels in the decision making process.

In a large power distance society, an individual's societal or organizational level influences their behavior and the behavior of others toward them. While persons in a higher organizational or societal position treat others with respect, the differences in rank are clear and never fully forgotten. In large power societies, decisions are made by leaders with little or no input from those below them on the hierarchical ladder. Delegation of decision-making is rarely done.

While the U.S. is a small power distance society in Hofstede's analysis, France in contrast is a large power distance society. This fact was parodied in a 1941 political cartoon. In the cartoon "two bemused French peasants are being told by an intellectual: 'How can you be surprised [about the defeat]? You gorged yourselves on the works of Proust, Gide, and Cocteau.' All these writers shared in common the fact that they are homosexual" (Jackson 4). Not only does this cartoon portray the ideals of the elites, it also points out again the importance of the arts in swaying French public opinion.

American organizations in theory, if not always in practice, value the input of individuals regardless of their societal or organizational rank. Several years ago, Sperry Rand Corporation ran an advertising campaign based on the idea of listening. In its advertisements, it portrayed an executive at the end of the day discussing the company with an older member of the maintenance department. The message Sperry Rand tried to convey was that its executives were open to ideas regardless of their source.

Uncertainty Avoidance

Uncertainty avoidance defines the preferred amount of structure in a society. This structure may involve civil laws or strict conduct of behavior at the one extreme, and the acceptance of a wide range of behaviors at the other.

In a strong uncertainty avoidance society, people prefer structure and explicit rules of behavior. As is true in many large power distance societies, there is a strong respect for experts. The risk avoidance behavior found in these cultures can lead to a dearth of new commercial ventures and a desire among managers to remain employed by the same organization for a long period of time.

In contrast, weak uncertainty avoidance societies favor unstructured situations, strong feelings of personal confidence, and entrepreneurial behavior.

French society is marked by strong uncertainty avoidance. This may be explained in part by the painful experiences of two world wars in the 20th century and may explain its attitude toward the arts. In a society where experts and intellectuals are respected because of their social rank, high value is placed on the arts and the protection of native culture.

American society in contrast is marked by weak uncertainty avoidance. The entrepreneurial nature of the American movie industry is underscored by two facts. The first is that the early movie pioneers in California did not move to the West Coast for its abundance of sunshine, but to be free of Thomas Edison's lawyers who were demanding royalties for the use of Edison's technology. Secondly, many of California's early studios were founded by Jewish businessmen from the East Coast, who because of prejudice, were blocked from pursuing traditional careers in banking and big business.


In masculine societies, success, assertiveness, and competition are rewarded. In feminine cultures, personal relationships, care for others, and quality of life are highly valued. Hofstede defines American society as masculine and French society as feminine.There are several ways to view the motion picture and entertainment industries in this light. On the one hand, American films tend to be action oriented with an assertive and successful hero or heroine. At the same time, American studios were founded by risk takers who were rewarded financially for their efforts.

French films in contrast tend to be contemplative and less action oriented. As "Le Grande Illusion" illustrates, French films are often overtly political in nature.


French and American films are different. Likewise, the attitude of French and American filmmakers toward their industry's role in society is different. Hofstede's Dimensions of Cultural Values provides a framework with which to explore these differences. French society can be characterized as individualistic, large power distance, strong uncertainty avoidant, and feminine. In contrast, American society is characterized as individualistic, small power distance, weak uncertainty avoidant, and masculine.

When view through the lens of culture, it is not difficult to understand how the French populace feels threatened by the American entertainment industry. Since French culture is so closely tied to the arts and influenced by it, as the movie "Le Grande Illusion" illustrates, the average French citizen may rightly feel threatened by the influx of the American media. In a society that values structure, uncertainty avoidance, and care for others, the often violent, high action American cinema productions may cause anxiety, fear, and loathing for those who produce such epics. At the same time, French citizens should question the impact this type of entertainment will have on their society and be wary of the threat it possesses to their culture.

Works Cited

Francesco, Anne Marie and Barry Allen Gold. International Organizational Behavior. 1998. Prentice-Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ.Jackson, Julian. The Fall of France, The Nazi Invasion of 1940. 2003. Oxford University Press: New York.

Edward Fadden is a native of Chicago. He has worked for over 20 years in a variety of industries including pharmaceuticals and banking. In addition to professional writing, he is working on his first novel.

Edward and his wife Deborah reside in Chicagoland. He holds a Master's degree from Shorter College in Rome, Georgia

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