I’m not sure how many of us would admit it, but we Americans still lug around the mindset of a colonized people. One place this is strangely clear is on reality television. A lot of our scripted films and movies are about plucky upstarts triumphing over the perceived snobbery of wealthy or well-educated elites. (Often the elites have English accents.) But a surprising portion of our reality TV involves getting yelled at by British people.
There are some banal, functional reasons this is the case: a lot of the whole category of “reality television” is imported from the UK. Still, there’s a particular type we’ve embraced. British people have come to explain to us that we suck at trivia (“The Weakest Link”), singing (“American Idol”), raising children (“Nanny 911,” “Supernanny”), managing or cooking in restaurants (“Kitchen Nightmares,” “Hell’s Kitchen”), and training pets (“It’s Me or the Dog”). An Australian tells us we don’t know how to run hair salons (“Tabatha’s Salon Takeover”), which for our purposes turns out to be somehow the same; we’re bad enough at accents that the people she deals with often think she’s English. Most of these shows are direct imports from the UK. But consider what that says: out of all the things we might import from British television, the ones we find most valuable are The Office and getting yelled at for not knowing what the hell we’re doing.
Our homegrown reality television has a very, very different pedagogical dynamic. The majority of it is not instructive, except in the sense that gawking at really bad examples is instructive. When we do instruct, within our ranks, we’re obligated to be egalitarian about it: we are supportive, with maybe a hint of tough love, and we instruct from a position of proven expertise. (Consider the judging panel on “Top Chef,” and then the grating deployment into it of Toby Young, who was clearly sent out to add an imperious, hypercritical British tone — and, in that environment, be mocked and hated and look like an ass over it.)
Any American attempting the British mode risks getting hit with a classic American question: Who the hell does she think she is? When the British arrive alone, they have an answer for that question: I’m British. That’s who. We tend not to know enough about them to undermine their authority on grounds of familiarity with their type or their class — we can’t say that we know who they are and they need to quit being uppity about it. Outside of really wide vocal disparities — a donnish voice versus a swearing Cockney or a ripe Scots — most of us don’t follow too many nuances of accent. If you are English and can string words together with any confidence, you will strike many people as somewhat professorial. We have an innate pedagogical response to the very accents themselves.
All of which is totally not-new and just so transparently colonial. For a plucky swaggering live-free-or-die upstart of a nation, we remain oddly cowed by the British in matters of intellect and propriety. (Far more so than our mutual being-cowed-by-the-French in matters of elegance!) God help us we would never accept such things from within our own country. Our egalitarianism is a prickly one. We’re wary of elites, even when they’re relatively meritocratic ones. We’re neurotically skeptical of intellectualism. We go so far as to develop things like that whole “paranoid style in American politics,” which absolutely contains a post-colonial mindset: this wounded, resentful fear that someone, somewhere, well-spoken and wearing fancy clothes, thinks he’s better than you and is scheming to suppress or exploit you over it. (Maybe he will take your guns away: how Revolution-era is it that this is still a gut-level issue of horror for so many Americans?) We’ve fueled our growth with immigration, and we’ve instilled the same sensibilities in immigrants — often by suppressing and exploiting and condescending to them, teaching our prickly egalitarianism by acting in inegalitarian ways.
And yet right now, TV-wise, the British are in a good place: we are just so happy to be criticized by them! Apart from Simon Cowell, we don’t even much resent them over it. Does this mean our colonial self-esteem is in a bad place or a good one?