This other kid I saw at a certain house is a true boss. He controls the television remote in that household. Weekdays he watches his favourite television shows. It does not matter if the adults want to watch the news. He is the boss.
I suppose the pay-off for his busy parents is that television babysits him while they chase their busy careers. They have to earn a living to afford him the chance to attend his private school. It is a marvel, however. My dad would simply never allow it. Weekdays, no television beyond 8pm was his golden rule (unless if you sneak into the lounge when he is fast asleep).
Growing up, there were a lot of “delectable” American television shows to watch, such as Dynasty, Dallas and Falcon Crest. These shows provided frenzied talking points for many households who had the privilege to own a television or at least have a congenial neighbour who had one.
Of course, you had to first bathe before being allowed to visit a neighbour’s home and be made to sit on the floor to watch the Incredible Hulk and other favourites such as Batman and Superman.
We could not get enough of them. But limited television fed our love for reading and Louis L’amour novels were some of the books that rescued me from boredom. These books depicting cowboys in the American West were truly effective diversions for ghetto youths trying to escape gang activities or impregnating some girl. You can imagine my alacrity at the amount of television parents now allow their kids to watch.
What was lost on us growing up is the fact that as we watched television, we were consumming the cultural output of a particular society and internalising it subconsciously.
A lot of kids wanted to be superheroes or to have some bionic powers like the six million-dollar man. Looking back, greed became cool because JR Ewing the fictitious Dallas, Texas oil man made it so. Alexis Colby the queen of the soap opera Dynasty, glamourised the idea of a woman using her sexuality and cunning to get her way with powerful men and ultimately conquer them.
We lived vicariously through these characters and perhaps along the way we lost our innocence (if ever we had it). But America continued leading us culturally; to feel, talk and act in a certain way. Their goods such as cars and houses were grand, they triggered fantasies. Everything looked ever so glossy and their streets were “really” paved with gold. Hook, line and sinker we bought into the American dream.
But what was it that we were really being subliminally programmed into by our consumption of American products? In essence, while millions of teenagers idolised musicians such as Michael Jackson and sports superstar Michael Jordan, they were “buying” into a fantasy — the fantasy that you too could be the greatest.
For example, Motown’s 25th anniversary was a magic moment for township youth of my generation. When Michael “moonwalked” across the staged before a stunned television audience of millions of people, he jumped into demi-god status.
He became the greatest entertainer in the world, while deftly feeding a smitten showbiz universe with PR that both tantalised curious fans and enhanced his mystique. We heard rumours about his exploits of sleeping in an oxygen tank, among other exploits. And when it was rumoured that Jackson wore his glove because he did not want germs to percolate his skin, MJ, as his fans called him, was altogether weird and wonderful in their eyes. Fans just could not get enough trivia about him.
But Jackson was not the only one. There was Larry Hagman, who played the villain JR in Dallas and Shaft and Madonna the scandalous one. Put together, these Americans were a heady mix of culture that we uncritically drooled upon and even sought to emulate.
The lines between fact and fiction were ever so blurred the more television sets households introduced into homes across the world. Oh and when colour television was invented, it was pure joy to see our “heroes” in living colour. The reality is that America has both good and bad parts.
Countries as brands
What has America sold the world if not the very idea of its excellence in marketing itself ? The most expensive phone in the world today is from a United States company, which by the way is now worth one trillion dollars, according to recent business reports. The iPhone is a coveted phone.
The question for people around the world should be why is this phone so pricy and so beloved? To give an example of just how pervasive and effectively America has won the culture war, look at how it is that all around the world people generally have no qualms wearing the American flag.
I walk through the streets and I see people wearing apparel be they T-shirts or caps inscribed with the letters NY or Nike. NY stands for New York. It may take a while before natives wear letters such as GP (Gauteng/Johannesburg) or BYO (for Bulawayo) with similar aplomb.
I want to see a day when a cap inscribed with the words “Africa”, “Zimbabwe” will evoke as much pride as the one written US does. Other countries such as Germany have produced goods the world has coveted, such as the Mercedes-Benz. Incidentally, Germany is a country renowned for its engineering prowess as was Japan revered for its technological supremacy in the 1980s and 1990s.
In fact, Japan rules albeit quietly. Africa depends on Japan for transportation. Look into Africa’s streets and affordable but second-hand Japanese cars have found a scrapyard all too eager on our soil.
Quoted in a book I am reading, by authors Anholt and Hildreth, called Brand America, the then American President Woodrow Wilson told the International Congress of Salesmanship “to go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy and convert them to the principles of America”.
What does Africa sell? What does Zimbabwe stand for today? What is it that we can offer the world? That is the question worth tackling and a grenade worth exploding in our midst.