Playboy, Humor, and Cultural Comparisons

All the Nudes Without Fear or Favor

I have a collection of Playboy magazines that consists of one issue bought in every country I have ever visited.  I collect them not for the articles, and only partly for the pictures.  The main reason I collect them is because I am interested in how editors in different countries market the commodity of sexy women to the consumer.

I could probably do such informal marketing research with something like bread or breakfast cereal, but starting an entry with “I have a collection of bread…” sucks.

My most prized artifact is (appropriately enough) a sextet of July, 2003 Playboys (Holland, Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany) from my first European tour. All of these issues received the same photo essays from Playboy central, USA, but different offices’ photo editors had freedom to choose how to present that material.

Editors sometimes featured different photos; a photo that was a full-page spread in one issue is part of a montage in another.  In the French issue, an essay seemingly about girls that sit and lie on racecars was 75% text while in Italy not a single paragraph distracts from all the breasts.

Most editors chose the USA head office’s Spanish-American beauty as their Playmate of the Month, and ran a companion “Our Country’s Playmate of the Month” pictorial.  The notable exceptions were Germany, whose German Playmate elbowed America’s sweetheart out of the picture entirely, and Spain, who saved some trees by forgoing their National Playmate pictorial to run more photos of American-born Iberian thigh.

I think that it is a trap to draw conclusions from such informal study.  I don’t even try.  What interests me is the fact that differences exist, and then figuring out what those differences are.  I recognize that they arise as much from the tastes of a particular editor as from the tastes of a given nation’s audience, but I do content that the two are related.

I also used to save a daily newspaper from each country, but that newsprint doesn’t conserve nearly as well as the glossy pages of “Entertainment for Men.”

Is it unreasonable to imagine that the same unintentional international editing in Playboy exists in the pages of an “objective” daily journal?  The commodity of information is as vital (though arguably less popular) than the commodity of sex, but the pressure and desire to take editorial license are surely greater in the former than the latter.

In his essay “Imaginary Homelands,” Salman Rushdie uses a metaphor of a movie theater to describe the uselessness of defining the human experience in terms of the present.  To do so is like trying to watch a movie with your nose pressed up against the screen.  I think that the same is true when we are speaking of cultural differences.

What can be simpler to understand than a Playboy?  And yet, if you never read anything but Playboys from your own country, you might be surprised to find that different editions from other countries are anything more than word-for-word translations (as if such things could exist; read Umberto Eco’s Mouse or Rat for a great treatment of the subject) of captions and articles.  Looking over my international collection of Playboys (not nearly as often as I’d like, I’m afraid) I get a very different picture of the subtlety of multinational culture.  For me, it is an abstract picture that is always in motion.  Usually, I see no identifiable patterns or forms, and even if one does emerge, I force myself to look see it as just a transient, meaningless island of logic that caught my eye.  But like any abstract object, it makes a distinct impression on the viewer.

Imagine the complications that would arise if we had the time to explore less intuitive cultural institutions country by country; legislation, foreign policy, environmental issues, etc.  How far would we need to step back to see this picture?  We are forced by circumstance to make sense of these patterns, forming policy based on blind hopes.  Is it any wonder we have had the level of success that we have?  Can future generations afford to be as rooted in one country as their great-grandparents, grandparents, and even parents have been?

Yo momma’s so Japanese she has a Louis Vitton carrying case for her Hello Kitty purse!”

Another unit-less but omnipresent social metric is humor.  When I was growing up between Japan and the USA, the notion that two types of humor (at the time, I took these to be “British” and “the rest of the world’s”) seemed bizarre.  Something was either funny or it was not.

I guess that that is true, actually, something is either funny or it is not, but it is the audience that defines what is funny, not the performer.

In Barcelona, I made thousands of Euros performing on the Ramblas with my best friends.  After about a month of perfecting the show, we took it on tour.  To our surprise, the show that we had been working on and fine-tuning over hundreds of performances was a total flop just across the border in Italy – it just wasn’t funny anymore.  Sure, an audience in an Italian beach town is different from the cosmopolitan Barcelona public, but we felt that we had to tweak our show a little in order to meet local tastes.

Our research methodology: watch a lot of TV in our hostel when we were not performing.  Comedy shows and MTV (as internationally syndicated and altered as Playboy) were indispensable.  What is funny in Italy?  What is sexy in Italy?  What is taboo in Italy?  Unsurprisingly, once we had adapted our show to fit the style we saw on the TV screen, our show was a success again.

As a side note, does this bother anyone else?  The optimist in me maintains that it is culture itself that creates TV programs and not the TV programs that create the culture, but I have my doubts.

As a performer, I have seen this time and time again.  Japanese audiences clap less than Western audiences at acrobatic shows because they feel like they would be disturbing the performers.  For the Ukrainian trapeze artist, though, it feels like the audience is not enjoying the show.

With humor it is even more complicated.

What strikes me about Japanese humor is that it is devoid of irony.  Turn on the TV or watch Japanese people out drinking together, and you will quickly get a sense of how physical, simplistic, and childish Japanese humor is by Western standards.

Conversely, American humor, more than any other country I have visited, depends almost exclusively on sarcastic irony and, to a far lesser extent, on absurdity.  Think of an American sitcom, and now remove any joke that involves a sarcastic statement or action.  What’s left?  Now think of funny Americans: Jon Stewart and the Daily Show cast, Jim Carrey, stand-up comics, Jerry Seinfeld, Mad TV, Saturday Night Live.  Sarcasm is an intellectual tool, and humor in America often comes down to a duel of wits with the winner getting the laugh.  “Yo momma” jokes exhibit this most clearly, but our friends from “Friends” are in the same tradition.  My ninth grade English teacher taught that irony is the basis of all humor, which I still think is true, but sarcastic irony is only one flavor.

Sarcasm does not work in Japan or Taiwan.  If a twenty-year old says sarcastically that she is 35, her friends’ jaws will drop, and they will nod their heads saying that she really doesn’t look it.  Say something absurd, that you are 100, for example, and people will accuse you of lying before finding any humor in the absurdity.  Walk out of the Bolshoi Ballet saying “I could do better than that” and your date would likely respond with, “You are a dancer?”

It is no wonder to me, then, that Japanese people do not get American humor.  Often, my Japanese friends will sheepishly ask me why Americans laugh at a certain movie.  After my explanation is lost on them, they nod their head. “They say the opposite of what they mean.  I see now.”

After seeing how the humor of “Friends” dies in translation (the Japanese language is largely flat-toned with little rhythmic variation, so “Really, I love you so much” and “REEEEEALY, I love you SOOOOOOO much” sound roughly equivalent to the Japanese ear), it made perfect sense to me that it is watched more as a drama than a sitcom in Japan.

The absence of irony is present in other aspects of life as well.  I think that it is part of what accounts for middle-aged women dressing in pink and carrying Hello Kitty accessories.  I think it also contributes to Japanese women consider Louis Vitton bags as exclusive status symbols despite the fact that everyone has them.  It is also no wonder that Americans, born and bred on cynical sarcasm, are quick to rip into this soft underbelly of Japanese popular culture.

Here is the point: all I can say about humor in Japan versus humor in America is that they are different.  The Western half of me is tempted to write off Japanese humor and irony-free pop culture as naïve and childish. Conversely, there is a large part of me that sees the American dependence on sarcasm and absurdity in its humor as symptomatic of the wall of defenses that they seem to build up over the course of their lifetime.  I know that such interpretations ossify negative stereotypes and reflect my own personal frustrations more than reality.

For example, we could just as easily view Americans as being childish and naïve for being such one-trick-ponies in their battles for supremacy of wit.  We could also see the Japanese sense of humor, toothless and immature, as being symptomatic of the wall of defenses that the Japanese are expected to build up over the course of their lifetimes.

It is clear that the difference exists, but any interpretation can be countered with an infinite series of on-the-other-hand’s.  My personal conclusion from all of this is that it is the duty of someone from Culture A to be aware of how their culture is perceived by Culture B, Culture C, and Culture D, and also to be conscious of their personal perceptions of those other cultures.  One both sides road are two equally dangerous traps: the trap of Cultural Bigotry and the trap of Cultural Fetishism.

Despite my best intentions, I am sad to say that I have fallen victim to both traps in the recent past; it is easier to see when two other cultures are misunderstanding each other than when you are the one misunderstanding and being misunderstood in return.

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