FAST-US-7 U.S. Popular Culture Class Questions
U.S. Popular Culture Class Questions — 2005
FAST-US-7 United States Popular Culture
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere


(Questions anonymized and presented in the order they were received)
1. I find the phenomenon of children's beauty pageants in America both
   mystifying and repugnant. Two-year-olds wearing make-up and false
   teeth: isn't this a form of child abuse? Are there children's beauty
   pageants in other countries, and if so, did they originate in America?
   What is it about the American mindset that makes people do this kind of
   thing? (cf. The Whys and Woes of Beauty Pagaents)

2. In what ways do American schools perpetuate the myth that America is
   the greatest country in the world: the country of justice, equality,
   democracy, and freedom? I suppose every country believes itself to be
   the best place to live, but I have a feeling that the propaganda in
   America goes beyond that in Finland. I'm sure there are great
   differences between states and schools but I hope you can give a few
   examples.

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1. Is it true that you can't get proper insurance if you are not employed?
   This came up in a movie called John Q. There's a man whose son needs a
   heart transplant, but his insurance won't cover it because he's only
   working part-time and can't get better insurance from the company he's
   working in. This seems very different from Finland, where anyone can
   get insurance if they have the money, regardless of their employment.
   Are there many private insurance companies in America and if there are,
   are they so expensive that ordinary, working people can't buy their
   insurance?

2. What is it with cops and donuts?? I agree that donuts taste good and
   everything, but why is it just cops who seem to like them so much? Or
   is this phenomenon a bit exaggerated in movies and TV?

3. If someone has 'brady-like' parents, what are they like? I know that
   this refers to The Brady Bunch, but I have never seen it. Are they some
   kind of ideal parents? And is this adjective 'brady-like' used really
   or did I just happen to spot a really unique expression? :)

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1. There was an interesting news item a while ago about US conservative
   Christian groups (Focus on the Family) attacking the cartoon character
   SpongeBob Squarepants, claiming that it was pro-gay propaganda. A few
   years ago there was a similar case involving one of the teletubbies.
   How much can right-wing Christian groups influence or censor popular
   culture in the US?

2. For quite some time now the quality of British TV has been criticized
   and the BBC has been accused of "dumbing down". At the same time we are
   getting lots of highly acclaimed TV series from the US, such as Six
   Feet Under, the Sopranos and Angels in America, even though American
   television has had a reputation of producing only low-quality
   entertainment. Has there been some cultural change that has allowed
   these shows to be produced?

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1. In the past few years minority groups have started to appear in
   television series more and more. Especially gay and lesbian main
   characters are becoming very popular. Why is this happening now? Many
   of these shows are broadcast in Finland with a large following. How
   popular are they in the US? Are they on in all parts of the US or just
   in the 'more liberal' states?

2. What would the corresponding idea be in the US to the 'Elovena-girl
   /factor'? When you mentioned it, I automatically thought of 'Quaker
   Oats' for some reason. What are the associations Americans have with
   'Quaker Oats'?

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1. What is the game Marco Polo about? I've seen it played in the pool in
   Tv-series like the Sopranos and the Simpsons. When playing the game,
   participants seem to be moving around in the pool and calling out
   'marco' and 'polo' at each other. I just don't understand it :)

2. How much of the culture that average Americans digest in their lifetime
   is from outside the US? Is everything Americans see on television for
   example made in America? A lot of British series seem to be made into
   American versions, would Americans ever see the original shows?

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1. American black people often have these beautiful names with a 'prefix'
   such as La (as in La'Trice or La'Toya). Where do these names come from?
   Do random people have this kind of names or is there a certain area or
   'society class' where the names are most common?

2. How do Americans feel about slang and dialects? Are the ways of
   speaking in, for example, New York and San Francisco remarkably
   different, as they are between Tampere and Turku? Do people from all
   around the States understand each other?

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1. In American tv shows, especially talk shows, there are always
   references to certain people (Martha Stewart, Oprah...). I don't always
   know who these people are, but I was wondering: do all Americans know?
   The larger talk shows must be broadcasted all over the states, but the
   country is just SO big, do people in California know who a tv host in
   Florida is talking about?

2. What is the movie-going culture like in the U.S.? It seems that in
   sitcoms and tv-shows they are always "going to the movies", way more
   often than we do here in Finland. I have understood that it is almost
   as expensive to see a movie in the States as it is in Finland, is this
   true? I think Finnish people have had to cut down on how often they go
   to the movies because of the price.

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1. A few years back people used to say "yes/no, sir-ree bob" a lot. I at
   least remember Jay Leno using it a lot as a kind of a punch-line. What
   is the origin of this saying? Is there some guy named Bob that should
   be blamed for this?

2. Often in sitcoms, when kids steal something from another kid, they say
   "possession is nine tenths of the law". Apparently the origins of this
   are in the English common law, but how did it end up in the US? What
   does it really mean?

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1. I guess this question might be a bit out-of-date, but I'd like to know
   whether there are (have been) any popular children's board games in
   America that parents play (have played) with their children and a lot
   of people (of certain age group) are likely to know.

   If I think of my class mates back at school, I'm almost certain that
   they all know and most likely have played games like Afrikan Tähti,
   Kimble, Monopoly, and some sort of muistipeli (memory game?). People of
   my age (late twenties, early thirties) might also remember games like
   Hullunkuriset perheet, Musta Pekka, Uno, Domino, and Fortuna (or
   perhaps it's just that my parents were a bit twisted, I don't know). At
   any rate, people of my age who have children seem to pass these games
   to their offspring as well, so I think they represent a sort of common
   cultural background for us.

   While I do realize it's impossible for you to answer for the whole
   nation, it would be nice to hear whether you've had similar experiences
   in your childhood and adolescence in America or when you've kept in
   contact your home country later.

2. Another question partly to do with childhood I guess: When does an
   average (..like he existed, but anyway) American kid get his or her
   library card and what is the American library system like? Are there
   public city libraries like in Finland where anyone living in the area
   having a library card can borrow books for free? Do school classes make
   trips to libraries like we did in my childhood?

   I have a feeling that an average Finnish child visits library at a
   fairly early age (long before starting school) and children from all
   socio-economic backgrounds tend to visit libraries regardless of
   whether their parents encourage them to do so or not, but this might,
   of course, be my wishful thinking or perhaps I socialize with a far too
   homogenous bunch of people, I don't know.

   Anyway, it seems to me that our free libraries provide people with a
   fairly good opportunity to educate themselves should they wish to do
   so, and the Finnish education system has traditionally introduced all
   children to libraries. Perhaps you could do a bit of a comparison with
   the American situation in this matter?

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1. One of my favourite TV shows as a kid was the Bill Cosby Show. Was this
   the first television show with an African American in the lead role?
   And was it watched mainly by African American audiences or did it have
   a wider appeal?

2. A friend told me that in the U.S. young people move out of their
   parents' house much later than here in Finland, where most people move
   out by the age of 18. Is this true and, if so, why? And is there a law
   which says how old a person must be before they can move away from
   their parents?

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1. Is it true that in American high schools, the day is started with
   everyone standing up, holding a hand to their heart and singing the
   national anthem? I have heard these stories from people who have been
   in the U.S. as exchange students, but this is not something that's
   endorsed in, for example, American TV shows. In Finland, of course,
   this kind of nationalism would be considered weird, to say the least.

2. Still on nationalism: how is it possible that, considering the size and
   diversity of the country, Americans are able to hold such a unified
   front and are OK with America being "all these other things" as well as
   what they consider familiar? This is a big issue in the E.U., with
   regional variation being so dramatic that people from, say, Finland and
   Spain might not have much in common. Is it things like singing the
   national anthem every day that "glues" the nation together?

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1. What is the origin of American talk shows? It seems that nowadays there
   at least are two types of talk shows, day-time shows (Oprah etc.) and
   talk shows that are broadcast later (Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, etc.).
   When did this separation happen, or has it been so since the beginning?

2. What is the most popular genre of music in USA? I've heard that hip hop
   is currently the most popular, but I haven't seen any statistics.

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1. There was a documentary shown on Nelonen a few months ago which I
   thought would be very interesting, but forgot to watch. It was about
   American news broadcasting. At least the program advertisement hinted
   that the same people are behind all the main broadcasting companies and
   not everything is as neutral and objective as it could be. What is the
   system really like? Who decides what is shown in the news?

2. I know that many Americans are very overweight and it is a real public
   health problem. What kind of attempts are there to make the situation
   better? How much physical education is included in school curricula? Do
   you think that Americans might have a different kind of attitude
   towards "hyötyliikunta" than we Finns?

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1. What kind of popular beliefs and myths are there concerning nature and
   the environment in the U. S.? Is there a general way in which people
   think and feel about nature?

2. What kind of attitudes are there in the U.S. towards speakers of
   British English?  Very often women with a British accent in films or TV
   series are portrayed as intelligent, beautiful, and a lot more
   inhibited than their American counterparts. What kind of other
   stereotypes exist?

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1. Every so often I stumble upon references to Dr. Seuss who, I'm
   guessing, is someone everyone in the US, especially kids, are familiar
   with. Who/what is he and what sort of things are usually associated
   with him?

2. "The Alamo" is mentioned as a "historic site" in the US-7 notes. What
   exactly happened at the Alamo? Why do people keep reminding each other
   of the events that took place there?

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1. Why are there so few Native Americans represented in US popular
   culture? It seems that there are partically no Native Americans in, for
   example, the mainstream music industry, television or movies. I find
   this quite strange, since every other minority group is well-presented
   in popular culture..

2. As we all know, reality-tv has taken the world by storm. What makes it
   so popular, especially among Americans?

 
1. We talked about flowers being an unusual present in U.S. when visiting somebody's house. However, the film 'Aviator' shows Katherine Hepburn giving flowers to her mum when visiting their house with her new boyfriend Howard Hughes. Can this be considered strange in some way or is it just the exception that proves the rule? 2. I don't know if this is just an American phenomenon but last week I was watching the Oscars and although I enjoyed the show very much, I found the forever-smiling hosts in the red carpet and their faked cheerfulness really annoying and impersonal. It's the same thing with TV-shop commercials and many other television shows. Is this something that American people expect from their hosts or is there some other reason for it? If the Finnish hosts acted like that, I think most of the people would think they are absolutely ridiculous. ------------------------ 1. Books written by politicians have seem to become quite popular in the US recently - we even get some of them here in Finland, too. To what extent would you say it is a bigger business in the US when compared to Finland, and how certain it is for those books to bring profit? In other words, is it an easy buck for even a "minor" politician? Do the books themselves act as making their authors more known or is it just the most popular politicians who publish books? Are there some restrictions as to when to publish, e.g. not before an election? 2. What kind of associations does dancing as a hobby bring to mind for Americans? If an American would say, "I dance for a hobby", what dance would most likely be in question, and what type of person would be the most typical to have dancing as a hobby? ------------------------ 1. TV Censorship: Are there general rules or guidelines about bleeping "forbidden" words (such as time --> in England I think it's after 9pm when swearing is allowed in TV)? 2. Considering the wide ethnic population in USA, is the "true" American popular culture disappearing or is it adapting to the current situation? Or is there such a thing as a true American popular culture? Does the current idea of American popular culture correspond to the whole nation or does it appeal only to a certain group of people? ------------------------ 1. In recent US history, sport has sometimes been used for political purposes. I have understood that for black people, boxing in particular has been a quite important means to reinforce their identity and fight racism and other discrimination (cf. Joe Louis, Muhammed Ali). Is boxing still seen in any way political among the blacks and other people? Have other minority groups also used sport for purposes other than "just sport"? 2. In a film in the mid-90's, there was a scene where two police officers were investigating a crime scene where there was, among other things, a car. One officer insisted they search the car thoroughly, but the other was eager to move on, got irritated, and said something like: "Tell me if you find Jimmy Hoffa under there while you're at it." I got the impression that Jimmy Hoffa was someone I was supposed to know, so my question is: who was/is he? ------------------------ 1. I've noticed that whenever people play Pictionary in American TV shows (and they seem to do it fairly often, judging by Friends and Frasier, etc.) they always have these huge sheets of paper to draw on and a special stand to hold the sheets - all just for the purpose of Pictionary. When Finnish people play the same game, we just have regular A4 sheets and we draw on a table. Does an "average" American family really own this kind of equipment? If so, isn't it expensive? Do they use it for anything else - like painting? Or do they just put those things on TV shows so that the viewers can better see what's being drawn? 2. Talk shows like Jay Leno's and Conan O'Brien's feel fairly free to make fun of almost anything, and even in the Oscar gala, Chris Rock made fun of the US president. Obviously, there are topics that are universally too serious to be ridiculed, but I was wondering if you could imagine a topic that would be so touchy to an American audience in particular that it could not be made fun of in the US, but would be quite OK for an European audience, for example. ------------------------ 1. How do Americans think people from other countries perceive them? For example Finns think that we are seen as shy, quiet, and uncommunicative, much like Kimi Räikkönen. 2. How did beauty contests for little children begin? Are they still considered to be appropriate with all those pedophiles around? What kind of people put their children into these contests? ------------------------ 1. I keep running into "the seventh son." What does it mean/refer to? It sounds biblical. (see The Number 7) "It's quite possible that I'm your third man girl But it's a fact that I'm the seventh son It was the other two which made me your third But it was my mother who made me the seventh son" (The White Stripes) 2. Please explain the game that's played in movies and tv series all the time, the one where one person mimes something to another using all kinds of hand signals for words, syllables etc. It looks fun. (see Charades) ------------------------ 1. Would you name a few TV-shows from 1970s to 1990s that capture the "spirit of America," or would be useful for an interpreter to know for the recurring cultural references? Your personal opinion. 2. How is professional wrestling (as presented in "SmackDown!" and "Raw" on Finnish TV) viewed in the U.S.? What is its social register?

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Last Updated 27 April 2010