Saturday, March 2, 2013

How American Series (sometimes) Reinforce Negative Clichés about the World.

Even though the number of U.S. passports issued is on the rise, a majority of Americans do not travel and view the world only through what they hear and see in the media. This lack of exposure makes them an easy prey to clichés and nothing is better than fiction to reinforce or change clichés.
So this recent episode of "The Good Wife" called "Je Ne Sais What?" got my attention as the trailer promised that  "cultures will clash" and clearly seemed to deal with French characters :

For those who don't know, The Good Wife is a legal drama centered around the wife of a former state attorney who was jailed after a humiliating sex and corruption scandal. In order to provide for her family,  she returns to work as a litigator in a law firm. As always with American series, each episode deals with several characters and narratives.
The 'cultural clash' plot is about one of the main characters, Will Gardner, one the senior lawyers in the firm who has to replace another lawyer at the last minute to defend Anna, an athlete accused of doping before  the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS), which operates under rules set by Swiss law.

Of course, you can already assume that since Will is defending Ana, she must be certainly innocent, and that it's got to be somewhat not so simple, or else there would be no plot.

The court hearing looks to be on the cheap - it is set at a sport training facility with just a few tables and chairs.
The judges in panel are all European - one Italian, one German, and the presiding judge, a Frenchman, called Villapique, a character seemingly based on former French Foreign minister Villepin (who gained fame by opposing the U.S. at the United Nations in the debated leading up to the War in Iraq).
In the first scene Villapique starts right away in French, even though he's on US soil. This of course is meant to show that the judge assumes that everyone else speaks French,  a sign of the cultural arrogance of the entire court.
"What the hell?? It's in French?" wonders Will Gardner who tells the judge he doesn't speak French. Villapique tells him (in perfect English - hardly credible when you know most French people!) that the court agrees to continue in English "for your benefit", he adds, with a smirk, after the opposing lawyer, an American presenting the case against Ana, says in perfect French (Not the slightest accent - not very credible either) that Will is "yet another victim of our American educational system."
This first scene ends with Will Gardner introducing himself as "Will Gardner, from good old US of A"
Obviously, everything is set for a great clash of cultural misunderstanding indeed: the good all-American lawyer Vs. the European arrogant panel led by a snotty French.

Baffled by what he initially thought would be an easy wrap, Will Gardner asks for the help of a senior partner of the firm, Diane Lockhart,  a character well versed in art (she can spend huge amounts on paintings for the office) and all forms of high culture, who of course speaks French.
This comes in handy when the panel starts grumbling in French.  Diane is able to show them not only that she understands them but also to admonish them in both English and (terrible) French,  concluding “Prejudices have no place here.” Judge Villapique looks mesmerized, as if charmed by Diane's strong character.

Will also discovers that he has to  present a defense without hearing the charges, and when he later objects, he is told that "There is no objecting. This is not ‘Law & Order.’ (Great mise en abyme of a fiction referring to another fiction!)
Even worse, when our all-American lawyer tries to cross examine the analyst who tested Anna’s sample, Judge Villapique objects by saying “This is not an American court, Mr Gardner, we don't need to be at each other's throat. This is not Rambo.”
What is it with him and Rambo?” Will  later wonders, “Does anybody even watch ‘Rambo’ anymore?” According to the judge, the rules do not require actual proof. In other words, it is up to the accused to prove she is not guilty.
Our good American lawyers decides to flip the German Judge by showing that the French judge was biased against a German cyclist in another ruling. Then they also get the Italian judge on board by getting Kalinda (a cute investigator in the firm) to flounce over her in her miniskirt to present papers, and of course, what is assumed works.

In the end, it turns out that the French judge used his influence to get rid of the German cyclist to favor a French one, and so the three judges get at each other's throats. This could actually be a great metaphor for a meeting of European leaders at E.U. Commission!

As you can see in the video below, the scene ends with Villapique telling the German Judge (in French) "At least my athletes are not nazis!"

On the face of it, it seems rather funny, and to a certain extent, it is. It plays on clichés which are, after all, often the stuff of comedy.
There is however, a more serious side to it: it reinforces a number of negative clichés, not just about the French or just the Europeans but anything not American, and in the end it amounts to adding fuel to the the belief in American Exceptionalism.
Clearly, the Europeans in this scene are shown as rude and arrogant, and with no respect for the country they're in. It is exactly the negative clichés that many Americans have had about the French, ever since De Gaulle at least, and to be honest, the French have often met their expectations - unfortunately.
Those scenes though are not about cultural misunderstanding but rather about a moral dichotomy between what is American (and what is "right", fair and innocent) and what is foreign (or unruly, and corrupt). There is no attempt by any of the characters to understand where the others are coming from, as they use more clichés (like Rambo) to qualify what the others do.
The implication is also that the law outside the U.S. is not just different but deeply unfair, biased and even corrupt, as the last scene shows.
This also says plenty about why so many Americans were in denial regarding Lance Armstrong and believed him innocent even though tests in France had shown he was doped. The results had to be a French anti-American conspiracy (See my articles here and here). What else?

The Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) exists in real life, and even though I am not familiar with how they work and proceed, from what I have gathered online, most studies point to a court with plenty of credibility:  "Since its creation as an arm of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1984, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has grown to the stature of a respected independent authority in the resolution of sports-related disputes of every kind" (Source here)

Here's the conclusion of an academic study:
The foregoing study has shown that the CAS forms an integral part of the world-wide fight against doping. It can provide effective protection for the rights of the accused athlete and is able to ensure that the fight against doping will be upheld unremittingly.
And another:
To conclude, CAS is likely the most appropriate internal regulator of the internationalsport system. It is an independent body that exercises a supervisory jurisdiction over international sport bodies, operating both within and outside the Olympic Movement, includingWADA. Indeed, the responsibility of CAS to exercise this role is essential to its legitimacy as anautonomous regulator of the international sport system.
Here's a legal comment found on the Website of The Pepperdine School of Law:
When reviewing CAS awards, the SFT and U.S. courts recognize there  is no place for nationalism and ethnocentrism in the legal regulation of  Olympic and international sport, a judicial view consistent with the  approach the CAS generally takes when applying national law in appeals  arbitration and ad hoc Division proceedings. (Source here)
More here.
Clearly, this episode of The Good Wife not only departs from reality - which is, after all, the very nature of a fiction - but it actually mocks it. The implications are political in nature by giving a bad image of an international institution that is unfair and corrupt and whose very system is prejudicial, and fails to give the basic rights to the accused. This of course is in line with the belief of many conservative Americans who don't think the U.S. should be accountable to the U.N. or the International Criminal Court. This was well illustrated by the Bush Administration's policy of hostility towards the court and dismiss of the United Nations in his war in Iraq.

One could wish that a legal drama actually spent more time on explaining the differences between the adversarial system (or adversary system), as in the United States, where two advocates represent their parties' positions before an impartial person or group of people to determine the truth of the case, and  the inquisitorial system, as in France,  in which a judge (or a group of judges who work together) investigate the case. (Wikipedia). Personally, I prefer the adversarial system, which, for one think makes better dramas, but a case can be made in favor of the inquisitorial system, which does not trump on basic fundamental rights either.

But there was probably nothing dramatic enough in being pedagogical for the writers of The Good Wife, which is one of reasons why this show is clearly not as good and interesting as Law & Order as far as legal dramas are concerned.


Anonymous said...

Interesting analysis — as always.
You might be interested in this tumblr blog by a friend of mine: , which collates goofs of this nature in episodes from TV shows.

See you soon!


Anonymous said...

Is Rambo still the Guignol's personification of the US? While I agree with your analysis, I am impressed that the writers' representation of cultural misunderstanding is at least aware of these stereotypes, both Rambo and the pervasive misunderstanding of the court system in France because of viewing American shows like Law & Order. Nice work.

Aproposfrance-usa said...

Yes, I forgot about Rambo in Les Guignols. I don't watch that show any more. True also about Law & Order, although, I don't know if this really reveals the writer's intentions or whether it is mere coincidence.
Thanks for the encouragement.
Aurélien => I check your friend's site. It's fun to read. She must spend doing it. She gets a lot of details and always with pictures. Impressive!