Shouldn’t They Know Better – Celebrity Cross-cultural Blunders

Declan Mulkeen

8 Dec 2014

Jeremy Clarkson, the famous (or some would say infamous) British TV presenter of the popular Top Gear programme, seems to have done it again having recently been forced to flee Argentina where he was filming a TV special.

The local population pelted the cast and crew with stones and rocks when they learnt that one of the team’s cars had the number plate H982 FKL, an apparent reference to the Falklands conflict of 1982, still an extremely sensitive subject in Argentina.  Both the BBC and Clarkson himself have denied any intentional reference or attempt to cause offence but simply an ‘unbelievable coincidence’.

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Perhaps it really was nothing more than an unplanned faux pas on this occasion but Clarkson has defended his actions rather than apologising for any unintended offence caused.  And one reason that this incident has attracted so much attention is that Clarkson has a long track record in behaving insensitively when filming overseas and in using racially offensive language.  The list is so long that The Daily Telegraph has even published a poll inviting readers to vote on his worst offence.  In 2012 he drove a Jaguar around India with a toilet mounted on its roof to highlight poor sanitation and when in Mexico in 2011 he described Mexicans as ‘lazy, feckless, flatulent oafs with a moustache, leaning against a fence asleep’.  These incidents together with a number of inappropriate comments about Muslims do make it hard not to find Clarkson guilty of deliberately courting controversy.

He is not alone

Jeremy Clarkson may have made his fair share of cultural faux pas but he is far from alone.  There are numerous lists of cultural gaffes made by politicians, musicians, film stars and sporting celebrities.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Last year when visiting Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam Justin Bieber wrote in the vistors’ book that he ‘hoped that she would have been a bieleber’ causing international outrage.
  • President Obama, known for being more culturally sensitive than some of his predecessors, kissed Aung San Suu Kyi on the cheek when he met her in Burma in 2012 causing her to recoil as public displays of affection between the sexes are not considered appropriate in most Asian countries.
  • Former Spice Girl, Gerri Halliwell, visited Nepal on behalf of the United Nations in 2009.  Her attempts to be culturally appropriate went wrong when she wore an off-centre bindi on her forehead and kissed the prime minister – another inappropriate display of affection.
  • In India a case was brought against Elizabeth Hurley when she showed disrespect to Hindu traditions at her own wedding in 2007 by drinking alcohol and not taking her shoes off in the sacred marriage place.
  • In 2008 Richard Gere starred in an advertisement for Fiat featuring the film star, a Buddhist and campaigner for Tibetan independence, driving from Hollywood to Tibet.  The ad was only meant to be shown in Europe but was seen in China via YouTube. It enraged the Chinese who saw it as a call for Tibetan independence, and as Fiat was bidding to expand its operations in China, the Italians quickly issued an abject apology

Should they know better?

Should we judge these celebrities harshly for making what can often be innocent mistakes or unthinking comments?  Constantly in the public eye, frequently travelling the world, perhaps it’s only to be expected that they sometimes get things wrong – they are human like the rest of us.  Even the Anne Frank Museum spokesperson was sympathetic to Justin Bieber saying at the time, ‘He’s 19. It’s a crazy life he’s living, he didn’t mean bad…’  But surely they should be able to do enough research not to make these mistakes or at least have someone in their team who can research the cultural nuances and historical background of the countries they are visiting and then brief them on the most important taboos.  Certainly world leaders and celebrities working for global charities should be extremely careful about the impression they convey when they find themselves in unfamiliar cultural settings as they are not only representing themselves but millions of other people.   When it comes to celebrities from popular culture at least we have the choice to stop buying their music or turning off their programmes if we don’t like what they are saying or find their motivation questionable.

Can you think of any other good examples of where famous people have committed cross-cultural blunders?

 

 



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