There’s a moment in the first episode of Netflix’s Élite when Marina calls after her brother Guzmán. He’d been giving her a hard time while she was befriending the new kid, Samuel. “Toma,” she says, while flipping him off.
I recognize the nonchalant taunting in the command. “Here, take this,” is the kind of thing my older brothers would have said when they were tricking me into getting the middle finger. It’s not meant to be nice, but it’s also not vindictive. It’s almost loving.
Even though the siblings in Élite are growing up in a rich Spanish community a decade apart and thousands of miles from my middle-class American upbringing, watching that off-hand moment between two siblings made their lives feel a little bit closer to mine. There’s a universality to sibling torment.
That’s the nice thing about consuming entertainment from other parts of the world: seeing how we’re similar, despite our physical and cultural separation, and finding out what we can learn from one another. It’s the same idea behind sending the Queer Eye guys to Japan and inviting Marie Kondo stateside to organize our homes (and lives). In this decade of streaming, we're able to interact with other cultures more intimately than ever before — in our own homes. And as Netflix, the streamer with the biggest footprint, becomes increasingly global, so can we.
The Great British Baking Show zooms in on British traits and treats.
Looking back, the globalization of television seems inevitable. Music was radically revolutionized with the swift rise of Napster in 1999, the pioneering software that allowed users to digitally share music files. For the first time, anyone with an internet connection had virtually any music they wanted right at their fingertips for free. Of course, once people realized that this format was exploiting artists’ work, this form of sharing quickly became illegal — but it did change the way we’d consume music forever, paving the way toward paid iTunes downloads and streaming services like Spotify. And with that easy-to-share format, we’ve been exposed to acts and genres from other parts of the world that we may never have gotten to enjoy had we just stuck to our localized talent bucket organized by anonymous music execs. Now, we can wake up to modern flamenco and energize our post-lunch slump with K-pop.
Similarly, over the past decade, we’ve seen popular TV move from a localized cable model to globalized streaming, and that has meant we can start our day in America and end it on the English countryside as we laugh at the distinctly British personality quirks on The Great British Baking Show. Or we can turn our attention to Tokyo, where a set of strangers move into a house together and try to find love on the Japanese series, Terrace House.
These cultural exports not only broaden our media diets, but also our minds. American entertainment tends to hold extremely limited viewpoints, having maintained onscreen stereotypes of various cultures for decades. Only recently have we begun to see mainstream stories with non-white leads, LGBTQ+ people front and center, and in which other cultures are actively celebrated. The surge of international offerings now streaming allows people of all cultures to tell their stories in ways that are authentic to them and their experiences.
And compared to the mindless binging we’ve gotten so used to, venturing into Netflix’s global neighborhood feels like genuine brain activity — especially when there’s a language barrier demanding you read the translated dialogue. As you watch TV, you’re also being immersed in another culture, complete with its own set of norms and nuances.
Love blooms slowly on My First First Love.
Take the global phenomenon Terrace House. The format evokes Real World, The Bachelor, and The Hills — a familiar formula for Western viewers — in which young singles seek a romantic partner. But because each housemate behaves in ways that are aligned with their values — and because values are largely cultural — you can also learn about the ways in which young Japanese people express themselves.
For example, whereas Western reality show contestants typically put their lives on hold while appearing on TV, Terrace House shows the housemates fully living their regular lives: cooking (together, and for each other), sharing a beer, hanging out on the couch, and even going to work. The goal of the show isn’t to start drama or become famous on Instagram; it’s to expand horizons and see how well a potential partner can fit into their life. And with that, the housemates have real conversations about the way they see life, like whether it’s better to let your many passions lead you or to become a bona fide expert in one area. “Society tends to root for those who pursue one passion,” housemate Kaori Watanabe said (translated to English) during the chat around the kitchen table, inviting the viewer to assess their own lived experiences.
Then there’s the actual dating element, a universally important slice of life regardless of the country of origin. Netflix’s fictional Korean drama My First First Love takes us to Seoul, where young love looks a lot more demure than it might in the United States. We watch as main character Song-i navigates her first relationship, from the initial contact, to picking out date-night looks, to secret hand-holding, and beyond.
What may be understood by some Western viewers to be a conservative approach to dating is a reminder that sometimes it can be nice to take things slow and really savor a new relationship; it’s not always the case that the person who gets the first impression rose will be the person with the Neil Lane sparkler two months later. In some cultures, there’s a sacredness to finding a partner, and these shows make a strong case for slow-burning love.
Of course, the globalization of TV is not only about romance all around the world. Dark, a mystery-drama, is imbued with the weight you’d expect from a German show, introducing a small town with some sinister secrets. And the aforementioned Élite provides a crime drama with strong 13 Reasons Why vibes, complete with one central mysterious death surrounded by 100 other stories worthy of your focus. There’s a wealthy HIV-positive girl in a love triangle with two brothers; a Muslim girl who’s forced into white culture; a closeted gay kid experimenting with drugs and falling for his dealer; and general exploration into the class, race, and life issues that teens face everywhere. Still, right alongside the drama, as each show reveals something about another culture, they also force introspection on your own.
Élite offers a glimpse into life as a teen in Spain.
One early episode of Élite sees the Muslim student forbidden from observing hijab while in school — a scene that’s uncomfortable to watch, particularly considering the treatment Muslims have received stateside in recent years. Or there’s a scene in My First First Love in which a 20-something man is kicked out of his house and surrenders everything to his parents, including the clothes on his back. On his way out, he grabs the only outfit he can find: his mother’s dress and high-heeled shoes. It’s pretty sobering to see that as our culture actively works to break down gender norms, in Korea, a man walking the street in heels is still a startling sight.
Even those less empowering moments can serve as a reminder that television has the power to breed tolerance and change minds. When you get to know these characters and see cross-culturally that practicing a specific religion or wearing a dress doesn’t change any of our similarities, it starts to reveal what really matters in the shared human experience: that we can all find a place where we can fully and freely be ourselves, in harmony with all of our global neighbors.
The more we see of life elsewhere, the more cultural expansion we crave. We’ve already seen more women and people of color taking control of their narratives. In March, Netflix heard a public outcry when they announced the cancellation of One Day at a Time, the sitcom centering a Cuban family living in Los Angeles, only for the show to be picked up by Pop TV in June, bringing that representation to cable in 2020. Also in 2019, we saw more female directors than ever throw their hats into the Oscars race with movies like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell all making waves. South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho has been widely celebrated for Parasite — which quickly became one of the top 10 highest-grossing foreign language films in the U.S. in box office history, earning over $22 million domestically to date — while Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers boasted a diverse ensemble in Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Keke Palmer, and Lili Reinhart.
Being a citizen of this global neighborhood encourages us to consider our own place within the larger ecosystem. It pushes us to better empathize with people in foreign cultures, and in the end, we recognize the very basic human needs that we share — which makes those cultures seem a lot less foreign. Here, we all belong to the same community.