by Zenia Duell
The field of popular culture and creative arts fascinates me – in particular their overlap with or function as cultural diplomacy. Galia Press-Barnathan notes that there is a distinct lack of coherent research into the links between popular culture and international relations (IR). She attributes this to the divide between critical and positivist approaches to IR, and the interdisciplinary nature of popular culture.[i] However, Press-Barnathan also emphasises that popular cultural products have a unique and unparalleled capacity for capturing stories, messages and emotions, and transmitting them in a format that is easy to understand and enjoyable to consume.[ii] This makes them extremely powerful tools of influence. ‘Entertainment informs audiences and shapes minds.’[iii] One medium through which this influential communication happens is historical docu-dramas, currently experiencing a surge of popularity on Netflix.
During my career as a TV producer, I have worked on several historical docu-dramas – a programme that is a combination of scripted drama and non-scripted documentary segments. But it is not just history that these programmes are communicating – the history itself is wrapped up in a landscape of communications about power. Media scholars have long been aware of these popular culture products as political texts, but as Press-Barnathan and Lisel Hintz note,[iv] they are not always factored into discussions in IR. There is also difficulty with classifying these creative products as part of the field of ‘strategic communications’ – which, by definition, precludes some political intent to the communication. Popular culture does not always have a clear political motivation behind it. This article will therefore take a different approach to three historical drama-docs currently on Netflix, and will analyse them from the other end of the communications transmission,[v] reviewing not their intent, but their effect.
Roman Empire was produced by an American production company, Stephen David Entertainment. It tells the stories of three infamous men in Roman history: Commodus, Julius Caesar and Caligula. Having worked on a couple of series about the Roman Empire myself, I can attest to the fact that Roman history sells well. But is there something more to it? A recent New York Times article sparked a fiery discussion around how the field of Classics has fed into colonial attitudes, and how Classics in turn features in neo-colonial narratives. Roman Empire (the Netflix series) does not make any overt parallels between the modern world and the ancient, but perhaps there is a more subliminal message – after all, the majority of actors in the series were white Caucasian, when a historically accurate skin colour would be olive or brown. There is a long and at times unpleasant history of white actors playing roles of multiple ethnicities – not least Liz Taylor’s famous portrayal of the Macedonian-Egyptian queen Cleopatra. It would be unfair to make assumptions about the political sentiments of the producers of Roman Empire, but this casting choice is part of the communications landscape around colonialism, in particular, the ownership of history.
Rise of Empires: Ottoman was produced by a Turkish/American production company, Karga 7 Pictures. The founders of Karga 7 are American, but as Fatima Bhutto notes, there is currently in Turkey a concerted effort to promote the Ottoman ‘brand’ as part of the soft power strategy developed by former Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in his book, Strategic Depth. This series may not be part of official Government policy, but it certainly fits within the narrative of Ottomania.[vi] It is in its own right a riveting story of conflict and conquest. The majority of the last episode takes place in the Haghia Sophia: the largest church in the world at the time of its construction in the 6th century AD, and the focal point of Constantinople. We see the Byzantine flags, featuring the double-headed eagle, being taken down from the building and replaced with the crescent moon of Islam. The final shot of the series is a close up of Mehmet II’s face as he looks directly down the camera lens and says: ‘and so…we begin’. Six months after the series launched on Netflix, the Haghia Sophia was turned from a museum back into a mosque, following a court decision. There is no discernible link between the Netflix series and the court decision, but this powerful sequence adds emotional force to ‘nation-branding through culture, rhetoric and broadcasting’.[vii]
Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan was produced by a Canadian company. Like Roman history, Japanese history – and particularly the samurai period – sells well. Once again, we find no links to Japanese investors or political agendas. This can be seen instead as the ultimate soft power success: Japan’s commemoration and promotion of their rich cultural history has proved a self-sustaining investment. Now others invest in promoting their culture on their behalf – because it is powerful enough to stand up as a brand on its own.
The communications landscape is busy with powerful messages like these that are hard to place. Other cultural products with political influence include the K-Pop band BLACKPINK, which has recently launched a campaign to raise awareness of climate change. The fan community of another K-Pop band, BTS, has normalised progressive discussions around mental health and masculinity, led by the example of the band members themselves. These feed into wider communications about South Korea as a progressive, democratic, and artistically creative country – but are not overtly linked to a political agenda or funding. The comic writer Sharad Devarajan embarked on a personal mission to export a pop culture narrative from India through his latest animated series Hanuman – but he is an independent creative, not a government diplomat. These creative messages are both influential and ubiquitous – but there is very little analysis of their direct implications, and where exactly they sit in the political sphere. They certainly have political power, but they are not always driven or funded by an overt political agenda. Ian Thomas’ recent publication has gone some way towards tackling these important questions of how much and what kind of influence creative products can have in the political sphere, but it is clear that there is plenty of scope for further research in this field.
[i] Press-Barnathan, Galia. “Thinking about the Role of Popular Culture in International Conflicts”. International Studies Review (2017), 19, p167.
[iii] Dogan, Taner. “Taner Dogan on ideology and charisma in Erdogan’s communication”. Turkey Book Talk #136 [Podcast], 2nd March 2021.
[iv] Discussed with Hintz in a private conversation, 9th March 2021.
[v] See Shannon and Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. University of Illinois, 1972.
[vi] I deliberately use the term ‘Ottomania’ here rather than ‘neo-Ottomanism’, as several scholars and analysts have raised issues with the latter. For more on this, see Howard Eissentat’s comments in this interview with POMED https://pomed.org/conceptualizing-turkeys-foreign-policy-ambitions-a-conversation-with-howard-eissenstat/. The term ‘Ottomania’ I think characterises how Turkey is using the Ottoman brand without imitating the Ottoman Empire in terms of strategy or policy.
[vii] Dogan, Taner. “Taner Dogan on ideology and charisma in Erdogan’s communication”. Turkey Book Talk #136 [Podcast], 2nd March 2021.
Zenia is a documentary producer and part-time MA student in Strategic Communications. Outside of the office or the library, Zenia produces a podcast about ancient history, hosts dinner parties and trains at the gym.
You can follow her on Twitter at @Commsduell