Oh! Where to Find Peace of Mind?

by: Sophia Jarvis

One of the most romantic notions of a life well-lived is the experience of moving to a faraway land where a person can immerse themselves in another culture, cuisine, climate, language, landscape, and architecture. This dream is not foreign in the United States, especially to the American woman. The concept of leaving the past behind to forge a future of literal and metaphorical good weather gives many a yearning to experience the Other. As such, the American woman is primed to desire the exotic because of the promise of a simpler, more romantically fulfilling life. However, rather than critiquing the status quo of their origin, the female protagonists in films like Eat, Pray, Love, Under the Tuscan Sun, and Mahogany all flee to pursue their individual success story whether that be emotional harmony, love and family, or career achievements, respectively. By placing women in the metaphorical driving seat of an Other culture, there is the hope she might be treated with the same socioeconomic privileges as a man would in America. Thus the representation of American women living in other countries is marketed to engage women as active consumers.

Films seem the most natural extension of interrogating this construction because of their widely distributed base and prevalence in the business of representation. All three artifacts come from the same genre (big-budget films) because it appears a relatively restricted way to control for variance due to publishing medium. In order to gain a working understanding of the representations in this blog post, here are the trailers for the three films that will be discussed.

Eat, Pray, LoveIn this trailer, Elizabeth Gilbert’s (Julia Roberts) adventure promises a vague inner peace that will lead to true love.

Under the Tuscan Sun – Here Frances (Diane Lane) searches for a home and community where family values and shared experiences are steeped in tradition.

MahoganyCareer achievement and financial success are Tracy’s (Diana Ross) ultimate goals, even at the expense of her intimate relationships.

At first glance, all three films contain women who are normatively beautiful, slender, socially extraverted, have or seek careers that allow them to live just about anywhere in the world, use alcohol as a therapist, do not speak the language of their new residence, and are single for the majority of the film—yet a major plot focus is on their romantic relationship(s). Interestingly enough, all three protagonists live in Italy with only one taking up residence in other countries as well.

All of these observations are interesting to note because they give a first impression of the type of woman America assumes can and does live abroad, and what that life might look like. In order to understand these representations, however, it is helpful to recognize different categorical promises that the lifestyle is advertised as providing. To interrogate these promises, isolating them affords the opportunity to see what they each rely on. Then they can be put back together to contextualize the content.

Portrait of a Person – Stereotypes and Personal Traits

The representation of female American expat (FAE) is rife with imagery, especially of the actual person doing the living. The top four google image results containing people for “American female expat” as of early this month were the following:

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Image sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

Although these images alone could stand as artifacts for the representation of FAEs, here they are meant to act as support for the greater image of the person they intend to mimic. Additionally these images are consistent with two of the three films—white middle-aged women who are career driven. All three films, however, seek to reinforce the self of each female as an autonomous consumer of the other culture. As Ruth Williams points out in her article “Eat, Pray, Love: Producing the Female Neoliberal Spiritual Subject”, women are “encouraged to adopt a depoliticized outlook that ignores oppressive social realities in favor of a therapeutically tinged focus on herself” (616). In the pictures as well as the films the women are focused on themselves completely. There are not even other people present. The photo on the top right gives a vague inclination that the viewer is being brought into the experience with the woman, but above all there are no external influences within the imagery.

Although the article is geared specifically towards Eat, Pray, Love the same mentality can also be observed in Under the Tuscan Sun when Frances’s (Diane Lane) friend Katherine, another expat, gives her the nudge to buy a villa in the Tuscan countryside without knowing anything about her. The insidiousness of the assumption here is that without knowing her, Katherine has assumed that Frances has the means or desire to buy the villa, and with her upper-class appearance represents the belief that all women have the means to participate in the same lifestyle or they must be inherently flawed. Another example of this in the film Mahogany is the overarching theme that career success is more important than the friend-, work- and romantic relationships Tracy (Diana Ross) has built up over years. Thus, the image of the FAE becomes one synonymous with personal gain at the expense of the world around them.

Portrait of a Life – Privilege and Luxury

Another interesting facet of the FAE is the cultivated image that goes along with the person’s archetypal representation. Below the images exploit some of the positive and negative constructions of life abroad:

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Left: Taken from Surviving in Italy blog, Right: You have no idea how much time I spent looking for peanut butter.

Image sources: 1, 2

On the left the image has a sense of fashion, adventure, being carefree, and although there are some hiccups along the way (very left), a willingness to participate in spontaneous and reckless behavior (middle left) will lead to a more playful and fun existence (middle right). The reality, however, is much more like the image on the right. In the article “The Consumer Acculturation of Expatriate Americans” by Mary C. Gilly, she qualitatively measures the difficulty of American women adjusting to life as consumers in Madrid. Their findings indicate that the two categories of items most difficult to assimilate to were food and medical items (508-509). In my experience, this is wholly true. The majority of the group activity for our Facebook group was filled with “Where do I find [insert product]?” and “Help! I need to go to the hospital, have an English-speaking doctor/dentist recommendation?” or some variance of the two. In the films, this aspect of adjustment is glossed over without paying much attention. Each character quickly finds English-speaking friends on whom they can rely to translate from the get-go, and learn the host language either at an astonishing rate (Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun) or hardly put any effort into it at all (Mahogany). Eat, Pray, Love even goes so far as to mock the Italian language by reducing it to the use of gestures to communicate anything you might want to say [read: anything Italians might want to say] since the rest of their culture has also been essentialized as a place where tradition equates sensual pleasure.

Later in the article, Gilly extrapolates from the experiences of many FAEs by adding that there are:

…four main periods of adjustment: 1) euphoria, where new arrivals are open to new sights, sounds and tastes, 2) skepticism, where newness becomes threatening, 3) integration, where guilt feelings emerge (because Americans place value in learning new ways) so that some effort is made to obtain some ingredients for favorite dishes from local sources, and 4) adaptation, where ingredients are consciously substituted and foods from home are combined with foods from the host country, with the expatriate again willing to try completely new foods (506).

This is an interesting piece of information to think about with respect to the films because in each there is some culinary highlight in Italy, yet in Eat, Pray, Love the gastronomy of India and Indonesia, both notoriously colorful and flavorful, are overlooked entirely. Here we can see that each country has been essentialized to a singular feature it has to offer. For Tracy in Mahogany, it is fashion. For Frances in Under the Tuscan Sun, it is land. For Elizabeth in Eat, Pray, Love, it is food (Italy), spirituality (India), and balance/love (Indonesia).

Portrait of a Place – Sensual Pleasure and Escape

Similar to the overall theme associated with interrogating pop culture representations, is the glamorous photography around cultural centers. In my experience abroad, the streets are narrow, everything feels crowded and traffic is always bad. However, in the next two sets of images, clearly the ones on the left have the feeling that something more exciting or peaceful is happening.

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Left: Metropolis building, Right: Madrid traffic

Image sources: 1, 2

These images were selected because the building on the left, the Metropolis building, is one of the most photographed architectural structures in the city, and in the heart of the city center. On the right is another picture of Madrid, but from the edge of the city where glamour is probably the last word that comes to mind. Similarly, below are two images of the same street, but with different lighting and angles. In fact, I lived on this street! The image on the left can surely be representative of the street on a sunny day, but the image on the right is more likely what one spots walking down the street on a daily basis, and not the reality cultivated in the imagery of living abroad.

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Calle del Olmo, Madrid

Image sources: 1, 2

The images of place are just as important to the vision of the person living in these places because of how the Other of place constructs the experience of the expat and their mission in being there to begin with. In the same Williams article mentioned previously she states that the consumption of place is problematic because it “represents a ‘new colonialism’ which is typified by ‘white people discovering themselves in brown places” (617). Although the films are in Europe, the fact that they chose Italy is no mistake. The Mediterranean has a warmer climate where stereotypes are built explicitly on relaxation, taking things slowly, and the enjoyment of life—all features absent in American culture that one might hope to escape.

Ultimately though, these pictures only help to assert the disparity between the visual context of the representation and the reality. Other facets of being in the place are important as well. In the article by Caligiuri and Lazarova they outline the factors that a company can do to help or deter a female expat from adjusting to life in the host country. They include social support, such as from family, friends, colleagues, host nationals, mentors, and other expatriates (766-767). These are just tangible sources. Along with them they detail the type of emotional and informational support necessary. This article is relevant because it details a different picture than the one represented in the films. They carry with them the notion that women living abroad do not all have a job that can float with them (writer/fashion designer), but may be pursuing a more practical career choice.

This vision produced around FAEs is not wholly the media’s fault, however. In an article titled “Why and How Women and Men Acquire Global Career Experience” the point is made that much of what is written about expats  “is largely represented by fragmented anecdotal accounts recommending such activities as foreign language study, study abroad, sponsoring foreign exchange students, international travel, international internships, participating in the home country in international economic partnership associations or societies” (Vance 36). With so little known even on an academic level about the realities and experiences of those who have actually lived abroad, it is no wonder the media’s perception would be just as minimal.

An anomaly in the representation of FAEs is the entirety of the film Mahogany. Although it fits in with the other films in many ways, it stands out due to its fixing itself outside of many of the traditional binaries—it doesn’t fix itself into the box that beautiful white women are the only ones who have autonomous lives with rich detail or stories worth telling. Furthermore, being the oldest film of the three, and being the most diverse in life content, details of life, reasons for being abroad, and the only one with a woman of color as the lead, is also the most nuanced in terms of socially conscious representations. Another anomaly within Mahogany is that it is the only film that gave reason for the lead character to go abroad without using her own means or volition to get there. She is hired by a photographer to pursue a better life where her Blackness will be celebrated. What this says about my identity is that Europe is not a place for my racial acceptance because I have the privilege of racial acceptance anywhere I go. Hence, when later telling a vague story about a vague woman who goes on a vague adventure to live abroad the casting directors chose the vaguest type of woman they could, the “default”—a white woman.

The representations of FAEs becomes problematic when they are contextualized. There is the justification for the image that American women need to engage as consumers to live a fulfilling life. In William’s article she explains Elizabeth’s behavior in the quote, “Presenting this tendency to ignore her own needs as the core problem in her life, it is clear why Gilbert’s journey comes to represent that of a woman re-claiming the ‘right’ to be selfish. Within this context, Gilbert’s trip is a direct rebellion against patriarchal social norms that encourage women to cultivate a personality of selfishness” (617-618). Essentially, the rhetoric around buying a piece of living abroad, as it is represented domestically, harms everyone because it naturalizes the belief that certain selfish and socially irresponsible behavior is justifiable if you have not been fulfilled or treated equally in other areas of life.

One paradigm shift for me was one of the first articles we read for class about the bias of Wikipedia. It really struck a chord with me because I had never considered that a crowd-sourced, collaborative project could structurally privilege certain groups over others. It just goes to show that really no rock should be left unturned and no angle unexamined because there could be ideological assumptions about reality and what constitutes a “fact” or something worth knowing. Beyond that, it also shows that, while nowadays you do not need to be ordained by a king to have the legal right and authority to write about a subject, there are still barriers to already marginalized groups and the material being written does not necessarily properly reflect the people the articles are written about. This can be problematic when the well-accepted assumption about Wikipedia is that it is unbiased. The belief is so widespread that even mentioning it to someone who thinks themselves media literate will cause them to get defensive and think you are nitpicking.

Another major learning moment for me was reading about the perpetual game of cat and mouse between advertisers and youth in the article A Brand by Any Other Name. Honestly, due to the way consumers themselves are often represented as mindless and easily persuaded I thought myself somewhat different in my consideration of image. Now I feel silly even typing that, let alone thinking it, but it was the truth! I make judgment calls on even the smallest details of clothing that to me separate one image from another. Like the words we choose to use in each context, where I have lived has informed my fashion decisions. When I was living in Spain this was a problem at first because I did not know how to interpret the “signals” particular articles of clothing were meant to give off because the dialect was completely different. If that does not make sense, what I mean to say is that what a certain type of hat “says” here about a persons subculture identification or personality is different here than there, and thus I had no idea how to pick up on those cues and find my own style within their culture. So, reading that article opened my eyes to the fact that it is something we all do, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Works Cited

Caligiuri, Paula, and Mila Lazarova. “A Model for the Influence of Social Interaction and Social Support on Female Expatriates’ Cross-Cultural Adjustment.” International Journal of Human Resource Management 13.5 (2002): 761-772. Business Source Premier. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Eat, Pray, Love. Dir. Ryan Murphy. Perf. Julia Roberts. Sony Pictures, 2010. Film.

Gilly, Mary C. “The Consumer Acculturation of Expatriate Americans.” Advances in Consumer Research 22.1 (1995): 506-510. Business Source Premier. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Mahogany. Dir. Berry Gordy. Perf. Diana Ross. Paramount, 1975. Film.

Under the Tuscan Sun. Dir. Audrey Wells. Perf. Diane Lane. Touchstone, 2004. Film.

Vance, Charles M., and Yvonne McNulty. “Why and How Women and Men Acquire Global Career Experience.” International Studies of Management & Organization 44.2 (2014): 34-54. Business Source Premier. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.

Williams, Ruth. “Eat, Pray, Love: Producing the Female Neoliberal Spiritual Subject.” Journal of Popular Culture 47.3 (2014): 613-633. Academic Search Premier. Web. 28 Apr. 2016.


2 thoughts on “Oh! Where to Find Peace of Mind?

  1. Hi Sophia, reading your post was a plus for me, as someone who plans to study abroad before graduating. For that reason, I was definitely intrigued the whole time reading! My favorite part was your “Portrait of a Life” section. I found myself constantly saying “mhmm, you got that right” in this section. I can definitely agree! Popular culture tends to leave out the difficulty in living abroad, which is having a hard time adjusting to the lifestyle of that country. I grew up on a tiny island my entire life and my first time in the United States was at Washington, D.C. All the movies I watched tend to show expats in D.C. having fun on tour buses and all that. I have to say, my feet hurt everyday constantly walking from building to building. Even if I rode a bus or the metro, I still had to walk a lot after that because I never got dropped to my actual destination. On my island, we do not have tour buses or metros so I was also clueless on how to ride them.

    Going over your post, I was able to relate to a lot of the details you mention. You present them accurately and in a knowledgeable way. Great job!

  2. Hi Sophia,
    I’ve always wanted to study abroad and explore that side to academics, but have never been able due to athletics, so it was interesting reading your blog post! It was very well organized, provided a lot of pictures and posts pleasing to the eye. The flow of your blog and how it was organized came across very nicely and was displayed very well in my eyes. It was interesting reading about the things you don’t normally hear about when it comes to abroad – I have many friends going into that this upcoming year so it was very informational for me, especially since I may consider it in the future. I think you did a great job with including the right amount of sources, primary and secondary, and tying everything in with a clear thesis. Good job, and have fun this summer!! 🙂


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