Ugly American is a pejorative term used to refer to perceptions of loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless and ethnocentric behavior of American. Although the term is usually associated with or applied to travelers and tourists, it also applies to US corporate businesses in the international arena.
The term has been defined as: ‘Americans traveling or living abroad who remain ignorant of local culture and judge everything by American standards.’
The term has also been widely used in the international sporting arena. At the 33rd Ryder Cup held in 1999, the United States overzealously celebrated after Justin Leonard holed a 45-foot putt on the 17th green, resulting in extensive and adverse media coverage. Later, at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the term was widely used after members of the US swim team pranced around the stadium, flexing their muscles and making poses with the American flag, after winning a gold medal.
One foreign journalist called the incident ‘one of the most cringe-making exhibitions that the Olympics has seen.’ This event was very heavily criticized by the American press and public. The members of the relay team were contrite and apologized for the incident the same day. Then, at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, the term was regularly used after the skiing superstar Bode Miller, who bragged about skiing drunk before the Olympics, was adversely compared to the term ‘Miller time,’ and went home with no medals. A lesser-known teammate was sent home for fighting in a bar.
In tennis, the term was used at the 1987 Davis Cup against West Germany for unsportsmanlike conduct. John McEnroe was regularly cited in the media as being an ‘Ugly American’ for his on-court tantrums and off-court negative comments about London and Paris. In contrast, Andre Agassi who early in his tennis career was labeled a ‘potential ugly American,’ managed to transform himself into a crowd favorite. In women’s tennis, Serena Williams’s outburst at the 2009 US Open semifinal against Kim Clijsters, reiterated the ‘Ugly American’ label.
In 2008, the US House sub-committee passed a bill that would allow more foreign fashion models to work in the United States, and was subsequently dubbed the ‘ugly American bill.’ The George W. Bush Administration was often referred to as ‘The Ugly American’ because of its stance on foreign policies. In 2007, Presidential hopeful John McCain outlined a series of measures to roll back Bush policies and counter the ‘ugly American’ image.
The 2004 film ‘EuroTrip’ was originally slated to be named ‘The Ugly Americans’ due to its depiction of stereotypical American tourists in Europe. The producers changed the title shortly before its release. A study carried out in 2002 revealed that Hollywood also contributes to the ‘Ugly American’ image. The study found that the more access other countries had to American programs, the higher their negative attitudes toward Americans tended to be. The movie ‘Sex and the City 2’ has been quoted as a typical portrayal of the ‘ugly American’ image, where Carrie Bradshaw and her three best girlfriends make fun of Middle Eastern culture and women in traditional dress.
The term was used as the title of a 1948 photograph of an American tourist in Havana by the Cuban photographer Constantino Arias, but seems to have entered popular culture as the title of a 1958 book by authors William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. In 1963 the book was made into a movie directed by George Englund and starring Marlon Brando. The best-selling, loosely fictional account provided contrasting characters with different approaches to opposing Communist influence in Southeast Asia, and the use of foreign aid in particular.
The majority of the Americans exhibit a range of blundering, corrupt, and incompetent behaviors, often concentrating on impractical projects that will serve more to benefit American contractors than the local population. A minority are effective because they employ knowledge of the local language and culture, but most of these are marginalized and some even considered suspect. As a result, their influence is more limited than it should be.
The title character, Homer Atkins, is introduced late in the book. He is ‘ugly’ only in his physical appearance. His unattractive features, rough clothing and dirty hands are contrasted with the bureaucrats’ freshly pressed clothes, clean fingers, and smooth cheeks. Their behaviors have the opposite contrast: Atkins cares about the people of southeast Asia and wants to help them create practical solutions to their everyday problems; the bureaucrats want to build highways and dams that are not yet needed, and with no concern for the many other projects that will have to be completed before they can be used.
The book led to a move by President Dwight Eisenhower to study and reform American aid programs in the region. In the book, a fictional Burmese journalist wrote, ‘For some reason, the people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious. Perhaps they’re frightened and defensive, or maybe they’re not properly trained and make mistakes out of ignorance.’
The idea of the ignorant or badly-behaving American traveler long predates this book. Mark Twain wrote about ‘The Innocents Abroad’ in the nineteenth century, and Algonquin Round Table member Donald Ogden Stewart wrote ‘Mr and Mrs Haddock Abroad’ in 1924.