Moments of transcendence in the context of the act of purchasing a consumer fashion magazine are usually rare to the point of non-existence, but back at the start of 2005, the person who was to become Mediolana’s Creative Director & CSO experienced precisely one such episode on seeing Mischa Barton grace the cover of the short-lived Elle Girl. Barton – at the time, the ace face of a certain California-based teen soap opera – was an it-girl with a difference: namely, an unusual depth of being which was almost totally incongruous to the rapidly-decaying US media environment she found herself inhabiting.
With the best part of a decade-and-a-half has passed having elapsed since this point, we at Mediolana have recently been troubled by a question to which we have no satisfactory answer: with no female (and almost certainly no male) remotely of Ms Barton’s stature having emerged from Hollywood and its domestic satellite media markets in the intervening period, was this remarkable actress the last great American icon?
This question is not merely an academic one. Particularly in the post-1945 era, the projection of US dominance has been inextricably linked to its national brand; in turn, the ability to create personas worthy of emulation and adoration is a key element of this vital ‘soft power’ element. For decades, Brand America enjoyed peerless reach, and globalisation was presumed by many to be synonymous with Americanisation.
However, since the increasingly catastrophic moral and geopolitical failure that constituted Operation Iraqi Freedom – in 2018, Chinese and Russian oil companies are operational in what was until at least the late 1980s a US client state – the United States has apparently been unable to engage in cultural reproduction with anything like the same degree of success (with seemingly even post-Season One installments of The O.C. suffering). Indeed, it has been losing market share in the domain of scripted content to nations such as South Korea and Turkey for some time now.
Of course, explaining this phenomenon requires a broad and sophisticated examination which is beyond the scope of a mere blog post. But it surely isn’t unrealistic to posit that one core reason behind this decline is the total, jarring absence of anyone who can enthuse viewers – particularly young consumers – from São Paulo to Istanbul in the way that Mischa Barton so evidently could. This is something for US policymakers – and not merely television and film executives – to contemplate in an atmosphere of profound sobriety.