BY Kieron Sinnette

Aug 5th 2021

International Perspectives

An Expat’s Guide to American Pop Culture References

Aug 5th 2021

As a newcomer to the US, you may notice that your American friends and colleagues are often quoting their favorite shows, movies, and celebrities. Here’s a list of 8 seminal pop culture highlights that you’ll want to add to your vernacular.

  1. Hollywood Mantras and Popular Movie Phrases

    On a daily basis, you’re bound to encounter at least one pop culture reference, and more than likely, it will be in the form of a movie quote. Like the Terminator, these iconic phrases never die. Here are some of the most recognizable. If you haven’t seen them yet, add these movies to your watch list:

    “You can’t handle the truth!”—A Few Good Men

    “Life is like a box of chocolates” —Forrest Gump

    “Nobody puts Baby in a corner”—Dirty Dancing

    “They’re all gonna laugh at you”—Carrie

    “Alrighty then”—Ace Ventura Pet Detective

    “Ugh, as if.”—Clueless

    “May the odds be ever in your favor”—Hunger Games

    “Wax on, wax off.”—Karate Kid

    “May the force be with you.”—Star Wars

    “With great power comes great responsibility.”—Spider-Man

    “You will be different. Sometimes you’ll feel like an outcast, but you’ll never be alone.”—Superman Returns

  2. Mean Girls & the American High School Experience

    If you’re a family living abroad and are curious about the American high school experience, this 2004 movie covers it all, from a teenager’s first day at school to the epic drama of prom. What Mean Girls does best, however, is irreverently portray the small, exclusive groups American high schoolers are prone to forming, also known as cliques. The nerds, the goths, and the jocks all get over-the-top moments under the microscope.

    But the most memorable are the Plastics, who embody the quintessential “it-girl” who tends to command school cohorts. Plastics catchphrases and rules—not to mention the meanness of their infamous leader Regina George—are all permanently embedded in the American psyche.

    Mark your calendars! On October 3, we celebrate Regina, Gretchen, Karen, and Cady—our favorite mean girls. After decades of problematic teen movies, Americans were hungry for a movie that had the guts to mock high school stereotypes rather than blandly and blatantly reinforce them.

  3. Binge-Watching

    Long before the coronavirus and at-home quarantining, marathon-viewing of movies or television shows was already a much-celebrated, national pastime. With the rapid rise of Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services, the American appetite for binge-watching grew, and came to shift the way content is consumed and distributed. The small screen grew in dominance thanks to pop-culture phenoms such as Game of Thrones, Black MirrorBreaking Bad, and even Tiger King. So, don’t be surprised to find your American friends frequently discussing their latest binge-worthy series. If they choose to pass on a weekend outing in favor of some screen time, trust us—it isn’t personal.

  4. American Memes

    Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, except maybe when it comes to viral memes. Wikipedia defines a meme as “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person.” In practice, memes give us the opportunity to add that essential dash of “shade” or “yas queen” to otherwise generic flattery. Through lighthearted commentary on everything from politics to your favorite real housewife of Anytown America, memes spread joy, criticism, and poke fun. Our most popular memes become cultural touchstones, go viral, and more often than not, get remixed.


  5. Oprah: American Royalty

    You’ve undoubtedly heard of Oprah Winfrey, our very own American Queen. Still, you might be surprised every four years when you see Twitter trying to recruit her to run for US president. You see, Oprah isn’t just one of the most influential women in the world. Oprah Winfrey is family. Her rise to the “Queen of All Media” throne represents the quintessential American story. This story began way before she gave her entire audience brand new cars—one of the most memorable moments in pop culture history—and plenty of Americans hope it ends with her in the White House.

  6. The Indelible Wisdom of RuPaul

    Don’t let the stilettos, skyscraping wigs, and flawless make-up fool you. America’s Drag-Queen of All Media, RuPaul Charles, is a consummate professional. Long before “yas queen,” “shade,” or “not today Satan, not today” became American household sayings, RuPaul was a beloved household name and major influence in American culture. The RuPaul Show began airing in 1996—the same year President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law—and was one of the first US television programs to have an openly gay host. Armed with the best advice a (drag) mother can give, Mama Ru keeps reminding us, “if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” There’s no denying RuPaul’s charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent.

  7. Celebrity-Filled Festivals

    There’s no better way to experience the melting pot that is America than at one of this country’s annual festivals. This includes world-famous festivals like Burning Man, Coachella, Bottlerock, and South by Southwest—and of course, the much-ridiculed Fyre Festival. Pay attention, because this is the only time we’re going to say this, but America owes everyone who attended the Fyre Festival a sincere apology. This is the last time we’re gonna let “it-girls” like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Hailey Baldwin get us to fork up to $12,000 per ticket only to get mattresses strewn on rain-soaked floors, bread, and cheese for lunch and dinner, and piles of luggage left stacked on parking lot cement.

  8. Boomers vs. Millennials vs. Gen Z

    Welcome to America, where you’re either a rich Boomer, a neglected Gen Xer, an entitled millennial, or a Gen Z digital savant. These designations were undoubtedly meant to help explain generational consumer and workplace behaviors, but they’ve become launchpads for intergenerational comparisons, conversations, and conflict. It started with about a decade of headlines blaming millennials for everything from killing the napkin industry to homeownership (plus the diamond industry, plus cereal, plus people were mad that they liked avocado toast). Enter “okay Boomer.” This buzzworthy clap-back from millennials and Generation Z gained popularity on TikTok in November 2019 and is often used to “throw shade” back at the Boomer generation.

    One thing you’ve probably noticed about American pop culture is that there is a huge amount of it. So getting caught up is no easy task. But understanding these references will help you dip your toe into the deep pool of popular culture in your new home. In no time, you’ll be swimming laps.


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