I recently came across a short video from the talk show Lopez Tonight featuring Jessica Alba, and in it, George Lopez reveals the results of her ancestry DNA test. According to Lopez and the language used by the testing company, Alba is 87 percent European and 13 percent Native American. But to the astute observer, the show is actually claiming to reveal more than the details of Alba's genetic composition. It is also claiming to reveal information about her "true" race, and therein lies the problem.
As I have noted elsewhere on The Sociological Cinema, racial categories do not consistently correspond to biological observations (see here and here). To put it another way, race is not based on biology; it merely claims to be. This point often confuses people, for they reason that in some sense race must be biological. After all, skin color is largely a genetically determined characteristic, and so the thinking goes, race must be too. But while genetic instructions largely determine the amount of melanin a body produces, it is through socialization that people become predisposed to notice skin color as one of the most salient features a body can have. The thickness of one's eyebrows, the shape of their ears, or the color of their of eyes—these are also genetically determined characteristcs, but people mostly discount these features as the bearers of useful information. To socially construct race, then, is to teach people which physical characteristics are the salient markers of a racial group, and racism becomes possible once people begin assigning meanings to those salient racial markers.
At about the 45-second mark, Lopez explains that the DNA analysis distinguishes between four ancestral groups, and perhaps sensing that it would resonate with his audience, he incorrectly equates each ancestral group with a race. The Europeans, according to Lopez, are white, Sub-Saharan Africans are black, East Asians are Asian, and the Indigenous American group refers to Native Americans. The results confuse Alba, who racially identifies as Latina and knows her last name comes from Spain. But it is instructive to dwell a bit on the basis of her confusion, for it highlights the incompatibility between ancestral DNA and race. In the United States people with Spanish heritage tend to be racially categorized as Hispanic or Latino, which is a category believed to be distinct from white. However, DNA analyses show that the original inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula (i.e. Spain, Portugal, the small UK overseas territory of Gibraltar and the Principality of Andorra) are a part of the same general migratory group of homo sapiens that settled the rest of Europe. As with all racial categories, contemporary distinctions between whites and Hispanics in the United States are socially created and not based on some deeper biological truth.
There is something curious about the bewilderment and outrage many people have expressed regarding the recently publicized episodes of police and vigilante violence against Blacks. To be clear, I am not referring to the inconsolable sadness and outrage expressed by those in Black communities, who have lost loved ones and cherished members of their communities. There is nothing curious or puzzling about their expressions of grief. Rather, what strikes me most are the outraged bloggers and YouTubers of the liberal left, particularly those who are white. They seem to take account of all the racial violence they have observed over the last decade and exclaim, “What happened to America!?” They are surprised to learn of videos emerging which show law enforcement abusing their power, especially when confronting Black men and women. They express exasperation upon seeing video of an entire bus full of college students chanting, “There will never be a ni**** SAE!” Unlike their more conservative counterparts, these white liberals are less inclined to blame the victim and insist that members of Black communities must pull themselves up by their bootstraps; yet they share the sentiment that open racial conflict is somehow antithetical to the America of their childhood.
What is puzzling is that these bewildered whites appear to have no memory. It is like the movie Groundhog Day, but not even the protagonist is aware he has been witnessing the same murder over and over again. Each time is like the first, and he struggles to comprehend what is happening. What is this nonsense with the Ferguson police? How could police so easily default to the use of deadly force against 12-year-old Tamir Rice? How could they kill Eric Garner over suspicion of such a minor offense, and continue squeezing his neck despite repeated pleas for air? What about Freddie Gray (2015)?, Walter L. Scott (2015)? Akai Gurley (2014)? Ezell Ford (2014)? John Crawford III (2014)? Trayvon Martin (2012)? Ramarley Graham (2012)? Oscar Grant III (2009)? Tarika Wilson (2008)? Sean Bell (2006)? Amadou Diallo (1999)? Tyisha Miller (1998)? The Rodney King beating (1991)? The murder of Eleanor Bumpurs (1984)? Clifford Glover (1973)? Fred Hampton (1969)? Delano Herman Middleton (1968)? Samuel Ephesians Hammond, Jr. (1968)? Henry Ezekial Smith (1968)? Benjamin Brown (1967)? Jimmie Lee Jackson (1965)? James Earl Chaney (1964)? Medgar_Evers (1963)? Addie Mae (1963)? Denise McNair (1963)? Cynthia Wesley (1963)? Carole Robertson (1963)? Roman Ducksworth Jr. (1962)? Herbert Lee (1961)? Emmett Till (1955)? Jesse Thornton (1940)? Raymond Gunn (1931)? George Smith (1931)? Mary Turner (1918)? Frank Embree (1899)?
The above names barely amount to a single snowflake atop the proverbial tip of the iceberg, and the racist violence these names recall happened in communities all over the United States (see a map here). The Equal Justice Initiative counted that between 1877 to 1950, there are 3,959 known instances of white "terror lynchings" of Black men and women. But one does not need to go back a full century to see the pattern of violence directed against Black Americans. The average number of annual arrest-related deaths between 2003 and 2009 was about four times higher for Blacks than whites, Looking at teens aged 15 to 19, who were shot and killed by police, the racial gap appears to be even greater. Between 2010 and 2012, police shot and killed about 21 times more Black youth than white youth.
Understanding why racist violence continues to be surprising to so many liberal-leaning whites involves trying to make sense of the glaring contradiction between the racial equality many whites profess to want for the United States and the racial inequality they sometimes uphold through their behavior and allow to persist through their inaction. The popular explanation now propagated by academics and anti-racist educators is that following the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, racist practices of various types went underground (see Bonilla-Silva 2013). Overt and blatantly racist signifiers began a hasty retreat from public view, making racist prejudice and discrimination more difficult to see, harder to prove, and easier to deny. What this means—and this is crucial—is that bigots of all varieties may very well have continued their racist discrimination, but increasingly, they did so without racialized hate speech, or at least without witnesses to hear it. Euphemisms and other new rhetorical strategies have flourished in this environment, so that racialized nouns like “thug” and “you people” have come to replace the n-word.
Newer, more covert racist practices spread through the labor market. Employers who once openly expressed their preferences for white job candidates became rare, but while some employers implemented policies to curb racial discrimination, many more just became less open about their racial preferences. Prosecutors who sought to bring charges of employment discrimination began relying more on the work of statisticians rather than the eavesdropping of fellow employees. If one hoped to expose a particular employer’s racist hiring practices—to make those practices stop—one now needed access to reams of data from the employer about the presumed race of applicants, their qualifications, and whether they were hired. Here again, employment discrimination simply became harder to prove. It did not end.
There is a similar pattern with respect to racist violence, or what are now routinely referred to as hate crimes. Openly racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, to take one example, became less and less palatable to the white majority, and memberships of local chapters began a slow decline. It was no longer acceptable to terrorize and murder Black men and women in such an openly racist manner. But violence against Black men and women in the United States did not necessarily decline. It only became harder to detect and prove.
The data, incomplete though they may be, supports the conclusion that if one includes the violence administered by police officers, a Black person's chances of being harmed or killed by white terrorism is not markedly different than a century ago. The exasperation and bewilderment expressed by many white liberals over the racial turmoil in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore, and other American cities suggests that these whites have never even contemplated the notion that in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Era racist violence may have never declined. In terms of violence as a means of social control, white supremacy has surrendered nothing. The dirty work of white supremacy may have simply changed hands from vigilante groups to law enforcement agencies. By handing over the reins to those agents of the state who are normatively regarded as the legitimate enactors of lethal force, the disproportionate killing of Black men and women in the United States simply appeared to be "legitimate" outcomes. For liberal whites, who have been living very different experiences from Black Americans, the violence was difficult to detect. For Blacks, it became more difficult to prove.
The fact that racism has become more covert is not a viable excuse for whites who claim to desire equality of opportunity and justice because it is primarily white Americans who are keeping the workings and effects of racism hidden. The manner in which the unrest in Baltimore was framed by the media is but one example. But while whites—particularly those who work in the media—have been centrally involved in the work of making racism more difficult to see, whites are also guilty of their refusal to notice racism, even when it is plainly visible. As alluded to above, the calls to investigate, prosecute, and bring about an end to systematic patterns of violence against Black Americans certainly did not begin with the death of Freddie Gray, nor did such calls begin after George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing Trayvon Martin. Black communities were loudly calling for an end to racist police violence well before 1973 when 10-year-old Clifford Glover was shot “T-square in the back, with his body leaning forward” as he ran away from a police officer in Queens, New York. Brave and outspoken members of Black communities were speaking the truth about white terror since well before the late Nineteenth Century when Ida B. Wells-Barnett persuasively decried lynching as a barbarous vice of white men (see Bederman 1995). The bewilderment of white liberals no longer makes any sense. However good their intentions might be, the exasperated cries of sympathy from liberal whites rings hollow.
Given that white supremacy has depended so crucially on whites hiding racialized violence, and refusing to notice the racialized violence that has occurred over generations, is it not fitting that the development of a portable, visually-oriented technology capable of producing digital video at the touch of a button is proving to be the trigger for a public discussion about racism and racist violence? A critical mass of smartphones in racially segregated America has unexpectedly created an opening, a means of forcing a broad swathe of the white public to see again what has been generally hidden. Social movements under the banner of Black Lives Matter and the Black Spring are now attempting to gain a foothold within the fissures upon which rests the foundation of white supremacy. But social change is neither linear, nor inevitalble, and it remains to be seen whether progress will be made in curbing the systemic violence directed against Black lives.
To paraphrase Kwame Touré, in order to be truly helpful, white liberals must be careful they are not simply trying to “help” Blacks adjust to an abject status. Instead, whites must use the power and privilege of whiteness to act by dismantling or reforming white supremacist institutions.
I remember walking to class one morning as a 10-year-old boy, and for no particular reason, my gaze drifted to my right, just in time to catch a classmate exiting the girls restroom. It was a split second glance into the forbidden zone, and I was suddenly guilty. Did anyone see me? The girls restroom didn't look anything like the boys restroom, I thought. More pointedly, what was the nature and purpose of that large white box bolted to the side of the bathroom wall?
Whatever goodies that glorious white box dispensed, I decided that the facilities, and indeed the experience of using the girls restroom were irrefutably better than could be had in the boys. Some time later, I pieced together enough information to conclude that the box held a supply of tampons or menstrual pads, which had something to do with women and their periods. As to how often girls used these soft cotton marvels of technological innovation was a complete mystery, and I knew even less about how they used them.
That fleeting glance of the white box that day stirred my curiosity, but somehow I intuitively understood that to broach the topic of women’s menstruation was to risk embarrassment, so I never brought it up. I eventually learned the basic mechanics of an average menstrual cycle, but it wasn’t until after high school that I developed some very close relationships with women, and through our conversations, I was finally able to name this bizarre mystique surrounding the topic of menstruation.
I’ve always been a curious guy, so it’s fitting that I became a sociologist. I’ve been thinking about just how pervasive this fear of menstruation is in American society, and I’m wondering why it exists at all. One could look at Hollywood movies as a rough gauge of the ubiquity of the fear. The kinds of stories we transform into blockbuster movies, and even the jokes we tell in those movies, say a lot about our society. Take, for instance, the popular 2007 film, Superbad, starring Jonah Hill as Seth. In one memorable scene, Seth finds himself dancing close to a woman at a party and accidentally winds up with her menstrual blood on his pant leg. A group of boys at the party spot the blood, deduce the source, and one by one, they buckle in laughter. Seth is humiliated by what is supposed to be an awkward adolescent moment, but he’s also gagging uncontrollably from his own disgust.
Menstrual blood, in its capacity to stir discomfort and uneasiness, is used as a vehicle for comedy in Superbad, but in the Stephen King film, it serves a different purpose. In Carrie, King's depiction of Carrie's first period is used to layer in tension, and it is not until the concluding scene, when a spiteful classmate pours a brimming bucket of pseudo-menstrual blood over Carrie's head in front of the entire student body, that Carrie finally resolves the tension by using her telekinetic powers to bar all exits and set her tormenters ablaze.
These two films are from entirely different genres and are separated by over 30 years; yet they rely on the same cultural taboos and anxieties surrounding menstruation (as do many, many other films I haven't mentioned). Both films have been commercially successful, suggesting they contain themes and characters that resonate with a broad swath of the American public. The menstrual scenes from Carrie are as unsettling as the scene from Superbad is hilarious because both films successfully capitalized on the collective sense of shame surrounding menstruation.
Long before me, feminists have noted that the all-too-common fear of menstrual contamination and the shame of failing to manage the menstrual flow are deeply held ideas rooted in patriarchy. That some men involuntarily gag at the mere thought of menstrual blood is evidence that the natural human experience of menstruation has been successfully re-imagined in American society as a kind of pathology. But I think it is important to remember, that women bear the brunt of this ideology. After all, women’s bodies are pathologized, not men’s.
It’s also important not to lose sight of the fact that this pervasive fear of menstruation fuels a multi-billion dollar industry, which produces and markets hundreds of products designed to manage and even suppress menstruation (e.g., Lybrel and Seasonique), and it is this relationship between menstrual shame and corporate profit that needs to be exposed and disentangled.
In an interview about her recent book, New Blood: Third Wave Feminism and the Politics of Menstruation, sociologist Chris Bobel nicely articulates the connection between menstrual anxiety and corporate profit:
The prohibition against talking about menstruation—shh…that’s dirty; that’s gross; pretend it’s not going on; just clean it up—breeds a climate where corporations, like femcare companies and pharmaceutical companies, like the makers of Lybrel and Seasonique, can develop and market products of questionable safety. They can conveniently exploit women’s body shame and self-hatred. And we see this, by the way, when it comes to birthing, breastfeeding, birth control and health care in general. The medical industrial complex depends on our ignorance and discomfort with our bodies.
Bobel’s analysis helps make sense of why I felt so certain at the ripe old age of 10 that I couldn’t ask anyone about the tampon dispenser on the wall. By then, I had already internalized the patriarchal notion that women’s menstruation is a potential source of shame, or at least that my interest in it would be shameful. Nearly three decades later, when discussing the topic with my students in the introduction to sociology class I teach, I invariably get asked why—given all we know about the natural, reproductive purpose of the menstrual cycle—do we persist in attaching shame and embarrassment to this experience? In order to understand why, I think we need to critically examine the way patriarchy is entangled with capitalism. As Bobel also notes, it is profitable to peddle the patriarchal idea that women’s bodies are potentially dangerous well springs of shame. Femcare companies and the advertising firms they hire devote enormous resources toward replenishing this well of menstrual anxiety, thereby ensuring women continue to purchase a host of products all designed with the intent of managing their menstrual flow or even stopping it all together.
Unfortunately, quelling the persistence of these very problematic ideas about women and menstruation is a tall order. If my argument is that it is untenable for advertisers to effectively tell women they must use femcare products to avoid shame, then it is equally untenable for me—especially as a man—to tell women to do something else. Instead, I'll conclude with what feels to be an embarrassing compromise with a system I'd rather just discard. My hope is that both women and men can become critically-minded consumers of media and the representations it deploys about women and their bodies. The American public, and many other publics, currently confront a number of anxiety-inducing challenges, menstruation just isn't one of them.
Randall Collins was recently named the 2011 Rosenberg Lecturer at the University of Maryland, and I recently attended the talk he gave for the honor. I would bargain that most sociologists are aware that Collins is uncommonly prolific, and most are also aware of how widely cited he is. As the Rosenberg lecturer, it was one of those rare instances when it was entirely possible to sincerely introduce him as “a person for whom no introduction is necessary” without being accused of simply repeating a tired cliché. So rather than use this space to dote on him or list his accomplishments, in what follows, I’ll briefly recount his presentation and conclude with a couple thoughts I had about his project.
_In true sociological form, the title of Collins’ presentation left nothing to the imagination: “Informalization of Manners and Self Presentation and How to Explain It.” His argument went something like this: There has been an accelerated shift toward informalization since about the 1980s, and to piece together the driving force behind this process, Collins takes us through an attic shoe box full of still photos, which cross continents, social strata and span the last century. They appear to be his personal photos, not simply pasted into his study from a Google search, and they are clearly taken from a variety of different cameras, using a variety of different film speeds, under a variety of different light conditions.
Collins first examines informalization as it pertains to the garb of protesters throughout the last century, and he explains that even in the militant labor movement around the turn of the 20th century, protesters were dressed in formal attire, or what Charles Tilly referred to as a WUNC display. That is, in contrast to the Occupy Wall Street protesters of recent months, these striking industrial workers represented themselves in formal attire to telegraph their worthiness, unification, large numbers, and commitment. "Why," he asks, "has there been such a dramatic change in the protester's uniform?"
Whatever the answer, it was clear Collins wasn't giving it up yet. Instead, as he talked through the next series of photographs, it became clear that his analysis was drawing from Erving Goffman’s attention to both formal and informal rituals and the face-work these rituals imply. However, I think Collins is endeavoring to make sense of a process for which Goffman’s analytical tools are ill-equipped to provide answers. It is not what is happening in any particular photograph that interests Collins so much as what is behind the general drift toward informalization, which can only be discerned from a sea of photos. To this end, Collins serves up three theories to account for this drift. First, following Norbert Elias, he proposes that informalization is the result of a social democratization. Perhaps social outsiders have begun to increase their political participation, and second order manifestations of this increased participation are cropping up in language, customs, and behaviors. Second, Collins puts forth what he refers to as an antinomian elite theory, which describes the propagation of informalization as due to a shared reaction against a formal elite aesthetic. Here, “cool” prevails among persons determined not to be “square.” Finally, he suggests that there has been an emergence of a different kind of elitism, but one that we might recognize as a “leisure elite,” typified by the athletic fantasy figure. Here the impulse leading to greater informalization is a result of sport and prominent figures in sport becoming something like Durkheimian ritual objects.
Collins’ unassuming presentation style betrays the ambition of his project. To put it bluntly, he is attempting to explain why an image of men wearing hats in a diner during the 1950s should be considered alongside a contemporary image of an erect penis with piercings (oh, yes he did). Unfortunately, that much anticipated moment where all the pieces of Collins’ puzzle fall into place and this otherwise random barrage of still photos reveals something about why our contemporaries consistently eschew formalities never came. In my view—and I think Collins agrees—not one of the theories he proposed at the outset worked very well. Instead, he concluded with the provocative idea that class disparities are better disguised amidst this relatively undifferentiated field of informal garb and behaviors.
So Collins’ proverbial curtain was lifted to reveal an empty stage with only the sound of a whimpering trumpet, but I’m writing this post with a forgiving heart. As I said, Collins’ project is an ambitious one, and after all, I don’t think it was ever really possible for Randy Collins to live up to the reputation of "Dr. Randall Collins, Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania."
I was left with several other concerns about his project, but in closing, I’ll mention just two. First, in addition to social class, I think Collins’ project would benefit from a more sustained analysis of other dimensions of inequality. After talking to others who attended, there is some agreement that he appeared to overlook the way the informalization process may be working differently for women. I would also be interested to know how informalization varies by race.
Finally, Collins’ project is global in scope, and it would be interesting for him to locate this drift toward informalization amidst other global processes. For example, it is tempting to draw connections between a global drift toward informalization and the growing income inequality often remarked upon by those interested in the outcomes of economic globalization. If informalization truly hides income disparities—which is an idea he proposed in his talk—then the fact that both processes began to quicken about 30 years ago seems to be a rather suspicious coincidence and one worth investigating.
Admittedly, I’ve never been very successful at persuading other sociologists to pursue questions that I personally find interesting or important, but one never knows. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing the next iteration of Dr. Collins’ analysis of informalization.
Originally posted on Sociological Images: Inspiring Sociological Imaginations Everywhere
_Back in 2007, Dr. Oz stood on the set of The Oprah Winfrey Show and infamously promoted to an audience of 8 million viewers the idea that African Americans experience higher rates of hypertension because of the harsh conditions their ancestors endured on slave ships crossing the Atlantic. This so-called "slave hypothesis" has been roundly criticized for good reason, but I was struck that it was being promoted by such a highly educated medical professional.
_The episode got me thinking about the sociologists Omi and Winant's notion of a racial formation as resulting from historically situated racial projects wherein "racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed" (p. 55-56). These projects take multiple forms but in at least one version, there is an attempt to collapse race—a socially constructed concept—into biology. Such projects are similar insofar as they suggest that the socially constructed distinctiveness between people of different racial categories roughly approximates a meaningful biological distinctiveness. Scientists have been centrally involved in this effort to establish a biological basis for race. In the middle of the 19th century Dr. Samuel Morton attempted to show that average cranial capacities of people from different racial groups were significantly different. Today, many people scoff at the misguided racism of the past, but I think Dr. Oz's promotion of the slave hypothesis demonstrates that the search for a biological, and therefore "natural," basis for race continues.
So how do proponents of the slave hypothesis explain hypertension? In 1988 Dr. Clarence Grim first proposed the theory, which is the idea that the enslaved people who survived the Middle Passage were more likely to be carriers of a gene that allowed them to retain salt. Grim argued that this ability to retain salt, while necessary for a person to survive the harsh conditions of a slave ship, would ultimately lead to hypertension as the person aged. Thus Grim proposed that African Americans living in the United States today are the descendents of people who have this selected feature. As I mentioned above, this theory has been soundly refuted but reportedly still remains in many hypertension textbooks. Looking at the clip above, which is from January of this year, it seems that medical professionals like Dr. Oz may be still promoting it.
I think it is important to recognize that this particular racial project persists in many forms, and one final example is from 2005, when the FDA approved BiDil as a customized treatment of heart failure for African Americans. The approval was based on highly criticized research, but the approval also implicitly makes the case that a racial group might be so biologically distinct from others as to warrant its own customized medication. Much like the search for different cranial capacities, the propagation of the slave hypothesis, and the marketing of drugs designed for different racial groups, BiDil's emergence can be seen as an attempt to deploy racial categories as if they were immutable in nature (see Troy Duster's article in Science).
Criticizing this racial project is more than an academic exercise. As a social construct, race is already a central principal of social organization, which benefits whites at the expense of other racial groups. It is already a powerful basis upon which privileges are meted out and denied. In my view, the effort to loosen race from its moorings as a social construct and anchor it again as a biological fact of nature is an attempt to fundamentally alter the discussion on racial inequality. If this project prevails and race comes again to reflect a biological truth, then fewer people will acknowledge racial inequality as the result of a human-made history. It will instead be seen as the result of humans being made differently.
Stand-up comedians exercise a curious privilege, which allows them to peddle controversial conclusions and uncomfortable insights without suffering the usual scorn and admonishment that comes with challenging systems of power. The comedian's stage seems to be a space that has been engineered for bringing indelicate knowledge about the world to the surface. For instance, the suggestion that Americans are deeply divided by race and class usually causes people to fidget, yet Chris Rock was greeted with laughter and applause when he unabashedly criticized the racialized wealth gap in the United States during one of his performances in Washington DC. Similarly, Louis C.K. received a rousing applause when he discussed his privilege as a white male, and Hari Kondabolu made an entire room burst into laughter by exposing the nonsensical logic underlying stereotypes aimed at Mexican immigrants.
Unfortunately, as with superheroes who use their powers for evil, not all comedians use the stage as a venue for delivering social criticisms aimed at exposing injustice. For instance, comedy is just as likely to reinforce stereotypes as it is to criticize them, or to put it differently, the comedian's stage is just as likely to be a place where knowledge is "indelicate" because it is racist as it to be a place where knowledge is indelicate because it is critical of racism.
Consider Jeff Dunham's ventriloquial act featuring his popular dummy, "Achmed the Dead Terrorist." In the clip below, which is taken from a 2007 performance in Washington DC, Dunham draws upon a number of stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, many of which have been around since well before the attacks on September 11th, 2001. Dunham is not deploying social criticism, but is instead uncritically drawing on racist representations for laughs. He is also reasserting and promoting what is by now a worn panoply of orientalist associations. Arabs and Muslims, like the Achmed character, are typically portrayed as religious fanatics. They are often depicted as irrationally angry, and many are self-proclaimed terrorists. But if they are dangerous, they are dangerous buffoons and are often too incompetent to pull off their own deadly plots.
In this way, stand-up comedians can be understood as articulators of knowledge about the world. As I have argued, they contribute to the persistence of stereotypes at times, but they can also articulate convincing arguments against stereotypes. But what is true of stand-up comedy seems to hold for other types of comedic performance as well. Political cartoons, comedy sketches, and even situation comedies all peddle this indelicate knowledge about the racialized other. In "Ali-Baba Bound," a Looney Tunes cartoon from 1940, Porky Pig runs up against Ali-Baba and his "Dirty Sleeves." The humor is constructed around a basic scaffolding of the Arab as dirty and sneaky. Ali-Baba's Arab underlings in the cartoon are depicted as too primitive to competently use rockets and must must run as suicide bombers toward a colonial fort with explosives strapped to their heads.
The articulation and reinforcement of Arabs as buffoons or Muslims as extremists, the elevation of these images above others as iconic representations ironically limits the field of vision. But shortly after 1940, events would transpire so that for a time Arabs and Muslims occupied a relatively small sliver of American concern. The sneak attack on Pearl Harbor the following year ignited a discursive explosion surrounding the Japanese, both those living in American neighborhoods and abroad. It is striking how eerily similar representations of Japanese persons were to those claimed for Arabs and Muslims. However, fed by photographed destruction of Pearl Harbor and the tangible realities associated with the American war machine shifted back into high gear, dominant representations of the treacherous Japanese other went further and faster. Each representation of the "Jap" became more and more fanciful; each illustration seemingly emboldened by the last to push the caricature even further.
"Waiting for the Signal from Home..." Dr. Seuss. February 13, 1942
Celebrated children's author, Dr. Seuss, published a cartoon only weeks before the United States would forcibly relocate 120,000 ethnic Japanese persons living in the United States to internment camps. The cartoon depicts a buck-toothed, fifth column of Japanese Americans lining up from Washington to California for their very own box of TNT. A man with a monocular scales the rooftop of the explosives depot "waiting for the signal from home." Or consider a Looney Tunes cartoon from the period, which is named "Tokio Jokio" and similarly claims buck teeth and buffoonish behavior for all Japanese persons on the planet.
The cartoon elaborates upon many of the typical stereotypes associated with Japanese persons but unlike the Dr. Seuss cartoon, the attempt at humor is harder to miss. Whereas the Seuss cartoon reverberates extant fears about a treacherous Japanese enemy living among us, the Looney Tunes cartoon lampoons them as bumbling idiots. In the Seuss cartoon, their tribal-like loyalties to the Emperor mean they are capable of doing just about anything, but in the Looney Tunes cartoon they are too incompetent to prevent their own Fire Prevention Headquarters from burning to the ground. Such seemingly contradictory representations permeated the American imagination of the time, alternately stoking anxieties while assuring Americans of their national and even racial superiority.
These racist representations aimed at the Japanese were not buried by the detonation of two atomic bombs over Japanese cities. Just as before the Second World War, they have proven to be free-floating to a degree and transferable to our emergent enemies. Today, Arabs and Muslims are routinely depicted in popular cinema as incompetent. In our comedy, they are again the bumbling idiots, simultaneously too stupid to successfully perpetrate an attack against us and just stupid enough to commit truly heinous crimes. What was an imagined fifth column, has become the terrorist sleeper cell. In 1942 we feared Japanese Americans were blindly loyal to "their" Emperor. Today we are bombarded with ideas about the tribal loyalties of American Muslims. So powerful are these loyalties, it is often suggested, Muslims would happily kill themselves to bring about the demise of Western civilization. The fanatical Middle Eastern suicide bomber is the new banzai charger and Japanese Kamikazi pilot.
There is a joke that is now getting tossed around the internet, and it goes something like this, "A friend of mine has started a new business. He is manufacturing land mines that look like prayer mats. It's doing well. He says prophets are going through the roof." What this joke, Dunham's comedy sketch, and the Looney Tunes cartoon all share is that they mark historical moments when the racialized other became so thoroughly demonized and devalued in the public consciousness, our undifferentiated Arab "enemies" became so feared for their treachery and immorality that it became possible to make light of hypothetical and real violence perpetrated against them. What does it say about a people when they find it possible to laugh at a joke about a human detonating a bomb which is strapped to his body? One might speculate that it is strangely intoxicating to spot the boogieman tripping on his shoelaces, embarrassing himself, or dying by his own venom. The Achmed character's tired threat, "I kill you!" is funny, perhaps because his voice cracks like a thirteen-year-old boy, and we are entertained by the irony that someone so evil could appear so weak. "Look at the Muslim boogieman acting so foolishly!" we seem to be saying through our laughter.
Of course Arabs and Muslims are not born evil; the boogieman is a creature that gets created in the accounts of what might happen if the nation ceases being vigilant. But the larger point I am arguing is that comedy, which uncritically trades in the negative stereotypes aimed at Arabs and Muslims and is able to make an audience pop with laughter with references to suicide bombing, is only possible because Arabs and Muslims have been successfully demonized and devalued. Comedians write jokes to get laughs, but as I mentioned at the outset, they also operate from a space which grants them temporary license to openly discuss controversial ideas. Comedians contribute to the discourse, just as readily they respond to it, and their sets are just as capable of exposing hidden discrimination as reinforcing it. This is important to consider because what is at stake here is the differential valuing of human life, and the way representations are organized to aid in that horrific project.
Perhaps five hundred years from now, when historians are able to look back on this moment, freed from the myopic principles of vision and division that currently ensnare us, I wonder if they will find it ironic that during this zenith of global information flows, a time when information about the intimate lives of people in distant lands so easily zipped across the planet, Americans persisted in holding fast to such gross generalizations. And if those historians archive the media which depicts the moral panic of these decades, they would do well to note what made us laugh.
With the 83rd Academy Awards looming, the celebratory cries of Americans who love their cinema have reached a virtual fever pitch. As a site that celebrates movies, we thought it only appropriate to join in the revelry, albeit in an unconventional way. Rather than endless commentary about who is wearing who, and which star is most deserving of an Oscar, we at The Sociological Cinema would like to offer up a note about the kinds of stories Americans most often celebrate and value. We want to draw attention to the overwhelmingly male-centered narratives and representations emanating from the Hollywood film industry.
Lucky for us, feminist cultural critic, Anita Sarkeesian, offers a very succinct analysis on the topic in a five-minute clip. In it, she demonstrates that our most celebrated films in the United States tend to be stories about men. As she explains, one of the consequences of living in a patriarchal society is that stories about men and masculine representations--their trials and transformations, courage and heroism--tend to be valued more than stories about women and feminine representations. Drawing from Sarkeesian's analysis, one can think about the following questions as they pertain to the films being celebrated as cinematic triumphs on Sunday: 1. Who has the most screen time? 2. Whose perspective do we see the story from? 3. Whose story arc does the plot revolve around? 4. Who is depicted as making consequential decisions in the story? and 5. Who do we most identify with? More often than not, the award is given to a movie about a man, told from his perspective. In fact, As Sarkeesian shows, a sweeping majority of the last 50 films to win the Academy Award for Best Picture were films about men and masculinity.
For those fans of American film who have no patience for Sarkeesian's sound reasoning and...umm...systematic use of data, we submit a second short clip for your consideration. This clip comes from The Girls on Film (TGOF), who describe their film blog as "a commentary with the objective of stimulating thought around the art of storytelling through film." The creators of the blog seek to challenge the audience through their "exploration of archetypal energies that are typically portrayed by men." To this end, the blog features scenes from mainstream blockbuster films that were originally performed by men but recreates them with women actors. In my favorite clip of theirs, Ashleigh Harrington and Katerina Taxia (directed by Jeff Hammond) reenact the recruiting scene from J.J. Abrams' Star Trek (2009). While Harrington and Taxia do a superb acting job, I think many people are dumbstruck when they first encounter the recreated scene. The masculine repartee between these two women and Harrington's bloody nose challenge the idea that masculinity can only be enacted by men. Performances of female masculinity tend to be rare in Hollywood films and are therefore surprising, but more germane to Sarkeesian's point above, The Girls on Film scene might also be surprising because it uses a woman to play the kind of role we have come to expect a man to play. We have been primed to see such important and consequential dialogue between men, so when women do it, it feels somehow disorienting.
Hollywood didn't invent patriarchy, but that doesn't preclude it from being implicated in reproducing it. The cultural critic, Stuart Hall, once observed that the people who work in creating media stand in a different relationship to ideology than the rest of us. That is to say, those who produce, direct, and act in films have at their disposal a powerful tool, which can be used to transform how people come to understand the world in which they live. Movies--especially the ones the Academy deems worthy of its coveted Oscar--pose answers to questions many people never asked, such as, "whose story is likely to matter most?" or just, "who matters?" As evidenced from the list of nominated films this year, those who were hoping for a revolution in the kinds of stories Hollywood tells may be disappointed. For now, a critical awareness of the men and masculinity America is (also) celebrating on Sunday may have to suffice.
While on the National Mall yesterday at the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear," I walked past an unamused man holding a sign with the message, "More Jobs, more money, more compassion." Standing behind him, about 20 feet away, was Darth Vader grabbing the ass of a pale looking zombie. I think The Village People were playing in the background. "What the hell is Stewart's rally all about?" I kept asking myself. Was I missing the point? Sure —some allowance must be made for the carnival-like atmosphere on the day before Halloween. Darth Vader, for instance, can be permitted to coexist with Hobbits but what was the political purpose of this event, which seemed to stir up so much interest among liberal-leaning thinkers in recent weeks?
"Are you going to the rally?" I must have been asked this question a dozen times in recent days. In each case, there seemed to be real relief and enthusiasm behind in the question, presumably because finally someone would be articulating an explanation against the worldview offered by vocal conservatives.
People have been hurting for some time now in this recession and there is a collective mood that despite their hard work and vigilance, they've lost their savings or perhaps they've been stamped as delinquent on their mortgage. These are people with real grievances, who often view themselves as hard working, patriotic Americans, and it was the Tea Party, who effectively articulated an explanation for their woes.
As Tea Party activists have it, what is needed to rectify this grave indignation visited upon the American people was not first and foremost a movement to compel greater regulation against the practice of predatory lending in the housing sector; nor is there a call to regulate the kind of financial innovation that contributed to the crises. Instead the problem was somehow a United States that had turned horribly socialist—communist even—by suggesting a policy of universal healthcare. Rather than a discussion which seriously evaluates the role big business ought to play in ensuring the health and well being of the people it employs, those most hurt by the recession are encouraged by the Tea Party to fix their cross hairs on "Illegal aliens," and while the reason for this is often unmentioned, the image we're left with is that of a sieve which leaks into the Great American Desert an undifferentiated horde of brown folks. They seek our jobs, and mooch our dwindling pot of resources, and despite this imposition, they can't even be bothered to learn English. This has been the message from the likes of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh, and it was implicitly tied up with Beck's call to "restore honor" in late August of this year.
Colbert testifies before House Judiciary Committee on Immigration
For those who have been tracking the momentum of the Tea Party, this should all sound familiar, but I'll steal a page from Noam Chomsky and suggest that rather than smug ridicule aimed at Tea Party activists, critics should be asking why hasn't there been even a semblance of an opposition movement from the left?
When Colbert recently offered testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on Immigration, I thought I detected the beginnings of an alternative to the usual story about that invading horde from our southern border. His prepared testimony was pure satire, which is always a relatively sophisticated critique masquerading as mere levity, but just in case there was any doubt that he was leveling a criticism, he offered the following in response to Representative Judy Chu's question about why he is interested in the issue of immigration:
"They are migrant workers who come here and do our work but don't have any rights as a result, and yet we still invite them to come here, and at the same time, ask them to leave. And that's an interesting contradiction to me...and, you know, whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, and these seem like the least of our brothers right now...migrant workers suffer and have no rights."
Colbert’s account of the immigrant stands in obvious relief to that offered by conservative pundits, and following his testimony came the meager signs of a momentum building toward something even more coherent. In response to Beck's "Rally to Restore Honor," came an announcement from Jon Stewart that there would be a similar "Rally to Restore Sanity," and Colbert joined in with his own "Rally to Keep Fear Alive." Both rallies were named with an eye toward satire, not merely intended to debase Beck's rally, but to draw attention to the way average folks are being manipulated by politicians and media personalities in general. Just like the call to restore honor, restoring sanity seemed clearly intended to poke fun at all vacuous political slogans that succeed in rallying support for political leaders and their movements without actually committing them to meaningful action. Who could disagree with honor? Who among us doesn't want more sanity?
So I was somewhat disappointed when I arrived to the Mall just before noon on the day of the rally and began hearing from people that the reason they were there was because they had a genuine interest in restoring sanity to America. What is meant by "insane" or what precisely "America" is doing that is so insane was largely left unarticulated, and when I pressed people to explain who the insane folk are, many pointed to conservative media personalities like Glenn Beck or Tea Party activists, commonly derided as Tea Baggers.
The satire—that sophisticated critique of power—seemed to have been lost on many of those who attended. Instead it looked to be a big party among people who wanted to celebrate their healthy senses of humor and reasonableness. One guy's sign read, "My wife thinks I'm walking the Appalachian Trail," and just beyond it, another called to, "Stop Illegal Immigration," by keeping "Canadian geese from entering our country." But while so many attendees were patting themselves on the backs for the irony of creating a political sign without an overt political message, or for merely deriding the concerns many Tea Party activists have about whether illegal immigration will lead to ever more dwindling wages and delinquent mortgages, a few people showed up with signs and the audacity to ask the government for something. Such attendees were relatively scarce though, and the man I mentioned earlier, who asked for "more jobs, more money, [and] more compassion," stood on the outskirts of the rally, near the Archives-Navy Memorial Metro station. He seemed to be contemplating a trip home just as the rally seemed to be heating up.
So what was the rally actually about? "What exactly was this?" Jon Stewart didn't know and didn't want to "control" what people thought the rally was. He began his closing remarks by explaining his intentions for it and telling us flatly that it wasn't intended as an effort to ridicule people of faith or activism. By striking a more serious tone, I wondered if he was seeking to provide some substance and coherence and attempting to make the rally something more than mere spectacle or an overzealous party where attendees habitually wink at each other in mutual assurance that they know crazy when they see it.
A few minutes later, just after a random crack about burning ants, Stewart at last specified what he believed to be real sanity, which he insisted most of us already had and was something in opposition to the hyperbole currently raging throughout the American media. Against the disingenuous politicos that saturate cable news, what is needed is the ability to make reasonable distinction, and he added, "the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more."
"Excellent!" I thought. "Let's do something now!" Let's name political candidates who routinely render the terms 'Muslim' and 'terrorist' indistinct. Or perhaps Stewart will address the issue of unauthorized immigration because it is an issue often championed by conservatives and referenced in the rally's signage. Perhaps he'll hammer out at least the beginnings of an alternate narrative about how immigrants have been scapegoated as the ultimate cause for lost jobs and declining wages. Instead, Stewart offered a traffic analogy. We're reasonable folks, he seemed to say, because we routinely yield the right of way, so the mass of us can succeed in commuting to and from our jobs? Concession by concession, we all get along far better than what is typically depicted in the media.
I couldn't help but feel profoundly disappointed. Conservatives, least of all Glenn Beck and Tea Party activists, continue to articulate explanations that endeavor to account for the hurt people feel in this recession. They formulate powerful narratives about invasion from a foreign "Other." They draw from a rich pool of persistent stereotypes, which have remained lodged in the collective imagination of Americans far longer than most people realize. These articulators of the conservative worldview offer tangible scapegoats in the form of Muslims, immigrants, and socialists, and from their tangible narratives are prescriptions for tangible action. What is needed, they argue, is a sort of enclave society and one which demands vigilance against people dressed in Muslim garb. An ever taller, ever deeper fence must be constructed on our southern border. We must curtail socialist efforts by big government to redistribute resources to the less deserving "least of our brothers." It is a tightly woven narrative, but one that so often defies statistical facts. It especially defies textured understandings that refuse to uncritically trade in stereotypes, and it nearly always defies a political-economic perspective, such as that offered only last Thursday by Laura Sullivan, an NPR journalist who broke the story about how private prison companies who would benefit enormously from a growing population of detained immigrants actually had a role in drafting the Arizona bill that would ensure the growth of that population—Senate Bill 1070.
If, as Stewart claims, we're all still sane and capable of achieving (something) "every damn day" despite being immersed in a sensationalistic news environment, and all that is needed is persistent sanity, then there really is nothing to be done other than an occasional affirmation about remaining sane and possibly practicing patience during rush hour traffic. At its core, Stuart's message and those who claimed to be there to restore sanity seems to be about keeping faith in America and being patient with each other, and that's fine as far as it goes; however, without a competing explanation of why times are difficult and a proposal to do something about it, the rally sends a disturbing message of ambivalence, albeit a kind-hearted one. The rally, whatever Stewart wants to claim now, was responding to Beck's rally to restore honor, but rather than responding to Beck or even facilitating a space from which others could respond to Beck, we got Ozzy Osbourne and traffic analogies.
Back in early Fall of 2009, some fellow graduate students and I decided to build a sociological cinema. The idea came about as a response to our experiences teaching three different sociology classes. We found that when we screened a video clip in class to demonstrate a key concept, class discussion often became livelier, more students participated, and our students seemed better able to draw upon the key concept in their evaluation of subsequent ideas.
"In one sense, then, the impetus for building this site, The Sociological Cinema, stems from our own experiences in the classroom and the recognition that videos are effective tools of instruction."
In one sense, then, the impetus for building what became known as The Sociological Cinema, stemmed from our own experiences in the classroom and the recognition that videos are effective tools of instruction. In fact, a growing body of evidence supports this conclusion and even expands on it. According to sociologist Michael Miller (2009), “their most critical function in terms of cognitive learning appears to lie in their capacity to serve as representational applications for key course ideas” (see also Champoux 1999). For example, an excerpt from a CNN broadcast on the propagation of closed circuit television cameras (CCTVs) is very useful for demonstrating Foucault’s theories of surveillance and discipline. Videos can effectively convey concepts using examples from the feature films of popular culture or the so-called “realism” depicted in news reports and documentaries. They can vividly bring concepts and processes to life by weaving them into an emotionally charged narrative.
Recent scholarship also demonstrates that videos can improve student engagement in class material (Wynn 2009). This fits with our own experiences as sociology instructors. Using open-ended in-class evaluations of videos, we found that students believed videos were important in helping them draw connections to their own life experiences, that they connected class material to “real life” more generally, and that the videos met a need for a surprising number of students who believed themselves to be “visual learners.” Today’s undergraduates, dubbed the “net generation,” have only known life with online videos and other multimedia; they engage this media in their everyday lives and increasingly expect such media to be integrated within their classes (Oblinger and Oblinger 2005).
In addition to illustrating sociological concepts, videos can be used as a means of introducing analyses and commentaries which supplement traditional course content (Austin 2005). Videos can facilitate media literacy, and recent research even suggests that such visual technologies also facilitate civic engagement beyond the classroom (Bennet 2008). More than rousing student engagement and enriching their understanding, videos offer the opportunity to introduce humor and levity into the classroom, which often has the effect of relieving student self-consciousness. Bingham and Hernandez (2009), for instance, find comedy, and comedy clips in particular, to be an effective tool in teaching sociological perspectives. Instructors may, then, seek to integrate clips from the "Colbert Report" or "The Onion," encouraging students to analyze social expectations and why a failure to conform often makes us laugh.
"The internet is an un-zoned metropole with a jumbled circuitry of narrow alleyways, and often the best cinemas are tucked away in strange corners… We built The Sociological Cinema, in part, as a practical means of spending less time finding clips."
While the benefits of bringing video clips into the classroom may be well-documented, instructors still face the task of finding good clips and then figuring out how to use them effectively. But the internet is an un-zoned metropole with a jumbled circuitry of narrow alleyways, and often the best cinemas are tucked away in strange corners. There are sites, such as YouTube, which serve as warehouses for searchable video clips, but such sites hold so much content coming from so many varied sources that instructors are generally unable to efficiently comb it for useful clips. On YouTube, an instructor who wants to find a clip depicting the bear subculture within the LGBTQ community is likely to find wildlife videos, and an instructor looking for clips on sexism will rarely be directed to the sexism found in recent car commercials. The search for such clips can be daunting and discouraging, and herein lies the second impetus for building The Sociological Cinema.
We built The Sociological Cinema, in part, as a practical means of spending less time finding clips. After cataloguing a number of the videos we used, it became apparent that it was possible to break them up into types. While we have taken some of our clips from documentaries and lectures, the majority come from popular culture, including television shows, movies, and video remixes or mashups. In some cases, it is relatively obvious how a particular clip would be helpful in a sociology classroom. For instance, excerpts from Jackson Katz’s documentary, “Tough Guise,” are unmistakably useful in a class on the sociology of gender because the clips explicitly demonstrate how hegemonic masculinity hurts men as well as women. On the other hand, the utility of a good number of other clips is only apparent because of the intellectual content or teaching suggestions we attach to those clips. For instance, The Sociological Cinema links to an eight-minute documentary designed to laud the efforts of fair trade coffee producers, but we have posted this clip and suggested it be used as an effective way to teach students about Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism (here). A third example is a clip from the popular television show The Bachelorette, which features a scene where contestants discuss “Man Code” and the presumed obligations of other men to abide by its rules (here). The teaching suggestion that accompanies this clip recommends using it as a means of spurring discussion on Connell's concept of hegemonic masculinity and Kimmel's concept of masculinity as homophobia.
As we have continued to add content to The Sociological Cinema, we have come to appreciate an additional function of our site. That is, in addition to helping instructors find resources that will provide students with a firm foundation of sociological concepts and theories while also developing their sociological imaginations and critical thinking skills, The Sociological Cinema works as a resource that refuses to consume culture at face value. We are an important voice because we pose important questions to students, such as, “How does this idea of “Man Code” gain momentum, and what are the consequences of it for people?” Our brief analyses of clips, coupled with the teaching suggestions we offer, are challenges to the usual meanings, which already bombard students on a daily basis, both inside and outside the classroom.
Drop by the site for a visit and spread the word. And help us build the cinema by contributing a video of your own.
Lester Andrist, Valerie Chepp, and Paul Dean
McDonald’s and the Ambivalent Society: come as you are but don’t necessarily come out to your family
There's a French McDonald's ad circulating the blogosphere, which seems to be creating a stir. The ad features a young man having lunch with his father at McDonald's. While his dad orders, he sits in a booth and looks down onto a class photo. Five seconds into the clip we hear the young man's cell phone, and at eight seconds, he's telling the caller with unambiguous affection that he was just "thinking about you too." Then a hasty goodbye as his father returns, and if we hadn't already guessed it, the ensuing conversation leaves little doubt that the young man is hiding his relationship with a classmate from his father. “Too bad your class is all boys,” the father tells his son, and we know at last his son is gay and in the closet. This is the subtext of the chat, which is ostensibly about love lost, namely the father’s memories of himself as a ladies’ man.
I suspect the moment between the father and his son is familiar to many men, like "watching a memory-in-process" . As I said, the conversation, the commercial, is about love lost, but put in less charitable terms, is also about love that that cannot exist openly for one man juxtaposed against the nostalgia of heterosexual conquests of another. It’s true that the ad recounts for many a familiar and sacred moment, but in the remaining seconds the familiarity is interrupted as the audience is reminded that heterosexuality isn't nearly as certain as the setting of the sun. The audience must reconcile their own affection for the loving father character and the son who feels unable to tell him he isn’t interested in being a ladies’ man. It is, then, nostalgia with a twist.
A song plays in the background. "I'm going down my road" comes the final lyric, and a closing tagline embraces the viewer to "come as you are." The ad isn't about sex; it's about sexuality, but given the tendency to see sex when talking about gays and lesbians, it is worth mentioning that the message to "come as you are" is an English translation tacked beneath the original French, "venez comme vous êtes," so we can assume the rather vulgar, double entendre was not intended. This isn’t to say that McDonald's is above sexually suggestive advertising. The folks at Queerty emphatically made this point when they posted a shot of a McDonald's billboard pitching to passersby an "Ogre-load" of creamy white McFlurry.
While I respectfully disagree with Queerty that McDonald's is necessarily "going after the gays" in their sexually provocative Shrek ad (ejaculation figures into heterosexual fantasies as well), the larger point that Queerty has fingered is that multi-million dollar ads are not designed in haste, and we can rest assured that every square inch of that billboard, just as every millisecond of the French television spot, has been endlessly scrutinized and discussed by many people working across many levels. There is no question in my mind as to whether McDonald's is aware of the meanings, articulations and associations its ads both reflect and produce. While they may not discuss it in the terms given in this post, I would argue that McDonald’s and the marketing firms that work with McDonald’s understand their role in the production of ideology.
So I view this recent hubbub about the ad as an extension of what McDonald’s execs and their team of underlings have already been doing. Blog entries like this one are attempting to deconstruct or reverse engineer, if you like, the cultural logic which accounts for why this ad went viral, receiving more than 600,000 views after the first week of its May release on YouTube and nearly 2 million views by the end of June. Why, in other words, was it important enough for Bill O’Reilly to subject it to his so-called no-spin zone? (here). Miriam at Feministing, suggested the question in its most succinct terms when she wrote, “I can't decide if this is progressive..or smugly portraying a kid who has to be closeted with his father.” What follows is my answer to this question.
First, as Miriam seems to allude to, there is a fundamental tension between an explicit message of openness and acceptance, or that you "come as you are," and an implicit one about the calculated wisdom of remaining in the closet. In fact, I would argue that the very success of the ad depends on this tension, because we are able to appreciate the chain's openness especially when reminded how truly difficult it still is for a son to be openly gay. The tension, then, is ultimately the means by which we are enticed to associate good feelings with McDonald’s hamburgers.
In an interview with the independent LGBT news website, Yagg.com, the brand director at McDonald’s France, Nathalie Legarlantezecs, boasted that “We wanted to take a look at how French society is today” and “There's obviously no problem with homosexuality in France today." While it feels appropriate here to point out that gays and lesbians are still unable to legally marry in France, one need not look beyond what is given in the commercial to evaluate Legarlantezecs’ remarks. Strictly speaking, the spot is not depicting broad acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships in France. Judged on its own terms, the commercial is not even promoting such an acceptance, which is a point most bloggers seem to have missed. On the contrary, French society is depicted as deeply ambivalent about gay relationships, and what the commercial promotes is the fantasy that McDonald's is an oasis of liberal acceptance in a world that is often very nervous about such relationships—perhaps especially when they involve youth.
So at the risk of stating the obvious, the McDonald's ad is a self-conscious positioning of a brand within a taken-for-granted and much broader system of ideas about the appropriateness of gay and lesbian relationships, what such relationships represent, and to what extent they are permissible. McDonald’s depends on this ideology or “common sense” about sexuality in order to successfully tug at our heartstrings and position its brand. And they do this task of positioning well. There is nothing outlandish about the spot because on some level it makes perfect sense to us that the young man must not confess to his father that he is in love with another man. We get it. We understand all too well that he will soon abandon the oasis and return to the ambivalent society, and we understand there are often consequences for such confessions. The young man is silent because his society is ambivalent, and this is such a basic truth, it need not be explained to us. In fact, exposition would only be an awkward distraction. In French society, as in the US, prolonging the secrecy might still be the safest choice. All of this is to say that the spot’s verisimilitude and nuance, lauded by so many commentators, is a rather tragic indictment of our prejudice.
So at this juncture, my criticism is not (yet) aimed at McDonald’s, but the system of ideas afloat today that have allowed this thirty-second spot to resonate with so many people. I hate that I live in a time and place where this ad works for McDonald’s. I despise the fact that McDonald’s is able to position it’s brand as an oasis, and amidst all the controversy stirred up about this ad, no one questions for a moment whether McDonald’s has invented a petulant society, which is hostile to gays and lesbians. That part of the spot feels so true to so many as to be unremarkable.
The marketing genius behind the ad then can be said to be fluently trading in the system of ideas that most of us already use to make sense of the world, but I think it is fruitful to press this metaphor of trading further and add that while McDonald’s may be adept in working this system of ideas, it does not trade like the rest of us. Cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, makes just this point (here) that “people who work in the media are producing, reproducing and transforming the field of ideological representation itself. They stand in a different relationship to ideology in general from others...” (p. 104; italics added) . How so? To put it bluntly, such people stand in an influential position to articulate or re-fix meaning. Their tools are different than those of regular folk and they generally have a larger audience.
The ad, then, in its capacity to produce, reproduce, and transform a system of ideas which work to render the exclusion of gays and lesbians as unremarkable, is where one must ultimately look to answer Miriam’s question. If as I’m arguing that a progressive ad is one which contests the reproduction of social relations and the ideology that undergirds them, then is this ad really all that progressive? I don’t think so. Despite being encouraged to come as we are, McDonald’s dared not depict itself as a truly liberatory space. At best, it is a temporary shelter, masquerading as a liberatory space. A more accurate tagline, albeit less catchy, would read, “come as you are, but don’t necessarily come out to your family.” The ad is not progressive because there is no cultural innovation here. We aren’t shown by example how a young gay man might find a way to speak honestly about his new love, which is very likely the most consuming topic on his mind. There are no new articulations here, no innovative connections drawn to the relationship between gay men and their often loving fathers. Instead, there is a story that unfolds in a subtle way, but is ultimately revealed as utterly predictable.
As I remarked above, rearticulating and fixing new meanings are choices and do not simply happen by accident. Nowhere is this more apparent than when reading a recent reflection about the ad by its creative director. He remarks that "Among the ideas [pitched], I immediately loved this one. Originally we were going to have him come out to his father, but we thought the teen telling his father he's gay, in front of a burger and fries, that would have been ... unsubtle." Whether the ad was to be progressive may have hinged on that very decision, and I think it is important to interrogate why remaining in the closet, or in the creative director’s terms remaining “subtle,” consistently feels like the right choice.
 Emerson, Jim. 2010. Jim Emerson's Scanners: Blog. "Once I had a Secret Love... (Royale with Cheese)" Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved June 17, 2010. (http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2010/06/once_i_had_a_secret_love.html).
 Hall, Stuart. 1985. "Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates." Critical Studies in Mass Communication. 2:91-114.