Thursday, August 10, 2006

I'm mad as hell...but (sigh) I guess I just have to keep taking it some more.

This post may seem a bit off-theme--and also may end up picking at a few cultural scabs among the faithful--but today I feel like crazed protagonist Howard Beale in that classic scene from Network. That's because I just finished watching, for about the four-millionth time this week, the latest in Friendly's menu of "family-oriented" commercials. Instead of giving me the warm and fuzzies, it makes me want to walk into my nearest Friendly's, find the first person wearing a label identifying him/her as management, and shove that person's face into a hot griddle. In the ad's central action, a server arrives at one of her tables to see a boy, about 12, fondling the souvenir baseball that presumably was caught at a ballgame the whole family just attended. The perky server says something about the boy being proud of his dad for catching it for him. Dad beams. Whereupon the boy replies, "Well, actually, my dad dropped it and my mom caught it...." Revealed for the hapless loser that he is, dad grins his embarrassed, yes-I'm-a-schmuck grin and the ad moves on to tell us what a wonderful place Friendly's is for families to bask in their familial joy.

The reason I'm so ticked about this ad is that it's not an isolated incident. It's emblematic of a trend in modern advertising where you're "allowed" to dump all over the group that supposedly enjoys the upper hand in life and thus is fair game. So it is that in almost every ad built around some tension or situation involving men and women, the men are incompetent buffoons, while the women are (a) heroes of some sort, as in the Friendly's spot, and/or (b) our long-suffering species-mates who tolerate us despite our being jerks and lowlifes. (Perhaps you've seen the one for Vonage where the wife is explaining the eminently sensible reasons why they switched their phone service, and meanwhile, off in the background, her dork of a husband is intent on his goofy and disjointed dance moves.) Similarly, if the ad features a mixed-race group, the minorities are invariably depicted in a more flattering light than the whites. If there's a problem to be solved, the white guy usually causes it (or, again, is ineffectual at solving it) and the black guy becomes the white hat, as it were, swooping in to save the day.

You will not see a black person depicted as a fumbler--especially a malfeasant one. You will not, in mixed-gender commercials*, see a woman depicted as an imbecile or a venal shrew.

What got me thinking about this was that in the past week I happened to catch parts of both Dirty Harry and the original Death Wish, and I found myself laughing aloud, again, at how careful Hollywood had to be in those days in its portrayals of blacks and minorities. So hypersensitive was the mood that even street gangs were absurdly depicted as multicultural affairs. You'd have a scene in which the hero is mugged by three dudes in gang colors: a white guy, a black guy, and a Chicano. (Some years back my son wandered by as I was watching just such a scene and said, "Hey, they need a Chinese guy, and somebody in a wheelchair...") The reality of America's urban gangs, of course, is such that you would never find a gang with that sort of ethnic balance. Black gangs and Latino gangs tend to be mortal enemies. And neither of them is out recruiting in white suburbs in the spirit of inclusion. But such were the good old 1970s.

Then Friendly's and others show us...such are the good new 2000s.

Contrary to what advertisers (and, no doubt, many viewers) probably believe, these ads do not signal progress. If anything, they signal the opposite. They signal the institutionalized and steadfastly reinforced belief that individual people are not individual people, but representatives of "their" group or category. And that remains very sad for us all.

* In commercial spots directed solely at women, and thus featuring all-female casts, yes, there is often a somewhat foolish or even despicable character who acts as a foil for the others. The same is true of commercials featuring all-minority casts.


Cosmic Connie said...

I love this topic, Steve, and I don't think bumbling-male commercials are all that funny either. But even back in the "golden age" of television, Dad was often portrayed on sitcoms as the hopeless goofball, while Mom (even though she might be a scatterbrained gal in high heels, pearls and an apron) always managed to outsmart him. The kids often got the best of him too, of course.

There were exceptions, e.g., "Leave It To Beaver," where Ward had a stick up his a-- but was pretty dignified nonetheless.

Things haven't changed much since the bad old days; the main difference is that Mom isn't wearing heels and pearls anymore, and, of course, she's never a scatterbrain or a nag. And the kids all have potty mouths. But Dad is still a doofus, although generally not as well-dressed a doofus as he was back in the day.

I think it's mostly a good thing to show women and minorities in non-traditional or unexpected roles -- if they are even marginally realistic portrayals -- and Lord knows we don't want to go back to the old days of unkind and untrue stereotypes. But as Steve illustrated in his alternative commercial example, breaking with tradition doesn't have to be done at the expense of the "privileged" class (white males).

In their zeal to appeal to their markets, advertisers, film makers and TV producers overcompensate for the fact that women and minorities haven't always gotten a fair deal in our culture. Their efforts really are not helping us advance, however. But then, that's not their goal, is it? They just want our money.

The best thing to do, I guess, is just not to watch the annoying commercials. And boycott the products, or write to the "investor relations" contact on their web sites.

Steve Salerno said...

CosCon, you make an excellent point about some of the classic sitcoms--though I'd also point out that if we regress back one TV generation before your examples, you had the likes of "I Love Lucy" and "The Burns & Allen Show," wherein the female characters were the "hopeless goofballs," to use your phrase, and the male leads were always either bailing them out (sometimes literally) or showing them "the way." Then again--to further complicate matters--there was usually a certain method or moral to Lucy/Gracie's antics that tended to redeem them in the end. So who knows? I give up...

Anyway, PLEASE don't think that my post is an argument for "putting women and minorities in their place" (!!). I'm just saying that we're not permitted to allow people to be, simply, people. We're forced to view them as archetypes for this or that. I have no objection to showing blacks in "non-traditional roles," again to use your phrasing. Those of us who truly believe in assimilation and equality never bat an eye at the sight of a black doctor or a female pilot; in fact it doesn't even (and shouldn't even) really register. But there are also black rapists. And there are females who get into the cockpit of a plane and make terrible decisions that cause those planes to crash (just as there are male pilots who do the same thing). Trouble is, in pop culture you're generally barred from showing (or, especially, SHOWCASING) the black rapist or the female pilot who commits pilot error. Or, you can do so ONLY if you counterbalance that imagery with an "appropriate" positive image. This accounts for the cinematic street gangs with that certain United Nations flavor, or the fact that in every TV show where a woman is raped by a black thug, the attending physician in the ER also turns out to be black. Come on. Let's grow up.

Incidentally, if you're interested in reading two marvelous descriptions of the lengths to which even newscasters are forced to go amid today's imperative of showing "balanced" racial and gender images, read John Stossel's "Give Me a Break" or Bernie Goldberg's "Bias." I think that, regardless of your political leanings, the message of those chapters is hard to resist.

Cosmic Connie said...

Steve, I didn't interpret your post as being an argument for putting women/minorities 'in their place' -- and I hope *my* post didn't sound as if I were accusing you of such a ludicrous argument.

And, as I mentioned, you actually suggested a workable alternative scenario for the Friendly’s commercial that would have elevated the mom without making the dad look like a schmuck.

I think the trouble with advertisers and most TV series producers (particularly producers of sitcom series) is that they underestimate the intelligence of the American public. Okay, I know that America's love for SHAM sometimes makes the public look stupid and gullible, but in our day-to-day lives, many of us are pretty darn smart.

But the advertisers seem to fear they can't get their messages across, and the sitcom producers seem to fear the audience won't get their stupid jokes, and the dramatic-series producers don’t think we’ll get the message that women and blacks have come a long way, unless they showcase (to use your word) absolutes. They just don't seem to think we'll understand subtlety.

I'm sure that advertisers and producers also have a deep fear of offending the easily offendable. Speaking of which, I think one reason the movie "Crash" was so successful, to the point of winning an Oscar for Best Picture, was that it took many of the prevailing ethnic/racial stereotypes and turned 'em upside down. It allowed people to "just be people," if you will. And most of the characters, even the real jerks, somehow redeemed themselves by the end. I know some folks have criticized that movie for being rambling and preachy and, well, Hollywood-ish, but I thought it did have a certain complexity lacking in most TV fare.

You're right, we need to grow up.

Anonymous said...

Steve is right, I don't know why we have to overcompensate so much for people who aren't holding up their end. For whatever reason women weren't preforming at an equal level in society for centuries, and the same is true of minorities. We need to stop being so thin skinned and be able to deal better with telling it like it is. If there are more black thugs than doctors, and I'm not saying there are but just if, then that's how it is, and let the chips fall where they may. It's not society's problem to make everybody feel better about everything.

Steve Salerno said...

First of all, Carl says "Steve is right"--and then goes on to characterize my post in a way that flagrantly miscasts what I was trying to say. I thought we'd already cleared this up with my response to Connie's comment, but let me say it again, and more directly: This is NOT an argument for why "blacks and women are inferior and should be portrayed as such." It's an argument for why the portrayal of characters in TV ads should not be carefully micromanaged to conform to some overarching, politically correct social agenda.

And--right on cue--as I write this I'm watching an ad for Pella Windows in which two very attractive, well-spoken housewives are expounding on the merits of their new window treatments, while outside (i.e. visible through the window), the husband of one of the women is basically setting fire to the yard as he repeatedly tries, in his bumbling fashion, to get the barbecue grill going....

Cosmic Connie said...

Don't worry, Steve, I don't think any of the rest of us interpreted your post the way Carl did. I have to believe he was joking. I can't believe he really would have misunderstood you to that degree.

RevRon's Rants said...

Actually, I think it is the responsibility of society to improve the lives of its members. Not to say that society must cure everybody's problems, but it should endeavor to elevate the general quality of life. If not, what purpose does a society serve?

As a happily bumbling male, I appreciate that humor of seeing the more dominant members of society portrayed as imbeciles, yet long for the days when we could make fun of everybody. After all, we're all a pretty strange bunch of clowns, and the sooner we learn to accept it and laugh at ourselves, the happier we'll be.

According to Lao Tzu, "The sage is a fool." And I, for one, earnestly seek my sage-dom. :-)

Anonymous said...

One of my friends had to wait an eternity to get into the police academy. He used to comment on not being the "right" color and not the "right" sex. He eventually got in, graduated and is now employed in an upper echelon position. Back when he was still waiting patiently to get into the academy, we joked around about having a bumper sticker on our vehicles - Equal Rights For Whites. Hey Steve, lighten up a little regarding the women in those TV commercials -- my dear one, you must be suffering from Venus Envy:)