2.06.2008

A Cross-Section of Americana: Analysis

So what do all these Super Bowl ads tell us about America and race relations. Well, for one, despite all this talk about being color-blind, which is what most people say they are when it comes to "viewing" or talking about race, we can see that America, is in fact, not color blind. If whites were truly color blind (and the rest of America for that matter) these commercials would make no sense.

"Huh, pandas? I don't get it. Just pandas speaking plain old English."

"What does a shrunken head have to do with that man in face paint? Weird?"

"Why is a mariachi band playing right now?"

Etc.

The one subject that really binds all of these commercials is "foreigness," as all ads feature foreigners whom are people of color and whom have "funny" and "weird" accents (save the Latino from the Taco Bell commercial). One thing about their accents is that they are supposed to be at the expense of the person with the accent; especially the commercial in where Carlos Mencia is teaching "his buddies" on how to pick up "American" chicks (cause, you know, America women totally don't have accents). We are supposed to laugh at them because they do not speak English "properly" and/or speak it with a "funny" accent.

One thing that is bothersome about the "funny" accent bit is who has the funny accent and who doesn't. Having a French or Italian accent is sexy, having an English accent means you are smart, and having a upper class Spanish (from Spain) accent is also sexy and "exotic." While the sexy and intellectual accents are solely confined to Europe the weird and funny accents are confined to people of color (save that one Russian dude). Having an Indian accent means you are a nerd, having a Chinese accent means you are stupid.

I remember Amy Tan talking about how smart her mother was but because she had a Chinese accent many would mistaken her for dumb and when she would talk to sales reps over the phone or tried to do business with others over the phone Mz. Tan would have to eventually cut in and talk for her (or even pretend to be her with her mother whispering in her ear what to say) in order for her mother to be taken seriously. Again, English accent, "Oh sooooo smart!" Chinese accent, "God! Can't you understand anything I'm saying!"

Of course there were the two SalesGenie.com ads. The thing about these two ads is that they involved no research on Indian or Chinese culture and language. All they were was a bunch of stereotypes taken from memory and written down on paper. The Indian guy had to have an accent and had to have a bunch of kids and had to work in a cubicle under a white boss. The pandas had to have Chinese accents, use bamboo font for their signs, and they had to own a small business. There was nothing really to these ads. They didn't really have any jokes and no points. The could have easily used different ethnicities (or the same) in similar situations and nothing more. But they instead decided to opt for two "foreigners" in their ads that came straight out of a Simpsons cartoon and a yellow face movie. The writers views of Asians weren't from first hand experience (obviously, though not that that would help them) but instead through popular culture such as TV shows, commercials, and movies.

The other one (more than likely) shows a First Nationer with stereotypical body and face paint, a grass skirt, something frilly on his head, and a wood cane. This is one stereotype that I have blogged about before as Hollywood producers and writers (whether it be for TV shows, commercials, movies etc.) can't seem to get away with portraying First Nation natives as anything more than blow darting, human eating, primitive sub-humans. And almost always for comedic affect. Not only that but in the commercial for Cars.com contrasts the half-naked native with well clothed intelligent whites in their modern (and convenient) building.

These of course aren't all of the ads but this little snipit of the ads tells us a lot. America is considered a "National holiday" by many; a day were all Americans sit down at the tube and watch, what is considered, America's sport (sorry baseball). Super Bowl ads also reflect America. They are big-money corporations spending top dollar to make sure that (1) were are entertained by their commercials, and (2) that we (most importantly) buy their products. And of course the media obliges to this by constantly showing us news stories about the upcoming Super Bowl commercials. So you've got many things here that show us America: food crazed, sports hungry fans being bombarded by greedy money grubbing capitalists looking to turn a simple procedure of supply and demand economics into a spectacle.

So if anything these ads are supposed to appeal to a wide swath of Americans; or, more precisly, what corporate America thinks Americans are, which is normally 18 to 35 year old beer guzzling, sex crazed, comedic starved white males.

What we saw in these ads was very much the underlying popular image of race in America. One that views Asians as either hard working and/or slightly dumb with funny accents, natives that shrink you head, "pathetic" and nerdy foreigners with "hilarious" accents (what's up with the African dude and the chicken?), and Latinos meant to entertain us hard working uptight whites.

The one thing to keep in mind with this is that these ads didn't invent or come up with these stereotypes. What they did was use the stereotypes already circulating in pop culture; they essentially plucked the first stereotypical thing that came to their mind and tried to make it into popular entertainment.

2 comments:

phx said...

I thought some of these ads were really disgraceful. I was very surprised at how low level the ones in particular you mentioned were. Maybe I usually watch different types of shows or usually ignore the commercials, but they really surprised me in an unpleasant way.

GS said...

it's funny how the democratic presidential race rhetoric seems obsessed with getting "beyond race," when the American cultural imaginary is so fundamentally organized around it.