Stuck in the Middle with You
Although it seems doubtful that viewers of the 2011 Video Music Awards (MTV) would conceptualize their actions in such a fashion, they were, in part, observing a celebration of the image and of semiotics. Having become literate in the “language” of music videos, audiences undoubtedly learned to extract meaning from the images paired with songs downloaded on mp3 players. And yet, although each of the featured music videos could be deconstructed in productive and informative ways, one of the most interesting moments, for me, was the tribute to Amy Winehouse.
50s aesthetic of Bruno Mars aside, the choice to pay homage to a fallen singer through the use of a motif directly derived from Andy Warhol’s pop art movement was a curious one, as Warhol’s work was born out of a response to a viewership inundated with the mechanically reproduced image. Repetition, for Warhol, spoke to the relative meaninglessness of the image in a culture saturated by media but also challenged viewers to then reconcile slight variations in the image, begging audiences to develop a discerning eye. In some ways, examples like the Winehouse tribute cause me to wonder about the modern visual sensibility, for it seems as though the very process that Warhol spoke out against has come back to haunt him; the very notion of an image’s repetition rendering it meaningless has come to apply to Warhol’s own work!
And perhaps there was something to the concerns of Warhol (along with a slew of cultural theorists in the 50s), who was reacting to recent and rapid advances in broadcast technology. Consider, for example, that radio had been popularized a scant fifty years prior and had vastly altered critics’ understanding of media’s potential impact, creating a precedent as it proliferated across the country and began to develop a platform for solidarity and nationalism. Yet, while the effects of radio were decidedly pro-social, due in part to its propagation of orchestral music and transmission of fireside chats, television was viewed as a corrosive force on society that spurred on the destruction of culture instead of enriching it. For the critics of the Frankfurt School, television was indicative of an entrenched sentiment that regarded mass-produced culture as formulaic and perfectly suitable for a generation of passive consumers who sat enraptured in front of the glowing set. Associating the potential dissemination of propagandist ideology with television as a form of mass broadcast, cultural theorists evoked notions of totalitarian regimes akin to Hitler and Stalin in an effort to illustrate the potential subjugation of individual thought (Mattson, 2003). These simmering fears, aggrandized by their concurrence with the rising threat of Communism and collectivist cultures, found fertile soil in the already present anxiety-ridden ethos of the United States during the 1950s.
Although the cultural climate has changed somewhat since the mid-20th century, modern Americans continue to find themselves assaulted by images, particularly in the form of advertising.
The advertisement above, for example, represents a fairly straightforward—and yet beguilingly complex—image to promote a sound dubbing service. Undoubtedly played for a laugh, careful analysis of the image speaks to a potentially more disturbing reading of the situation.
The most immediate reading is likely that of a threesome (undoubtedly playing off of the cliche that sex sells), but closer inspection suggests that this is a particular type of engagement and most definitely geared toward a particular type of audience. Without much effort, we can clearly see that this ad portrays an encounter between two women and a man (it is unlikely that any of the participants are transsexual as nothing in the ad suggests as much to the reader) in fulfillment of the stereotypical straight male fantasy. Furthermore, the man is actively engaged in the act of viewing the sexual encounter between the two women, suggesting an element of voyeurism and the male gaze; in contrast to the women, who are embracing with their eyes closed, the man is not shown to have any physical contact (his body posture actually suggests that he is pulling away, creating space for the women to “do their thing”). Women, in this scenario exist to be watched and/or perform for the man as they reinforce the notion that lesbianism (temporary or otherwise) exists to provide males with sexual pleasure. In some ways, we might also think about how this image reaffirms a heteronormative stance (with a small exception for lipstick lesbians who perform not for their pleasure, but for a man’s) with traditional gender representations.
The copy also serves to reinforce a male-dominated view of sexuality, with the laugh coming from the disconnect between the line’s attribution to a man versus a woman. Humor in this scene derives from the fact that we, the viewer, are supposed to chuckle that a woman is uttering the phrase “If my dad could see me now, he’d be so proud” because we know that no woman would ever say such a thing. We are, then, operating under a social/family structure that speaks to the notion of the good girl (or possibly “daddy’s girl”) and assume that if this woman’s father actually saw her, he would be disappointed rather than proud. Moreover, we see that the “correct” attribution of the phrase is its attachment to the male, which then positions him as a member of an all-boys club that he and his father can participate in. The underlying suggestion is that father and son can share a fond story over the son’s sexual conquest of two women (perhaps invoking a similar story from the father’s youth) and that father, like son, uphold the devaluation of women. Looked at in another way, we can see Willamson’s referent systems at play in this ad: man is asserting his ability to “tame” the wild/sexual nature of women, moving them from “raw” to “cooked.”
Interestingly, this ad says nothing about the ability of the company in question (Herbert Richers Sound Dubbing) to fulfill the function for which they would be hired, instead relying on goodwill generated by humor to translate into positive affect regarding the brand. Given that nature of the advertisement, the company must rely on a visual representation of the syncing process (in this case, showcasing something that is out of sync) and the purpose of the ad seems to create name recognition, for no contact information is given.
In order to study this image further, it would be helpful to know more about the context in which it appeared. As Herbert Richers is a Brazilian dubber, it stands to reason that this ad was displayed in Brazil (but the copy is in English and not Portuguese) but the question remains if it appeared on a website, magazine, or billboard. Was it part of a campaign that played on similar themes (and how how might it affect our reading if we knew that there was a mirroring ad that featured two men and a woman)?
Mattson, K. (2003). Mass Culture Revisited: Beyond Tail Fins and Jitterbuggers. Radical Society , 30 (1), 87-93.
A twenty-something coming to terms with being an adult in Southern California, Chris Tokuhama is interested in attempts to transcend the human body. With research interests that range from Early Modern Science to Gothic horror and transhumanism (with a bit of religion sprinkled in), Chris hopes to increase media literacy in youth so that, in future threesomes, all partners can participate equally. Read more about Chris’ take on pop culture on his blog or follow him on Twitter.