On a conscious level, I don’t know that heterosexual pornography has many demonstrable effects on men’s attitudes toward women and, in truth, these are not the things that I worry much about. Instead, I wonder about the ways in which pornography serves to create a new normal for heterosexual sexual interactions and the ways in which men and women are positioned relative to one another. For example, it seems unlikely that many men would ever consciously condone rape or necessarily believe in the rape myth, but I wonder about how the myth’s very existence and continued portrayal in pornography then allows for the appearance of violent acts like choking and tearing of clothing in films that are not part of the BDSM genre. Does the existence of simulated rape allow us to create a space where telling a woman to “gag on it” is acceptable? Of course we must be careful not to suggest that the appearance of simulated rape causes a rise in these other forms of violence but I would suggest that the resulting change in viewers’ attitudes toward pornography might allow for violence against women in pornography to become increasingly acceptable.
And I think that these sorts of extremes are reflective of changing cultural norms, giving us one way to mark the changing attitudes of Americans, but also work in conjunction with other types of media to desensitize us to ways in which violence in routinely inscribed on the bodies of women (typically by men, although I think there is much more to say about the ways in which American culture promotes a form of infighting by women in order to get them to enact violence on themselves and other women).
We have, for example, long heard the adage that “sex sells” and, for me, advertisements represent a form of media that that is adjacent to pornography and also not only reflects the way that we see the world but also help to shape the way that we relate to it. We can talk about the Abercrombie and Fitch ads that border on pornography (although here I should note that the interpretation of this type of advertising is centered on the United States as European ads seem to operate in an entirely different context) but I am much more interested in the subtler ways in which advertising forwards the idea that women’s bodies are open to violence.
We’ve all heard of the objectification of women throughout human history and I think that most of us are aware that this tendency still occurs in spaces that are “out there.” Perhaps modern males would like to think that we are enlightened and sophisticated? That we respect our mothers and colleagues? But how many males still use misogynistic language like “bitch” in order to demean other males? Do we combine the ideas of females (and/or female sexuality) with meat and consumption? From “chick” to “prime cut of beef” to “lamb,” we have various associations engrained in our heads from the time that we are children. (This is, of course, in addition to language like “doll,” and “baby,” that serves to infantilize women and language that links women to other forms of consumables like “sugar,” and “honey.”)
The danger in all of this lies in our tendency, then, to view women as consumable objects in pornography and in advertising. While most people would be hard-pressed to support the idea that women are nothing more than a piece of meat out loud, might there be some hidden aspect to our relationship that informs our lives? If we are already a consumer culture and we then come to see women as consumable items, how does this affect the way that we relate to (other) females? How does this affect the way that women see themselves? We rarely think about the animal from whence a piece of meat came—the slab of meat on our plate becomes familiar and we are desensitized—and so why should it be any different with women? If we, on some level, see women as meat, then do we care where those pieces came from?
And, of course, it is not just women who are subject to this process: increasingly, male bodies have become objects of consumption as we have become more permissible of women’s sexuality (not to mention gay pornography). Although one might debate if this is in fact “progress,” we see men being referred to as “eye candy” and the visual language of the gaze being reversed as in this Diet Coke ad.
I assume that this ad is targeting working women who drink Diet Coke with physiological arousal tied to a brand/product but a secondary reading might be aimed at men who wish to be the object of the female gaze (through the drinking of Diet Coke which was not seen as “manly”), thus getting men to internalize a system in which they are objects of consumption!
Ultimately, I would argue that pornography’s increased visibility—thanks to the distribution power of the Internet and lower production costs—is not necessarily immoral but does contain a serious potential to affect the way our culture understands gender and sexuality. There is something to be said for bringing sexuality back into the public sphere and removing the aura of shame that surrounds it but I am also cautious as mainstream pornography often showcases a particular type of idealized sexuality that can have unwanted consequences as society attempts to realize that particular dream.
The prominent theme of amnesia seems of note in this week’s readings, gaining resonance when paired with the larger connective thread of advertising. Although one might argue that amnesia has taken on a negative sheen thanks to its popularity in soap operas, the mechanic has been employed in a number of popular contexts that range from retconning (effecting a kind of imperfect amnesia on the audience as cannon asks them to “forget” history), dissociative fugue, and cyclical histories/journeys that continually reset. The last of these manifestations, which we see in Frederik Pohl‘s “The Tunnel Under the World,” invokes memory of myths in which the hero must repeat his trials until he learns a lesson that speaks to some supposedly profound truth. Offerings like Groundhog Day and Dark City come to mind, although these two offerings contain messages that diverge in interesting ways: while the plot of Groundhog Day focuses on an individual transformation, Dark City also nods to a sort of “cultural amnesia” that plagues the inhabitants of the self-contained city.
An easy target for this malaise is the spell cast by advertising, with such accusations made in “The Tunnel Under the World.” Written in the middle of the 20th century—a time period that saw increasing emphasis on commercialization and industrialization—it makes sense that Pohl casts the inhabitants of Tlyerton as robots driven by a consciousness that is both duped and dead!
Amnesia and complacency also manifest in Henry Kuttner‘s “The Twonky,” and here we can contrast the amnesia of time-travelling Joe with the induced state of inaction that Kerry Westerfield experiences as a result of his interaction with the Twonky. In their own ways, both Pohl and Kuttner draw a connection between media and the subjugation of the human mind and/or spirit. (Interestingly, there also seems to be a stratification of media with the telephone being suspect [speaking perhaps to telephone salesmen?] while Westerfield finds a bit of sanctuary under the marquee of a movie theater. Cinema, then, perhaps represented a higher cultural form that was less susceptible to the corrosive influence of advertising, although this notion has changed somewhat over the years as any modern moviegoer can attest to.) Given the context in which these two authors wrote, it is not overly difficult to connect the dots and see how both of these short stories spoke to advertising being conveyed through media channels as it infected the general population, supplanting natural sentience with manufactured thought (or nothing at all!) in a process that invokes some of the pessimistic views of institutions like the Frankfurt School.
I want to start out with a provocation: In our current age, television has become a form of religion, with the screen our altar and actors our saints.
This is, of course, not to say that television supplants other forms of traditional religion (and I would go further to suggest that any antagonism or dissonance between these types of worship says more about you than it does about the strains of belief themselves), but merely that our relationship with the medium has come to reflect many of the qualities that we associate with institutional religion as television has come to assume a pervasive, public, and central part of our lives, with our identities constructed, in part, around our position to TV. We form rituals around television viewing, regularly sitting down in front of our sets to watch True Blood instead of in pews. Or, if we judge importance through money spent instead of time, we might consider how a television is likely the single most expensive appliance we own or just how much we spend on cable per year. And, for some of us, television is the venue through which we connect to foreign others, supplementing the worship of God with a steadfast belief in Albus Dumbledore.
And what is religion, anyway?
I’ve always found it slightly ironic that my name alludes to the support of a religion that I often find myself at odds with; growing up, I had always associated the term “God” with a prominent figure in Western monotheistic religions. When I was younger, I recognized that, on some level, this notion of the Christian God was being forced upon me and I spent much of my life forming my identity in opposition to this conceptualization—I needed to escape from the oppressive and pervasive nature of the theology in order to attempt to craft my own sense of self. It has been difficult to learn that there is more to Christianity than evangelicals and that not everyone is trying to tell me how to live my life. Kant has had a large influence on my worldview and I do not think that God’s existence can be proven (or disproven); I also do not believe in a God that created the universe or exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden. This does not, however, mean that God’s existence does not have any impact on my life—God exists for those who believe in Him and the actions that result from those beliefs are very real to me. Moreover, many of the tropes that inform my work in identity and narrative derive from Christian tradition; religion, along with myths, fairy tales, and a host of other informal stories, all shape the way that we learn to view ourselves and our relationships to the world around us. So, although I continue to refrain from identifying as Christian, I would argue that I am closer to God today than I have ever been and that part of this process has come about through critical reflection on the incredible amount of television that I watch.
And stories, whether they are found in religion or on television, possess the ability to convey incredibly complex ideas to us in a way that we cannot always fully articulate. For example, take the story of Caprica’s “There Is Another Sky,” which is a familiar one if you’ve been exposed to any amount of entertainment growing up; it is the story of Alice, of Dorothy, of Neo, and of many others who have gone on a quest to become a hero. And, although he would not have described himself in terms of heroics, it is also partially the story of Jesus. Throughout the episode, various characters were admonished to “wake up” or expressed a desire to return home. Each has been ushered along by guides who have demonstrated that the power to change, to belong, to be, or become, existed in us all along. These heroes have all ventured into the darkness and found their way back to the world of the living; each of these heroes has woken up and tapped into the power that this revelation brings.
This journey is the same one we undergo when dealing with grief and death: when our loved ones die, we travel with them to the land of the dead; for a time being, a part of us dies as well. We hear the call to come back to the world of the living but also whispers from the underworld. We are scared to embark upon this path because we fear that we will become lost and will not be able to make our way back to the land of the living; we fear that we will lose ourselves in the darkness. (As a side note, this is also what the “There Is Another Sky” of the title refers to via an Emily Dickinson poem.) Funerals, whether experienced in a church or through a screen, act as rituals to transcend the everyday, allowing us to learn a script for letting go of the dead and returning to the surface.
So if we take a step back and consider Berger’s argument for the cyclical relationship between society and human beings through a process of production/externalization and consumption/internalization in conjunction with Gerbner and Gross’ Cultivation Theory, we can readily see a case made for television fulfilling some of the same core functions of religion. Television, as a product of man, follows its own internal logic and, through its existence and subsequent consumption, forces an in-kind response by its audiences. Television’s logic, then, structures and orders the world in a fashion similar to that of religion, with Gerbner and Gross suggesting that the process of identification is proportional to the amount of television consumed. In short, television, like religion, helps us to make sense of our world.
1) Reality television, in particular, provides a fruitful arena for further exploration of these concepts due to its current popularity and ability to blur the line between authenticity/fabrication. Borrowing from a heritage in documentary film making, the genre assumes a sheen of objectivity while nevertheless evidencing elements of manipulation by editors and writers. Moreover, the accessibility of its “stars” (due to their status as “normal” people) make the salience of their behavioral scripts that much more evident for people who would wish to use them as models of successful/unsuccessful behavior. Although dangerous due to a general lack of situational information/context, viewers might be tempted to repeat behavior that they see on screen, hastening the process of internalization, for it was undertaken by someone “just like me.”
2) Making a similar case for advertising’s ability to act as religion, James Twitchell contends that, “like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996). While some might object to the mixing of influences in areas such as advertising and religion, a certain amount of comingling is inevitable if we classify each entity as a belief system—a certain way of seeing the world complete with its own set of values—and understand that individuals might incorporate multiple elements into their particular worldview. (I might also suggest that a large part of the Catholic church’s growth was due to its efforts of self-promotion and advertising.) Aspects such as religion and advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996). Each characteristic also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, these forces play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, with a common thread being that followers can classify themselves in terms of the external: God, works of art, name brands, etc. Although the attraction may assume different forms, it survives because it continues to speak to a deep desire for structure—advertising works the same reason that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers.
The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how advertising can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process also evidenced by marketing techniques’ ability to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu. The concurrent horizontal and vertical spread of advertising is reminiscent of memes, a concept created by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to Dawkins, memes represent discrete units of cultural knowledge that propagate in a particular society (analogous to genes) through a number of transmission methods (1976). While the concept of memetics certainly spans across areas other than advertising, Dawkins notably included, as examples of memes, catch phrases (i.e., slogans), melodies (i.e., jingles), and fads. Consequentially, although advertising inevitably forms a new type of culture in societies, ads also serve to broaden exposure to, or strengthen the connections of, existing aspects of culture for those subjected to it as they burrow deep into our collective society.
Despite the intricate and multi-faceted nature of its impact, we can use the narrative characteristics of advertising as framework for understanding its influence. On a basic level, the format of advertising typically takes the form of a loose narrative, complete with implied back-story—television spots, in particular, provide a salient example of this. Yet, the messages present in advertising can also cause us to question our sense of self as we evaluate our belief systems and values as previously mentioned. Consider how personal identities can result from narrative or actually be narrative; sentences containing “to be” verbs can be unpacked to reveal a larger narrative structure that can help us to “cope with new situations in terms of our past experience and gives us tools to plan for the future” (Sfard & Prusak, 2005). Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of Adcult is felt where we least expect it: in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, p. 124). Advertising, it seems, not only allows us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of youth in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976).
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: The violence profile. The Journal of Communication, 26(2), 172-199.
Sfard, A., & Prusak, A. (2005). Telling identities: In search of an analytic tool for investigating learning as a culturally shaped activity. Educational Researcher, 34(4), 14-22.
Twitchell, J. (1996). Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
I don’t get it. What was I missing?
I stared at the ad in front of me on the computer screen. In my mind I knew that it was trying to tell me (or sell me) something—isn’t that the purpose of advertising?—but what I could not understand was how or why it was connecting to some part of me.
A little while ago my editor, Julie, mentioned something about subliminal advertising and I found myself intrigued by the notion. Although not a marketing/advertising major in college, I’ve always been interested by both the design aspects of ads and the psychology of how they compel the target audience to do something. In America, I’ve realized that the messages we see in media often play into our consumer culture (and, truth be told, this phenomenon probably exists worldwide). You’d like to think that everybody plays fair and that companies are on the side of the buyer, informing him or her of all of the relevant details so that he or she can make a smart choice.
I think that we all know that this is very rarely the case.
I have grown up in a world where I have constantly been bombarded with commercials on television, flyers in the mail, jingles on the radio, etc. The result of all of this is that consumer culture just seems so natural to me and I buy things to get a sense of feeling back after being desensitized from all of the information assaulting me. No matter how I want to feel—I want to feel sexy, I want to feel good, I want to feel powerful, I want to be somebody—I can find something to buy that promises to make that dream a reality.
So why is all of this important?
For me, advertisements not only reflect the way that we see the world but also help to shape the way that we relate to it. Subliminal advertisements are not necessarily bad in and of themselves, but what they often do is to help people to formulate assumptions.
We’ve all heard of the objectification of women throughout human history, and while I don’t want to belittle that, I also think that it’s important to see where all of this is going. In the coming weeks, be on the lookout for the various ways in which we combine the ideas of females (and/or female sexuality) with meat and consumption. From “chick” to “prime cut of beef” to “lamb,” we have various associations engrained in our heads from the time that we are children.
The danger in all of this lies in our tendency, then, to view women as consumable objects. While most people would be hard-pressed to support the idea that women are nothing more than a piece of meat out loud, might there be some hidden aspect to our relationship that informs our lives? If we are already a consumer culture and we then come to see women as consumable items, how does this affect the way that we relate to (other) females? How does this affect the way that women see themselves? We rarely think about the animal from whence a piece of meat came—the slab of meat on our plate becomes familiar and we are desensitized—and so why should it be any different with women? If we, on some level, see women as meat, then do we care where those pieces came from?
I don’t think that all men are bad or that all women are so horribly oppressed in our country (and I am certainly not trying to say that you are wrong for the way that you see things), but I am trying to say that you should think about how you think about things.
Finally, to drive it home fromAmerica’s Next Top Model:
Yeah. She’s wearing meat.