Sunday, August 9, 2009

embody familial norms

Writing this blog for over a year now has helped me become much more alert to something that most white Americans rarely notice, let alone think about -- the social fact that they and other white people are just that, "white."

For example, as I watched the latest edition of "Target Women with Sarah Haskin's," in which she critiques the depictions of "Doofy Husbands" in TV commercials, I did take in the humorously insightful feminist message. But as I did so, I also kept a close eye out for any husbands, or other family members, who were not white.

For those who understand something about how whiteness operates in American society, a basic truism is that, as Toni Morrison succinctly put it, "American means white." The ordinary, normal, all-American person is typically imagined in countless situations and circumstances as a white person.

That generalized norm can be broken down further. An "all-American" girl, for instance, is in most American imaginations a white person, as is an "all-American" boy. And, as Sarah Haskins' video suggests, a competent wife and her "doofy husband" are both very white conceptions as well. To my ear, that adjective, "doofy," sounds very white as well. Middle-class white, actually (I have working-class relatives who use other words to describe clumsy or useless husbands).

Here's my count of this video's racial landscape:

total white doofy husbands: 23
total non-white doofy husbands: 0
total white media analyzers (i.e., Sarah Haskins): 1
total non-white media analyzers: 0

I do my best to avoid TV commercials, so I'm not sure about something here -- is this 23:0 ratio in terms of race a function of TV commercials, or of the people at Current TV who put together this video with Sarah Haskins?

Either way, this norm of a doofy husband and his recognizable, "normal" family exist in an overwhelmingly white universe. A universe increasingly at odds, of course, with reality; white Americans now make up about 70% of the population, and within several decades, as we hear more and more often these days, they will no longer be the majority.

How long will this fantasized, unmarked, hegemonic norm of white centrality persist?

One thing that might hasten its decline is for white people to simply notice and label whiteness more often. Would it not, for instance, make for a more insightful comment on TV commercials if Sarah Haskins had talked throughout this video about, instead of "wives" and "doofus husbands," "white wives" and "white doofus husbands"?

h/t: Sociological Images


  1. i've noticed that non-white people don't get the luxury to act doofy--but the men are generally afraid of their wives (i'm thinking of that FiberOne commercial, where the guy's eating cereal and is about to throw it out, and the wife is behind him hearing him talk shit about her--he looked scared...

  2. I too thoroughly enjoy Haskin's Target Women pieces, but have also noticed that she accepts advertising's normalization and centralization of whiteness.

  3. Very true--a label when "White" is all that is being examined would be a first step in making the assumptions behind White=normal more visible.

    I have noticed a smattering of academics doing this in their publications. For eons, for example, studies in which most of the participants were White did not contain racial markers in their titles, where ones in which the specific focus was POC were titled as such.

    The downside, of course, is when researchers think that just by noting in their paper titles that their sample was White relieves them of the responsibility to strive for more inclusive samples.

  4. Full disclosure: I am a hug fan of Sarah Haskins and Target Women.

    In general, her segments do include POC insofar as they can be found in commercials, movies, Disney princesses, etc. Of course, that often means a white woman surrounded by friends, one of whom is black (or, less frequently, Latina.)

    When I think about her pieces on family, however, "Feeding Your F---ing Family" also contains only white families (with one African American friend of a son.) I know there are commercials out there that include African American families eating. Do these commercials use different tactics? Or are they rarer or just being left out?

    I suspect the bias is almost entirely due to source material. Although it is a sidenote from the feminist commentary, I agree it would be funny to add a few comments on the racial homogeneity to the mix. Plus, as you say, it would help keep us more honest.

  5. "I have working-class relatives..."

    The way you phrased that makes it sound like an insult. To me the "working-class" are just regular people. And no, not just white people. This post (and other ones) makes it seem that you come from a really convoluted "world"; complicated but not hard to understand. I've never come across any person unsure of themselves as you seem to be of yourself. It's like you listen to and try to please some people out of some sort of weird need. But that's my passing opinion of how you portray yourself.

    By the way, you missed a great opportunity to write about what happened in Missouri involving SEIU, the racial epithets thrown and the physical violence. I can understand how you overlooked it though. He was only a conservative.

  6. I'm also a big fan of Target Women, so I'm reticent to blame anything on Haskins, but you make some good points. I would guess that the entirely white composition of the "Doofy Husbands" segment has more to do with the racial make-up of commercial advertising than anything else.

    I agree with you that the category "doofy" seems to be something that is only really present in white, middle-class groups. To me, this is really an issue of power. People in power (aka white, well-off men) can afford to look silly in the media, because in the end they are respected in society. POC, especially African Americans, have spent years combating the pernicious images of them as clowns, fools and idiots so they don't have the freedom to be doofy. If a POC is "doofy," it just reinforces racist stereotypes and gives white people more "reason" to keep POC out of power. Basically, when you're safely in power, you can afford to make a fool of yourself sometimes without fear of losing respect in society.

  7. I don't get it. POC's want to be represented as "doofy"? Personally I'm as sick of seeing husbands/dads getting represented as clueless and bumbling as much as I am of watching retro commercials of women struggling to make a good cup of coffee to keep their man happy.

  8. I don't get it. POC's want to be represented as "doofy"?

    The doofy husband character is always portrayed as having endearing qualities. He may be a few eggs short of a dozen, but - gosh darnit! - he loves his family and genuinely wants to do right by them.

    Men of color are rarely depicted in the media as loving husbands and fathers. And THAT'S what I would like to see represented.

  9. Angel, yeah, I can see the loveable aspect but If I were a man of any color I would be sick of getting accused of being incompetent anywhere but at the grill (it's like the retro commercials I mentioned). If they showed women doing the "duh, I'll fumble my way through this until a man comes and helps me" attitude, we'd be up in arms.

  10. Alex,
    Yes, the doofy husband character IS getting old. I still believe, however, that it's better than having Men of Color (especially Black and Latino men) portrayed as deadbeat fathers and husbands.

    If they showed women doing the "duh, I'll fumble my way through this until a man comes and helps me" attitude, we'd be up in arms.

    Actually, those kind of commercials are still aired. The stain remover commercials and the all-purpose cleaner commercials show women being taught by a man that there's a "better, easier way to clean." And yes, those commercials suck. :-)

  11. Angel, you're so right.....I forgot about that one. The one commercial I love that embodies that goofy male bonding and uses men of many races is the Hillshire farms "go meat"....they're just goofy as hell but hilarious.

  12. I was just thinking about that one! ;-)

    Also, sorry for misspelling your name earlier.

  13. If Haskin's was making fun of doofy non-white fathers on her program you would say that she is trafficking in racist stereotypes.

    It is one thing to be concerned with the way black and hispanic fathers are portrayed in the media (as angel h pointed out) but if we were making fun of them the assumption on sites like this one would be that the writers were trafficking in antequated stereotypes about blacks being lazy/childlike or Mexicans being lazy. It wouldn't be about an equal opportunity poke at dads, it'd be "oh shit, she's demeaning the men giving a portrayal of these dads as lovable positive figures, for shame!"

    Also, I have to say that I agree with RWA about the way Macon tends to come off in his posts. Reading this blog earlier in the year really heightened a lot of my insecurities-feeding off of the shame I felt after years of being told, mostly by Maconesque white people and in the name of anti-racism, that calling myself hispanic (since I'm only 1/2) is a racist act of appropriation because I don't speak spanish or participate in "the latino culture". It brought of my shame at being different, and these posts mirrored my growing insecurity and fear that others would always define just being myself as being inherently false and harmful to others. Then a few weeks ago I decided to say eff that, and have been much happier. Macon, do yourself a favor: if you want to grow as a person, as an activist and as a social critic then you have to Be. Stop trying to atone for your personal sins, stop feeling personally guilty or worry that others will see you as not adequately anti-racist, or as taking class, gender, regional whatever into account. If you're using this blog to gain validation then you're not ultimately going to be able to affect change.

  14. From my perspective, the commercials with white families tend to be far cheesier and disingenuous...not sure who that says something positive about, but I think Sarah Haskins simply picks the worst.

  15. Look, I'm all for intersectionality, but does every analysis about gender roles also need to address racism? It's a 5 minute show that pokes fun at sexism in commercials, not a comprehensive and balanced analysis of media bigotry toward all socially oppressed demographics.

    After all, once you talk about how they're all white couples, how about that they're all straight couples? And how they're all middle class couples?

  16. Yes O, it is only five minutes, so there's not time for similarly extensive analysis of all of those. And yet, when the score is 23-0 for white men, why not at least mention that she's talking about white men? And yes, middle-class heterosexual men too? Don't you think that not doing so let's those categories stand as the unmarked norm?

    Power that goes unmarked stays more powerful because it's unmarked -- and thus, to many, invisible. Using the words "white," "heterosexual," "middle-class" and so on once in while, instead of JUST "husbands" calls attention to their memberships in particular categories, and thereby lessens the power of unmarked norms. Seems like simple-but-good counterhegemonic work to me. And it's different from a long, extended analysis of each category. Sarah Haskin sometimes seems to me like a lot of white feminists who get blamed for assuming that they represent and speak for all women. I suspect she's smarter and more aware than that, and I think she could come across as less oblivious to the differing experiences of other women if she sometimes marked the race, class, and sexuality that she's letting otherwise pass as merely, and perniciously, "normal."


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code