Here's one way not to get drunk during today's Super Bowl -- take a drink every time one of the "hot" women depicted in a commercial is a woman of color, instead of a white woman. I don't mean to say that more women of color should appear in these leering, sexist ads; I do think, though, that their pervasive whiteness, including that of the presumed, targeted viewers, is worth pointing out.*
I got to thinking about this disparity -- the way that "hot" in Super Bowl advertising mostly means "white hot," and the way that the whole commercial context during the Super Bowl is mostly projected through a white racial frame -- when I read two recent articles on Super Bowl commercials at the liberal web site "Alternet."
Vanessa Richmond's "Half-Naked Hot Chicks and Beer: The Sexist Guyland of the Super Bowl Beer Commercial" spends a couple thousand words on the obvious point that the commercials are sexist, while Robert Lipsyte's "The Commercial Super Bowl: Voyeuristic Horndogs, Hot Babes, Flatulent Slackers, and God's Quarterback Star in the Big Game" reads like a meandering paean to especially bad Super Bowl commercials of the past.** Lipsyte seems to be hoping another especially racist, homophobic or over-the-top crude commercial will air this year, so he can add it to his "so bad they're good!" collection.
Richmond doesn't seem to see any racism in the "Guyland" of Super Bowl commercials (and I'll explain in a moment how I think that itself seems kinda racist), while Lipsyte describes just one racist commercial, which he recalls, again with an odd fondness, this way:
For sheer prescience when it came to American foreign policy, nothing has beaten “Kenyan Runner,” a Super Bowl commercial that ran just before Team W led us to eight losing seasons in Afghanistan, Iraq, and at home.
Imagine a black African runner in a singlet, loping barefoot across an arid plain. White men in a Humvee are hunting him down as if he were wild game. They drug him and, after he collapses, jam running shoes on his feet. When he wakes up, he lurches around screaming, trying to kick off the shoes.
This was 1999, two years before the 9/11 attacks and the invasions that followed. The sponsor was Just For Feet, a retailer with 140 shoe and sportswear super stores that blamed its advertising agency for the spot -- before it collapsed in an accounting fraud and disappeared.
Colonialism anyone? Racism? Forcing our values on developing countries? Mission accomplished.
Yes, that really is a racist commercial. But why is the only commercial racism Lipsyte notices (and again, Vanessa Richmond apparently didn't notice any) such an obvious example? And, why is it such an old example?
A more pervasive mode of racism that I see in this commercialized Guyland is the vaunting of "white beauty" as the default for "beauty." Now, I certainly agree with what I understand as a common white-feminist perspective -- that these idealized Guyland women perpetuate sexist reductions of womanhood to little more than objectified and vulnerable body parts -- and I'm not saying that I think women of color should be clamoring for demographic equity in such ads.
However, I'm not sure how to square that with my realization that these ads nevertheless participate in, and greatly help to perpetuate, mainstream standards of "beauty," of heterosexual feminine desirability. Doesn't the pervasive whiteness of such fantasized women, on such a centralized cultural stage as the Super Bowl, help to detrimentally affect such things as the identities and life-chances of women of color?
Here, for example, is an exploration of the damaging effects that unspoken white beauty standards continue to have on black children and young women, a videotaped experiment (which I've posted before) by Kiri
Again, I think that liberal critics of the "Guyland" of Super Bowl ads are right to point out how obviously and obnoxiously sexist, obstinately adolescent, homophobic, crude, and violent this fantasyland is. However, the more subtle racism of Guyland's pervasive whiteness deserves critical attention as well.
This photo appears at Alternet with Richmond's article; when I first saw it, my mind immediately registered (among other things), "five white women" -- why didn't Richmond see that as well?
Again, I'm not saying it would be better to recast such a group, and all beer and other Guyland commericialism, with a more racially representative array of women -- I'd rather see the rampant sexism and homophobia itself toned down instead.
But what if Richmond had inserted a few words in her analysis that mark the pervasive whiteness? Below are a few paragraphs from her Alternet piece, with my additions of that sort in capital letters, just to see what difference that would make.
When things are this pervasively white, don't liberal/progressive critics play into the unmarked power of de facto white supremacy when they don't identify and name (let alone analyze) that pervasive whiteness?
After watching dozens of beer ads over the last few days, I can report that the land of beer is a fun and raucous AND VERY WHITE place. It’s a land where THE drunkenness, laughing, burping, irresponsibility, pranks and rule-breaking OF ALMOST EXCLUSIVELY WHITE GUYS reign supreme. There are no awkward silences, no need to speak in words, no need to remember to say or do anything in particular or face the consequences. Heck, there are no consequences. It’s a world where WHITE women have fun entertaining WHITE men. It’s an escape from the tyranny of work and manners, from the ill-fitting harnesses of the digital age on
I understand the merits of the golden liquid, with its bubbles on a quest for freedom. But beer ads don’t really bother with that. They sell an escape to fantasy WHITE masculinity. And WHITE? boy, while there might be more WHITE women drinking beer and watching the Super Bowl than ever, and more ads directed to them in some ways, most beer ads -- especially the sexy ones -- are like WHITE masculinity on steroids.
Those ads look pretty tame today. In last year’s Miller Lite Cat Fight, which got over six million views afterward, WHITE women leave a lunch table to rip off their clothes and fight in their undies, mud-wrestle, then make out. “The first beer commercial that starred actual WHITE soft-core porn actresses," is how the TV Munchies blog hailed it. “Bravo Miller Lite! We’ve never been thirstier!” The follow-up Cat Fight ad features a scantily clad Pamela Anderson joining in a pillow fight.
Again, when liberals/progressives analyze a social or cultural phenomenon that's pervasively white, why play into the invisibility that buttresses white hegemony by not marking and analyzing that whiteness? Why take for granted a system of oppression that gains so much of its power by being widely taken for granted?
And by the way, if you watched the Super Bowl and/or the ads, did you see racism in any other ways?
* I added this paragraph's second sentence in response to comments by Rosa and fromthetropics, beginning here.
** Lipsyte's piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.