One L(ove)

January 31, 2009

A Whopper Whore to a Whopper Virgin: You’re Not Missing Much

Filed under: Uncategorized — galileehitchhiker @ 4:18 pm
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Let’s face it. There are a lot of horrible commercials out there. Some fall within the specter of complete lunacy and others within total absurdity. I’m not bashing on commercials for their creativity but am referring to those that send out a horrible social message. Media studies is relatively a new academic field in the intellectual world. Some academics within the study are hell-bent on analyzing and deconstructing social myths and stereotypes that are perpetuated by films, advertisements, and other mediums employed by the media. One such example of a study is Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam (who were heavily influenced by Edward Said’s Orientalism), which explored how films made by the “Occident” perpetuated social myths and stereotypes associated with the “Orient,” in order to show (and justify!) the superiority of the former over the latter. The book also explores the insurgency of the Third World towards these myths with their own films.

As mentioned, academics explore how advertisements play a crucial role in not only perpetuating social myths on the domestic level. Now the question arises: how do these advertisements perpetuate these myths?  They are made to appeal to the concerns/fears/insecurities of a group of people in society – thereby hoping that that group which the advertisements are marketing their products towards, will buy those products and instill those myths within them, thereby, in a sense, continuing the production of those social myths. (Once again, please keep in mind that I am not referring to all advertisements, but to those that can be reasonably interpreted to send out a harmful message.) I believe it was Sandra Bartky, in her book Femininity and Domination: Studies in the Phenomenology of Oppression, who said that the advertisers of cosmetics appeal to women to make them feel guilty of the way they look so that they could buy the products. In other words, Bartky argues, that the advertisers of cosmetics instill in women a sense of that they are not perfect and that the only way to be “delivered” from this feeling is to buy the products which will make them perfect. Bartky says that this practice is analogous to the church which creates a sense of guilt within a person for some acts and sends out a message that the only way to overcome that guilt is to turn towards the church – to confess. Bartky points out that these institutions instill within the person a sense of worthlessness and then claim that the only way out is through them. This would then only create a vicious cycle where the institution profits over the person who walks away with illusory happiness, and when that happiness is over, the latter runs back to be “saved.” Whatever may be the flaws of Bartky’s conclusions, I think she has a great point—especially when it comes to advertisements.

I think a major area where advertisements can send out a strong sense of social message is when it comes to food. Yes, this basic necessity of life has such a power of influencing the way we identify socially. Of course there are other factors that contribute to the overall social personality of a person and the way he forms his identity, food can foster a sense of national, ethnic, gender, and (even) religious identity. There’s a great essay on this topic which a vegan friend of mine gave to me when she saw me eating meat a couple of years ago. It is called “We are What We Eat: Feminist Vegetarianism and the Reproduction of Racial Identity” by Cathryn Bailey and appears in the Hypatia journal.

I have been thinking about this ever since I watched Burger King’s “Whopper Virgins” commercials. In those commercials, Burger King basically goes around to different remote areas (usually where tribal and nomad people are known to live) in order to give them a bite of Burger King’s Whopper burger. According to Burger King’s reasoning, these remote groups who have been isolated from the now globalized culture are certainly deprived since they have not ever eaten at Burger King. Burger King labels these social and uncultured noobs (from Burger King’s perspective) as “Whopper Virgins” – who should be immediately “deflowered” with a Whopper burger. Now, the word “virgin” has a total different meaning than it did a long time ago in our society. The word “virgin” used to carry a sense of respect, something that must be protected, chastity is sacred, etc. (although this type of approach can be dangerous also to a degree in the sense that, in its extreme, it becomes wholly fascinated with and monitoring a woman’s sexuality and sexual relations—thereby, equating her honor only with her sexuality—which often ruined women’s lives if they acted “loose” in some cultures…this practice still continues in some places today). Now, there is a sense of stigma if a person is still a virgin. This person must be deflowered immediately! (ha-ha!). I gather that it now has a sense that a person is depriving themselves of something good. So a virgin is someone that is depriving him/herself of something nice. In Burger King’s case, they are suggesting that these remote groups (with their own culture, beliefs, and mores) are in a sense deprived by not experiencing what is good (i.e., haven’t eaten a Whopper burger in their life…Heavens forbid!). This type of commercial sends out a message that these “virgins” are uncultured in that they have not heard of Burger King. The only solution to this grave problem? Stick a Whopper burger in them so we won’t have to feel sorry for these people. “Certainly, these people must be deprived for not ever having eaten Burger King before!” Of course, Burger King wants to send out a message to us to come to their restaurants and buy their products, but one cannot escape thinking that it’s sending out a message that a certain remote group is depriving itself of what we (Americans) are taking for granted. It sends out a message that another group because they do not eat a certain way are, in a sense, deprived.

Another commercial that I watched recently is the Nutrisystem commercial. In it, Dan Marino and Larry the Cable Guy talk about how they lost weight by eating Nutrisystem’s products. The foods that are displayed in the commercial all have meat in them and appear to be ridiculously fatty. But here’s the catch, Marino and Larry claim that they are not fatty at all and that they help you to lose weight. They claim that this is food for “men” – implying that these foods with meat in them are “men’s” food. Although Nutrisystem does have separate commercials with women in them and feature the same food (although in these they are in a fuzzy background), they are not featured prominently as in the commercial with Marino and Larry in them. This type of commercial only suggests that meaty and hearty food are inseparable for men’s diet and what better way to send out that message by having some two manly men say that it is and that they have lost weight doing so? I don’t know remember whether it was Bartky or Bailey who wrote the article that my vegan friend suggested I read who said that in our culture when men turn vegetarians or turn m0re “green” in their eating habits; they are chastised as being weak – implying that they are not “manly.” And if we look at women, we expect them to eat less and have a small amount of food on their plates in social gatherings; and if they do have a lot of food on their plates, we expect them not to finish it all. We also expect them to chew in small amounts and thoughtfully for Christ’s sake! – as thought by those horrible bourgeois etiquette classes. These social attitudes instill a sense of them being watched and if they are not watched, hopefully they will monitor themselves…they become their own personal Panopticon with their own personal surveillance in order to conform to a behavior that is expected from them. This leads us to “Exhibit C”.

The next commercial that I came across was the 100-calories Oreo commercial. In it, a bunch of women go, for a lack of a better word, insane. They all collectively start running towards something. We soon find out that it is a truck that has 100-calories Oreo packs. Although there is a man in a commercial (standing next to the woman at the bus stop who reacts as if it has just been announced that there’s world peace), he does not participate in the excited mob and is utterly confused. This commercial is blatantly sexist. It shows that Oreos are now in a 100-calories pack and that if women eat this, they won’t balloon out of proportion – because, otherwise, that would of course be a tragedy. It sends out a message that women should be concerned with their weight and therefore should buy their product because it won’t make them fat. This type of commercial, where only women run after the truck, send out a message that women should be concerned about their form and should do their best to monitor their weight in order to be attractive (to who?), thereby indubitably reminding women and pressuring them to remember their “duties” and “obligations.”

Besides the interplay of food and identity in the global context (i.e., the Burger King commercial) and gender identity (i.e., the Nutrisystem and 100-calories Oreo commercials), food and identity also are acquainted in the national and religious context.

On the national scene, a country’s food is an integral part of its identity. Nations take pride over their food and eating habits. They then take offense if a person of their own group disparages or shows a particular dislike towards his/her own national food. Of course the response (or the lack of it) may vary across different countries as it depends upon the makeup of each country. If the country is highly multinational, then the response may be less strong (although it may be a different story when it comes to the ethnic response), however where the makeup is homogenous, then the response may be a bit sharper. By abandoning the food of one’s country, a person risks of being castigated for not being proud of one’s heritage. Food plays a great role also when it comes to marriage! I know personally of some Pakistani families, who when they go to the home of the woman’s family (the former is looking for a wife for their son), are interested in wanting to know how the woman cooks and this includes traditionally national or ethnic food. Nationals of various countries also mock one another for the way the other eats. A case in point would be how some ignorant Pakistanis think they are somehow socially and culturally superior to Bengalis when they claim and make fun of Bengalis by saying how the latter always eat fish and does not have a variety in their meals as the former does. Of course, this is entirely false but it’s something that is supposed to elevate a false sense of superiority of one group over another.

In another way food and identity play a role is in the religious context. Religions of various worlds have their own set of guidelines for what is permissible and non-permissible for their respective believers to eat. And if one violates these set of rules, then this person is not a good believer in the minds of the holy. For example, if a Muslim eats pork or eats meat of an animal that is not killed in the religiously sanctioned way, then that person is not a “good” Muslim and has committed a sinful act. The same thing goes for restrictions in the Jewish, Hindu, Jain, and other great faiths. Food can generate a different type of religious identity within a religion itself. For example, the Western Church and the Greek Church dispute over which bread should be used in their liturgical services. Another example would be when a Muslim declares himself to be a vegetarian and is faced with outright admonishment by some members of his faith because the others think he is going against the eating practices of Prophet Muhammad (and also meat plays a great role in the religion such as the ritual slaughtering of animals for religious holidays or joyous occasions); and if that person is avoiding meat for ethical reasons, some of the faith would chastise him for thinking that his way is superior or more ethical than the practices of the Prophet Muhammad, which of course would be outright insulting, if not blasphemous.

As we can see, food and identity are linked together in that the former can have a strong influence upon the development of the latter. Identity then maintains and perpetuates a certain eating habit that is particular to it. This, of course, is not to say that the way we view food determines the way we identify ourselves – other factors are involved as well. To think of how putting some type of food in our mouths that we are particularly fond of might have some social implications underlying it may sound asinine at first. However, when we see the exploitive efforts used by advertisers t0 take advantage of social myths and stereotypes in order to market and sell their products, we then realize how true it can be in certain instances. 

Currently listening to: Mozart – Piano Concertos 20, 21, 23, 24, 25 (performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra) 

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