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Last year's slue of Super Bowl commercials put a new spin on tired traditions.  Hyper-masculinity was predictably glorified and exaggerated, women were shown to be little more than sexual objects, and blatant homophobia was present in a variety of ads.  Each catered to an overarching idea that traditional masculinity was under attack from women, homosexuality, and femininity.  The derisive phrase "the year of anxious masculinity" rightfully summarized the general feel and content of much of what aired.  That particular slate of advertisements was nothing terribly novel in and of itself, but it did hearken back even farther than recent memory.  The antecedent for each was, in part, one pervasive story.

...Samson fell in love with a woman named Delilah, who lived in the valley of Sorek.  The rulers of the Philistines went to her and said, "Entice Samson to tell you what makes him so strong and how he can be overpowered and tied up securely. Then each of us will give you 1,100 pieces of silver."  So Delilah said to Samson, "Please tell me what makes you so strong and what it would take to tie you up securely."  She tormented him with her nagging day after day until he was sick to death of it.

Finally, Samson shared his secret with her. "My hair has never been cut," he confessed, "for I was dedicated to God as a Nazirite from birth. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as anyone else."  Delilah realized he had finally told her the truth, so she sent for the Philistine rulers. "Come back one more time," she said, "for he has finally told me his secret." So the Philistine rulers returned with the money in their hands.

Delilah lulled Samson to sleep with his head in her lap, and then she called in a man to shave off the seven locks of his hair. In this way  she began to bring him down, and his strength left him.   Then she cried out, "Samson! The Philistines have come to capture you!"  When he woke up, he thought, "I will do as before and shake myself free." But he didn't realize the LORD had left him.  So the Philistines captured him and gouged out his eyes. They took him to Gaza, where he was bound with bronze chains and forced to grind grain in the prison.

When we speak of this anxious masculinity, what we are really talking about is male privilege.  Specifically, it is the fear that leveling the playing field, so to speak, will come at the expense of heterosexual white men.  What I in particular find distasteful beside the obvious is that one particularly recursive interpretation of masculinity gets reinforced and advanced over and over.  A brawny, brute, lecherous, not terribly cerebral version of masculine expression gets interpolated in between the over-the-top sight gags and bad puns.  Men come in all shapes, sizes, and formulations.  This same is also true for women, though publicly acknowledging this is far more common.

That was last year.  This year, someone in marketing and advertising got the hint and listened to at least some of the criticism.  Super Bowl commercials aired yesterday made some strides towards inclusion, rather than exclusion.  A few began to even walk back their more smarmy attacks towards women and minorities.  The most prominent example I recall off hand began when a particularly dangerous-looking cowboy walked up to the bar in a saloon, in the oldest of timeworn stock cliches.  Demanding a particularly well-known American beer, he takes a sip of it, then peculiarly begins up an off-key rendition of the Elton John song, "Tiny Dancer." The rest of the bar joins in as if on queue, as though this were some demented musical.  In the end, everyone appears to be thoroughly satisfied and happy, which always seems to happen in beer commercials.

At times, however, this sort of near-concessionary approach seemed overreaching rather than wholly genuine.  Other commercials made similar attempts, but in a kind of halfhearted, resentful fashion instead.  Once a belief in all that is zero sum game takes hold, it's difficult to shake.  In any case, I'm often thankful for small favors regarding content aimed about as low as low culture gets.  What might not have been conspicuous in its presence was at least conspicuous in its absence.  Madison Avenue has always had an uneasy relationship with cultural reform and equality, as both threaten to swallow its bottom line.  It's much easier and less risky to keep peddling corn chips to the lower common denominator than to take into account new realities and emerging movements.  Until mutually parasitic relationships indebted to inertia are shown to be destructive and poisonous, rather than steady revenue streams, change will not come to America.

Marketers and advertisers mine existing tropes to extract every ounce of gold and silver possible.  They do not break ground on new developments.  They do not wish to invest in alternative sources of fuel or coinage.  The trade itself is a multi-billion dollar a year enterprise and, in response, no one's cash cow is sacred.  If they can't bribe Delilah, they'll be sure to bribe Samson next.  

Philistinism is a derogatory term used to describe a particular attitude or set of values. A person called a Philistine (in the relevant sense) is said to despise or undervalue art, beauty, intellectual content, or spiritual values. Philistines are also said to be materialistic, to favor conventional social values unthinkingly, and to favor forms of art that have a cheap and easy appeal (e.g. kitsch).

                           
We can take this hatred of Philistinism too far, as well.  Note that the description above includes the crucial phrase "favor[s] conventional social values unthinkingly."  This is the difference between blatant sexism, racism, homophobia and its more insidious, subconscious rendering.  This doesn't mean the offense should be excused, just that it must be addressed by different means.  And it is interesting to note that the culture wars raging today have evolved with time.  Returning to my source,

Philistinism affords a contrast to Bohemianism, as the character of a smugly conventional bourgeois social group perceived to lack all the desirably soulful "bohemian" characteristics, especially an artistic temperament and a broad cultural horizon open to the avant-garde. To the chosen few, the "Philistines" embodied a smug, anti-intellectual threatening majority, in the "culture wars" of the 19th century.

To some extent, we are still fighting this same battle.  My basest fear, with every approaching Super Bowl Sunday, is always that someone in another country will make incorrect assumptions about American culture based purely on our advertising.  The Super Bowl is watched worldwide, of course, and the tradition has been spread by American citizens living abroad.  The game, with its famous commercials between plays is uniquely American, but not always in the best ways.  Someone on the outside looking in could be provided information that has some basis in fact, but the conclusions drawn will often be distorted, cartoonish, and exaggerated.  The lyrics of a song by the 90's Britpop group Blur parody American consumer culture and banality.  "Magic America" gets a few digs in at our expense.

Bill Barret has a simple dream
He calls it his Plan B
Buildings in the sky and the air is sugar free
And everyone's very friendly

Plan B arrived on a holiday
Took a cab to the shopping malls
Bought and ate until he could do neither anymore
Then found love on Channel 44

La la la la la
He wants to go to Magic America
La la la la la
He'd like to live in Magic America
With all the magic people

Bill Barrett sent his postcards home
To everyone he'd ever known
They read,

"Fifty-nine cents gets you a good square meal
From the people who care how you feel"
         
La la la la la
He wants to go to Magic America
La la la la la
He'd like to live in Magic America
With all the magic people

The importance of challenging popular culture cannot be overstated enough.  Still, the solutions we advance must take into account more than we who are, ourselves the modern-day Bohemians.  Our audience must not limited.  Thomas Jefferson's impact in shaping this country cannot be understated, but at times his philosophy was contradictory and conflicted.  For example, Jefferson mentioned that he admired the common man, albeit at a safe distance.  This is, I cannot stress enough, the very same man who drafted the immortal phrase, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."  Even if we modernize the word "men" to also include women, the contradiction remains.

Today's culture wars crop up all the time, and eventually make their way into mass media, especially in the form of gross caricature.  Discerning where we can best make an impact as gatekeepers likely requires a scalpel rather than an axe.  Education is always part of the equation, but possessing a sharp eye is also a requirement.  We must be careful to not keep the common people of our own lives at a safe distance.  We say we believe in open communication, but if someone we did not know were to knock at our front door, I know we'd make sure the screen or peephole served as a defensive barrier.  Mistrust is what calcifies unhealthy systems.  It is what kept Samson at first from revealing his strength, though beyond that unfortunate outcome, the ultimate resolution of the story reveals his ultimate triumph.  We do not need to destroy ourselves to destroy that which is offensive and regressive, but we do need to derive strength from the best parts of ourselves.  Should we do that, then we will succeed in the end.

Originally posted to cabaretic on Mon Feb 07, 2011 at 07:22 AM PST.

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