Friday, February 29, 2008

MAD MEN: The Show People Love to Love and Hate to Hate

WHEN THE TELEVISION SHOW Mad Men, debuted on AMC last year, it was an immediate hit. Hipsters loved it for its irony-free vintageness, middle-of-the-roaders cottoned to its nostalgic representation of the late 50s-early 60s, and lefties claimed it made subtle yet powerful arguments about gender. Impossibly, all of these seemingly disparite reactions are valid (and even accurate) readings of the show.

No doubt, Mad Men's ability to "mean" on all of these different levels is one of the main reasons for its success, but its many hats also raises questions about the relationship bewteen nostalgia and interrogation. By this, I mean, can a show be both nostalgic and interrogative at the same time? Can it sentimentalize the very past it calls into question? Can a text accurately examine an era it is seduced by?

On one hand, it would seem that Mad Men--a full-on period drama that looks at the birth of big-time ad agencies on Madison Avenue in 1960--has to choose between objectively recreating an already romanticized time (and place) in American culture and asking probing questions about that time and place. And, indeed, at times this is exactly what seems to be happening. The era gets a big hug.

People relish smoking and drinking at work. There is relatively easy and repercussion-free sex in the office. Gender roles are clearly defined, and everyone knows exactly what is expected of them. And, everyone just looks so . . . not postmodern.

The structure of the show adds to this feeling. Close-ups on old school phones, comments about hair curlers, visits to the switchboard, conversations about the advances in typewriters, remarks about the prices of everything, and the unfolding of the Nixon/Kennedy presidential race reinforces at every possible moment the same mantra: this is 1960, this is 1960, this is 1960. And, it seems to do so happily, jubilantly, without hesitation.

Part of this derives from the acting, which is fabulous and completely without arch. The actors play it straight--no winks, no nods, so dramatic irony. The show seems so fully in itsself.

But, some of the darker sub-plots of the show--the unhappiness of the housewives, the fallout of infidelity, the various gender-based pressure to pass as alpha male or super female, and the pervasive racism and sexism--ultimately serve to undermine the veneer of play than animates so much of the program.

In many ways, the program is about identity--who we are and what makes us who we are. For men, it's work. For women, it's work; just a different kind. But each have their own set of rules, and, most importantly, their own sets of expectations. An inability to measure up can mean, for either gender, failure. And since there are few alternatives, failure (or the fear of failure), can mean disaster.

Critics of Mad Men claim the show wants it both ways--to passively luxuriate in a period piece and to be progressive and edgy and political. The question is, why can't a text do this? Isn't the benefit of history the carte blanche to see a text of the past through a different lens?

Ultimately, desipite all of the fun at the office, no one in the show is happy. Everyone is miserable, aware of all that they don't have. As the great American poet Wallace Stevens notes, "not to have is the beginning of desire."

It is possible that the most political project is one that so fully immerses the viewer in a time and place, they see just how restrictive the culture was, how few choices people had, and how ubiquitous social norms and mores were--enabling us, now, to see the totality of narrowness, and the dangers of exhuming it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Can't Decide Who To Vote For? Base It On The Banners

WITH ONLY A FEW days before the March 4 primaries, a substantial percentage of American voters still remain undecided about who to support: Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Last night, both candidates laid out strategies for why he or she deserves your vote, but did that really convince anyone? In fact, if you swing a hanging chad in any direction, you’ll hit someone who thinks he has a well-reasoned opinion about who you should vote for.
But why rely on the bad advice of others? Why concern yourself with platform promises that will go out the window as soon as the new president discovers all the foreign currencies Karl Rove managed to topple while we thought he was buying ties. Forget the texts of debates and speeches; instead, base your decision on the least revised and most honest texts—the campaign logo.

Amidst all the discussion about the qualifications of the candidates—their wit, charm, intelligence, and experience—no one has talked about the visual iconography that frames their candidacy. Think of how often you have seen the t-shirts donned by their posses, the banners draped behind them during speeches, the logos affixed to the podiums, and the placards waved by their supporters. These logos are everywhere. They insinuate themselves into the visual landscape of the campaign more frequently than Tim Russert.

Scientists claim that viewers are affected by one out of every seven advertisements, so it is fair to assume that, whether we know it or not, we probably respond to the semiotics of campaign logos without even knowing it. This begs the question—what, exactly, are we responding to?
Of the two, Clinton’s is the most conservative:

The first thing one notices is the presence of an absence: the last name. At quick glance, this banner could be mistaken for Sir Edmund Hillary swag, but the “for President” and the URL give it away soon enough. Is this a conscious decision to downplay her Clintonness? If so, should the URL be Either way, downplaying the “Clinton” seems the oddest decision, since it would seem her affiliation with Bill would, by simple name recognition alone, do more good than harm.

Speaking of doing no harm, the white traditional font against a deep blue background might soothe, but it doesn’t inspire. To be sure, we are to associate this combination with the blue field and white stars of Old Glory; a smart patriotic move. Indeed, it’s hard to go wrong with blue here; plus, Senator Clinton has to like the associations of blue state (as opposed to red state) when imagining wooing her constituency.

Sadly, politicians refuse to break up with the wind-tossed ribbon. It’s a dysfunctional relationship that may never end. For decades, the wavy ribbon has been a divider between the main message of the logo and some other text, like a slogan or a web address. As in most ads, the ribbon does little work. Is it supposed to be a mini-flag? The entire ad already evokes the stars and stripes. Do we need it again?

And then there is the URL. It’s a tough call about what to print along the bottom: website or slogan. In this case, the Senator from New York probably made the right decision to eschew cliché and foreground technology.

So, how does the logo do as a constructed, value-heavy text? Overall, it’s a relatively flat logo. There is little movement, little panache. But, it is regal, safe, presidential. It won’t get anyone worked up, but it won’t scare anyone either.
Senator Obama, however, goes in a different direction:

More is at work in the Obama logo. More colors, more shades, and more shapes. Where Hillary obfuscates her last name, Obama downplays his first. This is a smart decision because he gets to reinforce his last name with the hallucinogenic “O.” A rainbow “B” would have looked ridiculous, but the O carries many positive associations—a globe, the world, the horizon, the future, unity, circularity, cooperation, a coin, a sno-globe, Life Savers.

I’m not sure what, exactly, the rainbow O is supposed to be, and in truth, I don’t love it. The top does resemble the dome of the earth, and that’s, you know, nice, but the stripes look too much like badly painted roads or railroad tracks. Is the rainbow O supposed to be the future? A bloody future? Is it Captain America’s shield? The world’s most patriotic life preserver? I assume The O with the red road barreling through is designed to symbolize a sunrise over America (promise, hope). But, for me, it’s too vague and evokes too many other possibilities.
Another aspect of the logo that puts me on edge is the azure font. While I love the deep dark blue of “Obama,” the hazy, fuzzy, sky blue of the “’08” and the top of the “O” softens more than it should. It’s too new agey, too wispy. I want more emphasis. On the other hand, I love the gray URL. Here the colors and the font exude confidence and modernity, while Clinton’s “for president” font feels traditional.

I do, however, love the logo’s balance, and unlike Clinton’s it tells a story. Its horizontal sweep takes the eye from the O (the future) to the ’08 (now), suggesting the future is now.

Ultimately, the Obama logo is more edgy, more ambitious, and more creative. It also looks forward, whereas Clinton’s looks back. Worst of all, it shares too much with the Bush-logo of 2000.

We are a visual culture in an increasingly visual society. Those of you who are undecided, trust your visual literacy here, and go with the logo that best embodies the values you want in your president.

Or, just vote for the best t-shirt. After all, you may only get to live with the president for four years, but you can live with that logo t-shirt your whole life.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Stuff White People Like: A Blog Review

OUR FAVORITE PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR, Mike Spencer, wrote in with some smart observations and questions about a relatively new blog called Stuff White People Like ( The blog has only been up a couple of months, but it's already received almost 2.5 million hits--roughly 2.5 more than this one. Though it's difficult to tell much about the main personalities behind the blog, it appears to be curated mainly by a guy who posts under the name Clander, a resident of Los Angeles who rides a bicycle (see post #61). His ethnicity is undetermined, but he has a disarming ability to look at mainstream American culture the way an anthropologist might see some heretofore undiscovered tribe.

Each entry on the site features a snazzy picture and an example of stuff White people like such as products (coffee, tea), stores (Whole Foods), items (kitchen gadgets, Apple products), personalities (Mos Def, John Stewart, Ira Glass), experiences (difficult break ups, marathons, recycling), ideas (knowing what's best for poor people), and culture (Juno, NPR, irony). Most of the entries are pretty funny and in general, delivered in a self-aware droll tone that endears more than annoys. There is a playful mocking of the fetishes of upper-middle class North America that is hart to resist.

In his classic investigatorial way, Spencer hits on the main issues of the blog? Does the race of the person posting affect the tone of the post? And, is the site about race or, as Spencer correctly intuits, really about class?

At present, the entries are warmly sarcastic. There is a sort of meta-teasing involved. No one really asserts superiority or inferiority on account of race. The site is much more about icons of accomplishment and learning.

Which makes the site, as P. I. Spencer notes, about the icons of economic class, and, more specifically, left-leaning urban markers of class. A conservative site in the rural South on "stuff white people like" would probably not include Michel Gondry (#68), Sarah Silverman (#52), or Asian Fusion food (#45). I grew up in Oklahoma around a lot of White people, and pretty much no one I know in Oklahoma likes John Stewart, the Prius, marathons, NPR, Juno, or Mos-Def. They sure don't like Barack Obama (see #8 and my previous piece about Obama and the Plains).

What the site gets right, though, is how American culture associates mainstream urban and suburban whiteness with yuppiness. There is a kind of predictability absent of edge or self-awareness that infuses a great deal of what we might call literate commercial culture. SWL does a nice job of poking fun of the things a lot of us might be embarrased to live with but don't want to live without.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The P-Word: Why Hillary and Barack Won't Say It--A Special Presidents Day Post

WHEN JOHN EDWARDS ENDED his candidacy for president, he called for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to pick up the mantle of poverty awareness that he had been carrying pretty much on his own for the past four years. Indeed, Edwards, who brought the issue to the fore in the previous campaign with his notion of "Two Americas," has made the topic of American poverty--especially in the South--his controlling metaphor, particularly through the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his One America Committee. For better or worse, no public figure has devoted more of his energy to addressing systemic causes of poverty than Edwards. That said, I would argue that one reason Edwards never got the traction his candidacy deserved is because he focused too heavily on class during his campaign--a topic that, ironically, America is more uneasy about than race or gender.

Based on the poverty-line calculations developed in the 60s and using the Consumer Price Index as a measuring stick, around 12% of Americans live in poverty or "below the poverty line." However, according to United Nations calculations, which look at people who make less than 50% of the median income, America has a poverty rate of 17%. Yet, when polled, most individual Americans identify as middle class. Few Americans admit to being poor, and even fewer like hearing wealthy people talk about poverty.

Indeed, poverty remains one of the most slippery areas of American social identification. How easy now to pass as not-poor and how critical to be able to do so. One of the most powerful narratives of American mythology is the possibility of wealth--rags to riches, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, the self-made man, Horatio Alger, Donald Trump, Ross Perot. After 200 years of Capitalism, a strong strain of class consciousness remains in the American social fabric: if you are poor, that's your choice.

While a person can't help what gender or ethnicity s/he is born into, one can do something about social class. At least, that is the standard line. What's more, if one does not improve his or her social class, there is still a painful aura of failure attached, a laziness label, what we might call the prejudice of the poor.

Writers like Curtis Sittenfeld, George Pelecanos, William Faulkner, Richard Russo, and Robert Pinsky have explored the deep prejudices of economic class in their fiction and poetry, but such conversations have yet to migrate with such complexity to the political realm. It is this profound problem that Edwards sought, like no other public figure, to address, and sadly, because we don't know how to have this conversation, it probably cost him the race.

Why? Americans don't like to be told they are poor, and most poor Americans refuse to publicly support candidates who make poverty such a key issue out of fear of being seen to need an economic safety net. To sign on with Edwards might be to admit to poverty, to confess one cannot acquire on one's own. This is why Obama and Clinton won't say the P-word. Some pundits have criticized both for letting Edwards' poverty message go the way of his candidacy, but both intuit that address poverty issues as "poverty issues" is a dead-end road.

Few White Americans want to be talked to about being poor by a well-off Black man; even more importantly, Obama knows that such a tack may make him come off as an angry Black Man, a better-coiffed Al Sharpton. And, to be truthful, how authoritative can Senator Clinton sound about poverty? She is not herself poor, she has never made poverty part of her senate work, and her husband stole any Clinton-based-poverty thunder years ago.

Obama does have a good record trying to improve impoverished conditions. Right out of Harvard law school, he went to work as a community organizer in one of Chicago's poorer neighborhood. Over the course of his campaign, I suspect he will address issues of poverty without using loaded terms. He will talk about solutions rather than problems, policies rather than poverty.

However, until the stigma of being poor is removed from American popular and social culture, it's hard to envision how a politician can really address the issue. Public perception is as important as law in solving social problems--and neither can tackle the nearly impenetrable mythos of American upward mobility.

Monday, February 11, 2008

There Will Be Blood: Acquisition, Ambition, and America

MOST REVIEWS OF THE new P. T. Anderson film, There Will Be Blood have, understandably, focused on the mesmerizing performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, a scoundrel oil man and, to a lesser degree, Paul Dano, a self-important young evangelist preacher named Eli Sunday. With the exception of David Denby's smart reading of the film as an exploration of dueling frauds--entrepreneurism and evangelism--most have seen the movie as a character study of the ego-driven, misanthropic Plainview or as an allegory on America's consuming drive for oil. Each is a plausible, but I'd like to suggest an alternate.

The more precise drive that unites Plainview and Sunday--bitter rivals in the film--is their ambition, which gets plaid out through surprisingly similar needs for acquisition. In the case of Plainview, it's oil, which, naturally, leads to the vast acquisition of land. And acquiring land then leads to the accumulation of power through geographic surplus. The more land you own, the less land others own. Or, put another way, if you own a great deal of land, people have acquiesced, ceded. They lost; you won. They divulged; you acquired. Their loss; your gain.

Plainview collects parcels and mineral rights in much the same way Eli Sunday collects souls--as symbols of what can be taken. In his nearly WWF-like sermons, Sunday literally rips the devil out of an elderly woman, and in one of the best scenes in the film, he beats (or pretends to beat) sin out of Plainview. When potentially given money, he spends it on a larger church, not on the needs of his parishoners. His need to grandstand, to be the spewing derrick at the pulpit, is as overarching as Plainveiw's. For him, preaching is like drilling for oil. It is about drawing the commodity out of the vessel: the soul drilled from the sinner, the evil pumped dry.

For both men, identity is forged on the crucible of acquisition. It is how both arrive at power and how they keep it.

Denby is correct to see the film as a battle between capitalism and evangelism--two of the great shaping forces in American culture. The film does seem a kind of anti-morality play in which the forces of evil and evil pretend not to tussle and pretend not to be evil. Both capitalism and evangelism need acquisition to flourish. Neither does well with charity. Dramatizing the violent clashes of these forces underscores the intangible tensions that frame important institutions of American culture--social class and religious salvation.

Ultimately, the film asks to be read as a metaphor for Manifest Destiny, itself a twinning of acquisition and evangelism and the violence that ensues when both get out of hand.

We know what happens to the land when are too ambitious with one of the drives, but what happens to our collective soul when the ambitions of the other gets out of hand?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Has TV Paved the Way for Hillary more than Barack?

RECENLTY, SOME MEDIA CRITICS have cited the increasing visibility of African American men on TV and in films with making Barack Obama's candidacy for president palatable to mainstream America, including a short piece on NPR. Television shows like Queer Eye for a Straight Guy, Will & Grace, Ellen, brought gayness out of the closet and onto the sofas of living rooms across Middle America. Now, it's just weird if there isn't a quirky, well-dressed gay man in a sitcom. It has become almost quotidian.

With Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as frontrunners for the Democratic nomination for president, one wonders which candidate America has been best prepared for by popular culture. The Black Man or the White Woman?

On one hand, the popular espionage series 24 allowed us to believe the impossible--that our president could also sell us Allstate Insurance. Beyond that, though, viewers were given a rare luxury: a smart, capable, ethical Black president. The charismatic David Palmer navigated the treacherous waters of terrorism, assassination attempts, and overly dramatic background music and became (much like Martin Sheen in West Wing) a far more desirable president than the one running the actual world.

That said, he didn't last long. Unfortunately for all of us, the writers of 24 had Palmer assassinated, and we were never supposed to think it was racially motivated. Now that's fantasy!

Still, a few seasons later, his brother, Wayne Palmer, became president, enabling us once again to imagine a Black Man in the White House. But, just as W is not H, Wayne was not David. Both Palmer Presidents were good men and seemed appropriate for the position, and I have to say, I loved thinking of David Palmer as my Commander-in-Chief. But, it’s hard to think of persuasive examples beyond 24.

Contrast this with the numerous examples of female presidents.

First, network television elected MacKenzie Allen to the presidency in the short-lived but good-hearted Commander-In-Chief, in which MacKenzie Allen looks a lot like Geena Davis. She may not have been in the oval office as long as George W. Bush, but she is taller.

The best thing about the remake of the sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica is the wonderful Mary McDonnell as the president of the Colonies--the metaphorical United States. She out-thinks the male Commander Adama, and her character never descends into caricature.

Most convincing, though, is the fact that the new president on 24 will be a woman! That's right, Hillary herself has agreed to star in the new season of the show, which may make her the first sitting president to hang out with Kiefer Sutherland but not the first sitting president on the Fox payroll.

Okay, so it's not true that Hillary will be the next Fox president--that goes to two-time Tony winner Cherry Jones--but it is a fact that the conservative network has supplanted a Black president with a female one. Is Fox trying to scare us? Is it all part of a larger right-wing conspiracy? Or, is imagining a woman as president now so plausible, so seemingly normal that the network of Bill O’Reilly is ready for the change as well?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Reading the Plains: A Close Look at the Oklahoma and Kansas Primaries

IN A NIGHT OF many surprises few were more puzzling than the shockingly different outcomes in the Democratic primaries in Oklahoma and Kansas. As I write this on Tuesday evening, my home state of Oklahoma voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama 54% to 31%. On the other hand, the Okies' neighbor to the North--some would say their virtual demographic twin--went for Obama, who snatched an amazing 73% of the Democratic votes across the border in Kansas.

How is it possible that two nearly identical states with so many things in common (values, agriculture, a strong rural base, lots of wheat, a hatred of Communists, and bigger hatred for all Nebraska sports teams) embrace such different candidates? Of course, Obama's mother was born in Kansas while her father was in the Army, so that may have had some significance; but it's hard to imagine that a transitory birth in the 40's actually affected people at the polls in 2008. Rather, I suspect it has something to do with the very different role that race has played in the ontology of the two states.

Kansas has enjoyed a long history of being among the more progressive Plains states in regard to race, particularly slavery. The so-called "Free Staters" of Kansas fought immigrants from Missouri and other Southern states (sometimes called "Border Ruffians) who hoped to make the new territory a slave state. Bolstered by their own immigrants from the Northeast, the influx of pro and anti-slavery forced reached a head in 1854, and pre-War skirmishes broke out over the next four years. Guerrilla fighters on the side of the Free-Staters during these wars became known as "Jayhawkers," which is now the mascot for the University of Kansas. Eventually, Kansas entered the Union as a free state, and Kansas has nourished a long legacy of racial tolerance.

Not so for Oklahoma.

In terms of both African American and Native American racial issues, Oklahoma has a complicated and difficult past. This began when the Eastern half of the state was set aside as Indian Territory, eventually becoming the termination point for the Trail of Tears. Even up into the 20th century, Oklahoma was a major site for Indian removal and relocation. In addition, Oklahoma bears the burden of the nation's largest race riot--the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921--in which over 300 people were killed. Indeed, at times, there was a kind of triple-segregation in Oklahoma: red, black, white each together, each apart.

Though it is the 21st century and Oklahoma's racial issues are less incindiary than they were 100 years ago, a legacy of cultural memory remains, as do important symbols. For example, I wonder if the University of Kansas logo (Jayhawks) serves as a constant visual reminder of the values that helped found Kansas, and as such daily reinscribes into the consciousness of Kansans their anti-slavery history.

Similarly, I wonder if the OU mascot (Sooners, named after the people who sneaked early into the Land Rushes) serves as a different kind of indicator of the State's troubling history of segregation and Indian Removal. White Oklahomans didn't really engage in wars to keep Oklahoma "Native" or to protect African Americans. In fact, race has always percolated under the surface in Oklahoma; never fully ignored but never fully tapped either.

This is not to say that Kansas hasn't had it's own racial issues; to be sure it has. And, in recent years, Oklahoma has tried to do better with its Native heritage. But, we see daily the many ways in which American culture and values were shaped by its earliest settlers and their cultures and values--in a country of states, should we expect them to be any different?

And so it is that two States who should embrace the same presidential candidates are among the most diametrically opposed in this regard. We think that the past has passed, but as William Faulkner noted, our past is often our future.