Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"My Life, the Beer Commercial"

People seldom understand events in all their complexity. Yet most human beings have a desire to understand some of the things that happen around them and to them. The way they come to some understanding is by participating in fantasy themes in which an explanation for events is acted out by the personae in the dramas.
-- Richard Cherwitz, "Rhetoric as a Way of Knowing"

Fantasy theme analysis, if it were to be nutshelled, would refer to the ways in which we can examine messages in order to elucidate the rhetorical effects of stories and metaphors on our beliefs and actions. It is often used to analyze political speeches and advertisements, and the ways in which cleverly crafted messages can stir up and elicit emotional responses which feel perfectly rational to us when we insert ourselves into the unfolding fantasies in these messages. When Bormann developed fantasy theme analysis while researching small group communication, he paid close attention to the ways that stories chained or failed to chain out ... or ... the ways in which some fantasy themes resonated and others petered out.

As someone who prides himself on being acutely aware of the ways that corporations and politicians (and even corporate politicians) weave messages in order to compel my action (buying their products, casting my vote, buying my vote), I tend to quite ably determine* even the finest lines between their fantasies and my material existence. This comes in quite handy when I feel the need to call "bullshit," which I often do, whether or not that bullshit comes from a liberal or a neocon, a democrat or a republican, wal-mart or trader joe's, Time Magazine or High Times Magazine.

One of the themes that is perennially present in many forms of public discourse is the theme of manliness. Under Armor commercials feature chiseled Adonai, liquor commercials feature well-built, fashionably dressed men, stylishly accoutred for women-killing (or gay men-killing, if that's how they get down). Political speeches are ripe with uber-masculine messaging -- "you are either with us or against us" -- and to boot, it is often of the "damsel in distress" variety -- "we must protect our country" "we must protect the sanctity of marriage" "we must save out nation from moral decay" "we must protect that woman -- Miss Lewinsky -- from stained blue dresses."

Among my favorite commercials of late is the Milwaukee's Best Light commercials, which often feature men behaving badly ... not gambling, liquor swilling, and hootin and hollerin behaving badly, but behaving badly as in acting out of accordance with the dictates of manly manliness.

Three men are peeking under the hood of their car. No wait. Men don't "peek." Three men are looking, with stern intensity, under the hood of the car. And its a female car. So its like they're looking under her dress at her goods. Yeah. Looks good under there, doesn't it boys? Wonder if she minds if I touch her there ...

Somewhere, ee cummings is givin me mad props (see: "she being Brand"

Anyhow, as they look closely, trying to diagnose the problem like the men that they are so that they can gallop over and get their tools and get nice and greasy together ...

sorry ...

You look closely and realize that one of the men has gotten grease under his nails. He exclaims, "Jee willikers, and I just got these done!" He looks at the other two men and says "Oh, like you wouldn't be pissed if Mai-Ling squeezed you in yesterday at the last minute only to get icky car grease under your nails. Sillies!"

And then out of the sky, a 2 story high can of Milwaukee's Best Light drops from the sky onto his head and crushes him to death because a) he isn't being a man, so the only way to restore his manliness is to crush a beer can onto his head like Ogre from "Revenge of the Nerds" ( and b) men don't like conversation, so the only way out of this uncomfortable situation is death.

See? The theme immediately falls dead with me (or fails to "chain out," in Bormann's terms) and becomes subject to my scorn and cynicism.

Or does it?

Yesterday while walking to work, a young man speedwalked by me, and honestly, it was a Milwaukee's Best Light commercial begging to happen. He wore cutoff shorts -- no shite -- with animal prints on them. The shorts were teal green and the little animals, which appeared to be dinosaurs, were pink. He walked with a small tote in one hand, and was talking into a pink RAZR cell phone. He also had a fanny pack and what appeared to be -- again, no shite -- shaved legs. His gait I could only describe as that of a confident young Naomi Klein strolling into an interview with a Janjaweed.

Now I am not one to judge ... sorry ... wiping tears from my own eyes after laughing at my own incredulity ... but I remember desperately wanting some sanction to befall this fellow as he sauntered past me. And this is highly unlike me, or so I thought, because in my own belief system I am actually quite comfortable with a wide array of masculine and feminine expression and comportment, but that ole' coonass in me kicked in when this guy passed by and I could actually hear myself in my own head, the voice sounding like Charlie Murphy's, saying "Yo somebody should stomp this fool."

And then, like a Milwaukee's Best Light can out of the sky, an elderly fellow sitting at the bus stop looked up, saw the dude walking by, and -- no shite -- exclaimed "Hey there, Nancy! Heh heh ... NAN-CEE!"

And I completely rethought my resentment of the commercial. After all, the two-story beer can is a metaphor for quasi drunken, hyper-masculine, sophomoric rejection of borderline heteronormative masculine expression in a society that often, in draconic and manichean ways, refuses to accept such marginal expression.

Or when academics get all faggy and polysyllabic.

It tells us more about the one doing the criticizing than the criticizee, to be sure. And for the duration of my 15:45 walk, I reflected on the ways which I may or have, subconsciously or otherwise, judged or discriminated against individuals whose gender difference troubles my own sensibilities. And troubles them so much that I wish beer cans would fall out of the sky and crush people.

I figured better of myself in the end. I resented this guy not because this was some authentic expression of his own gendered and sexual self but because he was a frat boy with wack fashion sense who needed to shower and shave after rolling out of the ditch that morning (ok, so I listened to his phone conversation) and return the pink RAZR and tote to his girlfriend, who left them at his place the night before.

But in the end, I think my desire to see two-ton beer cans fall out of the sky and crush frat boys -- although completely unrelated to this blog -- is worth further reflection on my part, and that I will never view Milwaukee's Best Light commercials the same ever again.

Of course, I will also never drink Milwaukee's Best Light beer, which tastes like Bud Light mixed with Novocaine, distilled water, baking soda, and twice being held back in the 11th grade.