Archives for posts with tag: propaganda

The maxim that “the personal is political” has been around since its origin in the 1960s feminist movement. It postulates that what happens in one’s personal and private life is actually quite relevant to and influenced by the larger, structural factors at play on a macro scale. But really, everything is political. Mezzo level institutions and organizations are political. Media is political. Neutrality is political. Everything is interconnected, and what happens anywhere is going to be shaped by, and will shape in its own discrete way, the world and its ideology.

When it comes to film and television, the same holds true. In general terms, action and horror films are inherently conservative. I appreciate a wide diversity exists across all genres, and some great films are great because they subvert common tropes, but by and large, action and horror films are inherently conservative. There is some threat to the in-group from an outside force, and the only difference between the two is whether the protagonist goes on the offensive or the defensive. Action films are usually a bit more broad in that the threat is typically to upset the status quo (think of the Joker who wants to change the world, and Batman who wants it to stay the same – Batman’s ‘solution’ to the world’s problems is ultimately to remove all the deviants). Or you can think of Captain America: Civil War which is one long advertisement for libertarianism (don’t let oversight committees hold me accountable; I, as an individual, know best). Horror films are more personal in that the threat is much more intimate. The threat is more overwhelming and overpowering. The viscera is embellished. But the overarching theme between the two is clear: the Other is dangerous, and you better fight or the bogeyman will get you. Think about it this way, conservative politicians and pundits use horror movie rhetoric to justify action movie policies.

They may seem like us, but there is just enough of a difference that their inhumanity is truly revealed

In contrast, adventure films are inherently progressive. The protagonist leaves their comfort zone, goes on their hero’s journey, and learns something from having experienced the different. Consider the original trilogy of Star Wars which would be incredibly problematic by today’s standards of identity politics: every human is white except for the one black guy who is pretty shady. Yet by the end of the story, Luke has found friends, teachers, and allies across a wide range of species with different languages, cultures, and lifestyles. The final confrontation is an overcoming of hatred, and the humanity of the antagonist is very literally revealed when Darth Vader connects with his son in his dying moments. It isn’t an outsider that is the villain of Star Wars, it’s hatred. It’s an ideology that can be overcome through non-violent resistance – Luke wins by refusing to fight.

The politics of a thing doesn’t have to be overt. It can be baked into the structure of the way a story is told. A character can have an exploratory relationship with the different, or it can be a threat. Protagonists in stories are paragons of how to interact with the world, and the way that the storytellers frame that interaction will inherently be political one way or another. Even the really obvious political messages like in Civil War don’t seem obvious because it is the framework of the story shaping the message rather than a character yelling at you that libertarianism is amazing. Though the beard Steve Rogers grows afterward may be telling…

Sharks, the Thanoses (Thanii?) of the sea, being shown here in a radical propaganda film that tells us that even those maligned as unthinkingly violent can be our friends… if we leave our comfort zone

Superficial politics is what is commonly associated with politics in movies today. Movies that base their entire marketing campaign on how much of a woman their protagonist is, or ensure that a minor character is Asian, or show a brief allusion to the existence of homosexuality in the corner of their film: these are what instigate the great political debates of our time.

When a film goes to great lengths to include every identity, it feels hollow. Films are finite, which means they have only so much time for character development, and peppering the screen with diverse, one-line characters is far more tokenistic than it is a genuine political statement. Even a television series doesn’t have enough time to invest in all the colours of the rainbow. Representation is important in films, but tokenism is not representation. Better to have less representation than just a rich tapestry of background characters, and then produce greater depth.

There is just… boy! There is just one of every kind of you, isn’t there?

I’ve written previously about feminist ethics in ‘feminist’ films. In this case I want to look at the politics. Replacing the male lead of an action film with a female doesn’t change the inherently conservative nature of the format. This likely contributes to the intense backlash that these types of films receive from white men: they are no longer presented as the in-group, which means they must be part of the out-group, which means they are closer to the one-dimensionally monstrous villains than to the heroine saving her own status quo. When Captain Marvel destroys the patriarchy with her laser fists, she isn’t creating a new, brighter future because the world she is saving belongs only to the in-group of the comfortable female watching the film from home. The world isn’t actually changed in any meaningful way, it just doesn’t have Jude Law in it anymore. The dynamic of the out-group threat remains the same; it is simply the content that is shifting. Here the narrative is exulting my elimination, and it doesn’t feel all that great. Hence, backlash.

Jonathan Haidt paints purity as an inherently conservative virtue, and I agree that it is, but it exists within progressive circles as well. When the left cancels itself on Twitter because someone isn’t being the perfect incarnation of allyship, that is the same manifestation of out-group exclusion found in any conservative diatribe. Framing old, white men as the dastardly fiends to be destroyed by a quick-witted teenage white girl and her motley crew of minority friends and LGBT acronyms is a shallow political message of identity and a deeper presentation of group categorization. The categories may be new and turn traditional categorization on its head, but the process remains the same.

A girl!? Inventing things!? Harumph and such!

Superficial politics in media will never change anyone’s mind because it isn’t intending to. It’s probably encouraging further divisiveness because conservative ideology is inherently divisive. Its intentions are to make money. Is it such a shock that billion dollar corporations aren’t actually as progressive as they pretend to be? Controversy breeds money, and enough people buy into shallow political pandering to turn a profit because they’re thrilled to be a part of an in-group for once, and their political education has come from triple-digit character count polemics on social media. Plus it pisses off the alt-right, and therefore it must be good! This kind of film will continue to be made so long as this continues to be the state of our world. If Fox News really wanted to end this manufactured culture war, they’d just stop ranting about it, and it would probably go away. I guess they have their own ratings to consider.

The thing is, though, more people probably learned how to open up to the outside world and fight against fascism from Star Wars than they did from the Ghostbusters remake. Ideology has a place in film, but it needs good storytelling to be effective. The right complains about Hollywood’s conversion to ‘woke’ culture, but progressive ideals have always found their home in fiction. The issue is panderous, bad writing and tired conservative tropes dressed up in progressive clothing that are alienating to the new out-group.

My political activism involves liking movies with really rabid comment sections on their YouTube trailers

I like action movies. Batman is my favourite superhero, and I thought Civil War was better than Infinity War. I dislike horror movies for the most part, but not for the reasons listed here. You can enjoy things and ignore the politics within them, but that doesn’t mean that the politics aren’t there. Those who don’t recognize them are going to be much more susceptible, and that sounds ominous, but it goes both ways. Maybe people will learn to be kind to strangers if they saw it in a movie once? There is a difference between good politics and bad politics, despite what those evil, relativistic postmodernists think!! Good politics represented as preachy and tokenistic only reinforces bad politics. Good politics embedded in a good story will go infinitely further.

You ever notice how incredibly stupid the idea of individualism is? It’s essentially saying, “I’m going to make it on my own in this crazy world, and I’m going to do it wholly dependent on literally everyone around me.” We depend on our bus drivers to get us from point A to point B, and if we drive, we depend on our car manufacturer to provide that same function. We depend on our grocers to sell us food, who in turn depend on wholesalers, truck drivers, farmers, and so on, in order for them to get the food to sell us in the first place. We depend on strangers on the street to not stab us for no reason as we go about our day. We depend on our roommates to cover their share of rent. We depend on our actors to provide us entertainment. We depend on our athletes to provide vicarious exercise for our slovenly lifestyles.

But wait, you might say! I make my own money, and I use that money to induce others to perform those tasks for me! I am independent! But alas, no, you’re not. You depend on someone to pay you. It is perfectly conceivable to imagine a world where your employer decides not to pay you, or pays you insufficiently for what you’re worth, and then you become dependent on lawyers, judges, and the legal system in order to obtain redress. It’s also quite reasonable to suppose that there could be those you induce to take your money who do not then provide their service at all, or do an insufficient job. I suppose you could say that you could induce fair labour treatment using only the threat of the violence you personally could commit, but I can’t imagine a society like that ever thriving.

We depend on loved ones for comfort. We depend on our mentors for guidance. We depend on strangers for security. Like I said, we depend on literally everyone around us for literally everything we do. Others too depend on us in turn. You can’t criticize collectivism on the basis that it eliminates human individuality because human society is a collective. It can’t function otherwise! Certainly people are individuals with their own unique traits, but they exist in a collective within which they depend on others for absolutely everything. Individuality only serves to add colour and diversity within the collective, but it cannot possibly act as a substitute or civilization would crumble into dust.

So why do people so ravenously defend this ludicrous idea? Well, if you look at every movie, you’ll see a lone figure who abides by (his) own rules because society could not exist without (him) to keep it afloat. Sometimes it will be a small group, but generally even then there will be one (male) who stands above the rest who is the most individual of them all. We see it as social progress when that one individual is black, or female, or even a black female, though there are those who decry even that, as God forbid a woman be a lone heroine who stands outside the common rules of society to show how inadequate they are. Now I kind of want Hollywood to remake a bunch of John Wayne movies with a female protagonist. Sure it’s hypocritical of me because I’m calling it individualist propaganda in this very paragraph, but just imagine how many people it would piss off. Totally worth it.

It’s why we focus on Martin Luther King Jr. alone, despite the massive community organizing that propped him up. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t an individual, it was a collective (a movement is, by definition, a collective), but that is a narrative rarely heard. Gandhi had millions of people alongside of him, and he didn’t do all that work on his own. We love our generals, despite them being completely worthless without a collective surrounding them functioning smoothly and efficiently.

This leads us to our next question: why would nearly every piece of media perpetuate asinine individualist propaganda that doesn’t make any sense when given two seconds of casual thought? The answer, as always, is capitalism. People will be less inclined to complain if we can blame them as individuals for not pulling up their bootstraps hard enough to get out of poverty, even though, again by definition, the collective is responsible for that very situation. If we disconnect people from the intrinsic connection of human community, they won’t band together in support of that very community. Keep people distanced from one another, and they’ll be more likely to connect to things rather than to each other.

If we recognized the basic structure of civil society as a collective, we would be guided toward a more democratic method of organizing the mechanisms within it. Compassion would replace greed, as greed is individual whereas compassion necessitates an other. Communities would be measured by the success of the whole, not the success of its smallest minority. I’m not advocating a Utopian ideal, just an inclination toward a more natural social order.

Post-script: There will be those who criticize collectivism as willing to sacrifice the individual for the sake of the group. You have to keep in mind that we already do sacrifice individuals for the sake of the group; it’s called the justice system. We put people in jail who disrupt civil order. It’s not uncontroversial. The bigger concern, from what I’ve witnessed in individualist philosophies, is the willingness to sacrifice groups for the sake of the individual.

Television advertisements are typically understood as brief pieces of video art selling us whatever product happens to feature most prominently within them. This propaganda is generally considered benign because the bias is already understood, and most people accept that capitalism requires the spread of information on products in order for those products to sell. We tend to think that the product is the focus in advertisements because the product is what the seller would like us to buy. Unfortunately, that is entirely false. Advertisements stopped selling products a long time ago. What they sell now is a desirable yet entirely constructed lifestyle, and the product, we are told, is supposed to help us achieve it.

I’m going to go over this Superbowl ad for Jeep 4x4s for two reasons. It exemplifies this thesis with a nauseating abundance of proof, and it plays in my local movie theatre all the time so each time I see a movie, I have to sit through it. Full disclosure, I genuinely enjoy this ad. The song is catchy, it is conceptually well thought out, it has great production value, and it projects its message so well that I am more impressed than I am enraged.

Before going any farther, you should really watch the ad or this blog won’t make a lot of sense.

I’m going to give my own breakdown of this ad, so keep in mind that this analysis will be through my own lens. Others will encounter different ideas, and that is quite probably by design. My goal isn’t necessarily to show you what this ad is about, but to show you what it isn’t about. So, onto the ad:

4×4 by land, 4×4 by sea, 4×4 by air cuz I like to fly free

First off, we are shown a series of different landscapes and roads hinting at the capability of 4x4s to cover any terrain with ease, even though we have yet to be shown an image of this vehicle. Then it covers the sea and air, which cannot possibly be related to a Jeep because Jeeps are not boats, nor are they capable of flight. This means that land, air, and sea are not indicative of the vehicles capabilities to explore, but illustrate freedom without restriction. We can go anywhere and do anything. I mean it even says the word “free” right in the lyric.

This is like the opposite of a Jeep. Advertising one vehicle but showing a different one?

This is like the opposite of a Jeep. Advertising one vehicle but showing a different one?

The hot air balloon is likely used to distance the viewer’s thought process away from the banality of regular air travel toward the more novel, and therefore more exotic and fun, type of flying. Freedom, in this context, must be understood as without restrictions or responsibilities, and wholly predisposed toward hedonism.

4 by 4am that’s when I rise, sneak up on the landscape catch it by surprise

I see this section as promoting the type of person who we all want to be: the person who gets up early to do their chosen passion, in this instance hiking, instead the slovenly jerk who never gets anything productive done.

It's like that scene from The Lion King when Mufasa tells Simba that he will rule over all that the light touches, but with Jeeps.

It’s like that scene from The Lion King when Mufasa tells Simba that he will rule over all that the light touches, but with Jeeps.

Already we’ve established a clear link to hedonistic freedom, and now we’ve made a connection to the kind of person that could maintain the lifestyle of continued access to that kind of freedom.

For my country how it all started out, for the brave in every boy scout

I took a lot of screen captures from this section, so I’m going to break it down image by image.

The very first look at an actual Jeep, more than a quarter into the advertisement, and it's right next to a God damn American flag.

The very first look at an actual Jeep, more than a quarter into the advertisement, and it’s right next to a God damn American flag.

Jeep is an American company, but it is a subsidiary of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, an Italian-controlled multinational corporation. I’m sure that is irrelevant to this imagery. Anyway, if we consider the railway as a part of how the country started out, this is again another reference to freedom. The railway connected the continent, and allowed European settlers to manifest the shit out of their destiny. The first image of the Jeep next to an American flag on a train, talking about how the country started out, solidifies my argument that this advertisement is not selling Jeeps, but Americanized “freedom”.

Speaking of

Speaking of “Freedom” in desperately needed quotation marks…

Americans love their troops, and associating what I’m guessing is an allusion to World War 1 to the foundation of the country, 141 years earlier, is a way to gloss over the war that actually founded America: the genocide of the Native Americans. Not wanting to distance themselves from how great war is, Jeep decided to whitewash American history in order to link themselves to patriotism through warfare.

Boys with their toys

Boys with their toys

Jumping from images of soldiers to an image of a young boy firing a weapon shows the more subtle aspects of advertising. Beyond showcasing past and present (and future when you recognize that this is an image of a child) representations of the nobility of warfare, we’re also shown that young boys ought to be groomed toward violence and warfare. I say “ought” because culture is normalizing, and if this normalizing culture produces these images, then it is “normal” to adhere to them. Normalcy breeds conformity.

For the fun of it cuz you know you can, 4×4 more air, more sea, more land

Though we are shown a Jeep driving through snow, this section is essentially identical to the first. Images of extreme, fun activities that are not related to driving a Jeep in the slightest.

Less relevant to a Jeep than even a hot air balloon.

Less relevant to a Jeep than even a hot air balloon.

You know what’s fun and cool? Snowboarding, surfing, and spelunking. Look at all of these cool, fun things! None of them are related to driving a Jeep. At all. But if you consider what people might want to do if they had greater hedonistic freedom, then the imagery becomes much more appropriate.

4×4 doin’ it yourself cuz you want it done right

We can do it!

We can do it!

This is a woman using her Jeep to clear a path. Remember what I said about normalizing? This ad is showing it is normal for women to do things on their own. You might think that it is contradictory to empower women in a scene so soon after they had associated men with virtuous violence. Regardless of the value the people at Jeep associate with feminism or violence in masculinity, by definition an advertisement is doing its absolute best to pander to its target demographic. Feminism is popular, so having a woman performing traditionally masculine activities by herself panders directly to that. This is how advertisers choose what to normalize. This isn’t about feminism, nor is it about patriarchy. It’s about making money.

4×4 top down stars keep you up at night; four stories that were meant to be turned, for the dares and the thrills that you earned

I don’t really need to get into these sections. It’s all more of the same. Open night sky and freedom; extreme hedonistic pleasures, yadda yadda yadda. I’m not even sure if the lyrics are right, but this portion is basically filler.

exotic-and-extreme-travel

If you haven’t noticed the trends by now, you might as well just buy a Jeep.

The earned thrills may be related to the bootstrap mentality that anyone who has access to this kind of freedom, if it exists at all, must have gained it through meritocratic means. America.

4×4 conquest, 4×4 dreams, 4×4 wakin’ up and crossin’ those streams;

Again, mostly filler, but I want to address one part.

Feminism, racial diversity, and patriarchal expectations of masculinity. This ad really has got it all.

Feminism, racial diversity, and patriarchal expectations of masculinity. This ad really has got it all.

We have our very first racial minority, and it’s a black person in tandem with the word “dream”. Now this ad is associating itself with Martin Luther King as part of its Americanism. A more symbolic kind of freedom, along with the normalization of race and gender. And apparently Ghostbusters? Your guess is as good as mine on that one…

4×4 everyone with 75 years

This ad is celebrating the 75 year anniversary of Jeep. I’m not sure of the grammar, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it says.

Happy Anniversary Jeep! Much love, a white woman in a Native American sweater.

Happy Anniversary Jeep! Much love, a white woman in a Native American sweater.

I don’t really want to get into cultural appropriation, but I’m sure if you care about that you have many choice words about it that you can insert here. What I’m going to focus on is the environmental tinge this image is seeped in. This ad is trying very hard to appear progressive in its imagery of women and racial minorities, and it is now trying to jump on the green bandwagon by having someone native-esque literally inside of a tree. It’s not like automobiles are responsible for 26% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States and 63% of greenhouse gas emissions from private households in Canada.

4×4 the waves that’s how we say cheers

The peace sign. So much hippy symbolism in an ad for a pollutant.

The peace sign. So much hippy symbolism in an ad for a pollutant.

In addition to freedom, we now have community tacked on at the end. Sure there have been multiple people in scenes up until now, but it has been predominantly individual-focused. Now we are shown real human interaction once both of them are inside a Jeep. Owning a Jeep isn’t about being able to drive from point A to point B at speeds dictated by State law, it’s about belonging to something bigger than yourself.

That’s how we live, 4x4ever

Perfectly sums it up. It’s not about the Jeep; it’s about how we live. Like I said, they aren’t even trying to be discreet about telling you what kind of lifestyle you ought to be living. But an important thing to keep in mind isn’t even the lifestyle they are showing you, but the lifestyle they aren’t showing. There are no seniors, for example, because age is associated with decrepitude and having socially plateaued which is antithetical to Jeep’s freedom-oriented theme. Rather than try to combat stereotypes, the ad ignores the demographic altogether. The one couple is also a heterosexual couple, which shows that as progressive as Jeep is trying to be, they are sticking to relatively harmless progressive tropes in order to get that across. A black woman aspiring to claim a divine light isn’t pushing any boundaries. It is a safe progressivism that allows Jeep to acquire as large an audience as possible, without alienating anyone.

What does any of this mean, though? Well, it’s an advertisement. I can observe as many social inferences in it as I like, it doesn’t mean anything until it’s applied to the fact that Jeep is still trying to sell a product. Only, they’re not selling Jeeps. When I said that an advertisement is selling whatever features most prominently, I wasn’t lying. It’s just that what features most prominently is an ideology of freedom, hedonism, Americanism, and community. A consumer wouldn’t buy a Jeep because they needed a Jeep, but because they feel their lives are lackluster, empty, and confined. Buying the Jeep is supposed to fulfill what the advertisement is selling, after all, and so someone who feels held back by their job, or who is lonely or stuck in a rut, will see this and think, “All those happy young people, that could be me!” and then buy the Jeep. They “earn” that freedom, youth, and ecstasy by going into debt to buy a car.

A Jeep obviously can’t fulfill any of those desires. A Jeep is a private vehicle. Private vehicles get you from one place to another more quickly than walking and less grossly than public transit. In fact, associating freedom, exuberance, human connection, etc. with a material product means that those who succumb to the cultural normalizing, accepting what the media tells them is normal, will never actually achieve those important aspects of human existence because they will seek them through meaningless crap instead of creating them within their own lives. When people talk about capitalism deadening human development, this is a big part of it. All that normalizing I was talking about is done in the context of selling something, and that something needs to be bought in order for this paradigm to function. Therefore, this propaganda is not actually benign. The bias isn’t toward the superiority of the product but toward the normalcy of the ideology bent toward its use. Ads are designed to cater to the fulfillment of our natural human urges by suggesting we buy something that cannot possibly fulfill them. If we were fulfilled as human beings, we obviously wouldn’t need to buy anything more, now would we?

This type of critical analysis isn’t limited to advertisements. Advertisements are just the most obvious and the most malicious. You can look at news articles, movies, comics, public speeches, etc. and see this kind of subtle normalizing everywhere. What ideologies are they promoting? What aspects of human life are they avoiding? What are they saying is normal? Abnormal? What is the impact of these hidden ideologies on the overarching message of whatever media you are consuming? What are they selling you?