Adrienne K., who blogs at Native Appropriations, recently put together a post about food products that feature stereotypical images of Native Americans. I’m reposting some of them here, but check out her original post for more.
It started out with Calumet baking powder:
In my head, I thought “I could make some stereotype biscuits for breakfast!” Which got me thinking. How many products with stereotypical imagery could I fit in one imaginary breakfast?
Excluding vintage products and items that weren’t easily available, she still found an awful lot. Indian Head corn meal, anyone?
In isolation, each of these would seem like no big deal–these are the “good” stereotypical images. The “noble savage.” No wild eyes or big noses, just headdresses and Indian maidens. But when taken as a collective, is it any wonder that most people in the world think of Native peoples as headdress-wearing Plains chiefs or buckskin-clad Indian women? I’m not saying there isn’t stereotypical imagery of other racial/ethnic groups in branding, but the ubiquity of Native imagery is striking.
The word commodification refers to the process by which something that is not bought and sold becomes something that is. As capitalism has progressed, more and more parts of our lives have become commodified. Restaurants are the commodification of preparing and cleaning up meals; day care and nannying is the commodification of child raising; nursing homes is the commodification of caring for elders. We use to grow our own food, make our own clothes, and chop down trees to warm our houses. Not so much anymore.
This is a delicious example of commodification. If you don’t have the time or inclination to dye eggs as part of your Easter celebration, the market will do it for you. No matter that this is one of those things (e.g., a supposedly enjoyable holiday activity that promotes family togetherness) that is supposed to be immune to capitalist imperatives.
While we might raise our eyebrows at this example, newly commodified goods and services often elicit this reaction. We usually get used to the idea and, later, have a hard time imagining life any other way.
UPDATE: A commenter and historian named blueowleyes made fair points about my representation of history. Sheepishly, I’ll add some of them here:
“We use to grow our own food, make our own clothes, and chop down trees to warm our houses.” When was that time of super-subsistence? As an historian, I don’t recognise it. Maybe some people did these things, some of the time, some to a greater degree than others, some only partially, with materials produced elsewhere by others, with the aid of others’ services. I might suggest that very few people probably ever chopped down their own trees to heat their houses. To claim that ‘we’ did, is to assume that people needed heat, used wood heating, had access to timbre, lived in houses, didn’t pay or force others to do work they didn’t want to do in some idealized past. We wouldn’t assume such things about the present, why assume them about the past? The details matter as much in talking about the past, as they do in talking about the present.
I apologize, blueowleyes, because you’re right of course.
My Occidental College colleague, politics professor Caroline Heldman, snapped this photograph of a billboard on an L.A. freeway. It suggests that one may celebrate Black History Month by calling 1-800-GET-THIN. The billboard is another stunning example of the trivialization of black history by companies using it only as an excuse to market their product or service.
In this minute-and-a-half, sociologist Nikki Jones talks about the way that the idea of the ghetto has been commodified — especially in rap and hip hop — in ways that informs Americans who don’t live in inner-city urban areas, but potentially mystifies the reality of that life as well:
by Guest Blogger Autumn Whitefield-Madrano, Sep 24, 2011, at 06:45 am
Bare Escentuals, a cosmetics company specializing in mineral makeup, has a new ad campaign that hinges upon how it found “the world’s most beautiful women…without ever seeing their faces.” Models and actresses showed up at the casting call and filled out questionnaires about themselves, which were given to Bare Escentuals. The company then cast the campaign solely on the basis of the questionnaires, choosing models not for their looks but for their “inner beauty,” posting a series of videos about the women on their website:
The campaign uses its selection process as a touchstone for all its taglines, pitting “pretty” against “beauty”: “Pretty can turn heads…beauty can change the whole world.” The commercials and print ads showcase the selected models in their daily lives: We see Lauren, a volunteer firefighter, hoisting a water hose from the ladder truck; we learn that Keri enjoys skateboarding and learned Farsi to communicate with her in-laws. This is meant to let us see the model meeting the company’s definition of beautiful by being themselves.
On its face this seems a logical, even praise-worthy, response to the constant barrage of unrealistic messages hurled at women every day about what appearance they should aspire to. But in so doing, the campaign commodifies women’s inner lives in addition to their beauty. Viewers are asked to reward the company for putting the models’ personalities on display; we’re expected to judge the models, albeit positively, for going above and beyond the model call of duty — she’s a volunteer firefigher! she has a sword collection! she blogs! By parading the inner (and formerly private) lives of the models for profit, the company appears to be showing us “real” women instead of the professional beauties that they are.
The customer takeaway is supposed to be that Bare Escentuals, more than other companies, recognizes that beauty comes from within. But the net effect is that we are shown how “being oneself” is now subject to standards of beauty. The same labor that has always gone into looking attractive — the labor that models have professionalized and monetized (smiling, appearing natural in front of the camera, speaking the company line) — is now applied to “being yourself,” which has been turned into a field of commodified emotional labor.
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano writes at The Beheld, a blog exploring the role of beauty and personal appearance in our lives through essays, cultural analysis, long-form interviews, and more.
The start of the Fall semester has inspired me to re-post this fascinating phenomenon we covered last year.
Rigby B. sent a link to the Just4Camp website to show us how care package products were gendered for “only” girls and boys. And, indeed, they were (screen shots below). But what is even more fascinating to me about this is the commodification of care.
The term “commodification” refers to the process by which something done for free becomes something done for money. Ever since the institutionalization of the wage, more and more things have become commodified. One particularly interesting category is care or what sociologists like to call “care work.”
Care work includes all of those tasks that involve nurturing and maintaining others: nursing, parenting, teaching, tending a home, etc. At one time in history, none of these things were paid jobs, but we have increasingly commodified them so that now paid nurses staff hospitals, home care workers take care of ailing elders, children spend the day in day care, professional teachers educate them, and housecleaners and gardeners can be paid to tend our homes and yards.
The care package is an example of care work. I still remember getting care packages in college with my favorite home made cookies and other things my parents thought I would like or needed. They take a lot of effort: thoughtfulness, shopping, baking, packaging, and mailing. And, here, we have an example of the commodification of that effort. The “care” in “care package” has been, well, outsourced.
Claude Fischer, at Made in America, argues that the biggest change of the last 50 years is the increase in the number of mothers in the workforce. From the beginning of last century till now, that rate has accelerated precipitously:
While some women have always worked (at unpaid housework and childcare, selling goods made at home, or in paid jobs), most women now work outside of the home for pay. So long “traditional” family. Why the change? Fischer explains:
First, work changed to offer more jobs to women. Farming declined sharply; industrial jobs peaked and then declined. Brawn became less important; precise skills, learning, and personal service became more important. The new economy generated millions of white-collar and “pink-collar” jobs that seemed “suited” to women. That cannot be the full story, of course; women also took over many jobs that had once been men’s, such as teaching and secretarial work.
Second, mothers responded to those job opportunities. Some took jobs because the extra income could help families buy cars, homes, furnishings, and so on. Some took jobs because the family needed their income to make up for husbands’ stagnating wages (a noteworthy trend after the 1970s). And some took jobs because they sought personal fulfillment in the world of work.
And married working mothers changed the economy as well. Once it became commonplace for families to have two incomes, houses, cars, and other goods could be more expensive. Things women had done for free — everything from making soap and clothes, to growing and preparing food, and cleaning one’s own home — could be commodified. Commodification, the process of newly buying and selling something that had not previously been bought and sold, made for even more jobs, and more workers, and so the story continues…
Kristie C. sent in a Hardee’s commercial for their turkey burger that is an example of something we’ve talked about before: the conflation of women with food products to be consumed and the sexualization of both women and food in ads. But watch closely! It’s very subtle, so you might miss it the first time.