by Guest Blogger Margo DeMello, Sep 19, 2011, at 10:59 am
Carni K sent in an interesting story about Kellogg’s, the cereal company. Kellogg’s is suing the Maya Archaeology Institute (MAI), a non-profit Guatemalan organization aimed at protecting the local history, culture, and natural environment. Why? It uses a toucan in its logo.
For those of you who did not spend your youth eating highly sugared empty carbohydrates for breakfast, the toucan (specifically, Toucan Sam) is the mascot of Kellogg’s Froot Loops. The toucan is also a large-billed colorful bird indigenous to Central and South America, the Caribbean, and southern Florida.
While this sort of cultural cannibalism is certainly common in American culture, it is a bold move nonetheless for Kellogg’s to not only appropriate the toucan, but to claim that no one else has a right to represent the toucan. Dr. Francisco Estrada-Belli puts it this way: “This is a bit like the Washington Redskins claiming trademark infringement against the National Congress of American Indians.”
And therein lies the problem: who is allowed to claim the symbolic use of this bird—an indigenous Guatemalan organization or a company that makes cereal and other convenience foods marketed to children and families?
To me, this brings up another question: what gives any of us the right to use the toucan at all? While cultural representations of animals may not directly harm animals, and have been central in human cultures for tens of thousands of years, they can contribute to a particular perception of those same animals. And animal advocates know that perception then shapes treatment. If we perceive an animal to be dumb or trivial, for example, then that animal may not seem worthy of our concern.
Many types of toucans, for example, are endangered. Of the more than 40 species making up their family, 35 are included on the International Union for Conservation of Nature red list, meaning that they are either endangered, threatened, or otherwise subject to concern. Their troubled status comes not from people hunting or eating them, but from the increasing levels of habitat destruction in the tropical regions in which they live… which brings us back to the Maya Archaeology Institute.
The organization’s mission includes protecting Guatemala’s rainforests, including the animals and plants that live there. Kellogg’s, on the other hand, has made the toucan into a funny bird whose large nose lets him sniff out Froot Loops wherever they are hiding.
Who should have the right to represent the toucan? Anyone?
Margo DeMello has a PhD in cultural anthropology and teaches anthropology, cultural studies, and sociology at Central New Mexico Community College. Her research areas include body modification and adornment and human-animal studies.
In honor of the American Sociological Association’s annual conference kicking off at Caesar’s Palace today — and because of my tweet about a Baudrillard-inspired drinking game — I am reposting this hilarious mistake on the part of the U.S. Postal Service.
A few years ago, my friend Brady introduced me to postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard’s arguments about hyperreality. Without getting into the details of semiotics or postmodernism, hyperreality refers to a situation where the signs (particularly media images) used to represent reality become more real to us than the original reality they were supposed to represent.
Soon after that, I was waiting to cross the street on the Strip here in Vegas and overheard a young woman remark to a friend that after visiting the New York-New York casino, she felt just like she’d actually been to New York. Her friend enthused, “I know! I don’t know why we’d ever even need to go there now! I feel like we’ve already seen it.”
I don’t know if Baudrillard discussed Las Vegas — Disneyland and L.A. were his favorite examples, from what I can tell — but you could certainly teach an entire class on hyperreality using Vegas as your case study.
Baudrillard came to mind when we read a BoingBoing article about a mistake from the U.S. Postal Service. The USPS recently released this stamp:
So, a stamp feature the Statue of Liberty. Nothing shocking there. Except…it turns out the image on the stamp isn’t based on the actual Statue of Liberty. A perceptive stamp collector realized that the image is actually of the replica of the Statue of Liberty that stands outside the New York-New York casino:
Close-ups reveal distinct differences between the original and the replica; for instance, the facial features are more defined on the replica (on the left below), and the hair, the proportions of the arm, and folds of the clothing are different:
The U.S. Postal Service produced the stamp and released it along with information about the history of the actual Statue of Liberty. And thus we have a representation (the stamp) of a representation (the photo that served as the model for the stamp) of a representation (the replica statue in Las Vegas) of the original thing the Postal Service intended to portray…and no one there caught the slippage between the intended reality and the representation at any point in the production process.
I think Baudrillard would get a kick out of this.
For more on hyperreality, see Baudrillard’s book Simulacra and Simulation. Also, for more on Vegas and simulation, you might check out Norman Denzin’s article “Rain Man in Las Vegas,” in Symbolic Interaction v. 16, p. 65-78 (1993).
Lo and behold, MirandaB took a flight on Delta and snapped a photograph of an undeniably modern incarnation of the friendly round head:
Delta chose to use a digitally-skirted stick figure on its task screen. Just to be clear, Delta still, in 2011, feels comfortable representing “flight attendants” as 100% female. That’s a win with the language, a fail with the symbology.
Sarah Glassman, a graduate student at Michigan State University spotted this sign in a campus dining hall restroom. It’s a neat example of how a sign can avoid centering whiteness and instead be inclusive of people with different skin tones.
Princeton sociology professor Viviana Zelizer wrote a wonderful succinct editorial for the New York Times about the idea of giving money as a gift. Money, she explains, is used in the most impersonal of transactions (even antagonistic ones, as someone who recently paid a parking ticket recalls), so giving money to loved ones can be seen as crass, tasteless, or thoughtless.
Zelizer explains that cultural elites have been worrying about this since the early 1900s. The solution: “camouflage money inside a traditional gift.” Offering some examples, Zelizer writes:
In the December 1909 Ladies’ Home Journal, for instance, the writer Lou Eleanor Colby said she had found a way to “disguise the money so that it would not seem just like a commercial transaction.” She explained how she had incorporated $10 for her mother into artwork. She inserted dollar bills into two posters; one showed five sad bills not knowing where to go, and the other depicted the happy ending: “five little dollars speeding joyfully” toward her mother’s purse.
Housewives hid gold coins in cookies and boxes of candies; dollar bills could decorate belt-buckles or picture frames. Women boasted when the recipient failed to realize that the actual present was money. Men also disguised the money they gave to their wives as gifts, to distinguish it from their allowances. If you give her a check, The Ladies’ Home Journal advised, “put it in an embroidered purse, or a leather sewing basket or a jewel box which will be a little gift in itself.” The better the disguise, the more successful the gift.
Today these tokens are probably familiar to many of you. One site suggests making the money into a gift basket:
Another suggests that you give the gift of (money) origami:
Soon, Zelizer explains, companies figured out how to cash in on this cashing out, inventing the idea of decorated money orders and telegrams:
…in 1910, American Express began advertising money orders as an “acceptable Christmas gift.” Western Union improved on the idea by creating distinctive telegrams for sending money for special occasions, while greeting card companies started selling decorative money holders for birthdays and holidays.
While it may seem obvious to many of us now that gift certificates and money holders exist, Zelizer shows that these objects have a cultural history, devised to solve a particular problem that emerged with the spread of a wage-based economy.
As you may have heard, this week the Republican Party released what they’ve termed a “Pledge to America,” a document that lists their agenda for the next legislative session. Erin Echols, a student at Kennesaw State U., took a look at it and was struck by the contents, particularly the images.
Of the 48 total pages of the document, 14 consist of images, either a single one or a collage of several. Of course, in a document of this sort, you’re going to have the required patriotic images — the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, the Capitol and other buildings in D.C. Nothing surprising there. But Erin points out that the cowboy seems to be a recurring theme. There’s a full-page silhouette:
Two pages prominently show people wearing cowboy hats (these are both from collages):
It reminded me of a post by Macon D. over at Racialicious a while back about some ads by a Republican primary candidate for Agricultural Commissioner in Alabama:
The hat, the horse, the rifle, the sweeping music that makes me think of old Western movies…it all evokes what Macon D. calls the “Independent (White) Cowboy Myth,” a version of rugged, stand-alone, honest manhood. Macon D. quotes Mel at BroadSnark:
In this mythology, the cowboy is a white man. He is a crusty frontiersman taming the west and paving the way for civilization. He is the good guy fighting the dangerous Indian. He is free and independent. He is in charge of his own destiny.
Here’s the follow-up ad he made after losing:
And, for the record, I’m not arguing this presentation of Dale Peterson is necessarily fake; for all I know he dresses and acts like that all the time. People do; I’m related to some of them. I’m not saying Peterson is a fraud who really wears tuxes and has never been on a horse. That’s irrelevant. What I’m interested in is the power of a particular cowboy mythology, the one on display in Peterson’s ads.
As Macon D. points out, Ronald Reagan actively appropriated the cowboy persona, often wearing cowboy hats and jeans, sometimes alongside a horse (he had also played cowboys in a couple of movies). He openly identified with the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” an effort by groups in the western U.S. in the ’70s and ’80s to stop designation of federal lands as protected wilderness areas, push for more mining and livestock grazing rights on public land, and oppose some other environmental and land use regulations, depicted as impositions from distant elites.
Macon D. quotes Sarah Watts on the appeal of the White cowboy myth when Theodore Roosevelt first used it:
…he met the psychological desires in their imagination, making them into masters of their own fate, propelling them into violent adventure and comradeship, believing them at home in nature, not in the hothouse interiors of office buildings or middle-class homes.
The cowboy myth, then, arose partly to allay deep anxieties about changes in American society. But the myth is just that — a myth, a romanticized notion largely unmoored from the realities of cowboys’ lives. Mel says,
Cowboys were itinerant workers who, while paid fairly well when they had work, spent much of the year begging for odd jobs. Many did not even own the horse they rode. Frequently, they worked for large cattle companies owned by stockholders from the Northeast and Europe, not for small family operations (a la Bonanza). The few times cowboys tried to organize, they were brutally oppressed by ranchers.
This isn’t true just in the past. I know people who work as hired hands on ranches now. They love many aspects of the life. But most of them aren’t particularly well-paid; they don’t have retirement benefits or health insurance; they aren’t on a path to being able to buy their own ranch and be a self-reliant family farmer. Some become managers, with more responsibility and money, as in any occupation. But sometimes what initially seemed like a great deal — getting free housing as part of the job — turns out to have downsides, such as being expected to be available round-the-clock since you’re right there on the property, or fearing that if you piss off your employer and get fired, you’re out of a place to live immediately as well.
The examples I’ve given here have all been Republicans. Democrats use the cowboy mythology as well — Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is well known for often appearing in a cowboy hat and nearly always wearing a bolo tie rather than a necktie. However, Republicans seem to appropriate the cowboy persona more often, or at least more successfully.
Anyway…back to Erin’s analysis of the “Pledge to America.” The other interesting feature of the images is their overwhelming Whiteness. Some examples of group photos:
This one has what in a larger version appears may be an Asian-American woman, in the red dress on the lower left:
The photo on the second tier on the right here looks like it might have a Black woman in it, seated second from the right:
Overall, the photos show a sea of Whiteness. As Erin says, whether it’s an unintentional oversight or a calculated choice, the resulting message is that America’s citizens, the hard-working, patriotic folks who matter and to whom the party is making pledges, are White. Given the current racialized tone of much of our political debate (especially regarding Hispanic immigrants and Muslims, a racialized group often conflated with “Arabs”), it’s a portrait of America that is likely to speak to, and soothe, the fears of some groups more than others.
Pop culture is always popping out new catch phrases, symbols, and characters that then get churned up into our larger universe of discourse and sometimes recycled in creative ways. As much as I did not like Avatar, the movie did inspire many Americans to identify with a fictional indigenous population, the Na’vi, who desired to protect their environment. Recognizing the impact of the movie, real environmental activists have been trying to transfer some of those feelings to their own movements by drawing connections between themselves and the Na’vi.
This is a good example of how the discursive resources available to movements are changing, unpredictable, sometimes come from unexpected places, and are increasingly global. Avatar was an opportunity for environmental movements, some of whom are trying to preserve the momentum that began when movie-goers watched the home tree come crashing down in flames.
In London, England, these activists protest a plan to put a new mine on a site sacred to the Dongria Kondh tribe in India:
In Lima, Peru, activists call for more bicycle paths:
These activists, in Jakarta, Indonesia, are protesting the destruction of Orangutan habitat:
This university student adds color to a climate rally in Washington, DC:
In Manila, Philippines, activists oppose the privatization of water services: