A while back Laura M.D. sent us this image from the March issue of Teen Vogue (found at Jezebel):


Really? This is all it takes to have a cross-cultural experience these days? It’s also interesting to me that this is defined as “African-inspired,” because I’ve seen “Asian-inspired” items that have a very similar look (though not the dark-skinned person in a hammock; maybe that’s the African element). We see this a lot in fashion–the attribution of vaguely “ethnic”-looking things to some part of the world, or specific culture, that may or may not be particularly associated with the supposed traditional fashion or artistic style.

If they wanted to talk about this outfit as a global collision, they might have discussed where all the different items (and the materials for them) were manufactured compared to where they are sold and worn.

See other posts on representing Africa, “ethnic” fashion, and more “ethnic” fashion.

UPDATE: In a comment, jfruh says,

Can I just say that one of my very least favorite adjectives is “tribal” (in the top right corner), which seems to be used indiscriminately to refer to any art with the whiff of the primitive about it? Vaguely Polynesian-looking tattoos, vaguely African-sounding drums, etc. It’s bad enough that the political organizational structures of wildly disparate cultures are lumped together under the word “tribe” just because they’re at a smaller scale than modern nation-states; now any art form that resonates at all with any culture perceived as primitive gets labelled tribal as well.

Taylor D. sent in a link to a set of vintage ads featuring African Americans. This one is for wigs. Notice the commodification of liberation and freedom: you buy it in the form of a wig, which gives you a whole new look in seconds!

This one is for a hair straightener:

Of course, the “tamer” and “the boss” that can “stir up some beautiful new excitement in your life” can also refer to the man who is stroking her hair, playing into the idea of the man who tames a wild woman–and that all women, deep down, want a strong man to tame them.

This next one uses women’s fear that men won’t find them attractive to sell deoderant:

Thanks, Taylor!

Fabian D. S. sent us this screenshot from a men’s health email he gets:

Along the bottom it reads: “Get the sex you deserve.”

The phrase could be read: “Get the SEX you deserve.”  That is, get sex.  Or it could be read: “Get THE SEX you deserve.”  That is, get awesome mindblowing sex.   The context reveals that it’s the latter meaning and I’ve seen this sentiment (but not the former) in material aimed at women, too.  I wonder when, in American history, we decided we were entitled to awesome sex.  I can’t imagine that pioneer husbands and wives, after spending all day trying to not to die (whether it be that day or that winter), and laying lying on a straw mattress next to their six children in their freezing/sweaty one-room home, felt pouty if their sex wasn’t mindblowing.  The entitlement to great sex, then, must have come later (at least to the regular folk).  I would bet it had something to do with capitalism and the commodification of pleasure, generally, and sex, specifically.  After all, how do you get the sex you deserve?  Well, you buy the right products: whether that be, for example, diet- and exercise-related products, cosmetic surgery, or sex toys.  Ariel Levy said it very well (watch the 2nd video down here especially starting at 1:22… but all the clips are great).

Last year, Fender Guitars unveiled the new Joe Strummer Signature Series ™, a pre-stressed replica of Strummer’s beloved guitar: a 1966 Fender Telecaster, which he played in the 101ers, the Clash, and with the Mescaleros from 1975 until his death in 2005. Here’s Strummer with his guitar:

Here are some screenshots of the replica from the website:

Some of the items available for customization:

A customized version:

Let’s just pause for a moment and appreciate the irony of that one. (For those of you with little knowledge of the Clash, let’s just say that they were pretty much the exact opposite of this guitar, ideologically speaking.)

According to Fender’s write-up, this guitar is cool because “All his life, [Strummer] vigorously championed individuality, self-expression and change-tenets often reflected in the constantly altered look of his favorite instrument – his Telecaster” and this guitar was built “to celebrate Strummer’s fierce sense of individuality.” Buy the thing and you can champion individuality and self-expression just like Joe! Well. . .just like Joe and the 1,499 other folks who buy the limited edition with the stickers.

But perhaps a more interesting question is this: does any of this affect what you can actually do with it? The kinds of songs you could write with it? The kinds of shows you could play? It probably wouldn’t, or at least no more so than any other Telecaster would by virtue of its technical specifications. But put it in the context of a room full of other musicians, who tend to hold strong ideas about the art/commerce relationship, and you may find yourself the proud owner of a Fender Stigma-caster, depending on the room and the musicians.

On the other hand, Strummer – an artist whose work often wrangled around the intersection of art and commerce  – was by many accounts a complex person who disdained orthodoxy in all its forms. He might have been tickled pink by the tensions and artistic possibilities inherent in such a symbolically loaded guitar. The Clash did, after all, write songs about their recording contracts. (Also, the surviving Strummers have to eat and how they manage their husband’s/father’s estate is no business of mine.)

What else can we unpack from this guitar? Pretty much the history of modernity. You start with “the guitar” – an instrument traditionally produced by artisans called luthiers. But this particular style of guitar – the Fender Telecaster – is the first commercially successful mass-produced solidbody electric guitar. (Henry Ford:Driving::Leo Fender:Rocking.) Introduced in 1950 as the Esquire,* renamed after slight design changes and then a lawsuit re: the name Broadcaster being property of Gretsch Instruments, assembled on a factory line from mass-produced interchangeable parts, sold in stores and catalogs, heard most often via media and broadcast for most music consumers, the 1966 Fender Telecaster is truly a Modern guitar.

But this particular model of the genus Telecaster is Late Modernity to its elusive core:  a simulacrum of a particular instrument that trades on symbols of authenticity. With its “road worn” look, its namesake’s reputation and artistic output, and the genre of music it evokes, it’s a composite replica of the idea of the guitar wielded by a working musician known to most of us as mass-mediated collective representation. It’s also worth remembering that the idea of “Joe Strummer” is itself an elusive symbol, one of a number of names and personas adopted by John Graham Mellor over the course of his lifetime, that has now taken on a life of its own.

Sure, there are more properly postmodern guitars out there, but they all belong to Sonic Youth.

* Technically speaking, the Esquire and the Broadcaster/Telecaster are different guitars – the former has one pickup and the latter two, and there are some refinements to the design – basically, the Telecaster is the “finished” product. But to the average eye – and especially so when they debuted, given their shared differences from 99% of the other guitars out there at the time –  they’re pretty much the same guitar. [Editor’s note: Potts can really geek out sometimes, as evidenced in this footnote.]


Brady Potts is an entirely awesome sociologist specializing in soc of culture, co-editor of the book The Civic Life of American Religion, and the person we can always count on to geek out about “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the Drive-By Truckers.

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

For other examples of the commodification of sub- (counter?) cultures, see here and here.

Corey O. sent in a link to the Hard Rock Cafe’s Goth Punk Barbie:

It’s a good example of the appropriation of subcultures. Barbie represents mainstream ideals of American feminine beauty–ideals that are safe and predictable and therefore, at least in theory, incongruent with the goth punk subculture. But here that subculture is stripped of any real content; it’s just a fashion statement, not a challenge to the mainstream world Barbie represents.

For other examples of the commodification of punk or alternative subcultures, see here and here.

Thanks, Corey O.!

Telefono Donna, a rape crisis hotline in Italy, designed a poster to raise awareness of rape in honor of November 25, the International Day to for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Some conservative politicians in Milan object to the Christ-like pose taken by the bare-breasted model in the poster. From the UK Telegraph:

“We’re calling for the poster to be withdrawn because an important day like this should not be debased by such a sexual provocation,” said councillor Carlo Fidanza, a member of the right-wing National Alliance party.

But the president of the Telefono Donna rape helpline, Stefania Bartochetti, said she was surprised by the controversy because the poster had raised no objections in other Italian cities.

“As a Catholic I can’t see anything offensive or blasphemous. We chose a strong image to encourage more rape victims to break their silence,” she said.

The poster poses the question: ‘Who Pays For Man’s Sins?’ and a caption which reads “Only four per cent of women who suffer sexual violence report their assailants.”

Left-leaning politicians said their opponents’ concerns were out of step with contemporary Italian society.

“If you applied these standards to Italian television, you’d have to get rid of 70 per cent of what the main channels broadcast,” said Pierfrancesco Majorino, of the Democratic Party.

Small reproduction of the poster, showing bare-breasted woman [NSFW], below the cut. more...

The Pink Patch is similar to nicotine patches, except it’s a diet product aimed at young women. Here’s a photo from the website of a woman wearing it:

The website for this product clearly targets young women; it warns young women that they are at the time in their lives when their metabolism is highest, and refers to college weight-gain.

The product promises women a solution to their negative body image. Of course, the solution isn’t to think differently about their bodies; the solution is to use the Pink Patch to get skinny:

This quote from a supposed customer makes it clear that losing weight brings boys and popularity:

It also encourages competition and envy among girls:

And apparently, it’s an upper. You might experience “possible mood elevation” and can “relieve your stress,” allowing you to get everything done:

So use the Pink Patch and you will lose weight, which will bring popularity and male attention. Girls will envy you. You’ll be happier, you’ll get a lot done, and that will help you graduate with that great job you always wanted.

It’s the overall message of the diet industry, condensed in one website: the answer to all your problems in a product that will help you melt the pounds away, thus transforming your life. And it’s pink! So feminine!

Via Big Fat Deal.

Apparently for the last several presidential elections 7-11 has had a “7-Election” marketing campaign, in which they offer blue and red coffee cups and customers “vote” by choosing one or the other. Here is a screenshot from the 7-Election 2008 website:

You can go to the website and see the “voting” results map (current as of this morning), which shows two states at 50/50 and every other state going for Obama:

If you go to the actual website, you can hover over each state and see what the % breakdown is.

Now, in and of itself, I just thought this was slightly interesting as an example of the commodification of political choice (“express your voting preference through a coffee cup!”), and I thought it could be used as an example of made-up statistics that are entirely meaningless. For instance, at the 7-11 near my house, I noticed they only have blue cups available, so it would be impossible to “vote” for McCain. Anyone with just some basic common sense could think of tons of problems with this as a real methodology–it didn’t even really seem worth my time to go into much detail about why a poll based on sale of coffee cups is unscientific and stupid.

But then I noticed something on the website: according to the website, results are reported weekly in USA Today (although I wasn’t able to find links to any weekly reports, which seemed odd). I know USA Today isn’t considered a high-quality newspaper by a lot of people, but still, it’s at least ostensibly reporting news. The 7-Election website also has a link to CNN, so perhaps they are partnering with them, too. Editor & Publisher ran a story on it. The results of a marketing scheme to sell coffee is being treated as news. I’m going to try to use it in class to discuss how things get defined as “newsworthy,” and who sets the agenda for what we’re going to talk about. Here we have a company getting free publicity for its marketing promotion because that marketing promotion has been declared “news.” What important information about the world is being ignored in favor of this? How does treating this as newsworthy legitimize it, as though these statistics are meaningful or accurate? Does that increase sales for 7-11?

I found a lot of comments on blogs where people claimed that after hearing about this campaign, they went out and bought coffee just to “vote” for their preferred candidate, and a few who said they refused to buy coffee because the store was out of the cups they wanted. I find this entire thing incredibly bizarre, and I don’t see why news outlets and individuals are buying into the idea that this is anything other than a way to convince more people to buy 7-11 coffee.

NEW!  In our comments, Penny pointed out that Baskin Robbins does the same thing.  Here are the results from this suspicously delicious poll as of the morning of Nov. 4th: