Welcome to the first edition of Flash Points, a new weekly feature that provides a critical overview of cultural trends and developments. The main criteria is the issue of social relevance. We will therefore be covering topics that range from the latest news to new film trailers. Since the issue of ‘relevance’ remains open to interpretation, we also reserve the right to keep our options open. Please feel free to add your own thoughts and comments—your contributions help determine the status of what remains culturally relevant.
Thanks for the Mammaries
Our infantile obsession with breasts recently came to a head again. Time’s May 21st cover predictably resulted in a public outcry. Nothing raises pulses (or sales) like a moral panic conceived in a boardroom and spread on the internet. The magazine’s cover depicts, of course, a 26-year-old MILF breastfeeding her three-year-old son in an unnatural position: standing up and staring our gaze down. The publication date coincided with Mother’s Day weekend and provocatively asked: “Are You Mom Enough?” The small font even provides an answer to its own question: this is the image of a beautiful young woman “driven to extremes”. Instead of being out in the workplace or a singles bar, she is rearing her child as if it’s a full-time commitment. While the cover story was ostensibly about attachment parenting, the cover told a completely different story.
The controversy was really about the adult world’s incapacity to wean itself off the breast —- while simultaneously being in denial about the reasons for its own attachment to it. As these viral videos confirmed around the same time, there is nothing we like more than a woman with generous mammary glands. Corporations will pay good money to have their products associated with them, and grown men will go to strip clubs just to have their faces rubbed in them. The breasts don’t even have to be real—they just have to come in pairs and be attached to a woman. Women have also grown attached to these sign posts of sexuality—some will go out and buy a pair just to be seen with them while others will draw attention to their natural endowments to ensure maximum sex appeal.
The Time cover’s transgression was that it reminded us why we go to such lengths to objectify them (and women) in the first place. They’re not mere sex objects or playthings—they’re a source of nourishment and bonding. Time merely laid bare one of reasons for, and consequences of, our own sexuality. Indeed, our culture’s breast fixation appears to be a form of nostalgia, where we all long for our mommies and/or potential mothers.
The State of Marriage
There might be a threat to the institution of marriage, but it’s not coming from the gay community. As heterosexuals have become increasingly cynical and disillusioned, many homosexuals are lining up to enter this broken institution. The irony is that people traditionally excluded from such a fine establishment (and marginalized within their own families) now rank amongst its most vocal defenders and torch bearers. Gay support is helping to secure marriage’s foundations and fortify the fortress of established family values. So when the “first gay president” (sic) (to quote the latest Newsweek cover) recently declared his support for same-sex marriage, it was viewed as a major turning point. Unlike Newsweek, however, we mustn’t be so quick to put a rainbow colored halo above Obama’s head.
The former constitutional lawyer has merely offered moral support to couples where gay marriage is already legal and he is not “committed to making same-sex marriage a right protected by the Constitution” (Lyle Denniston, “The Fine Print”, 10 May 2012). Obama’s declaration ensures that inalienable natural rights remain subject to cultural constraints and variation. Same-sex marriages can technically break down if the couple crosses a border. Never mind the in-laws, gay married couples risk becoming ‘outlaws’ (illicit and outside the realm of the law). The President’s personal endorsement is obviously not without moral significance: he bravely entered the fray by encouraging democratic states to work out its own principles.
Marriage has retained some of its allure, of course, because it continues to celebrate and legitimate relationships. It’s a social union that formalizes bonds and obligations. So when a predominantly heterosexual community has (thus far) generally tried to prevent gay people from being themselves or with each other, it has effectively been saying: your individual rights and personal feelings don’t matter. The bone of contention is that homosexuality is supposedly ‘perverse’ and contrary to ‘nature’. It poses a challenge to both religious and scientific orthodoxy—mainstream religions see it as an affront to their relationship with God while evolutionary theory struggles with the paradox that nature might select traits that don’t contribute to the reproduction (survival) of the species.
As it has been famously observed, however, an unnatural desire is a contradiction in terms and any attempt to obstruct another person’s humanity the real perversion. Homosexuality confirms that it’s natural to form attachments unrelated to reproduction, and that loving relationships typically want to express themselves in socially acceptable ways. Allowing homosexuals to feel estranged from themselves (and each other) merely throws into question the nature of societies’ commitment to its own values. Homosexual relationships therefore places us the intersection between the ‘natural’ and the ‘cultural’, and raises a question about our shared humanity: to what extent are we committed to carrying ourselves across this threshold?
Back to Nature
Advertising is, of course, part of the fabric of our lives. Whichever way we turn, we’re all surrounded by messages that attempt to direct us one way or another—and it’s usually towards a cash register or shopping mall. Perhaps the only way to escape a pop up or television ad is by turning our backs on technology and fleeing into the countryside. The 2012 CLIO awards — the world’s most recognized global awards competition for advertising, design, interactive and public relations have just announced its 2012 Ad of the Year. The CLIOs are such an institution that even Mad Men’s Don Draper was awarded one way back in season four. A Grand CLIO went to an animated advertisement with a plot line and a moral. Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” ad—which debuted during the 2011 Grammy awards and has since been seen online by over six million people—adopts a general, higher level message and tells its story in a more approachable way . The two and half minute ad for a Mexican fast food chain is distinctive for its ‘return to roots’ message and tries to sell us “a better world”.
It’s heart warming message about tacos and burritos is unlikely to offend anyone—although Jews, Muslims, vegetarians and animal rights advocates might not get the intended message. It’s worth noting that there isn’t a Mexican grill—or a restaurant filled with carnivores—in sight. The stop-motion video indicates its commitment to sustainable farming and traditional family values. The soundtrack is provided by country legend Willie Nelson as he sings the lyrics to Coldplay’s “The Scientist” (a song about feeling helpless in the face of love and how modern technology cannot ‘speak as loud as the human heart’).
The clever stop-motion short film takes viewers on a moving journey with a farmer’s family, and shows the way nature has been corrupted by civilization. A harmonious countryside falls by the wayside as the farming process has become industrialized and commercialized. The farmer —- a proxy for ordinary city folk like you and I —- learns the error of his ways and makes a conscious effort to start again. By placing the emphasis on a ecosystem approach to farming, it purports to reaffirm what’s really important in life: the relationship between humans and their natural environment. Indeed, we can all feel the love between human and animal as expressed through ‘nature’. This contradictory use of technology doesn’t raise the question of whether eating meat might be ‘unnatural’ (sic) or how it might prematurely contribute to humans becoming worm food regardless of the way its processed (commercialized). The homespun message couldn’t be more self serving or sanitized. It’s certainly not interested in what the animals might be feeling about their loving relationship to humans. Unlike the Coldplay song, then, Chipotles -— and by extension, consumers —- make no apologies for their behavior. This little piggy is still going to the market by way of the abattoir.