Not “Lovin’ It”

[14 October 2008]

By Jennifer Byrne

“I just want to show my knees!”

This, inexplicably, is the zinger of a final line in a new McDonald’s commercial called “Intellectuals”, which advertises the super-sized fast food chain’s new “McCafe” lattes. These fancy new cups of McJoe apparently don’t come with correspondingly uppity mentalities or vocabularies; the tag line of the commercial boasts “all the coffee, all the attitude”. This attitude, in fact, seems to be the true selling point of the commercial, not the coffee. But what attitude is this, precisely?

The American “culture wars”, which pit traditional conservative values against progressive liberal ideals, have gotten grislier than ever—particularly in terms of an ongoing, furious anti-intellectual backlash. There’s never been a better time to happily flaunt your anti-book-learning, jazz-eschewing, Europe mistrusting pride.

As Susan Jacoby wrote in her book The Age of American Unreason, “America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism.” And this prescient observation was made even before the country was graced with a gun-toting, book-banning, “pray the gay away”, anti-abortion “maverick” of a female Vice Presidential candidate.

But what does any of this have to do with coffee and exposed knees?

Let me take a minute to describe the “Intellectuals” commercial spot, for those of you who may not have seen it, or who commenced vomiting so early on in the commercial that you missed some of it. It features two well-dressed, seemingly middle-class, educated women, sitting in a posh coffee shop. One woman is peering over her hipster intellectual glasses at a newspaper; the other has a book in hand in front of a fireplace. The ensuing dialogue between these women is as follows:

Woman 1: You know, I heard McDonald’s is making lattes now.

Woman 2: McDonald’s? (initially feigning contempt) Well that’s just…(face lights up) fantastic!

Woman 1: Isn’t it?! (with tremendous relief; leaning in conspiratorially) Now we don’t have to listen to jazz all day long!

Woman 2: I can start wearing heels again.

Woman 1: Read gossip magazines! (gleefully discards book )

Woman 2: Watch reality TV shows…

Woman 1: I like television!

Woman 2: I can’t really speak French.

Woman 1: I don’t know where Paraguay is!

Woman 2: Paraguay?

The commercial spends a few seconds discussing the product itself, displaying the creamy latte that comes without any fancy-schmancy nonsense. The commercial ends with that coup de grace, the blissful female looking forward to being restored to her rightful state as a sex object: “I just want to show my knees, you know?”

At this point, the commercial ends, although one almost expects these two “intellectuals” to bust out of their “classy” constraints and shimmy into a liberating striptease down to their g-strings. What struck me about this commercial was the immense sense of relief conveyed by these two women; relief that they would no longer need to keep up the exhausting pretense of feigning sophistication, education, or sartorial modesty.

Apparently, if this commercial is to be believed, a certain segment of the female population has been feeling oppressed by the intellectual and cultural rigors of the modern coffee shop. They feel they can’t wear heels (I see plenty of heels in coffee shops) and they can’t read gossip magazines; they have to pretend to be aware of Paraguay (a country which, ironically, is sometimes called Corazon de America).

Now, thankfully, they can breathe a huge sigh of relief, toss aside the unread copy of The Brothers Karamazov, and proudly reveal the TV Guidethat they were concealing within its pages.

This begs a crucial question: whoever said you can’t discuss, wear, or read (within standards of decency) whatever you want in a coffee shop? There seems to be an enforced defensiveness to this commercial’s joyous railing against perceived expectations.

It’s not so much that the coffee shop requires patrons to be intelligent and cultured; it’s that this demographic, and this sensibility, tends to prevail in that particular environment. But, for the women in this commercial at least, there is a pressure to live up to this standard while in that environment.

Interestingly enough, an Australian McCafe commercial simply features a woman drinking the coffee, and appearing to enjoy the taste. But not in America—there seems to be a strong undercurrent of inferiority and insecurity at the bottom of the internal conflict faced by our heroines in “Intellectuals”. McDonald’s to the rescue! In the safe haven of the fast food chain, the damsels can be as openly clueless about Paraguay as they want. Which, of course, they could have done at Starbuck’s—so what is the difference?

The difference, of course, is that, at McDonald’s, they don’t have to feel bad about it. They can talk in loud voices about the latest episode of The Surreal Life without feeling like empty-headed idiots. They can discuss NASCAR and moose steak while hiking up their skirts. They can pore over a Weekly World News article about an obese Bigfoot specimen found in Yellowstone National Park. They can theorize that Paraguay is a town in North Jersey, right near Paramus (or, they can just think of it as “that place we’ll probably bomb someday”). They can, if you’ll excuse my snobbery, be stupid without having to feel stupid.

But that’s precisely what’s difficult to understand about the new “dumb pride” initiative within these culture wars. For all the swagger of the anti-intellectual movement, there seems to be a lack of true self-acceptance among those who boast their folksy, salt-of-the-earth simplicity. It’s as though even as they paint intellectualism as the refuge of the anemic, godless pansy, they still have a dim notion that, just maybe, being smart is still kind of a good thing.

There seems to be a deep resentment, therefore, of the continued existence of highbrow culture, simply for reminding the willfully ignorant of their shortcomings. If they truly believe in the superiority of their stupidity, it shouldn’t matter what the “intellectuals” think (or that they do think).

I’m actually reminded of a quote I read from Jessica Simpson (in a gossip magazine, no less!) in an article about her past relationships. In reference to relationships with celebs like John Mayer, Simpson reportedly said, “I thought I had to be artsier, more intellectual.” Perhaps she had to live under the strain of having to pretend to know that Chicken of the Sea is actually tuna. Only in the current social climate would the burden of having to appear intelligent be worthy of a celebrity tell-all sob story. Well, Ms. Simpson need not worry; now she can head over to McDonald’s, toss that book into the fire, and sip lattes while she talks about hair extensions and belching.

I’m going to take a huge leap and liken the entire anti-intellectual movement to Jessica Simpson in relation to John Mayer. Sure, it’s All-American and proud in its hiked-up Daisy Dukes, sassy and defiant in its ignorance; it knows it’s hot right now. But it still wants John Mayer’s approval. And if John Mayer won’t give it, well, it’s about time he went away.

The backlash, of course, is not restricted to anti-intellectualism. It also applies to cultural sensitivity and all areas of political correctness. “Happy Holidays” is an obscenity designed by liberals to undermine the Christian God; Global Warming was invented by Al Gore to bolster his chances in the 2000 election. Even a preference for organic or all-natural foods is depicted as being suspect and sinister. In his book, Liberal Fascism, conservative pundit Jonah Goldberg states that a commitment to healthy, organic foods and the prohibition of smoking are values shared by modern liberals and Adolf Hitler.

“That is not the same thing as saying that banning smoking is as morally disgusting and reprehensible as trying to wipe out the Jewish people,” Goldberg is quick to clarify in a Salon article. “You can say that something is as much part and parcel of an ideology and not say that it is as evil.”

This nutritious liberal fascism gets a good kick in the pants from the Corn Refiners Association, which puts a new spin on the traditionally vilified high-fructose corn syrup in a new advertisement. In this commercial, a mom voices vague disapproval of another mom’s serving of a high-fructose corn syrup beverage. “You know what they say about it…” She trails off, as if she can’t quite recall just what it is that “they” say.

Corn Syrup Mom wastes no time in fixing her wagon. She snaps, “What? That it’s made from corn? That it doesn’t have any artificial ingredients and is fine in moderation?” The other mom just gapes mutely, and proceeds to sheepishly compliment the other mom’s top. Well, that shut her up!

The commercial then encourages viewers to “get the facts” about corn syrup (as dispensed by the Corn Refiners’ Association, of course!), adding that we’re all in for “a sweet surprise”. Never mind that high fructose corn syrup has caused obesity rates to spike since its introduction in the 1980s, or that it’s linked to diabetes, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.

The true content of this commercial, from where I sit, is the thorough smack-down being given to health-conscious Nazi mom. Once again, there is an arrogant, yet vaguely guilty tone to the Corn Syrup Mom’s attack on the health-conscious mom. She’s essentially saying you can just shut up with all of your highfalutin’ organic ways; real women serve high-fructose!. Once again, while the agenda of simplistic American traditionalism is dished out with a lot of sass, there’s also a lot of defensiveness. Corn Syrup Mom preempts the expected attack on her favorite genetically modified enzyme–treated sweetener, heading it off with Yeah? You wanna make something of it? type of retaliation.

I think the answer to this challenge ought to be yes. We do want to make something of it. In fact, I fear that unless something is made of it, it will continue unchecked until it has made something even more frightening out of the United States.

There is no reason that intelligent, responsible people should need to drop IQ points or accept the pouring of corn syrup down kids’ gullets in response to a climate of bullying and cultural regression. Certainly, the anti-intellectual set can happily sip their lattes in Mickey Ds, comfortable in their forgiving cultural element. But I’d rather “smoke ‘em out of their caves” and meet them at a real coffee shop at high noon.

They won’t necessarily be, as McD’s would say, “Lovin’ It.” But they will be forced to deal with feeling dumb in an atmosphere that’s not dumbed-down for them like a grade school curriculum taught to the pace of the slowest student. If being ignorant is something to be proud of, let’s see some more genuine pride, even in the swankiest coffee shops. Why not? And hey, if they can’t take the heat, they can look up Paraguay on a map and move there.

Jennifer Byrne does not actively seek out pop culture, but instead absorbs it involuntarily, as if through a semipermeable membrane (actually, she gets it from her computer and TV). In Pop Osmosis she explores her own deeply conflicted reactions to will explore my own deeply conflicted reactions to many high and low pop culture phenomena to which she is exposed, from the genuinely intriguing to the stuff that might involve accessory dogs. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The National Ledger, and in various clever emails.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/not-lovin-it/