Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Taste Intervention for Ladies Everywhere*

*Now with 50% More White Male Gaze

Sure, rolling out the trope of the male gaze can be tiresome in this post-feminist age where all gazes are equal (cue tweeting songbirds and gamboling puppies), but some days that gaze’s good works in the community demand recognition.

Exhibit A:

A recent commercial for Sabra’s (admittedly tasty) hummus:

I can hear what you’re thinking.

“But it’s FUNNY!”

“Oh, come on, that Chinese guy’s hilarious!!”

Of course it’s funny! Didn’t Freud teach us that nothing makes us laugh like uncomfortable revelations? What could be funnier than a bald admission to (white, middle-class breeding) women, “Yes, we really are watching what you’re eating. And judging you. ALL of us. Even the Asian food service worker whose livelihood depends on your ‘bad’ taste—for yes, he also recognizes that his ‘Chinese’ taste is bad, and secretly wishes to join the ranks of the white, button-down-wearing, hummus-eating master class!”

What’s that you say? That I’m missing the irony? That the commercial is a parody targeted at dudes, who stereotypically DO need taste interventions, NOT ladies, especially thin, white middle-class moms? That the fantasy of being married to a man with good taste who raises his children in the path of good-taste righteousness, in spite of his wife’s sad “addiction” to “junk” (poor soul!), is but a gentle satire?

The OED defines parody as “a composition in which the characteristic style and themes of a particular author or genre are satirized by being applied to inappropriate or unlikely subjects, or are otherwise exaggerated for comic effect.”

The genre being satirized is clearly that of rehab interventions, the same cultural script that gave birth to catchwords like “carefrontation” and television abominations like Celebrity Rehab. That this script is exaggerated for comic effect I can’t deny. That’s what makes it funny! We recognize the trope, which tells us, “hey, we’re doing this for her own good,” even as we also recognize the ridiculousness of the “problem.”

Or do we? With obesity both a statistical epidemic and a media obsession, with foodie-ism and Alice Waters holding court, IS the parodied “problem” not a problem we identify as a real one? And can’t Sabra count on viewers’—particularly a demographic like thin, white middle-class moms or their aspirational counterparts—to make that connection?

To my mind, the commercial is parodic, but fails to be true parody because irony is not the point. We are not invited to laugh at the accusations Janet Reidel’s family and neighbor (I use this term loosely, given the problematic class/race dimensions of the deliveryman’s character) bring against her in the name of her own “well-being.” Neither does the parody show us anything new—rather, it chases it’s own tale (pun intended) like the tautological monster much advertising is.

Rather, we are invited to become uncomfortable, in the Freudian sense. And that “we,” the commercial let’s us know all too clearly, is a certain category of women, represented by Janet Reidel. (I say “category,” lest all those aspirational Janet Reidel’s who don’t happen to be female, white, middle-class or breeders feel left out.) The commercial acknowledges a system already in place, pokes fun at it in order raise anxiety in the viewer about her eating habits, and then ends with the product in question restoring order to the known universe.

Not only is the empowered male gaze, represented by the husband, son and deliveryman, watching, that gaze apparently is taking notes and conferencing about the “problem,” all the while Janet’s young daughter stands idly by with the dish of hummus. Like a timid alter boy, she hesitantly passes the hummus to her mother as she glances at her father. Accessory to her “recovery,” schlepping the goods of man, and most surely internalizing the message that she too must maintain vigilance over her food intake, this little girl knows the price of being found to have “bad taste,” as should her mother, if she wants her own daughter to consider her (Janet’s) image one of aspirational value.

Saved! Without Sabra and the male gaze, poor Janet Reidel might never have thought of her health or her “tastes” in quite the same way.

The food police are real, my friends. Take heed, and hide the Goober Grape.

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