It was a great game, perhaps the most gripping final NFL showdown of the past five years, with a second half opening with a daring onside kick and Garrett Hartley becoming the first placekicker to make three field goals over forty yards in any Super Bowl. Marvelous. And I might have come away from the annual experience howling in the streets for my avenged Jets, had not my viewing been sullied by an atavistic rash of misogynistic commercials.
Granted, your average redblooded spectator does not necessarily watch television sports commercials with the intent of seeing women presented as positive role models. We’ve become used to seeing women objectified, often dressed in bikinis and/or using their anatomy to sell some vacuous commercial experience. But Super Bowl XLIV’s commercials were much different. They were cruder and uglier, going well out of their way to not only objectify women, but to suggest that anyone with a vagina who asserted herself should be ridiculed.
There was the Motorola commercial featuring a naked Megan Fox in a bubble bath, referring to her phone as “this little guy” and permitting her objectified photographic form to cause a series of disruptions. But that was comparatively modest with the misogyny to come. There was the FloTV commercial in which a man suffered from an allegorical injury in which his girlfriend had removed his spine, “rendering him incapable of watching the game.” FloTV’s underlying idea, of course, was that women could not possibly enjoy football and that women are natural ballbusters who force their boyfriends to go shopping. There was the Dodge Charger Commercial, in which various men are seen, with their internal thoughts voiced by Dexter star Michael C. Hall, who announces the perfunctory domestic demands from other women: “I will eat some fruit as part of my breakfast. I will shave. I will clean the sink after I shave.”
But the real big-prick offender was probably Bud Light’s Book Club ad (which can be viewed above), which combined its misogynistic message with an anti-reading subtext. The commercial begins with a woman describing how there’s “so much passion” within the book she’s reading. A man then arrives wearing a sports T-shirt and shorts, saying, “Have a nice book club. I’ll be at the game.” He then eyes several chilled bottles of Bud Light and then sits down on a couch between two women, rudely interrupting their discussion. “So what’s the story?” he says, as some rock and roll music emerges onto the soundtrack. “We were discussing the relationship of two women…”
“Two women,” he interrupts, immediately connoting a lesbian fantasy, perhaps with the two women he is squeezed between.
“…who are thrust in by war,” continues the woman.
“Oooh,” he replies. “Thrusting.”
“A war neither of them understands,” she continues, offering a modest nod that indicates her role as either patient nurturer or someone barely able to understand the book that she’s discussing.
“Awesome,” he says. “Good times. I love Book Club!”
And in a rather sly move by the director, sealing the woman’s objectified place, the woman’s red sweater slips down her left shoulder, revealing more of her anatomy.
We cut back after a product announcement and observe an exchange between the man and another woman. The book club has degenerated into a beer drinking session.
This new woman says, “So then do you like Little Women?” (Little, get it?)
He says, “Yeah, I’m not too picky. No.” And the commercial then stops, ending on this open-ended sexual proposition.
Here then is the ad’s anti-women and anti-reading worldview: Women, no matter what their goals, aspirations, or interests, have no other role in society other than getting fucked by men. Let women have their “little” book clubs, which can be easily interrupted on a masculine whim and which women will never dare object to. They will set everything aside to give you head or to serve you beer.
And, by the way, if you’re a man, you don’t even need to read to get ahead in the world. (Indeed, one of the commercial’s curious philosophical positions is that one cannot both enjoy beer — at least the stuff better than the undrinkable swill that is being sold in this commercial — and books. Speaking as a man who enjoys beer, books, and football, and who finds intelligent women far sexier than empty-headed centerfolds, I happily refute these stereotypes through my very existence.)
Some might argue that the advertisement is not intended to be taken seriously — that it is a jocular offering to be easily disregarded. But because the Super Bowl is watched by close to 100 million people and because the Super Bowl commercials are subjected to such intense post-game scrutiny (to cite one example, as I write this essay, a message now appears at the top of YouTube: “Watch and Vote on Your Favorite Commercials from Super Bowl Sunday. Vote Now.”), it is perhaps more important for us to consider the impact that one Super Bowl commercial has on its audience. Let us assume that 1% of the Super Bowl audience (or about 1 million) take the Book Club advertisement seriously. Will they, in turn, be inspired to avoid books and break up female book clubs?
The great irony here is that these misogynist commercials were aired, including an anti-abortion Focus on the Family advocacy ad, even as CBS rejected a gay online dating commercial. And, indeed, if women are deemed so problematic by the Madison Avenue hucksters, then why shouldn’t the audience consider a man instead?
[UPDATE: A reader correctly points out that, in this essay’s original form, I confused this year’s Teleflora ad, which involved a similar setup, with last year’s Teleflora ad. Accordingly, I have removed the following description from the piece, preserving it at the end to demonstrate another example of Madison Avenue’s commitment to Super Bowl misogyny: “Then there was the despicable Teleflora ad, in which a woman receives flowers and the flowers talk back, ‘Oh no! Look at the mug on you! Diane, you’re a trainwreck. That’s why he always sent a box of flowers. Go home to your romance novels and your fat smelly cat,’ followed by another sully: ‘Nobody wants to see you naked.’ The Teleflora commercial presented an additional punchline: a male office worker named Gary who comes up to Diane not to ask if she’s okay, but to announce, ‘I’d like to see you naked’ (surely a violation of sexual harassment law), before being cut off by the humiliated Diane.]
[UPDATE 2: Survival of the Book’s Brianoffers a thoughtful response to my post, pointing out one minor point I neglected to mention — that the women were the ones who procured the Bud Lights for their own enjoyment in the commercial. This raises the possibility that they were trying to get rid of the jock so that they could enjoy their beer with their books. It’s a fair interpretation: one that I might entirely agree with, had the women not been presented as sex objects in the latter portion of the commercial. Brian’s interpretation permits the Book Club to serve as a male fantasy. But if this crude male fantasy involves sneering down at women and books, then I stand by my original assessment.]
Several individuals have reminded me that today is the Super Bowl. A thuggish “working-class” team will be duking it out with a Red State team. Bruce Springsteen has either been enlisted for a halftime negotiation between the two sides, or will be performing some music which suggests that, despite the millions of dollars he has reaped from his fans, he is still somehow “working-class,” “a man of the people,” and that he understands what it means to live from yesterday’s flimsy paycheck to tomorrow’s nonexistent one. And the millions of people who will watch this football match will swallow such illusory class roles without question, because that is what they have been trained to do for so many years. Pundits will be examining the many commercials for their apparent artistic and entertainment merits, but they won’t consider the possibility that drawing attention to a commercial is, in a considerable sense, serving the commercial’s purpose: to sell products and to get a specific brand name discussed among the “rabble.” It will not occur to the Super Bowl crowds that perhaps they are being manipulated, viewed with condescension by those who have put up the money, and that the painted faces of fans serving as B-roll aren’t so much celebrated, as they are ridiculed. Plus, the anchoring amalgam of Al Michaels and John Madden is more dowdy than innovative. (Love or hate Dennis Miller, it took some chutzpah to have him tossing around esoteric references during Monday Night Football some years ago. The anchoring choice was so idiosyncratic that I was then a regular watcher.)
I’m certainly not against the shared television experience. I was there for the 2008 presidential elections and the Obama inauguration. I’ll likely be there for the Oscars. I’ll even be there for future Super Bowls and likely the World Series.
But this year, I will be sitting out the Super Bowl. At this time of this year, it seems more trivial than anni previous, particularly with so many phony working-class labels attached. There’s the practical concern of not having any money on the game and therefore possessing no pecuniary incentive to watch. But there’s something fickle here that goes beyond mere money: how can anyone enjoy a game of football while this nation faces a rising unemployment rate, an economy that may not correct itself for some time, various international skirmishes with no resolution in sight, and the like? I’m not suggesting that the Super Bowl should transform into a political forum. It is, when it works, a rousing form of entertainment. And I have often gotten involved in all this, bellowing at the screen in favor of a team I have either (a) followed through the year, (b) selected at the last minute without thought, or (c) selected the contrarian choice because everybody else in the room has hedged their ballyhoos with a particular favorite. There’s something wonderfully primitive in shouting at the top of your lungs, blaming the quarterback for blowing a snap or faulting a head linesman for a failed call.
I approve of all this. I just wonder why, in a time of national crisis, this nation can’t direct the same energies towards more pressing concerns. If they could do that, there might be a televised event that’s more entertaining, more meaningful, and certainly more historical.
[UPDATE: I’m as much of a sucker for a good football game as anyone. And I ended up getting sucked into the fourth quarter after catching a fire-like flicker of the 100 yard TD while on the street and hearing later reports of a potential Cards comeback. If, as some of the commenters suggested, this game was a healthy diversion, well, given how crazy the game was (even crazier than last year’s), I’d have to agree. In fact, if you didn’t catch this game, then you missed out on one of the best Super Bowls in recent memory. So I stand partially corrected, while likewise repeating my concern over why these energies aren’t also directed towards more substantive issues.]