Free Women Free Men really is a worthwhile read for anyone listen to or taking part in the gender discussion today. Paglia’s personal and often unique stance on feminism is nothing new. Where many puts the onus on society, Paglia argues that while there definitely are instances where government and authority groups should get involved, the idea of freedom is exactly the freedom to take risks. A society that shelter anyone form the real world is neither dignified or truly free.
What I found the most interesting is her approach of looking at culture as a natural phenomenon. Few would argue that it is but Paglia’s approach roots gender differences not in the structure of society but rather in real biological differences. Differences that brought to life many cultural practices which then evolved into the society we see today. This by no means gives an excuse for any crime, instead it gives us a new perspective from which to view the current space we find ourselves in.
The collection of essays covers everything from ancient cultural artefacts, pop culture and touches on the tapestry of sexual behaviours that we as a society demonstrate today. She draws on the work of other writers in the field and I really appreciate both her praise and her criticism – justifying both as she goes along while finding something useful in through her strongest judgements.
It’s important to broaden the lens of research and understanding whenever we look at creating any meaningful communication. So often do we see that communication simply reflects what is happening in the world. Where ever the conversation goes, there brands will go too. We take for granted that these shifts and movements are not always in a straight line and that something like Twitter (or any social media platform) should not be seen as the Northern Star of society. Without a deeper understanding of the purpose or the intent of culture, it becomes impossible to make a vaguely accurate guess about what the noise means. Whether you agree with Paglia or not, you cannot deny that Free Women Free Men introduces a new and much needed dimension to the debate.
Insight seems in some shape or form to set us apart from other animals. I would never go as far as to open a sentence with ‘one thing we do that no other animal does’, that seems to be a sure way of introducing a false statement. But as far as the propensity goes, we seem to be miles ahead in terms of insight. And if defined in a particular way, one might just get away with saying that we are alone. Insight is an interesting one. It’s a very abstract concept, even a meta abstract concept – that is to say, an abstract concept about abstractions. But before getting lost down a rabbit hole of concept – let’s think practically why the idea of insight has stood us in such good stead.
Most species are parts of relatively static ecosystems – a system that has reached homeostasis if you would. They have managed to find a balance between food supply, their population and the environment. And as the one element either rises or dips, the others adjusts to that reaching different levels of equilibrium while still maintaining roughly the same system. This does require that every animal plays their part consistently. Wolves must hunt elk as they do, the elk must graze and not become smart with the wolf situation and the grass must not get any ideas about becoming poisonous. And while these changes do happen, they happen over periods of thousands of years. If wolves exponentially increased their hunting ability or worse yet, their sources of food, the equilibrium would fall apart and wolves would (on a small scale) do what we’ve done at a global scale.
Insight seems to have three components to it. It starts with observation – what is happening in the world. A long time ago, this might have been an easy thing to do. When the oceans or any body of water proved to be a problem, we can imagine our ancestors spending a lot of time around the water, wading into it, observing what happens, what it takes to swim and then also looking at the things that seem to effortlessly stay on the water. Ducks, leaves logs and so on. I’m saying it was easy because I have the luxury of retrospect from a very scientific era. Without modern scientific understanding it’s reasonable to ask whether something is pushing the duck out of the water or is the sky pulling it up?’ I still believe that the social sciences are focused on something slightly trickier – we are not observing something out there, something else. We are looking in the mirror. This also raises the question about whether the human mind can truly understand human behaviour?’
To illustrate a technology born of sheer observation we can look at the way Chimpanzees use sticks to fish for termites. It’s highly unlikely that a Chimpanzee observed termite behaviour and then one day walked past a stick to have the penny drop. The reality is that Chimpanzees go about prodding the jungle floor with sticks anyway. It is a statistical certainty that at some point, something with nutritional value would get stuck on the end of a stick, thereby simply creating a motivation to slightly skew something they already did. The difference between insight and simply observing is that if you leave an observation-based technology alone for a thousand years you can come back and it would look loosely the same. Base it on insight and you’d barely recognize it when you see it a decade later.
Patterns and components
Insight is about taking the observation and then understanding the various components and patterns that underpins it. A great example I often use is the simple observation that kids cry when you brush their teeth because they know it is then bedtime. The insight here is in no way to say that kids associate tooth brushing with bedtime – this really is drawing a casual correlation between the observations and is not a useful understanding of the situation. The insight is something that explains the correlation. Kids use adult behaviour as milestones to create structure in their own lives. It’s an infinitely more useful idea and if you are a dental care brand that is genuinely interested in being relevant, the insight gives you a much richer platform.
We get this level of understanding through really looking at what is happening and not simply getting stuck in what we see at face value. What are the structural elements? What can be lifted out and applied elsewhere? What is the logical pattern? If we had to think back to our species breaking through natural barriers we can think about how initially something like water in a puddle, collected in an empty shell or even stored in a root could give birth to the more abstract idea of water storage. The pattern being that the fleeting nature of flowing water can be paused until we need it later. With adequate thinking the idea of ‘storage’ can become the concept of ‘interrupting the natural flow of things’ or simply ‘getting something out of degradation’s way’. The observation that plants store water can evolve into the idea that we can dictate the flow of nature.
At this point – where we understand the reason for the links between our observations we have demonstrated true understanding of a situation. I would go as far as to say that insight is a type of understanding – a type that makes it relevant to a problem at hand. It is that ‘aha’ moment when you realise that your understanding can solve a problem to the point where we are permanently rid of it. I mentioned earlier that understanding that children use adults to structure their lives is closer to an insight but in my opinion it is not yet a complete insight. If the challenge we face is to integrate a infant dental care brand into the lives of families we need to use our understanding to solve this problem. It is far easier to use the understanding as opposed to the simple observation but there is still some work to do. The nurtuting element of dental care (crucial to all parents) happen to be one of these milestones in the day which means your brand plays a key part in enabling parents to structure the children’s lives. This is an insight to work with and when you sit down with a bigger team to discuss positioning or campaign thinking you can now look at long term ideas that will only become irrelevant when either parents don’t care about their children or when children no longer look to adults to structure their lives. And these things are unlikely to change – they are human truths that has evolved over tens of thousands of years and will be with us for tens of thousands to come.
I would like to mention at this point that neither observations or understanding is inferior to insights. These are all different steps in the process. A deep understanding of the technical aspects is what made Wozniak the computer legend he is today. Jobd brought the insight of ‘a bicycle for the mind’ to the table and it made all the difference. If we think in linear terms it’s difficult not to make one superior to the other. But when we think team work – diversity and collaboration – it becomes clear that no matter how good one player is, if there is no one to pass the ball to (or no one to receive it from) the whole game is lost.
The process of insight generation is therefore a very human process and despite what we might think, has been around for as long as people have existed. It’s the simple process of observing something, extrapolating new and useful information from it and using it to solve problems. It’s a system of thinking that’s allowed us to arrive in new, hostile environments and carve out an existence by either observing the risk, each other or the plants and animals that has somehow managed to live there before we arrived. We borrow, adapt and implemented our way across the face of the planet and today it would seem that we are the only risk to ourselves.
An element that is missing in a lot of public discourse today is the idea of a symbolic world beyond the world that we see today. That is to say that words do not inherently contain the values we give them. Instead of a fixed and direct linked between word and meaning, words tend to hover above a meaning which allows it to move and shift as the culture underneath it changes. Take for instance the word ‘cart’. The traditional meaning is that of a horse drawn cart – the associations are of heavy exhausting labour – a tool for transporting a sizable amount of goods. In a modern supermarket environment, the cart is still the same tool but the associations might change from exhausting labour to something a bit more domestic. And in the online world, a cart became more symbolic. The tool is no longer something that moves objects but is instead a collection of items on a website, earmarked for purchase.
We can see here how the actual meaning of the word adjusted by anchoring itself in a dominant meaning and cantilevering into a new space. First it pivoted on the actual tool (horse cart to shopping cart) and then on the purpose (collection earmarked for purchase). What is important to note here is that the meaning behind the word shifted. We can still use cart but the meaning has shifted substantially. Dealing with an abandoned cart for instance, has changed a lot over time.
Separating these two has been crucial for the proliferation of identity politics. The idea of identity politics in short is that who you are matters more than what you say. Your identity is key to the argument. If a male argues the case for gender equality, you tend to say ‘what a beta male’ or something to that effect. It cannot be that that the argument stands on its own, rather, the argument has to be seen in the context of the speaker. This is not entirely wrong – when reading academic work for instance it’s important to keep in mind the context in which it was written, the understanding of the world and the assumptions made at the time. This allows us to get to the clean logic behind the text. In the case of a man arguing a woman’s rights, we can equally say ‘even men believe equality is the way to go’. Identity politics however looks not at the who is saying as context but rather injects and intent behind the argument, almost ignoring context.
Advertising that plays in the world of identity and politics has not done well in terms of carving these two ideas apart. In fact, in some cases its played into identity politics by conflating the two.
In the Always #likeagirl piece we see not only the conflation of women and femininity but also figurative and literal speech. There are many such rhetorical tricks at work here and it is clear that the team who put the piece together gave no thought as to why this is. Why is it that men say ‘you hit like a girl’? What does it really mean and how can we ensure that the purpose of having such a term is safe guarded while we extract that comparison to women form the phrase. I suspect this was not the line of thinking and like with many of the SJW movements at work today it plays a dangerous game of returning perceived aggression with actual aggression. #menaretrash often leads to a discussion where the gains (calling out society’s misfits) justifies the cost (driving a wedge between the sexes). But this is what happens when we take complex societal issues and force fit them to the most common denominators in society instead of leaving them in a conceptual space and working with the ideas people have.
Tag Heuer’s face, Cara Delivigne, has done a lot to take the watchmaker to a more contemporary space. The 2015 Don’t crack under pressure print ad introduced Delivigne with defiant yet comical expression on her face. The image captures the tattoo on Delivigne’s finger, an image of a lion which has been her symbol of power and strength. The defiant yet comical expression on her face completes the picture of a strong and powerful women who will not take life lying down.
In the image however, she is the meaning and folding aggression and power (masculine qualities) into an image where Delivigne still has to shine in terms of her feminine beauty makes for a difficult task and a very busy image. More than that, as a message that talks to an ought, we leave the world somehow dumbfounded as to how this concept can be democratised as it shows a compromise between a classic sense of feminine beauty and the strength women are expected to display in a modern world.
The latest piece is quite interesting in this regard. I’m not sure how much thought went into this but it’s interesting to see how the strength as a symbol has been externalized, leaving Delivigne to be feminine in the sense that fragrance commercials still communicate. The snarl has changed from tongue in cheek to a truly aggressive snarl, the symbolism of the lion is no longer displayed on her hand but stands, larger than life, behind her. Her gaze is piercing and yet she is unquestionable feminine.
The evolution of the two pieces is good news in my opinion. The first piece was quite literal – it showed us Delivigne – a strong willed, trendy young women. The second piece is more symbolic in its totality. Delivigne stands in for femininity as much as the lion stands in for strength. By being more symbolic in the commercial, we can truly step back and ask ourselves not ‘how should women behave in a modern world’ but rather ‘how should we as a society think about femininity in a modern world’.
A lot has been said about Millennials. In the last year or two it’s become the most coveted target audience and has been this largely because of their size and the susceptibility to messaging. While it’s not been the rule in any way, some have gone out of their way to depict Millennials as a generation of phone zombies hoping to get lucky off an app. I’m not denying that these characters exist but instead of labeling them a Millennial phenomenon I’d rather go on to say it’s a ‘that guy’ situation. That guy that’s always got an answer – the ‘if you want to get rich all you gotta do’ guy.
In 2012, in the shadow of the recession, a United Colors of Benetton launched an ad called ‘Unemployee of the year’. It sat under the larger banner of the unhate campaign. The campaign itself never made it to our shores but thanks to what the internet is, the film did. The commercial was a powerful one and was the first that showed the tenacious side of Millennials. They might well have been a generation of cell phone geeks but they joined the workforce during tremendously difficult times. The earth was moving under their feet as they were digging their foundations.
Uneployee of the Year celebrates not the achievements of Millennials but rather their character and tenacity. It looks at who they are more than what they’ve done. It looks at their willingness to try rather than to just give up. It’s a fighting spirit in hard fight. It’s the tough that got going when the going got tough.
A few lines that struck me as memorable in the ad is ‘we can do hard things’ and ‘sex, job and rock & roll’. It laughs in the face of the generations of the hippies. The ‘sex, drugs and rock & roll’ crowd that dare to say that Millennials can’t do hard things.
It’s easy package an average product as creative and try to push it down the throat of a generation that has nothing but their wits and their creativity. The long game is however going to be a bit different. In some ways this film was irrelevant (the people are surprisingly beautiful and they all somehow found purpose) but in other ways it struck a nerve. It allowed us to think about Millennials in an aspirational way. They might just be the generation to combine the creativity of Generation X with the hard working gusto of the Baby Boomers.
The recession has had a massive cultural impact. It changed not only the signifiers that points to certain values or aspirations, but it also changed what we valued. Cultural events of this magnitude shift relationships between signifiers and meaning. After 9/11, computer games no longer had rogue Eastern Europeans as villains and hostile environments were no longer cold. Instead, we started fighting men of Arabian decent and we fighth them mostly in the desert.
A year or so after the recession was actually announced automotive ads started catching up. Most notable were the Chrysler ads. I found a 2008 Chrysler 300 commercial. If you can excuse the content of the wealth and customization it’s interesting to note how standing out and being unique is the focus.
The recession left Detroit in ruins and automotive sales were battling in a market that was flooded with German imports. In order to tackle the German import problem, Chrysler came up with imported from Detroit. But if imported from Germany meant precision and quality, what on earth did imported from America mean?
Chrysler made a U-turn on individualism and went for national pride. The first Super Bowl commercial I saw was the one featuring Eminem. A legend from Detroit and a celebrity from humble Detroit beginnings, he stands as the perfect icon for Chrysler who is also an icon with one foot in humble Detroit beginnings while selling in a far more luxurious world. The crux of the ad is ‘we’re tough car people and this is what we do’. It’s leans heavily on legacy, craftsmanship and the American blue collar worker. Still artistic, but no longer a highbrow masterpiece, instead it became a craftsman’s art.
It’s also got an old worldly feel to it: the steel fist, the trench coats, and university teams running in the snow. It’s very Rocky. And more than that, it’s very blue collar. This of course makes sense if you keep in mind who did what to who. The blue collar workers didn’t rebel the world into recession, it was the bankers in the high buildings that pretty much sold us into recession. So this commercial, the American Hero car and Chrysler celebrates genuine hard work
By 2014 it went from the cold and dark streets of Detroit to a more generic depiction of America. In the commercial Bob Dylan (pretty American himself) asks the question ‘is there anything more American that America?’ It’s a rhetorical question that is followed by a montage of classical American visuals. They are well chosen, – they are too old to stir any real controversy: baseball, Diners and Route 66. It makes you want to visit America.
Like the first commercial, it was very detached from class and spoke only about Americans and American pride. It’s also pointed out as the one thing you cannot import. And not even on a technicality I’d say he’s right. There is something about American pride that is not quite like any other pride I’ve seen. The commercial ends by giving credit where it’s due. Let Germany brew your beer, let the Swiss make your watches and let Asia assemble your phone. ‘We will build your car’. I have no doubt that the word build was willfully chosen. It echoes the earlier commericial of real men and hard work. It’s the difference between makers and builders. Builders are somehow and for some reason just a little bit harder.
In April 2015 however a new commercial was launched. Also very American. and also very us vs. them (great for identity politics.)
The commercial points out how there is not royal blood in America. This is very true, America is the anti-royal blood country. In fact, a lot of American blood was spilled to keep royal blood out. But it also speaks to a very deep American sentiment that has survived many strong cultural influences: you make your own fortune. Lottery winners are never quite as revered as self-made people. In fact, the fortune that falls in your lap is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Americans respect earned success and so much more if it was in the face of adversity. This is how they kept royal blood out; this is how they built their nation.
The commercial is inspiring and almost war like sentiment – generals looking out over the battlefield, queens looking over their kingdom. And it will not be coincidence. Standing out is the pinnacle of Chrysler. Pre recession it was ‘how do you stand out from your fellow Americans’ and post recession was a question of ‘how does America stand out from other countries’. This otherness, this combatant attitude and coming out on top defines Chrysler. And this, to a great extent is America. It always bounces back and we can see it happen again.
What struck me most was the startling similarity to Nightcrawler. It’s the visuals of the car, the preparation for war, the declaration that nothing is reserved – it’s simply out there for the taking. In the most romantic sense it reminds us of the Wild West when things were simply out there for the taking. But the population was infinitely lower, many were considered as sub-human and taking often did mean killing. Nightcrawler highlights the flaws in these assumptions. How mortifying is it not when anything goes in order to take what is there for the taking. When someone’s measure and the value of their life is directly linked to their power, wealth and status we see a strange new animal. Maybe it’s an old one, but as The Crowd has taken over from The Man, we might be most disgusted to see that the relentless all or nothing, forever criticized capitalism is not a consequence of some power or deity pushing it down on us, it is simply our nature, it is simply what we are.