Symbolic vs literal language in communication

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’.