Thursday, February 10, 2011

Super Bowl Car Commercials II: Vader Kid

It has been declared, almost unanimously it seems, the best commercial of the Super Bowl. And it's for a Volkswagen Passat, a decidedly un-luxurious vehicle. What does this spot tell us about the persistence of traditional narratives of middle class desire? And moreover, why should we care? Why do I want to suck the joy out of this adorable commercial by overanalyzing it to death?

Because, although much cuter and less evil than the Audi commercial I profiled yesterday, Volkswagen's ad perpetuates in its own ways certain ideas about the kind of labor appropriate to men and women. By merely watching this spot and saying "oh how cute," we might miss the subtle ways that the volks at Deutsche Inc (Volkswagen's agency for a little over a year) are manipulating our memories of childhood, and the things we may have been taught to expect from middle class domestic life. So:

To the kitchy, menacing, and utterly familiar soundtrack of the Imperial March from Star Wars, a young child (whose gender we don't know), wearing an extremely elaborate Darth Vader costume complete with enormous helmet and mask, stalks around the house. The little tyke tries to use THE FORCE on objects--the laundry machine, an exercise bike, the dog, a doll, and a peanut butter sandwich that his mother makes for him--to no avail. Nothing reacts the way the kid wants--that is, nothing floats, turns on, activates, barks, or responds to the mystical "Force."

But then Dad returns from the office in a new Volkswagen Passat. The child runs past Dad, foregoing a fatherly hug. He's busy trying to get the force to work, after all. Dad looks momentarily miffed, but walks into the house. "I'm busy with serious work, Dad," the kid seems to say. The adorable Lord of the Sith concentrates extra hard, trying to use the force on the car. The music softens, and much to everyone's surprise, das auto starts!

This is a great moment. I mean, imagine you're the kid here (and what Star Wars geek hasn't tried to use the force?) "HOLY MOLY," you would say, and our little protagonist staggers back from the running car, just as we would.


Then there's a cut to a remote control, and then another that shows the mischievous father holding it, standing next to his wife in the kitchen. He has started the car from the window. A little parental joke to drive the kid's imagination. Hubby raises his eyebrows at wifey, proud of his trick. Lord Vader looks to the house in disbelief, and then back at the car. Amazing. The Volkswagen Passat is only around $20,000 the tagline tells us.

We all know little Vader's pain. The promise of George Lucas's franchise is that we should be able to use the force. And when it doesn't work, there's a profound disconnect between the promise of the fantastical world, and the mundane truth of the real world. (Side note: these particular parents seem extra-intent on making their kid believe the force is real...why this child has such a professional-looking Vader costume though, I can't really say). What seems to matter most here is that Mom is at home and Dad is at work. Very simply, the domestic landscape of the home--Mom's terrain--is denigrated (shrugged at), while Daddy's arrival from the mystical land of the "office" heralds the extraordinary. This commercial plays on our accepted notions of how life in the suburbs functions: Mom's role is in the house; Dad's is at work. Mom performs the crucial but unappreciated labor of making the home. Dad performs the abstract labor necessary to pay for it all. Mom is ordinary. Dad is extraordinary.

Consider the things that junior tries to use the force on. There's the exercise bike--mostly unused in any American middle class home. The dog--the affable golden lab who just wants to lay around any American middle class home. And the American Girl-looking doll, official doll of the American middle class daughter.

There's also the laundry machine, and then the peanut butter sandwich. Here's where I want to start focusing in on the character of Mom. Mom takes care of her little one. She, ostensibly, is the one busy doing laundry, taking the dog out for a walk, tidying up the house, and making lunch. Junior tries to get the laundry machine to start. But only mom can get the stains out of his cape. And what about Mom's sandwich? It's miraculous that Mom provides food, and yet all she gets from her ungrateful little one is a shrug. Seriously, when you're a kid, it should seem much more amazing that Mom just always has something made for lunch. The point is that it is magical that Mom is there to make sandwiches, do the dishes, and clean everyone's clothes. The little brat just shrugs it off--same way we probably did.

In this commercial, Mom makes everything work in the ordinary landscape of the domestic sphere. Everything that is boring and yet necessary to the reproduction of the child's life comes off as uninteresting. It literally fails to come to life for the child, even as Mom's labors are the life-giving force behind everything.

And then Daddy returns.

We've all been here. Daddy gets home from work. When we're extremely young, we might run to the door and greet Daddy with a hug and a kiss. But when we get a little older, and we're home from school on summer break, it just sucks that Daddy has to leave. We resent him for going off every day to do his "work." Junior acts the way most seven or eight year-olds would act, avoiding the hug and wanting instead to show Pa what they've been doing all day. That is, Lil' Vader runs past his father and gets to work on the car, aiming to show Dad that cool and very important things happen at home too! Daddy shouldn't leave because COOL STUFF HAPPENS HERE.

The car starts. The kid is absolutely freaking stunned.

There are two significant parts to the shots that make this into a joke. One is the knowing eyebrow gesture from the father. Is it just me, or can we all imagine the mother saying something like "Oh, our offspring has been traipsing around the house all day trying to use the force on something." Dad then says: "Wait, I know what to do," and whips out his magic tool.....*cough*

In other words, it is the abstract, magical labor of Daddy, who is coming back from the far off land of "WORK" that brings the climax of this mini-narrative. Father also sustains the order of the house--but in a more abstract way in the mind of the child. He is the one who leaves every morning to earn money at his (probably white collar--I mean, did you notice the lawn and the hardwood floors??) job, leaving the Dark Lord with Mommy. And now, in the final scene, it is Dad's machine that reacts to the child's game. The departure and return of Daddy is symbolized by the car itself. That the child can turn on the car seems symbolic of the ability to win the affirmation from the father (perhaps that's why Cute Vader turns around toward the kitchen and looks toward both parents), even as the evidence of that approval is generated by daddy.

Simply: Dad, and Dad's approval as symbolized by the car's response to the child's use of the "force" is magic. His arrival in his big car leads to the fulfillment of the child's wish--not only in the form of the car starting, but in that act's confirmation of fatherly love.

In other words, Mommy is the one who does the material work of sustaining the child throughout the day. She provides the traditionally "ordinary" work of keeping the house in order. But it's still Daddy, and his association with the Passat, that the child will remember in bed that night. It's Daddy's arrival that makes it possible for the force to work, and that serves as the ordering force of approval. The child is confirmed by the father's tool.......*COUGH*

This commercial plays on traditional assumptions about the kind of labor that is appropriate to men and women in middle class, hetero-normative, white suburban homes. Mom stays home and takes care of the kids, washes clothes, does the dishes. Dad goes off to work and becomes the site of wish-fulfillment for the child. (And actually, for Mom too. There's something inescapably sexual--"Look at me knowing how to make our kid's day. I'm so awesome"--in that raised eyebrow).

The commercial offers a variation on embedded narratives of American middle class life as old as apple pie and the Fourth of July.

Verdict: I doubt I'm the only one who thinks that contemporary middle class America should be a different kind of place: one where both parents split domestic labor. To my mind, the mundane nature of chores is made "worth it" by the simple pleasure of being able to provide comfort for those you love. Responsibilities, and the right to pursue differently meaningful work outside the home, should be shared. Duh. I'm a feminist, after all. Or at least I like to think so. Though I do know how to make a better peanut butter sandwich than my girlfriend--who incidentally thinks all of this analysis just ruins a good commercial. And okay, fine. My labor is pretty abstract. I just hope she doesn't shrug at me when I make dinner and rub her feet.

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