Pioneering a "new" America? Complicating otherness with Levi's and Walt Whitman

Curator's Note

Levi’s is painting a new America, one pair of jeans and monochromatic commercial at a time.  In its latest advertisement, viewers are given a minute long recital of “America” by Walt Whitman, a poem which promotes a unified American society during the mid 1800s.  His words are immortalized in bold faced white letters as part of the monochromatic imagery of select people and aspects of American life.  The mediated imagery in the Levi’s commercial is constructed to reflect a new, pluralistic America that harkens to the classical Whitman piece.  Instead, these images perpetuate norms that maintain the black-white binary through the absence of the other.

 

A true representation of the American population is absent in the commercial.  While the majority of the characters in this piece are either black or white, one is left wondering where the rest of America is.  In a scene where a Latin American male sips from a cup and offers his thanks in prayer, the other is introduced, but how do they fit into this America of black and white?  How does the other–Asian Americans, Native Americans, and other ethnic groups– fit into the American narrative?  These groups are silenced and omitted to police the divisions of where communities are situated in the black-white binary.

 

Instead, the commercial presents a dominant discourse of what is considered American.  If taken for truth, the imagery shows African Americans and Caucasians ingrained in their relative positions in society, distanced from one another such that the only interracial contact comes from a once forbidden romance.  Is there room to show otherwise—Caucasians idle in a low income neighborhood, an African American CEO, or an interracial couple beyond an African American male and Caucasian female? Messages such as these depict a rarely acknowledged truth, which has the potential to disrupt the black-white binary, intergroup relations and conceptions of American society.

 

The monochromatic imagery belies the color figuratively and literally in America.  In a country whose population is rooted and can be represented globally, it leaves one to wonder how American one needs to be in order to be fairly represented.  I am skeptical to whether this is actually a new America Levi’s is pioneering, or one that is all too familiar.  If this is the America that Levi’s and others want to continue to promote, I will not be one to “go forth”.

 

Comments

Susanne Hamscha's picture

 Ethan, thanks for your

 Ethan, thanks for your thought-provoking piece. I think the Levi’s ad you discuss invites us to reconsider how Americanness is constructed and who is denied access to hegemonic conceptions of Americanness. If we concede that hegemonic Americanness is conceptualized along the unmarked categories "white," "straight," and "male," then the systematic exclusion of non-white, non-straight, and non-male individuals from that particular notion of Americanness becomes all too obvious.

mso-ansi-language:DE”>I absolutely agree with you that the Levi’s ad doesn’t paint a new America, but rather solidifies hegemonic conceptions of Americanness, because (as you rightly point out) a considerable part of the population isn’t represented in this ad; moreover, the part of the population that DE”>is mso-ansi-language:DE”> represented is so in a quite problematic manner.  Instead of promoting a pluralistic America, the ad’s imagery solidifies the black-white binary and reaffirms whiteness as the hegemon against which all other ethnicities are being measured.

mso-ansi-language:DE”>This is troublesome and disconcerting, but it also makes me wonder how we can arrive at a representation of America that is fair to all parts of the population. A way in which this could be done is perhaps through a transnational perspective on America. As America/n/ess cannot be defined without an Other against which it can position itself, the easiest way to avoid othering within American culture seems to be the positioning against an Other that lies outside American culture. A productive, non-hostile positioning against an Other (e.g. Europe?) that does not carry with it the same complex baggage that ethnic groups within the U.S. do, would ideally trigger a reconceptualization of Americanness and let us arrive at a more pluralistic, inclusive notion of "America. " The key would be to perceive that Other as a productive site of exchange and reflection, and not as a threat to one’s identity.

Kimberly Alecia Singletary's picture

A question of audience

I wholeheartedly agree with Susanne on this one. This video omits a “real” America in favor of one that is already understood and, thereby, commercial (i.e. easily sold to the populace because have accustomed [at least theoretically] to black/white pairings). That blackness is juxtaposed against whiteness through this commercial, even as it looks equal, the original definitions of the “races” stay intact.  We are meant to see how things are prosperous and happy, but we aren’t meant to question why a black/Chinese/Colombian/mixed-race woman isn’t a CEO

What I found really interesting, was the use of the scratched in white letters that matched the scratchy feel of the recording in the ad.  We are meant to think of America and Americans as scratching their existence upon the earth, to make this expanse of earth into what we know as America.  Thinking about the way black males figure so prominently in this video, I wonder about audience and for whom this video is made.  White males are pictured as professionals but the black males are by and far, the most prominent. 

They are young, they are “going forth” they are showing their strength, making their way over barriers, and forging new friendships (and romantic relationships) in ways that would have been banned years ago.  I don’t know what to make of this, really, because if the audience were black people, it would serve that black women would be in the video, in some respect, in fact, the only women, shown as potentially desirable (i.e. out of adolescence) are white women.  So in that respect, this video does not only reinforce staid notions of Americanness and the black/white binary, it also locks into place old, tired notions of beauty, and women of color as lacking beauty that is inherent in “American” (read: white) women.  

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