Pioneering a "new" America? Complicating otherness with Levi's and Walt Whitman
by Ethan Caldwell — Northwestern University
October 28, 2009 – 02:13
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”.