Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Whole Foods as a site of commodity fetishism - in media, so it's meta!

I found this neat video called "It's Gettin' Real in the Whole Foods Parking Lot" on the internet this afternoon, and thought I'd share it with the Shtetl Nation.  It's pretty clever, featuring a white man rapping about the postmodern perils of upscale grocery shopping, but its real genius lies in its ability to combine two of my major interests in life: quinoa and cultural commodification.

I once took a class called "Race, Gender, and the Media," in which we explored the colonialist impulse to identify and appropriate the cultural markings of "exotic" groups.  In this way, these groups become less threatening and more conquerable.  Evidence of this practice can be found in modern media: when Gwen Stefani profits from parodying Japanese culture in her music and fashion line, when Smirnoff releases a "gangster rap" video featuring white performers swilling its latest beverage offering, and other similar examples.

Below is an excerpt from a paper  - - years after college, I'm still recycling papers - - I wrote for that class, in which I examine parodic representations of race in the above-mentioned Smirnoff commercial and Weird Al's satirical take on a rap song popular at that time, "Ridin' Dirty." I think the footnotes are jacked, but the ideas are still just as relevant: Nothing is too sacred to be packaged and sold, even that which is derived from racism.

This Whole Foods video presents issues of cultural appropriation similar to those I address in the following text.  The white protagonist uses the rap music medium - traditionally a form of black artists - to express an experience that is solidly in the realm of the white upper class - shopping at Whole Foods.  In fact, the only black people featured in the film are Whole Foods employees, one of whom apparently was solicited to rap a line towards the end of the song.  It is possible this inclusion was intended to legitimize the song as real rap, with a real black person rapping in it.

So all humor aside, this video presents a white man taking ownership over what has traditionally been a black art form, one that derives from rough-and-tumble urban culture often used to address concerns of poverty, abuse by police, and other markings of systematic racism.  The man adopts this form to chronicle concerns over finding a parking space for his expensive hybrid car. The irony is that such a character profile lends the suggestion that there is concern for bodily and environmental health, though the use of the rap medium betrays an indifference or even mockery of real social ills.

Gangsta culture, born from historical race- and class-based oppression, commonly expresses suspicion of white people and seeks to ostracize them through the establishment of social codes that legitimize the inclusion of a select black community. Weird Al Yankovic and Smirnoff use their respective films, "White and Nerdy" and "Tea Partay," to depict the white experience of this social dynamic. The videos fashion a white identity in relation to a stereotyped version of gangsta culture, and though they intend to target their humor at these decidedly un-gangsta white people, ultimately the films serve to reinforce the existing reality of white social dominance.
The white-produced videos' negative depictions of white people as preppy and nerdy are forms of mimicry representative of Rosa Linda Fregoso's "humor as subversive de-construction" ethic, through which the white characters use their own stereotyped conceptions of gangsta culture to confront social dynamics that favor blacks by denigrating whites. In these films, white people use rap, a black art form developed to express the oppressive experience of racism and classism, to challenge what they perceive as degradation by this same black community.

The white characters embody a sort of subverted inferiority complex; they feel insecurely unhip(hop) and self-consciously white. Yankovic opines of his protagonist's black neighbors, "They see me roll on my Segway / I know in my heart they think I'm white and nerdy."   Though Yankovic's protagonist professes a wistful desire to "roll with the gangstas," his basic message, as well as that of "Tea Partay," ultimately promotes his socially dominant position as a white person. The "Tea Partay" characters unapologetically rap that "haters love to clown our Ivy League educations / but they're just jealous 'cause our families run the nation." In both films, the characters overcome the "haters" by promoting their own mastery of their own chosen arts: for Yankovic, computer skills and science fiction; for the "Tea Partay" characters, wealthy WASP culture and its political, culinary, and athletic trappings.
Such parodic racial relativity, coupled with the "Tea Partay" characters' overt whiteness - that is to say, the actors clearly are not of Asian, African, or Hispanic origin -, extends white dominance into spheres of black expression and power, thus further subjugating nonwhites. The fact that Yankovic's character may not invade this sphere speaks to the oppressive, fear-governed social dynamic that dictates that nonwhite "ethnic groups are not only the object of prejudice, they are also the object of envy...The dominant white middle-class groups...find in the ethnic and racial groups which are the object of their social repression and status contempt at one and the same time the image of some older collective ghetto or ethnic neighborhood solidarity."

The "Tea Partay" characters create their own version of this "solidarity" to confront the truth that they also have no valid place inside black gangsta culture. However, the "Tea Partay" characters  manage to circumvent the hopelessness that the Yankovic character expresses upon finding himself on the wrong side of an exclusive social grouping; they create the "New England gangsta" personality by first appropriating the term "gangsta."
Unlike Yankovic's protagonist, the "Tea Partay" characters do not seem to need black people for self-validation. They too use black gangsta culture as a social referent to govern acceptable behaviors (colloquial mannerisms, for one), but only to the extent that they may transmute the gangsta esthetic to fit their own preppy style; "Tea Partay" and "White and Nerdy" in this way use gangsta culture as an artistic model....

1 comment:

  1. I found this video to be a form of Blackface--making fun of the white whole foods subculture through a Blackface rap medium. But part of the alleged "comedy" was at the expense of Black culture--as I think you are suggesting in your blog.