Commercials both fascinate and horrify me; they are microcosms of popular culture, and they often grossly stereotype people and personalities. We are constantly surrounded by the definitions that society has created for us. The sheer repetition of certain gender roles (among other things) performs us as a culture and society. This dated Burger King commercial is one example. It is telling us what it means to be a man, to be macho (this commercial aired in 2006 and became so popular that the jingle is now known as the “manthem”). One of the things that it takes to be a man is to eat big, disgusting burgers from Burger King. Other things include yelling loudly with fists in the air, objectifying women, and pushing minivans (a vehicle of emasculation) over highway overpasses.
Jacques Lacan (some of you just checked out, but I promise I don’t really understand Lacan and so we will spend only a quick moment on French psychology) expanded his mirror stage of infant development to include adulthood. We make the mistake of thinking we are a unified and individual self (what we see in the mirror), when actually we are constructed of the symbolic structures that surround us. These structures include expectations that existed before our birth and also include the mirror we look into every day of media, language, society, and yes, perhaps religion.
Being created in God’s image, or having the divine woven into us like a thread (I much prefer that phrase), might seem problematic to someone like me, someone who barely believes at all but certainly doesn’t believe in a God with a certain, human-like countenance. But this divine thread (yes, I’m sticking with it) is one of the countless images swirling around and bouncing up against us, peering out of the mirror Lacan is holding up in front of us. I find it reassuring to think we each have this thread to hold on to, to form an anchor of sorts against the cacophony of the world as mirror.
We have to resist the definitions society wants us to fit into. Commercials may seem like harmless fun until you accept the constant, numbing background they have become to our lives, and our children’s lives. We think of commercials as being on television, but the images and ideas that appear during our sit-coms and football games appear countless times throughout a day, on billboards, on the sides of city buses, in magazines and newspapers, on internet pages, ahead of youtube videos, on a banner at the top of email, on retail bags, on food and beverage containers, on the back of tickets to sporting events, on napkins and coasters at the neighborhood bar, and so forth and so on. How do we know what thoughts are original to us and which have simply implanted themselves due to the overreaching hand of advertising? The repercussions are much more sinister than kids begging for Happy Meals or Disney vacations, I assure you.
So I love that the Newell book says, “to believe that we are born in God’s likeness is to believe that what is deepest in us is mystery . . . We can be ‘contained within no definition’” (Eriugena, qtd. in Newell pg. 85). The Burger King commercial enforces an extremely rigid definition of what it means to be manly. All genders should be insulted by such a definition. By the implications of this commercial, men can’t be vegetarians or even enjoy diverse and healthy foods; they can’t be shackled to emasculating family responsibilities; and they definitely can’t let a woman influence a decision as important as what to eat (and this analysis, focused on machismo, ignores even more disturbing analyses focused on race and sexuality). Some might think I’m reading a little much into a simple commercial, but I think the real danger is that most of us don’t deconstruct the rhetoric that surrounds us.
We can be contained within no definition. Thank God.