Don’t Look Back and Sneer

Schlitz Beer Ad 1950sLast year, I wrote a rather angry article, Michelle Obama and Downton Abbey. It is well known that the First Lady is fond of the show, as I have been. But it allows people to look back at that time and say, “Oh, we are so superior!” You see, we don’t treat gays and former prostitutes quite as badly as we used to. Ain’t we great?! Meanwhile, we allow our own injustices to continue on. And I’m not talking about ones that are so ahead of our time that we don’t even know about them. I’m talking about things like the selective enforcement of cannabis laws that manages to label huge numbers of young black men as felons for the rest of their lives.

So it’s always dangerous to feel too smug about how enlightened you are. I totally agree that it is best that we no longer hang witches in this country. (But don’t consider it enlightened that we didn’t burn them; the Catholic Church made that illegal in 785.) So I was excited to see that Business Insider had published an article, 26 Shockingly Offensive Vintage Ads. Some of them aren’t actually so bad — more simply reflecting the times. There is, for example, a 1940 Plymouth ad that shows a white couple, and attending to them is a uniformed black man carrying suitcases — and very happy in his job! The ad is conflating owning a Plymouth with being rich (that is, having a uniformed black servant). Charles Howard is shown in the movie Seabiscuit as having a black servant, and I don’t recall anyone complaining that it was racist.

But most of the ads are horrible. There is a 1950s Schlitz beer ad (see above) that shows a kitchen. A woman is holding a skillet that has smoke floating out of it; with her other hand, she has a handkerchief up to her eyes. Here husband has his arm around her, smiling and pointing to two bottles of Schlitz on the table. He says, “Anyway, you didn’t burn the Schlitz!”

Van Heusen AdThe best example is a 1950s Van Heusen ad. Now in a certain way, this isn’t really racist. It is highly ethnocentric. And it implies that all Americans are white. And that America is 80% of the planet. But what the ad is saying is that unless you are a tribal chieftain in the jungles of Africa, you wear Van Heusen shirts.

Okay, I was overstating above. The ad is racist. But it isn’t anywhere near as racist as all the photoshopped images of Obama as witch doctor that were so popular among conservatives from pretty much the moment he took office. It is not making a cultural comparison as in the Van Heusen ad; it is saying that our president is a primitive from another continent (and even time).

What was most striking about the Business Insider article is that right after it was, The 20 Most Hilarious And Clever Print Ads Ever. Mostly, I didn’t find them that great. But the two page DHL ad is nothing short of brilliant. However, it is quickly followed by the Bijouteries Natan: The first remote control ad. You’ve got to see this one:

Bijouteries Natan: The first remote control

I suppose I have no reason to complain. I was promised “clever” ads; there was no promise that they wouldn’t be offensive. But here’s the thing: I’m sure that the type of person who reads Business Insider today is the kind of person who would have found the Van Heusen ad “hilarious and clever” in the 1950s. And there is the point for Alyson Shontell and Kim Bhasin and Patricia Laya (the writers of those articles) and Michelle Obama and you and, most of all, me. We haven’t landed anywhere. In 20 years, that Bijouteries Natan ad is going to look totally sexist — unless we decide that sexual relationships are simply going to be pay-to-play. We must look to the future. We have come a long way, but on an infinite trip, that doesn’t mean much. Looking back at how awful we used to be is just a way of ignorantly showing how awful we now are.


In 2008, the people of “liberal” California voted to deny same-sex couples the right to marry. That was just six years ago.

3 thoughts on “Don’t Look Back and Sneer

  1. You could argue, for example, that in 50 years that DHL ad will strike people as really awful; it’s based on the consumption of jet fuel, one of the more dirty carbon pollutants.

    Here’s a beer sign depicting the largest mass execution in US history, at Mankato, MN, in 1863:

    There are actually several varieties of this beer ad; some feature officers drinking beer with the hanging of the Sioux in the background.

    I also am leery of snickering at the past. Cultural norms then, as now, were set by a handful, and most people went along so as not to be socially isolated. (We can’t all be John Browns.)

    How shocking these ads seem (or the behavior depicted in "Mad Men" or movies about slavery) is in itself something of an indicator. I think James Baldwin once wrote that white Americans aren’t ignorant about Black history — they’re ignorant about their own. Something about our culture always erases the past. No German would be shocked by seeing Nazi propaganda posters; they see them in school, as kids. If you put those sexist/racist ads (or the mass-hanging one) in a schoolbook, the right-wing media would go berserk. Why beat a dead horse? We’re perfect, now.

    People apparently feel a need to believe they are associated with The Best. The best god, the best race, the best country, the best sports team, the best . . . you name it. (Why else list TV ratings and movie box office sales?) We seem to shun our ugly past (made up of people just like ourselves) the way we shun failure of any kind. As if things not The Best are contagious; we might inhale their unclean miasma and become infected. It’s odd.

  2. @JMF – Great link. Fifteen years before Little Bighorn, so that’s something.

    Like I said before, it’s the myth of the end of history. Baldwin understood white Americans better than we know ourselves. He remains one of the most quotable people when it comes to racism in America. And died almost three decades ago. And most of the writing was from 60 years ago.

    It seems that the only thing that needs to be improved is how an iPhone is built. And that isn’t done in America, so who cares? We’re always chanting, "We’re number one!" But no one ever says what we’re number one at. And as Sam Diamond said in [i]Murder By Death[/i], "To me, you look like number two, know what I mean?"

  3. We’re #1! Our national parks and most city libraries do kick serious ass. Maybe Canada’s are just as good if not better. But ours are pretty damn good.

    When I was taking online college courses in political science, I used to post that question to fellow students. Imagine a giant ozone hole erupted over North America. You have to evacuate, and the other countries have all graciously agreed to accept our refugees. Where would you go? What would you miss?

    Most ignored the question or said they’d miss "freedom." Those who took it seriously said they’d miss their friends who went elsewhere.

    Since I am no lover of America per se (it’s nice, and all), I’d miss the national parks. The libraries. Baseball. I do like baseball. Japan does, too. TV. I like some of our TV shows. England has some good ones, too. Maybe music; we did cross-fertilize Black and folk to make something awesome, although the rest of the world picked up on this fairly quickly. Um, George Clooney? Pad Thai restaurants? Convenience stores where you can get aspirin and toilet paper at any hour of the night, those are . . . convenient.

    No, I’ll stick with national parks. (I’m guessing libraries are good elsewhere.) Our national parks are no more spectacular than anyplace else’s, but the thing about natural wonders is they are, after all, wonderful. Just because I’ve seen Crater Lake and Mount Rainier doesn’t make me less interested in the Grand Canyon or Mesa Verde. (Seeing some natural wonders makes me want to see more.) Our national parks make America unique, just as the natural wonders of other places make them unique. The rest of it? Um . . . convenience stores. Those come in handy.

    If we were conquered, tomorrow, by foreign foreigners who demanded I get up every day and sing a song to their flag, I really wouldn’t care unless they asked me to get up too early. Or if they fucked with our libraries/national parks. Them’s fightin’ words.

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