Bright Lights Film Journal

Living the New High Life: A Current Note on Race and Class in America

Or Can Tea Party Porn Strike a Blow for the American Way?

The doctrine of the American dream — encoded in that primordial equivocation, “the pursuit of happiness” — had always been too simpleminded to require a philosophy, even that of a Thomas Paine. The dream required only ceaseless propaganda; the national fantasy of joy through competition obviously persists more through advertisements and the rote indoctrinations of high school than through Common Sense, The Wealth of Nations, or any eighteenth-century disquisition on sovereignty. The advertising industry, which proclaims the right of individualism only insofar as it can be purchased, swallowed whole, and excreted economically, killed the notion of education before we had a chance to revolt. Thus do American schoolteachers — a more respectable branch of the advertising industry — ritually teach Catcher in the Rye not to stimulate rebellion but to tame it, to ensure that disaffection remains the rarefied province of literature, safely trapped between moldering paperback covers. Literature, once castrated, can then become the instrument of intent, idle competition, numerically stratified and graded. Thus does incipient rebellion become wanton docility.

A number of years ago, a television ad for Miller High Life, the ne plus ultra of blue-collar signification, perfectly encapsulated America’s oxymoronic dogma of individualist aspiration and anti-intellectual conformity. The ad imagined a faceless man settling into a leather armchair and helping himself to the beer, while an avuncular, hectoring narrator tells us he — and by extension, we — have at long last achieved the upward class mobility of the High Life by availing ourselves of a brewed concoction redolent of municipal runoff and moist bowling shoes. The ad’s power resided entirely in the narrator’s richly masculine sonorities, at once comforting and commanding. At root in the ad’s paradoxical ethos is American “aspirationalism” and an equivocating taste, which savors at once the philistine authenticity of a piss-thin, working-class malt and the bourgeois authenticity — the treachery — of a leather seating arrangement that boasts armchair privilege.

Some years later, the documentarian Errol Morris was hired to render both respectable and ironic the persona of a beer that once had been “the flagship brand for Miller Brewing Company” but had since “been repositioned as a below-premium beer,” according to industry assessments. Morris’ ad campaign remains well-known and continued the ethos of the stentorian, gruffly middle-aged Caucasian-Individualist-Yet-Conformist narrator, now pontificating about the state of an America emasculated and imperiled by parasites weak-willed, effeminate, undecided, and/or agnostic. In one commercial, we witness a neorealist close-up of greasily sizzling burgers, only for the narrating Caucasian to insist, “Something’s not quite right . . .” Thereupon a fleshly patty is slathered with soft butter by an anonymous hand, and the voice is satisfied with the reaffirmation of his gender identity: “There, now that’s a sandwich, and there’s only one beer that can stand up to a man’s meal . . . that’s living the High Life.” Importantly, upward mobility is here conflated with — and undone by — essentialist dogma.

Morris’ “Alternative Fuels” ad for Miller restores nationalist sentiment — or perhaps mocks the illusions of nationalism — merely by envisioning a poor schmuck pedaling his bicycle in the snow, while the narrating Caucasian bolsters his downtrodden spirit: “That’s the way, Patriot . . . let the OPECS keep their gasoline . . . we’ll just tap into a far more efficient energy source . . . manpower . . . if we all learn to pull our weight, no one, no one will be able to siphon away our High Life.” The ad’s effectiveness, of course, lies in a hyperbole that begs to be read ironically, as a satire on the very type of jingoism blue collar products (and their ads) seek to instill and reproduce. The ads’ irony, however, does not make them impervious to criticism, for each ad — whether it is hectoring herbivores or undeserving oil sheiks — nevertheless assumes that both hero and omniscient narrator are archetypally white, middle-class, and inescapably male.

Far more nuanced, however, was Morris “Hot Dog” ad, which pictures a white-bread man perfunctorily placing boiled wieners on white-bread buns. The masculine voiceover, now familiar to the point of self-parody, philosophizes, “Who cares what’s in a hot dog? . . . When diverse, cast-aside elements come together to form something great . . . that’s the American way.” The proposed diversity of the hot dog — gathered, extruded, and sluiced from the foulest parts of jailed hogs — here challenges the racial purity of the Anglo who consumes it, and to whom the commercial is presumably addressed. The wiener’s hybridized and synthesized parts, once consumed and processed for a second time — now within the hero’s convoluting intestines and constricting colon — assume the sacred position that in the glory days of postmodernism had been reserved for utopian cyborgs, jargon-spinning postcolonial exiles, and border-blurring transsexuals. If the synthetics of the hot dog valiantly crusade against essentialist evils and leave behind a beautifully gray and nebulous pot of mingled societal water, the sausage’s ultimately excremental and carcinogenic ends nonetheless reproduce the everyday dictates of consumerism.

Miller High Life’s recent ads of 2010, however, completely undo the melting-pot ethos of Morris’ parboiled wieners and reinstate the common-man populism — nay, resentment — that now glowers in the era of tea parties, racist Obama paranoia, and American misapprehensions of socialism. These new, reactionary ads feature a portly black delivery man — his race a politically correct adjustment of earlier ads’ Caucasian ethos — who regularly takes umbrage as the emasculating nature of various elites he encounters. While Morris’ ads were semi-ironic, these are boorishly sincere. When the delivery man confiscates bottles of High Life from effete and tainted members of the upper crust, we are meant to applaud his class activism. When he delivers cans of beer to a sports arena, “the home of boots and hockey,” he is morally revolted to discover not true men preparing for mock battle but homosexual men desecrating his “sacred ground” with the decadence of their forthcoming dog show. “This is making me queasy,” he moans, his obese gut, normally reviled by Madison Avenue, now happily standing in for working-class ingenuousness. In a more “political” ad set at an airport baggage carousel, the same delivery man, mispronouncing “Iraq” as well as any George W. Bush impersonator, reprimands tourists with name-brand luggage and extols the character of a homecoming soldier whose duffle bag bears only his proud and unpretentious Christian name. Obviously, the names of the soldier’s actual or possible destinations — such as “Abu Gharib” or “Guantanamo” — must remain an unspeakable afterthought.

Miller’s new ad campaign is hardly surprising in a time of false populism and archconservatives pretending to libertarianism — a propagandistic era in which even supposedly leftist commentators (i.e., a Bill Maher or Michael Moore) must position themselves as patriots at heart, lest they be run out screaming on rails. The use of an African American common man in the Miller ads is telling, however — whatever face the new populism reveals, it must pretend to multiculturalism and argue that class, not race, is at stake. But America’s recrudescent if thinly veiled racism could not fully prepare me for the joyous racism of the pornographic video Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Daughter (2008)1, which not only discloses shamelessly the white man’s anxieties about his looming minority status in the 21st century, but exploits those anxieties as a fount of masochistic titillation.

The video reveals better than any satire — if we assume the video is not itself satirical — the antediluvian, or at least antebellum, fears that still linger from the irrational age of racial purity laws, quadroons and octoroons, and Pace vs. Alabama, the 1883 Supreme Court ruling that would uphold for over eight decades the Christian righteousness of America’s anti-miscegenation statutes. It is worth quoting verbatim the DVD sleeve’s advertising copy, which declaims the presumed Caucasian fears of the Miller High Life demographic:

You had big hopes for your daughter. She was your pride and joy — your little princess. But then she fucked a Negro. She’ll never find a good man now. She’s doomed to be a revolving door for unemployed black penis. So, you can forget about early retirement and moving down to Florida. It’s time to find a second job to support your daughter and her fatherless half-Negro baby.2

The very existence of Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Daughter! instantly refutes conservatives’ contentions that we are somehow “post-racial” or that opposition to Obama is based purely on ideological opposition rather than a vestige of raw, wide-eyed bigotry. Indeed, here is hard evidence that the white man, roiling in socioeconomic desperation and lamenting his illusorily materialist American dream, is now prepared to pitifully masturbate according to his very sense of disempowerment. And we certainly cannot argue with the visceral, psychic truth of the masturbatory impulse, especially as the video has warranted two sequels to date.

It will be necessary here to give something a précis of the production, which is divided into four segments and begins with the type of “percussive” theme music usually associated with televised police procedurals. Most remarkably, there is dialogue throughout each of the sex scenes, which are filmed handheld and in one unbroken take. The porn actors are here called upon to truly act — to improvise in part, I assume — and create a nearly Sadean chamber play, as unabated (if admittedly unphilosophical) dialogue provokes and accompanies acts of fucking throughout entire half-hour scenes. In each episode, a middle-aged, middle-class father witnesses in his living room illicit congress between a black man and a spoiled, infantile daughter who is meant to appear underage. Importantly, in each case we learn the father is a divorcee unable to sexually satisfy his wife, who has inevitably deserted the pathetic salaryman for the virility of an ebony stud.

While the father is positioned at the screen’s margins during each scene of intercourse, the sex act remains more or less centered, and titillation is produced only when the father’s ghastly reactions are considered together with the crucial act of fucking — in other words, the intended orgasm of the White Spectator results from a triangulated gazing among father, daughter, and dark plunderer of bourgeois treasure. The character of the patriarch is key, for in each episode, the actor portraying the father is called upon to deliver a performance whose bulging veins, anguished forehead, and overall incredulity must arouse in the White Spectator a gripping emasculation and subsequent descent into masturbatory self-pity.

I am now obliged to reproduce the first several minutes of Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Daughter:

(A childish and bratty white girl is engaging a well-hung black man in his twenties; the middle-aged father enters the scene of coitus horror-struck)
Father: “Holly, I’m home . . . what the fuck is going on here? What are you doing? It looks like you’re having sex!”
Daughter: (impishly) “You have sex . . .”
Father: “I pay the bills young lady! (he continues to observe the galling act) Are you just going to continue to do this?”
Daughter: (giggling naughtily in the midst of her transgression and then commenting on her partner’s great member) “It tickles!”
Father: (literally hovering over the act of disrepute) “I do not work and pay these bills so you can sit around having sex underneath my roof . . .”
Daughter: (in the voice of a small girl) “Daddy, you’ve seen me having sex plenty of times . . . you only have a problem when I’m doing it with a nigger.”
Father: “Holly, don’t use that kind of language!”
Daughter: “Daddy, you call them niggers all the time!”

At this point, the “negro” seducer blithely and mechanically continues to plow his fertile soil, apathetic to the insult; yet the white man’s outrage — easily keeping pace with the tea party-ism of our current political landscape — is held in check by a sudden, unexpected blush. The father quickly apologizes to his daughter’s deflowerer, stammering, “I don’t know what she’s talking about,” while the assailant, glancing admiringly at his raging spear, coolly responds, “Hey, they come in all shapes and sizes . . . ” There is more voyeuristic comedy before the father finally recovers from his blush and repeats an old fascist rallying cry: “This is not a sport! It is decadence!” Yet his initial blush is telling, for it betrays a moment of self-consciousness in an absurdist scenario that otherwise proceeds without psychological realism. This moment is perhaps a mistake on the part of the filmmakers, who fail to realize that the father, by blushing, is breaking character. Yet if the blush is a knowing, intentional gesture, it summarizes well enough the teetering hypocrisies of America’s cable-TV racism, which habitually allows the white man to offer up his “natural” indignation and then rejoin with easy (if red-faced) justifications. When the screwing is finished, the father is left drained of every last drop of his indignation, and then suffers one final dishonor — he must begrudgingly cook a chicken dinner for his daughter’s ravisher, who must then go home, “back to the ghetto.”

The next three episodes provide slight variations on the emasculatory-masochistic theme. In the second episode, the father returns to his bourgeois home only to deliver the line, “What the fuck — my daughter is sucking my best friend’s dick!” This father, another divorcee, has “finally gotten custody” of his precious daughter, whom he admonishes in bigoted terms meant to titillate: “Sucking a black cock? Do you know what that does to your future? You’re fucking ruined!” The father then repeats a variant on the standard mantra of die-hard conservatives — “It’s one thing to have black friends, but I don’t need my daughter sucking their dicks!” — and then presses against his brat’s enhanced bosom, threatening to repossess her implants should she flout his racist mandates. The third episode, less violent, features an entitled daughter (“We’re rich and we’re white — we can do whatever we want!”) whose father relents to her demands and produces for her a Nubian god, who enters nude, erect, and ready. In the final and most brutal episode, the nigrescent house-breaker turns valiant defender when the incensed father slaps his daughter during the sex act: “Hey, don’t slap this bitch while she’s sucking my dick!” he sensibly protests. After displaying for the camera the black-and-blue marks elsewhere inflicted by her father, the daughter becomes defiant, daring her possessor to strike her again as she gags on her champion’s ancestral spear and spits forth his cum. The brutish father, unsurprisingly, is thus defeated by a weapon thicker than blood.

Admittedly, the fantasy of eternal daughterly virginity is one of literature’s oldest tropes — it is the basis of, for instance, All’s Well That Ends Well, wherein Helena mobilizes her chastity as a cunning means to secure an unwilling husband in a body politic ruled arbitrarily by the French king. In Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Daughter!, a more modern struggle for property rights is (re)located to the brazen vulvae of promiscuous urchins who, staging a kind of “reverse primal scene,” emasculate patriarchal figureheads. In each case, patriarchy has already been emasculated by the trial of divorce and abandonment; yet a second emasculation is required to rebuke an American court system that would award custody of the daughter to a tyrant. The French king of All’s Well has a bit of grace still in him; America’s petit bourgeois despots, however, must gag on the spectacle of a final despoiling, and though they may retain their cocks, masturbation becomes their sole and eternal recourse.

The father’s anguished voyeurism in each scene reveals the video’s argument — the inward nature of bigotry is a literally incestuous phenomenon. If pornography moots the bourgeois interventions of allegory and in its tastelessness strips ideology to its roots, Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Daughter! might well become required viewing for every closet racist. I don’t believe the White Spectator will learn anything new about himself as he clutches at his penis, fantasizing about the recession, anchor babies, and precious white resources fallen into the hands of black men, but his post-orgasmic blush will at least chasten him a bit. At the same time, I am aware that the opposite fantasy — of African Americans aspiring to assimilatory whiteness — still persists. The amazingly titled skin-lightening product “Civic Cream,” for instance, tells us by its very name that certain black people3 not only desire bleached skin but believe cream-enhanced whiteness is the appropriate pathway to a more “civic” identity.

We might call this pornographic scenario a mere satire were there not an actual (and profitable) demographic ready and willing to exact masochistic pleasure from it. Indeed, it is easy to imagine a new “conservative” subgenre of pornography arising to accompany the times. Topical variants on the ancient theme of social pollution — Oh No! There’s a Jihadist in My Daughter! or Oh No! There Are Zionists in My Daughter! — may already be in the works. The impulse toward self-pity is not necessarily wicked, however, nor is its galled catharsis gratuitous. What we need, perhaps, is a more productive way for the empowered to pity themselves, for even white men deserve to be pitied for their crimes. Though post-Obama America now endures a reactionary political crisis in which white conservatives refuse any appearance of acquiescence, it also high time for the conservative to expose himself to ridicule and, now in this video, publicly masturbate, flagellate himself, beg for mercy, and in the spectacular process finally come clean. Then the self-pity he has long held in check will at least mean something to us.

  1. The video’s credits list production dates in the spring of summer of 2008, before Obama’s landslide, though these pornographers are hardly demonstrating great prescience. []
  2. The ad copy for Oh No! There’s a Negro in My Daughter 3 (2009) is even more militant: “like your forefathers warned, danger lurks in racially integrated societies — especially for your young and fertile white daughters.” []
  3. Here I use the term “black” rather than “African American” intentionally; because “Civic Cream” is often sold in Jamaican and African neighborhoods in the United States, we cannot assume the cream’s users are American citizens. []