Act Four Live: Pop culture with Alyssa Rosenberg (Feb. 2)

Feb 02, 2015

When the credits come up at the movies, the pages in a book run out, or the last commercial rolls over the end of a television episode, the story might be over. But the discussion is just getting started. Here at Act Four, we’ll get together every week to talk about the best (and worst) in pop culture. We’ll also try to sort out why the stories we love mean so much to us, and what they mean for the rest of the world, from "Star Wars" to "Serial."

Hi everyone! I apologize in advance if I'm slightly punchy this afternoon. I was so shocked when the Patriots actually won the Super Bowl last night that I had to be convinced of it by my fellow viewers, and so I'm having some delayed reactions of extreme joy (magnified by revisiting Missy Elliott's extreme excellence by the Super Bowl halftime show.  hope we can all agree that , whatever our feelings on the outcome, that was some seriously well-played football last night. And now, to the questions, and what I hope will be a sprightly discussion of Super Bowl commercials.

I think the commercial that got the biggest laugh at my place was the Liam Neeson "revenge" ad. No one at the party played the game, or had any intention of doing so, but it was a funny ad nonetheless. Between Neeson and Kate Upton, these games must be making money, right?

Well, they're certainly spending money! I agree that the Neeson ad was one of the best of the night. The idea of Liam Neeson, tough guy, has become so firmly routed in our collective psyches that it was fun to see an add play his particular set of skills against a decidedly silly opponent. The spot played both on our idea of Neeson, and mocked our veneration of toughness itself. 

Ditto on the Upton ad, too. She gets cast as soft and pliable and not very smart a lot of the time, so it's fun to see someone play with that image as well, casting her as an effective and determined warrior (who still gets bathed by her handmaidens, I guess). Of course, whether that translates into game purchases is something different. Anyone out there actually playing what Neeson and Upton are selling? If so, report back in to the rest of us.

With Disney's recently announced live-action remake of their own version of Beauty and the Beast, I've been thinking a lot about film adaptations of fairy-tales and myths. I love fairy-tales, but I'm dreading all of the upcoming revisions, from the King Arthur "reboot" (blech) to the Beauty and the Beast (as much as I love Emma Watson). Frankly, something about Hollywood, especially Disney, versions of fairy-tales and fantasy in general makes me so bored for reasons I'm still grappling with (the only really good fairy-tale movie I can think of is Pan's Labyrinth, and that's a completely original story). Why do you think it's so hard to find good fairy-tale adaptations? Are there any fairy-tales you would like to see film versions of?

This is a great question! One of the things I think I found so effective about Disney's animated fairy tales is that the use of animation emphasizes the unreality of these stories. These are very much escapes. They're absolutely not anything that could happen in the real world. Recreating them with live casts takes some of that distance and that escape away.

These live action adaptations bring up an inherent problem with fairy tale storytelling right now. Since we think of fairy tales as family stories, and we treat family stories as if they can't truly frighten or upset children, lots of storytellers feel constrained from exploring the darkness that made fairy tales effective in the first place. You're left with something like "Once Upon A Time," which is a soap opera without being truly dark. And if you try to sell audiences upbeat fairy tales that emphasize the happy endings rather than the dark paths characters took to get there, you can end up looking naive.

I like that you bring up "Pan's Labyrinth," because that's what I'd really like to see in fairy tales: original stories that riff on fairy tale tropes. Patricia C. Wrede's Enchanted Forest chronicles would be perfect for this, if you want non-stupid family stories. The books are very wry about fairy tale conventions, including the evilness of dragons and witches and the helplessness of princess, but they're still sweet and optimistic. For a somewhat more adult twist on things, I'd love to see a television version of Tamora Pierce's Tortall books, which cover hundreds of years of history, major changes in civil society, and shifting roles for men and women. The interconnected series have lots of knights, princesses, romances and serious magic, but they're also not afraid to be dark and truly painful. 

What was with the many commercials last night trying to tug at the parent-child heartstrings? Especially the father/son relationship or lack thereof. Do advertising firms have the same Hollywood syndrome of many similar movies landing at the same time, or is there some cultural zeitgeist reason behind the focus on parenting to sell just about everything.

I've been talking about this idea of a new sincerity for a while, which manifests in everything from straightforward enthusiasm for pop culture to the waning appeal of Obama-style emotional coolness in politics. And I think that's very much a part of what happened in this year's Super Bowl ads. The Times ran an article after the game suggesting that brands were interested in connecting their products to larger messages about how to have a good life, in part because the mood of the country is somewhat downcast.

Like you, I find the focus on fatherhood interesting, and I've been turning it over in my mind a bit this morning. Over the past year, we've seen a much more visible discussion of men's reactions to feminism, and of other movements that are trying to reconceptualize men's roles in society. Some of these movements seem highly negative, focused more on anger towards women and the social advancements women and people of color have made in recent decades. But other conversations seem more substantive and inward-looking, and I hope we can disentangle the different threads here. I'm glad to see a discussion of what gender roles mean for me, and hopefully that can continue beyond the scope of these commercials and beyond the conversations that proceeded this weekend's advertising extravaganza.

Is the anti-vaxxer movement a right-wing thing or a left-wing thing?

Actually, I think the emergence of a class of parents who think they're exempt from our collective efforts to create herd immunity is a phenomenon that defies simple partisan characterization. A lot of the parents profiled in the New York Times in a story about the recent measles outbreak sound culturally left-wing: they're worried about toxins and focus on organic, pesticide-free foods. But we're also seeing right-leaning politicians like Chris Christie come out to defend the decision not to vaccinate as something that ought to be left up to parental choice in language that evokes freedom from government intervention. I don't necessarily think that fights over vaccination will lead to a realignment of the political parties. But they're a a vivid illustration that philosophical incoherence on both sides of the aisle right now has created space for issues like these that draw from both parties. Most of those issues, though, don't threaten to become deadly if they mushroom into political litmus tests. I dearly hope that politicians of both parties, rather than seeking an advantage here, can come to an agreement that vaccination is not about parenting style, but about our obligations to each other as citizens.

Not that it makes me want to buy Doritos, but I recognized myself trying to discourage someone taking the middle seat next to me. Nice payoff to the commercial after the guy encourages the attractive woman to take the seat (then the front side baby carrier is revealed). Funny timing and ending.

Everything about the airplane travel experience is the worst, isn't it? At least assigned seating on planes doesn't put us in the position of trying to be as unappealing to each other as possible. A side note on that ad: I also appreciated that the spot didn't feel the need to stigmatize a single mom traveling alone, and treated her like a viable subject of sexual admiration.

Loved the Liam Neeson commercial, even before the barrista mispronounced his name. Things there was no excuse for: (1) throwing the ball on 2nd-and-goal from the 1 yard line; (2) the Nationwide kids-die-in-accidents spot. Holy carp, what was that all about?

I gather the Nationwide ad was an attempt to "start a conversation." The response to it has been a good illustration of just how important is to be careful if you want to do that, and to actually lay out the terms of the debate you want to have in ways that will make it easier for people to enter into the discussion! It's provocative to get people upset, but it doesn't necessarily produce the kind of exchange you want to have.

Also worth noting: preventable actions are obviously a tragedy (and if Nationwide was going to take this route, maybe include gun safety?). But in an environment of hyper-vigilant parenting, I have some qualms about adding to parental paranoia. It would be interesting and productive if Nationwide wanted to draw a contrast between real risks to children and parental overreaction to the temporary pain of vaccine shots or neighborly nosiness about kids going to the park alone. But instead, the ad seemed to be part of a more general fear of any risk to children. That's a shame.

We all know that Bud, etc pay huge dollars for super bowl ads but how much does it cost a local company like Michael & Sons to run 3 (horrible) ads during those local time slots?

I'm trying to find an answer for you on this one, but looks like I might have to make a few calls. I'll get back to you on this one.

There seemed to be an abundance of ads going for sentimentality over humor--Dove, Nissan, insurance, Coke, McDonalds--all had major cheese factors. And of course the Budweiser Clydesdales saved a lost puppy from wolves. The ones that were effective were the 911-domestic violence call and the "run like a girl" ad--both well done.

Yes, whenever there's a prevailing tone, the ads that manage to diverge from that are going to be memorable. The domestic violence ad had a genuine feeling of danger, in contrast to the other ads that were simply glum or schmaltzy. And I thought the "Like a Girl" spot was also effective at making a real emotional connection in a way that some of the more deliberately manipulative spots didn't. Having a message that you passionately care about can make for a much more effective commercial than trying to lead with a feeling that your product doesn't quite earn.

So, T-Mobile's decision to pay that talentless fame-monger to be in their commercial has me looking for a new wireless carrier. I detest that whole clan with a great hating.

I actually think that antipathy for Kim Kardashian was the whole point of that spot. The idea that you'd spend all of your time paying attention to her is meant to be ridiculous rather than a real suggestion. You're supposed to hear that and then think about all the better things you'd do with your leftover data. In that way, it's in a class with the Neeson ad, playing off the spokesperson rather than enlisting them as a straighforward endorser of the product. I tend to like spots like these, but you can absolutely overdo it.

Could not agree more about Missy Elliot--she was awesome. I had heard that Lenny Kravitz was going to perform and I guess he pretended to play guitar long enough to sneak in the "I kissed a girl" song, but Missy E was a total surprise. Katy Perry is pop candy but did well enough. Overall, fun show.

Yes, absolutely! I think we tend to undervalue fun (especially if we're politically-conscious consumers of pop culture). Not everything has to mean something, much less unite us in love of America as defined by conspicuous consumption, as the Super Bowl halftime show so often does. Sometimes a performance like that can just be a pleasure. Now if only we'd gotten a whole 15 minutes of Missy, with a guest appearance by Ludacris on "Gossip Folks." A girl has to dream of something.

There was also a noticeable lack of sexism and misogyny pretty much across the board. Sure, Kate Upton was in there but even edgy companies like Doritos played it safe. A hopeful sign of things to come?

Well, and Kate Upton's simple presence in a spot isn't actually sexism! I appreciated that she got to be an effective warrior rather than a cupcake.

And yes, I hope so. If even Carl's Jr. is giving up on the in-game marketing of women's bodies as meat, we do seem to be entering a new period in advertising. But let's see what happens next year. It takes three to make a trend, after all.

It's interesting to read that the anti-vaxxers lean to the left. So does this group also deny science with respect to the causes of climate change? I would guess not. People pick the science that fits their opinions rather than changing their opinions to match the science.

Absolutely. But I think most people who refuse to vaccinate don't see themselves as doing that. Rather, they cling to discredited science, or point to the national vaccine industry compensation program as proof they're right, or suggest that the pharmaceutical industry has corrupted the scientific process. I wrote about this earlier this year, but there's growing evidence that appealing to scientific rationality doesn't actually convince parents who don't want to vaccinate to do so. This framework isn't effective because people don't see themselves as rejecting science. Instead, you have to use more psychologically complex and empathetic set of arguments. I understand the frustration with that, especially given how urgent the dropping rates of vaccination make this. But it's apparently what has an actual chance to work.

As a dad, I was happy to see us getting some credit for being active parents. We're usually the oafs in commercials who wash the whites with the coloreds and order pizza after burning water. We don't just do the model car building and baseball coaching, we also do laundry, cooking, and car-pooling.

Yes, I totally agree. While I don't think the media depiction of fathers is as deeply devastating as the overall portrayal of women, the clueless or disinterested father is still a dumb trope. And as the recently-departed "Parenthood" reminded us, treating fathers as if they don't do anything means leaving lots of storytelling material on the table. As a daughter who was raised by a dad who took her up on the roof to clean gutters and did wood working projects with her, I would watch the heck out of a "Parks and Recreation" spin-off about Ron Swanson, his stepdaughters and son.

I thought the ad just before kickoff that simulated the feed shutting down was great, but I realize now I can't remember what it was for so I guess it didn't work at its main job. But it totally got my attention in the moment.

I may have been distracted by the Puppy Bowl, but yeah, that doesn't ring a bell for me either.

As an "old" guy (52), I'd like to welcome you and all your compatriots to Nostalgia Land with the gushing over Missy Elliott's performance. Yes I know it is from your formative years, but man you would think that was something never seen before the way folks are talking about it.

Hey, to be fair, we've had to put up with you guys talking about your glory days while we were growing up. Treat us with amused tolerance, at least! You've been there.

And come on, you have to admit her entrance was pretty awesome.

So re: Nationwide - normally their pitch is "we've got your back, and if something happens to you, we'll replace your stuff with new or maybe even newer/better stuff." Now we've got "this kid will never have these opportunities because he died in a preventable accident," followed by a shot of a full bathtub in which a kid could (have) drown(ed). What exactly is the conversation they're trying to start? Best I can get to is "we're on your side, but no million-dollar insurance payout will get you a new or maybe even newer/better kid, so buckle the hell up." Fair enough. This is true of any insurance company and doesn't make me inclined to give Nationwide my $ because every time I think of them I will immediately go to "kids are dead." ... In other news, we really liked the Michael & Sons inflating-the-ball spot. We thought it was hilarious.

Yeah, it's not a great advertisement for the product, is it? "We'll give you a bunch of money, but we can never fill the gaping hole inside you!" might be truth in advertising, but it's hardly a compelling pitch.

I know you've touched on this before (back when you were at TP?) but as a young journalist who's lucky enough to have a job in writing, what sort of steps can I be taking to get into the culture/arts blogging scene? I already blog independently, but I'm not really sure how to translate that into a career move down the line.

Thanks for checking back in, since one things I've hoped to do with this chat that I haven't really done yet is restart that ongoing conversation from ThinkProgress about how to be a writer.

The first thing I'd say, of course, is make sure that your day job is cool with your blogging. I recognize that's precautionary. But even if you make a leap into a new kind of journalism career, it will help to have strong recommendations from your present boss. I was really lucky that Tom Shoop, the wonderful editor of Government Executive, gave me so much encouragement when I was figuring out that I wanted to write about culture rather than federal personnel policy.

The other big suggestion I have is to start creating your network. I did a ton of freelancing both before I got my first job writing about culture full-time and then while I was at ThinkProgress. Venturing beyond the confines of my own blog helped me get known to the people who were going to hire me next, and who were going to offer me my next assignments. And it helped put me in front of readers who followed me back to my home spot. You can't just expect people will find you where you are.

But that's only half of your network. NPR's Gene Demby (who is @GeeDee215 on Twitter) spent a lot of time Tweeting this weekend about PostBourgie, the group blog he created that has since spun off everyone from Buzzfeed's Shani Hilton to Slate's Jamelle Bouie. One of the points Gene was making is that PB basically replicated the Juice Box Mafia of young political bloggers here in DC. It created a group of people who were going to help each other out and lift each other up. As PB crew members got new jobs, they recommended each other for assignments and jobs. They didn't need someone to scoop them up all at once; they were each other's ladder. (I've been lucky enough to be counted among the Friends of PostBourgie over the years.) It may be a longer route than getting noticed by a big player who can hire and promote you, but finding your people online, being good to them, and knowing that you can rely on them to be good to you, will be invaluable.

I have to get back to writing, but thanks for stopping by. Talk to you all next week!

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Alyssa Rosenberg
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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