Posts Tagged ‘Survivor’

Brando`s Roman haircut.

In the 1950s, French critic Roland Barthes began to examine elements of daily Parisian life, reading them as signifiers for social status and ideology.  Writing regular columns for Les Lettres Nouvelles, from 1954 – 1956, Barthes would examine different cultural texts and explore how they revealed ideology.  Examining such disparate things as steak and chips, or Marlon Brando`s haircut in a film version of Julius Caesar, Barthes would explain how such things revealed our attitudes about culture and life.  Barthes` methodology  as a cultural theorist was derived in large part from structuralism.  Structuralism posits that all elements of a text are composed of signs, so for example, the word cat C-A-T is composed of three different discrete signs (C signifying the ‘ck’ sound, and so forth) each sign, signifies a different thing,(CK – A- Tuh) but when put together their unity creates a second signified – a small animal that has been domesticated – the cat itself.  For Barthes, just as language is composed of signs that point to multiple different signified meanings, all life can be understood as texts which similarly point to different signified meanings.  His example of Brando’s hair in Julius Caesar signifies the character’s Roman-ness, in the same way that in an advert for Italian pasta sauce the use of tomato and peppers (red, yellow and green) signify the pasta’s Italianicity.  The fabric of our material world is in fact a complex system of signs and signifiers which when placed together create our (biased) understanding of the world.  This means that all life, and in particular media texts, are highly political in that they signify a complex relationship to prior histories of knowledge.  Brando’s haircut is both a continuation and perpetuation of a western ‘knowledge’ of Roman culture taken from Classical roman statues as well as other films about that period.  So a haircut isn’t just a haircut, it’s a part of a discourse on history and culture.

Survivor, Heroes vs. Villains

You may be left wondering `what has this got to do with Survivor`, a current television series about supposed castaways living in exile on a deserted island and competing for a cash prize?  To begin, the clothing and haircuts of the characters in the show are a signifier of the participants’ precarious existence.  Their dishevelled appearance becomes a visual testimony to the supposed reality of their situation.  Television, a media that traditionally depicts its participants in a heightened state of grooming (contrast the Survivor contestants with those of America’s Next Top Model) is then contested with the survivors’ lack of stylists.  But the participants’ ‘reality,’ of course, is very different to what we see on screen.  While they are, without question, living in the elements, the litigious nature of television as an industry prevents them from being in any real danger.  The off screen presence of medics, producers, production assistants, directors, teamsters, camera crews, gaffers, lighters, caterers for the production staff and staff of various media sponsors guarantees that what is experienced by the participants is in fact very different (and no doubt protected) than what is shown on screen and what their rough appearance has us believe.

Is this the body of a man who eats junk food?

So on to food in Survivor.  The participants have been living their ‘in the rough’ lifestyle for a few weeks and have been sustaining their diet with what can be caught, found or fished and while their island is bountiful, the weight loss of the actors signifies their relative privation.  And so to increase motivation, the contestants compete for various food rewards.  As the weeks pass, the rewards have been provided by a number of corporate sponsors; Seven Up and the Outback Steakhouse being the two most prominent.  And here we have how food becomes a signifier.  The rewards have all been designed to signify ‘homeness’  and yet it is a particularly biased depiction of American daily culture.  The food challenges have been entirely junk food; hot dogs, seven up, pizza, a feast of chocolate, steak and (frozen, processed) shrimp from the outback steakhouse.   So how is this significant.  A group of malnourished, underfed survivors fight desperately for this food – food that is high in fat, low in nourishment.  In virtually every single episode, the participants engorge themselves on this oil rich, nutrient low diet, and discover to their surprise that afterwards they feel very sick.  This is because the richness and heaviness of the food is in fact detrimental to their now cleansed bodies.  Indeed, a low fat, high vegetable, high protein diet would be much easier on their systems, provide them with more energy and in fact be a much greater reward.  We the viewers are provided imagery of the survivors eating the food and declaiming ‘this is the best meal I’ve ever had’  ‘pizza never tasted so good’ and other such empty platitudes, shortly before vomiting up the supposedly rewarding feast.

Courtney, engorged on steak and shrimp from the Outback Steakhouse.

Why does the show provide the contestants with such unhealthy food, then, if it is so hard on their now detoxed bodies?  It is a matter of what it signifies.  The hotdogs and pizza become signifiers of the contestants’s Americanicity. For the purpose of the show, the junk food replicates the ‘modern’ lifestyle that the contestants are far removed from, but also unites the contestants with the viewers at home who are themselves induced to consume such high fat, low nutrition fare during the commercial breaks and during the product placements within the show.  The show’s programmers are colluding with the show’s advertisers to actively promote a lifestyle that is even in the show itself, demonstrably toxic, but highly lucrative to the corporate sponsors.  The power of the signifier is to combine the image of hot dogs and seven-up with an image of an imagined home-life of barbecues, family and loved ones.  Pizza, as a signifier, then, represents far more than bread, cheese and sauce but instead becomes a mythic representation of the party the contestants hope they will have when they return home with their million dollar prize.


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So I’ve examined the seven techniques of propaganda and how they have been used in political rallies and how to sway a society.  But that is not all there is to propaganda.  These techniques were developed in the 1930s, a period before television was broadcasting endlessly in peoples homes.  In the intervening years propaganda has developed substantially more sophisticated techniques.  The first modern academic to question the ways in which propaganda, and its more subtle cousin ideology take hold, was Louis Althusser.

For Althusser, society controls its people in two ways – through Repression and through Ideology.  Some would argue that money is the great controlling factor – that wages give us incentive to work – but when we look at a society closely, it seems that many people believe in institutions that don’t necessarily help them.  There are instances of factory workers who oppose unions, when unions work for the express benefit of the workers.  There are low income earners who favour withdrawal of government services, when it is those very services (schooling, healthcare, government unemployment plans) that most benefit low wage workers.  Althusser argues that these ambivalences occur because of ideology.

Althusser argues that society controls through two means, through force and through coercion.  There are RSAs, or Repressive state apparati – these are things like the legal system, schools, courts, prisons and even corporate bosses.  When a person becomes an agitator, or defies the belief systems of the majority, the repressive state apparati intervenes and corrects behaviour.  This means a teacher will punish an unruly student (speaking out of turn is not allowed) a policeman will arrest a drug dealer (non-government approved product is not tolerated), courts will sentence law breakers through confinement or even death.

The second way society takes control is through collusion – that is the shaping of peoples’ thoughts, and this is done through repetition and reinforcement.  Television, radio, newspapers – products that spread information – are called ‘ideological state apparati.’  Hollywood regularly gives us imagery of beautiful people, reinforcing for us that beauty is a more desirable trait than intelligence.  Much media displays wealth conspicuously, causing us to regard wealth as similarly a desirable life goal.  We become indoctrinated into these values through repetition and association of those images with happiness.

But the media works in a much more subtle way than this.  If we were only shown imagery of people who are better looking than us, richer than us, and happier than us, we would just mope around in a kind of jealous depression and simply stop consuming the media.  It would be too depressing to watch beautiful people cavorting about on their yachts if we honestly felt that we could NEVER join them and that our lives are inescapably dull and unsatisfying while those happy people have no troubles.  So the media plays a nasty trick.  It shows us stuff that we are expected to want, and then reminds us of how unhappy those who have attained wealth and beauty, are!  We are fed images of Jennifer Anniston as a person to emulate and to desire both to possess and be like, but then we are reminded of how she cannot maintain a stable relationship – perhaps her life isn’t so grand.  We are given images of lavish wealth, and then told ‘but money doesn’t buy happiness.’  We learn that while Angelina Jolie is a fantastic megastar with a lovely lifestyle and money and a handsome husband, she’s also batshit crazy.  In short, we are given images of a lifestyle to desire, but then when we discover it is an unobtainable lifestyle, are told that those who have obtained it are not so happy.  Perhaps we’re better off as we are.

So ideology pulls us in through presenting two sides of an argument, and insisting those are the ONLY POSSIBLE OPTIONS.  It is precisely because ideology is ambivalent (pulling us in two directions) that we fall for it and cease to look for alternative lifestyles (socialism, collectivism, feudalism, etc) presenting those two flawed lifestyles (poor but happy, rich but sad) as the only possible outcomes and presented as ‘just the way life is.’

For a practical example, lets look at the television show Survivor.  For those who may not know the show, several people from different socio-economic backgrounds are grouped into two teams and stranded on a desert island.  Then from week to week, members of the ‘tribes’ are voted off in seemingly democratic votes.  Whomever is left on the island at the end of 40 days wins a million dollars.

There are two teams and they're labelled as heroes and villains. Note the military effect from the presence of the helicopters.

So far so straightforward and fair.  And yet, the show is inherently unfair.  The show exposes democracy as nothing more than myth, as players can win or steal immunities from votes, players beg borrow and manipulate each other for favours and alliances and in short, do everything they can to make the entire process as undemocratic as possible to ensure their chances at the prize money.  And so the show manages to have it both ways, it is highly ambivalent, both positing the benefits of a capitalism that is an implied meritocracy (the winner is announced as the person who has ‘outplayed, outwitted and outlasted’ the others) while simultaneously reaffirming the very reality that democracies are inherently unfair. This results in having an ideological effect, wherein we watch the show and it justifies our position in society – if we are not as rich as we would like to be, we are compensated by the dual knowledges that perhaps we have what we’ve earned and shall have more if we continue to work hard, and also tempering our angers by providing to us proof of how unfair life and this world can be.  It justifies the attitude that it’s a ‘dog eat dog’ world, but then reinforces the myth that those who are talented and capable will get ahead.

So, tv tells us to want money, risk everything, pack up all our shit, go live on a desert island, compete, cheat, steal, do whatever it takes to get ahead, or alternatively, don’t cause life’s not fair and only cheaters ever really get ahead, and that bastard is gonna win it all, because he’s got everyone fooled and the good people, they don’t really stand a chance, but if you really wanna be rich, you should seize life by its balls, or not and stay at home and you can watch all the drama unfold in the comfort of your own home, but whatever you do, DON’T STOP WATCHING!

And go buy some seven up and hotdogs.

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