Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Heracles: Modern Lessons from Ancient Tales

What can Ancient Greek texts tell us about our modern times? Aquila Theatre would argue they tell us just as much today as they did when they were first performed. In the case of Euripides's Heracles during the Peloponnesian War during the 400s BCE, the horrors of war and violence brought home mirror the stories of today's veterans. At the USC Vision and Voices event I attended last night, I was in absolute awe at the integration of Greek themes in modern wars, not the least of which were two of the actors who were themselves veterans of the Vietnam War. Additionally, the chorus, a staple of Greek theatre, was played by footage of interviews with veterans echoing themes of chorus lines in the original script. The acting was impressive, especially behind the main characters' masks and the interpretation of madness striking Heracles was nothing short of incredible. The real reason I would like to write this post, though, is not necessarily to praise the play, but to discuss the salient points about war and narrative that it evokes.
Heracles Performance

What was most striking about the event was the similarity in war narratives from all veterans from WWII to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, which were all ultimately similar to the Peloponnesian narrative of Heracles. The themes of loss, isolation, madness, and brotherhood span the gaps of space and time and were apparent in every veteran's war narrative. I will expand about these similarities below, but first, I would like to pose the question about what this means for our servicemen and women, that they have a unifying, common experience that the rest of society cannot hope to even imagine? How can a return to civilian life ever truly occur? Has the experience of war created permanently fractured minds and roles for the veteran?

A common theme was one of brotherhood and isolation during and after times of war. An Iraq veteran discussed the scariest moment of his service was when he saw his bunk mate disappear in a cloud of sand produced by a mortar. The fear of losing his friend, not the danger to himself was the moment he remembered, the feeling he had was of brotherhood and loyalty to the friend. Theseus was this friend to Heracles in the play, where he immediately forgave Heracles for murdering his family because of the friendship that they had. Even going so far as to help Heracles up, though he was covered in blood, to take him to Athens to start again. The bonds creating through fighting side by side, risking lives side by side as one veteran described as happening with people who were "previously strangers" not months before. These bonds become stronger than blood and isolate soldiers from friends and family who were not at war. One of the first scenes was of a woman who was lamenting her loss of relationship with her family who now did not know her. She could not be the person she was after war, because that person was foreign to them. Instead, she had to start over, completely from scratch, to build a relationship with her own family. A younger sister had aged from a child to a college student and they were to each each other, complete strangers.

The final theme that pervaded the stories was that of madness. Many interviewees mentioned comrades in war that has become obsessed with killing and the power that came with it. One veteran told a story of a soldier who had stopped another soldier from killing an old man. Instead of killing the man, he lit up a cigarette for each of them. After lighting the cigarettes and enjoying a few puffs, the soldier then proceeded to kill the man, previously showing mercy, then showing incredible hate and fury soon afterward. The madness of Heracles was similarly swift and temperamental, influenced by interference from the Gods. Although Heracles was ultimately able to find some solace in knowing that his actions were not completely his own, today's veterans can take no refuge from their actions, because no matter how influenced by the terrors of war, there are still performed by their own hands.

Within the topic of madness, it is easy to apply Burke's dramatist pentad. When one analyzes the five points of  an event (act, actor, agency, purpose, and scene), emphasizing one part over the other can lead to different conclusions about responsibility and motivation. The story of the old man can be seen as: actor - soldier, act - killing the old man, scene - war torn Iraq, purpose - killing the enemy, and agency - the military weapon and command. If one emphasizes the purpose, scene, and agency, that this was a soldier commanded by superior officers in a time of war to kill the enemies, then the act can be justified as heroic, honorable, and a call of duty. Emphasizing the act, and the actor, however changes the event from a war-time standard to a single man, a soldier, but a solitary one under no direct duress, killing an elderly man. When you minimize scene, the time of war, and instead just focus on the killing of an elderly man after a sign of compassion becomes a terrible, horrific, and unjustifiable act of murder. One thing is certain, one can never truly separate any of these five, just as one cannot separate a soldier from his duty and the scene of war. Is the soldier's act truly one of madness then? Or is it a justified response given the situation and motivation for the action?  In either interpretation, there is a theme of madness and its effects on a soldier that is prominent and of great importance to the sanity and well-being of soldier's returning home.

The play was a marvel in that it succinctly and uniquely linked the modern atrocities of war with a classic Greek text. The combination created a contextualization of war in theatrical terms and the application of theatre to the real world.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Against Innovation: Got Milk?

The latest set of advertisements from "Got Milk?" denigrate average Americans, scientists, and innovators who attempt to improve upon the world's health and well-being. The underlying narrative that underscores this new wave of advertisements is that the current definition of milk as cow's milk is good enough, why bother creating anything new? The two examples below clearly outline this theme of negativity.

The first commercial places a fat cat businessman on the "Board of Unnecessary" with literally money-to-burn who is looking for a way to waste his billions. With other ideas being "too practical" and "too easy", he finally decides to research how to make milk out of "beans and nuts" as a ludicrous and unnecessary endeavor. Not only does this frame the creators and manufacturers of non-cow milk products such as soy milk, almond milk, and coconut milk as evil, rich, and with bad intentions, but it also insults Americans who are foolish enough to purchase these "non-milk" products.

The caveman commercial mimics the first style of the unnecessary, but is perhaps more insulting. Instead of comparing non-milk product creators to businessmen, those who produce and purchase them are compared to primitive cavemen. Specifically, those of us who do not purchase milk are "Gary", the slow caveman who is ridiculed and scoffed at by his higher-intellect friends who cannot understand why Gary would want to make milk from a nut. I would call Gary an innovator, someone who is not just accepting what is told, but tries to create something better. Perhaps nuts are easier to come by than cows, perhaps using nuts reduces ethical concerns for the mistreatment of animals, and perhaps growing nuts does not waste gallons of water and acres of farmland. Gary, though portrayed negatively in this advertisement, has stumbled upon a healthier, more ethical, and environmentally friendly method of creating a cow's milk substitute. And we should fault him for such creativity? What other ideas would have never come to fruition if every idea was given as much scorn as the "Got Milk?" campaign treats non-milk products?

Obviously, the "Got Milk?" campaign is using these tactics to increase the purchase of cow's milk after their market has been invaded by companies such as Silk, 8th Continent, Almond Breeze, and others. The market is getting crowded and there is one thing that the other milks have in common: they do not come from cows. From a marketing standpoint, this position and isolation of other products makes sense, but I shudder to think at the consequences for consumers and the country if the ideals of milk is the only milk that should be consumed (especially if that means drinking whole milk) and that innovation against standards (the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality) is cause for criticism.

The final aspect of this new campaign that I would like to address is the new "Got Milk?" homepage entitled "many imitations, still no equal" that is an interactive game where viewers must find the "real milk", all the while being confronted with facts and ingredients about other types of milk that lie in wait on the page. Coconut milk is described as "spooky how real this looks, huh?" mocking the preservatives and gelling components of the beverage as attributing to coconut milk's fake quality, despite the ingredients being listed serving as milk's pasteurization process. Additionally, many non-milk products have a longer shelf-life due to those additives. Hazelnut milk is treated no better with the tagline "what's that stuff on the bottom? yikes" referring to the sediment that can arise in hazelnut milk (and other bean milks like soy milk), which is why they often contain the label "shake well before use". Almond milk is degraded for its color, "pretty funky color" despite its appearance as light gray on the screen, one of the closest to white. Lastly, soy milk is described as "this came from a cow? please" even though soy milk has never claimed to be from a cow. I can only surmise that this claim comes from soy milk's appropriation of the term "milk" for its product. And although it may not be milk as in the traditional definition (which specifically mentions being produced by a mammal), these products use the word milk as an indicator for how their product should be used: as a milk substitute.

Innovation is constructed by the new set of advertisements as something unnecessary, burdensome, and ultimately detrimental. A society without innovation, without progress or advancement would leave us without current technology, knowledge, and success in the world. Is this really the message that the "Got Milk?" campaign really wants to send to youth and parents who will be consuming this advertising and making choices at the supermarket? Milk, especially non-skim milk options, are full of sugar and fat with as many calories as a 12 oz Coca-Cola (around 140 calories) with as much as half of those calories from fat (in the case of whole milk). If "Got Milk?" is advertising the status quo in terms of milk consumption, perhaps there can be a suggestion to prefer skim over whole? Simply allowing for consumption of food products to stay the same downplays underscores larger issues of weight and obesity in America that it is not enough of a problem to pursue or give credence to healthier alternatives.

For more information about these advertisements in terms of the history of alternative milk products, please refer to

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Romney's Mormon Moment

Mitt Romney's two presidential bids (2008 and now in 2012) have brought religion to the forefront of political campaigns, specifically Mormonism and its relationship with Christianity and religious Republican voters. Despite the constitutional clause that there is "no religious test for president", religion has often played a role in attributing values to presidential candidates, and JFK remains a religious anomaly in the sea of Protestant presidents since the founding fathers. Performing a LexisNexis search for "Romney" and "Mormonism" from 2006 to the present, there were over 100 articles in domestic and international newspapers that discussed Romney's Mormonism and its effect on his campaign. This post will go over preliminary insights into these articles and what they describe as the public opinion and current American environment towards Mormonism.

One of the key differences between the two campaigns is Romney's standings in the campaign. In 2008, he lost early in the primary campaign to Huckabee and McCain, trailing despite his delivery of his version of JFK's Catholicism speech. In the 2012 primary, Romney appears to still be the front-runner and has been considered Obama's imminent rival for much of the campaign. This change in success has been rationalized in multiple ways  in the newspaper articles. The dominating theme was that religious beliefs and differences are considered in the 2012 election to be less important considering the state of the economy. Romney's experience in business is trumpeted as his most important feature in many articles, which also outline his "electability" (based off of economic strength and popularity) as the best chance of defeating Obama. These articles describe the power of cohesion among Republicans to support Romney as the candidate most capable of defeating Obama despite of his religion.

Other underlying themes of Romney's success discuss the vetting of his religion in much detail in 2008, making its appearance in the 2012 elections as "old news", "non-original", and that voters had already made up their minds about Mormonism. Most articles cited percentages of voters (most often just of Republican voters) and from 2006 to the present, the numbers remain about the same with numbers from 15-25% of respondents saying that they would not vote for a Mormon for president. Although this will be a hard block of voters to overcome, Romney would, based on these numbers, still garner 75-85% of Republican support during the primary and the presidential campaign. These articles discuss the possibility that Romney's Mormonism was played out completely in the minds of voters in the 2008 election, freeing him from explaining or harping on it in the 2012 election, leaving him to focus on his economic strengths and Republican values. This is best explained through the often repeated example in 2012 coverage of Baptist minister Jeffress' introduction of Perry at the Values Summit, where he explicitly stated that Mormonism is not Christianity and that Republicans should vote for a true Christian candidate. This event (many, including candidates considered it a faux pas) only succeeded in receiving statements of support from all candidates for Romney's religion and giving Romney the opportunity to respond that statements such as these were nothing but "poisonous language". Thus, the issue came, was downplayed, and thereby ignored in discussion by the candidates.

When describing Mormonism, all articles participated in derogatory quoting of other religious groups, people, or assumed public opinion. These statements often used the word "cult" coupled with adjectives such as secretive, dangerous, and non-Christian. These three adjectives in particular will be examined with why and how public opinion considers these characteristics of Mormonism. "Secretive" appeared in multiple articles (many of them international) and was used to describe the relatively small proportion of Mormons in the United States (2% of population) and the absence of Mormonism from the public arena. The exception to this, of course, can be seen as the coming out party for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS, church of Mormonism), which was its support for Proposition 8. LDS donated millions of dollars to campaigning and encouraging people to vote for Proposition 8 and is given much of the credit for changing the vote to against gay marriage in a state as forward-minded as California (for a great explanation of LDS's role in Proposition 8, see 8: The Mormon Proposition, directed by Reed Cowan).
LDS's meddling in the Proposition 8 vote is part of the reason why articles refer to Mormonism as "dangerous". Through this strong and direct influence in politics, LDS defined itself as powerful in terms of money, manpower, and values and not afraid to interfere in policies that it finds in opposition to its teachings. This power can be seen as dangerous by those who are reluctant to have interest groups affect or dethrone individual opinion in the political arena and those who do not share the same values. Another justification for defining the cult as dangerous comes as a repeat of the JFK argument that as a Catholic he would be advised exclusively and directly by the Pope. LDS also has a strong hierarchy and the current leaders are considered much like the Pope to be a messenger of God, so the same reservations about the power structure apply to the speculation that Romney may be subservient to LDS leaders if president.

Every article that described Mormonism as "non-Christian" included a list or explanation of the differences between Mormonism and Christianity, often with quotations from voters or religious leaders highlighting the two religions as separate. From not worshiping the same God to previously practicing polygamy to its updated chapter of Jesus's visit to America, many evangelicals and baptists do not consider Mormons as following Christ and Christianity because they stray too far from the Bible and religious dogma.

Interestingly, a handful of articles highlighted that Romney might benefit from discussing his religion more. Although Romney often discusses his "faith" and how it influences his values and decisions, he rarely refers to Mormonism or specifics about the faith. Some articles discussed this as a problem on two counts. First, Romney has been branded a flip-flopper in the two important religious policies (which one newspaper referred to as deal-breakers for evangelicals): gay marriage and abortion. Romney's past included governing Massachusetts on a platform of pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, but now he has changed these positions to align themselves more with mainstream religious convictions which he describes as religious changes. One newspaper noted, though, that these were completely political movements to curry favor with the religious right. Considering LDS's role in Proposition 8 and its firm opinions on anti-abortion, a few newspapers theorized that Romney may reduce his image as a flip-flopper by strengthening his connection to these Mormon values. Mormons, as many articles mentioned, share traditional Christian values as family, life, and a strong work ethic. Highlighting these as Mormon values that he too shares, Romney could hope to overcome his previous support for "non-traditional" family structures and pro-choice platform. Additionally, one paper (international) noted that Romney's personality has been "muffled" and that voters have a difficult time connecting with the candidate on a personal level. A solution to this may be discussing his religion and showing his values through the Mormon faith. Then, his true personality, connection to the religion can be expressed to the public.

I hope to expand on these overall notes from the newspaper to a submission to a panel on Romney's "Mormon Moment" to the NCA conference in November 2011.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Born Evil

Last night, I attended a University of Southern California event where author Jeff Mudgett of Bloodstains, discussed human nature and the idea that some people are born evil.
When asked at the discussion, Mudgett responded strongly that some men were born evil and there was no hope for people like his ancestor, H. H. Holmes, when they are looked in prison forever, the important part is to have them separated from the population. In this discussion, I could not help but think of Foucault's structure of "madness" and what it truly means for someone to be considered psychotic, a menace to society, and unfit for a normal life. As far as Mudgett and scholars can tell, Holmes was a normal, functioning member of society who may have had the highest IQ score ever recorded. Not only was he intelligent, charming, and charismatic, he had a flair for hypnotism and had a fascination with the human body and the ageing process. These obsessions and talents led him to be on record for killing 27 people, with the possibility (and estimated amounts from researchers) to be up to 1,000 people. He might have been the most prolific serial killer of all times, and Mudgett, his great-great grandson, believes he was born that way. He was born to kill, born to be evil, and that there was no hope or retribution that society could offer to this man. What are the implications for people being capable of these atrocities, simply because of their genetic code? Is there a "serial killer" gene that lays dormant in Holmes' bloodline and may live in other seemingly functioning members of society? Perhaps, once isolated, women may be able to test for the gene in their unborn children, just as many diseases and genetic disorders (such as Down's syndrome or other chromosome deficiencies) are detected and chose to abort them. Can there be a genetic predisposition that we can code for, eliminating all serial killers those born to be evil before they have a chance to manifest? Should genetic predispositions guide our choices to presume those guilty before proven so? This brings to mind the current news story I saw about a 15-year old girl (now 18 at the sentencing) who was given life in person with the possibility for parole after torturing and killing her 9-year old neighbor.
The most damning evidence of all was her diary that revealed her calculated plan to kill the neighbor just to see what it felt like to kill another person. Could this child's predispositions to murder been tested and controlled before this incident? How many lives would/could be at risk if such a risk were isolated? It makes one think of the idea that we are all masters of our own destiny, but are we really if our genetic make-ups have decided for us? Did Holmes truly have a chance to correct or downplay the "devil inside" him, or was his future and the bodies in his wake predestined from the moment that he was born?

These types of questions make me ponder how society constructs madness and how one defines "evil", "madness", and "unfit for society" in modern terms. People can be deemed sex offenders and remain on a list for the rest of their lives, whether they were convicted of rape to peeing in a public location. The wide variety of ways that indiscretions and transgressions of the law are defined as one penalty draws to mind sentencing laws that degree minimum penalties for crimes, no matter the mitigating circumstances. Is our definition of evil/madness incorrect, or merely how we punish/attempt to correct it misguided?

How many of us are born with evil inside us? How many of us cannot change our stars, our paths in lives, the lot that we were dealt because of something far beyond our control? Can humans who are truly capable of the most heinous crimes, still be considered human?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Alienation and Advertising

A few commercials have recently piqued my interest into the art of advertising, especially when the marketing of a product alienates users. This is, of course, a natural by-product of items such as feminine hygiene products that have gender specific functions, but for products that are not gender-specific, what would be the purpose in alienating possible buyers?

The first example that comes to mind are "Yorkie" candy bars that my family used to eat growing up. These are purpose chocolate bars that are so dark they are "not for girls"
Eating chocolate is obviously not exclusively a male-centered act nor is chocolate a male-centered item, but the advertising for Yorkies caters to this divide. The sign in the artwork implicates a standard restroom sign, so although the language might imply that "women" might eat the chocolate, visually, the statement is exclusionary to all genders.

My thoughts about Yorkies were initiated by the new Dr. Pepper commercial about their 10 calorie brand. As the first comment on the YouTube video states, "if people could just politely unknot their knickers we could all appreciate this for what it is: a joke." But what damage do jokes, even at their most parodied and stereotyped forms do for the formation of genders? Make a judgment for yourself while watching the video below.
Even as a joke, albeit not a very funny one, there is one statement in particular that is impossible to ignore: "keep your romantic comedies and lady drinks, we're good." The distinction between a 10 calorie soda and a "lady drink" is an interesting parody, as one might typically associate "diet" drinks as a female market. What is inherently "manly" about a 10 calorie soda is left unknown in the commercial, but the action movie backdrop (complete with large weaponry, a robotic snake, motorcycles and "catchphrases") as compared to a romantic comedy, makes the statement that women are less likely to enjoy these types of movies over romantic comedies. As a female who despises romantic comedies and adores horror and action, these types of generalizations are offensive and unnecessary. One might assume that even women who fall into these preferences would find the commercial distasteful. Even if not, why would marketers run the risk of alienating a large percentage of the consumer-base. Especially in a society where women are still the main shoppers and Robertson's theories of "low commitment consumer behavior" indicate an ease of changing shopping conditions, marketers are taking huge risks in associating the feminine with interpretative messages of weak, averse to excitement/action, boring, overly sensitive, and other negative notions often associated with "girly" tendencies. 

I have issue with the association of the genders as a dichotomy, in general, but these dichotomies are rampant in mainstream media and are thus areas for criticism in scholarly research. What would advertisers say to transitioning consumers? Consumers that identify as both or neither male or female? How successful are these stereotypes still in reaching wide audiences for long-term brand association when the changing of the population indicates a trend away from these black and white distinctions? 

Robertson, T. S. (1976). Low-commitment consumer behavior. Journal of Advertising Research 16(2), 19-24.