Stop the Personification of Food Ads

Am I the only person out there who is sick to death of ads that personify food and then do violence to it?

Pop-Tarts leads the way with its constant ads showing their little pseudo pastries running around with arms and legs and getting lured unto death by consumption. They're either being shoved into vans or ice cream trucks or giant toasters or pounced on by starving islanders! Most recent ads are cartoons, but I remember the one with the guy in a strawberry costume being stalked as he walked blissfully to work then shoved into a truck to be made into Pop-Tart filling. No matter that Pop-Tarts have no relationship to real fruit, I'm just sick of seeing food made into humanlike beings then chased, kidnapped, and prepared for slaughter/devouring.

The human-in-a-food suit continues, too: Papa John's now has a little person in a brownie cube suit being chased by a hungry horde. And Eggo frozen waffles have people in waffle suits falling from heights to be smashed and turning into cereal.

The sweet, innocent Tin Man with the Chef Boyardee can painted on his back is another variety of the same, and I just can't watch that evil lunchroom kid telling everyone to lock the doors. I can't decide if it's a Suddenly Last Summer/Lord of the Flies cannibalism moment that horrifies me so or the idea that little boys just have no souls.

I am sure many people find these ads funny, or they'd be off the air rather than a growing trend. Certainly, people dressed up in food suits has a long tradition, from the Fruit of the Loom guys all the way back to the girls in food box outfits on variety shows.

But this is different for its cruelty. The aim of the commercial is not simple anthropomorphization. Like the Chick-fil-A ads that feature cows pointing at chickens so you'll eat them not cows, it's about cutthroat meanness. The goal is to trick or to torture something that has been brought to life only to be tricked and tortured. It is another example of psychic numbing and our culture going down the crapper of intolerance and greed. And it's not funny.


stamping out diversity in second grade

My son's first homework assignment for second grade had him interview his parents for information about his name. The teacher connected this to the book she read them on the first day of class, Chrysanthemum. Apparently, it is about the title character's name and some difficulties she has with it. The assignment was for the children to interview their parents about their own names, and the description of the book on the assignment sheet included the following charming sentence:

"The book teaches diversity and how children can overcome it productively."

Can you spot the error? Is the problem with this sentence...

(a) a likely typo or spell-check error, where "diversity" should be "adversity"
(b) evidence of the lousy education given to educators in Tennessee
(c) a self-confessed "conservative" teacher (yes, she put that on her self-description on the bulletin board) accidentally expressing her true feelings about issues of diversity


CGI Ants and You

I love ants. They are my favorite insect (with wasps a close second). My next tattoo is going to be an ant trail. I love ants’ neat little compact bodies, their physical strength, their communalism, their complex chemistry. I know I’m anthropomorphizing and ignoring traits I don’t like, but so be it: I love ants.

So do scientists. Ponder the recent Madagascar discovery of the missing link “Dracula Ant,” which may explain how wasps evolved into ants! Marvel over the fact that ants may have internal pedometers (and boggle at the insane image of an ant with stilts attached to its legs)!

CGI animators love ants, too. But I’m less sure why. In A Bug’s Life, Antz, and now The Ant Bully, ants are starring figures for representing traits antithetical to ant life, as I understand it. Individualism, integrity, independence: all traits with which ants are entirely unconcerned. The triumph of the underdog may be an occasionally relevant them, when a colony is attacked by bigger, meaner ants, but basically ants just do their communal thing, not trying to stand out, to be heroes, to puzzle out the contradictions of self vs. world. Not only do they lack the “higher” brain function needed for such mental acrobatics, but their chemistry directs them along a completely oppositional path.

Pupae get a hormonal bath that determines whether they’re a scout, worker, nurse, or soldier. Males aren’t produced but once a year for impregnating the queen and other fertile females who might start their own colonies if they find a good place and survive predators and beat the odds. As far as scientists have been able to determine, ants do not struggle against their biochemical destiny, do not seek to stand out but simply live, “contentedly” (yes, total anthropomorphizing there), doing what they do.

In CGI worlds, ants have individual personalities and names (A Bug’s Life, Antz, Ant Bully), there are lots of males everywhere (all three again), especially in positions of power other than queen, they face predators unrelated to life in the wild (A Bug’s Life’s grasshoppers were the most wacky example), and look more human than insect (too few legs in A Bug’s Life, human eyes and teeth in all three).

Clearly, then, CGI ant films are to be read metaphorically. Even when there is the literal (referencing ants’ ability to lift many more times than their own weight, farming aphids, etc.), they are, like most insect-centered narratives – from Aesop’s “Ant and the Grasshopper” to Caribbean Anansi tales – about human beings and human culture.

So, why are we telling tales about ants? By “we,” now, I mean the white guys bankrolling and producing all the CGI films. They seem to be “fun” to animate, but so are cows and cars and toys. Even though I don’t understand the purpose and quirk an eyebrow at what seems an odd allusion to Aztec culture (likely also present in the original book on which the film is based), I enjoyed the beautiful tribal markings on the ants in The Ant Bully. And jokes about crossing your heart that can be made by crossing your abdomen (or “butt” as Peanut/Lucas calls it) are good for a laugh. And these films provide opportunities to sketch in lots of other insects, from ladybugs and stinkbugs to grasshoppers and wasps. But still, the question remains, why ants?

Well, they’re harmless and you can torture them and they keep coming back, for one. A recent documentary on masculine socialization is called “Burning Ants,” for example, referencing a common suburban boyhood experience in America that is linked to emotional distance and violent behavior in adult males. Or, as in The Ant Bully, we have the boy who takes out the pain of being bullied on “lesser” creatures who can’t fight back. So, are we into ant stories because they teach us about the importance of carrying on, regardless? Certainly, these films don’t feel to me like any kinds of insect rights narratives, where we learn to be a kinder, gentler species. But superficial anti-bully stories, sticktuitiveness tales, and underdog championing all work for the kids and families at whom these films are aimed (except Antz, which kids watch but is more adult – more metaphoric and obviously not about ants).

And we Americans do love underdog stories, even as we Americans act more like watchdog (or snarling, foaming, rabid dog) to the rest of the world.

And most of us sitting in the multiplex theater see ourselves as cogs, as peons, and long to be told that we are either (a) vital, important individuals rather than tiny dots in a vast, unfeeling universe or (b) no worse off than any other of the other 6,531,991,670 tiny human dots on the planet (as of 1 August 2006, 2:34pm CST). CGI ant movies can help us with this, I guess, without risking encouragement of a challenge to the cultural status quo – though ants should challenge us with their differences, if only we’re open to seeing them.

In addition, there is the communalism. There is much in ant life that might be deemed threatening to human cultures, especially western, first-world nations like the U.S. of A. We are scared of some forms of communalism, like communism, in which we see threats to individual life choices, to the mythic American Dream. Our choices may be trivial (what brand of dog food to feed the pooch) or significant (abortion or no abortion); and we may envision others as foregoing choice for mindless obedience (e.g. Fundamentalist Muslims), while we actively restrict our choices for wise adherence to a greater truth (e.g. Fundamentalist Christians).

These CGI ant movies definitely do reflect our obsession with the tension between community and self, standing out and fitting in, insider and outsider, what we owe others and what we owe ourselves. And they firmly acknowledge the needs of social creatures (like ants and humans) while validating the importance of individual acts of genius, bravery, and creativity, especially in service of the culture/State (less ant, more human). We obsess about this stuff and find few answers that content us as we face love, loss, illness, death, war, poverty, and a host of other messy aspects of human life. Ultimately, ant stories seem to reflect these necessary obsessions, whether they’re created as childish diversions or philosophical treatises in harmless entertainment guise.

What can we conclude from this? Perhaps that we fashion these ant narratives to process, superficially, our collective angst as American homo sapiens at the turn of the millennium. We really don’t understand how ants can be “happy” and this bothers us, largely because we don’t know how to be happy. Instead, we use this truly alien species to reassure ourselves that differences don’t really matter, that our myths and platitudes (such as the underdog can win and bullies can be scared off with a little teamwork) truly satisfy us. CGI ant movies tell us nothing about what it would mean to be an ant, if they were sentient; they indoctrinate children to see difference and reduce it to the known and the manageable; and they reassure adults that nothing is truly alien and all is as it should be. What a small, scared little species we are.