Truthiness in Advertising, by Elayne Riggs
The 2008 Democratic convention is currently well underway. It being the Age of Reality Shows That Aren’t Real, every bit of spontaneity is of course tightly scripted to allow for maximum media control, not unlike all those Beijing Olympics stories that practically write themselves. What you see is pretty much what they tell you you’ll get.
As a society, we seem to have inured ourselves to accepting style over substance as the norm. We judge books by their covers all the time — even more so when we look at comics. First impressions are the lasting ones. We expect what’s on the cover to reflect what’s inside, often because we’ve been assured that it will. When the cover artist’s style doesn’t jibe with the interior art, the result can be a bit jarring. When the cover art misrepresents the story within, we can feel cheated or used.
And that’s all well and good when it comes to consumer entertainment. We’re used to being lied to, it’s all part of the advertising fake-out. If a certain type of cover art moves product, the actual interior content is irrelevant from the seller’s point of view. We accept (some more grudgingly than others) that we’re going to be subjected to this little dance every time we buy, and buy into, our culture of mass-produced entertainment.
The problem arises, as it usually does, when this mentality shifts from the fictional to the real, and we find ourselves judging people by their “covers.”
A recent study says fat people aren’t intrinsically at any greater risk for things like heart disease than thin people. I’ve suspected this for awhile; in the late ‘80s I used to have lunch regularly with my friend and physical therapist Jan, who’s sturdy but pretty thin, and we would order and eat exactly the same thing. Our weight differences could be attributed to many factors, from genetics to how active vs. sedentary we tended to be to our daily intake of icky processed high fructose corn syrup or arsenic.
And that all sounds very logical, except that’s not how our brains work. We’re human beings, we rarely use logic when we look at other human beings. We use shorthand, a version of the same kind of shorthand comic book artists use when drawing people. For instance: “Female = breasts, even if it’s an alien female. Aliens are allowed to have one eye or five noses or tentacles but they should always be assumed to have two genders just like humans and the males are the default and the females are always represented by frontal breasts — usually two, but more if we want to titillate our readers.” In cartoon-land, shorthand for “female” was “skirt and hairbow” for the longest time; male characters were allowed to run the gamut because they were assumed to be the default. Even today we can’t escape shorthand stereotyping; Nickelodeon just announced intentions to “make over” Dora the Explorer. Because she looks too much like a cute little kid, and needs some more hairbows or something?
And it’s the same thing with fat people. “Fat equals overeating.” “Fat equals lazy or slobby.” Fat equals so many other things that fat doesn’t actually equal in real life. Because shorthand is derived from stereotypes, which obviate the necessity to actually think beyond your gut (and ours, for that matter). It’s how Stephen Colbert described truthiness in the premiere episode of The Colbert Report. Truthiness is not actual fact, but a subjective thing that you feel ought to be true. The “fact” that fat people tend to eat more than thin people is a great example of truthiness. After all, just look at them; they’re fat! QED.
I have to admit, as enlightened as I like to think myself, I’m guilty of truthiness sometimes as well. I often have to suppress the urge to mutter “eat something!” whenever I pass an alarmingly skeletal woman. I don’t know she’s “obviously” anorexic any more than she knows I’m “obviously” a glutton. And don’t get me started on gaydar! I mean, after all, gay urbanites are so “obviously” easy to spot! The guys, um, dress nice and have lisps and limp wrists and the girls have short haircuts and keep cats… what are we, in the ‘50s? Just because some people do conform to the germination of a stereotype doesn’t mean all people do.
Stereotyping people via truthiness is often no more than a personal flaw on all our parts (“everyone is a little bit racist” and all that). But occasionally it can have serious consequences. Take the truthiness that a rape victim who happened to be wearing skimpy clothing was “asking for it.” Our logic centers should set up alarm bells at the very thought of that. It’s like saying people who dress expensively are asking to be robbed! Rape is the fault of one party and one party alone — the rapist. Whether the woman is wearing high heels and a short skirt, or has gotten drunk at a party, or encourages heavy petting during a date has nothing to do with it. If it’s non-consensual sex, it’s rape, and the responsibility for that crime lies with the perpetrator, not the victim. But I don’t know too many logic-saints among us who look at a provocatively dressed woman or hear about someone imbibing a bit too much and agreeing to accompany a man to a hotel room and don’t think “well, what did she expect?”, when our brains ought to be immediately answering, “not to be violently assaulted, at the very least!”
Shorthand visuals are the way a lot of people get through the day, and they’re often not a bad starting point. I can say, there’s Pam who blogs about gay issues and Kai who writes about things from an Asian-American perspective and Michael the Angry Black Man. But that’s just the surface, isn’t it? It’s there as a placeholder, for us to move beyond, to the point where we get to know these people as individuals so we can say “wow, Pam’s photojournal of this conference is wonderfully comprehensive” and “hey, Kai really outdid himself with his last restaurant review” and “that Michael, he’s one angry black man.”
Just something to think about the next time you see a news report with visuals of fat people who seem to have no heads.
Elayne Riggs blogs at Pen-Elayne on the Web and is finally starting to get out and see her friends at DC Comics, whose offices are mere blocks away from hers. If you’re a DC employee/freelancer friend of hers and would like to meet her for lunch please email her, she needs to get away from her office computer more!