Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Noble, Wholesome, Pure, Ice Cream Eating Savage

I have more excuses! Lots of excuses! You see, in between the last post and this one, we moved. To another state. So in between the packing and unpacking and buying things at Target (because although we have too much stuff already, it is clearly not the right assemblage of stuff), and driving to the DMV and then driving back to the DMV with the proper documents, and so on, I have not had time to put together anything coherent.

But this post from Sociological Images reminded me of something I've been meaning to write about.

The post discusses the romanticization of other cultures, specifically China, and was spurred by this advertisement from HSBC Bank, a major bank in Britain that has some locations in the US as well:

(In other news, I figured out how to embed videos! I am so clever.)

As Lisa from Sociological Images so rightly states:

"[This is] an excellent example of the way that non-white and non-Western people are often portrayed as more deeply cultural, connected to the past, and closer to nature than their white, Western counterparts. [...] The music, the boats, their clothing and hats, and their fishing methods all suggest that the Chinese are more connected to their own long-standing (ancient?) cultural traditions, ones that offered them an intimate and cooperative relationship to nature. Simultaneously, it erases Chinese modernity, fixing China somewhere back in time."

This specific commercial is also a great example of the Noble Savage archetype. When first the idea and then the phrase Noble Savage appeared in European discourse in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it contrasted the pure, wholesome, naturally good savage with the brutal, greedy, warmongering European. It was a response to the bloody and violent conflicts that raged across Europe at that time, like the Thirty Years War or the religious battles between French Catholics and Protestants.

The idea of the Noble Savage put non-civilized humans on a pedestal, claiming that in a natural state humans were essentially innocent and good. It carries connotations of naivety, of a child-like approach to living that jaded and over-cultured Europeans were no longer able to attain.

We still carry this association around with us today. We've just altered our perspective to encompass health and diet.

It's very fashionable right now to be obsessed with health and diet in a way that privileges the idea of simple, natural, unadulterated foods. And there's nothing wrong with that per se - I'd rather eat a peach from a farmer's market than one that traveled 500 miles to get to the grocery store.

We are in a sense reacting to what our industrialized food system has become, an unwieldy behemoth that is able to dodge any real kind of FDA control. Our food products are, from beginning to end, a part of a mechanized process that stresses uniformity. The entire process is watched over by a literal handful of huge corporations - four or five majors in each section of the industry that control a majority of the operations. The result is a sterile, factory-produced food that bears little relation to our romanticized conception of who produces food and how.*

As the system gets more - well - systematic, consumers clamor for simplicity. And advertisers oblige:

But where to get this notion of simplicity from? Obviously not from the actuality of how food is produced in America. So let's throw in some brown people! Most farmers in America can no longer meet our stereotypes of what a farmer should be, but companies can draw on the idea of the Noble Savage to instead present us with an exoticized vision of food producers in other (unnamed) countries.

Kashi is a particular offender. Unfortunately I couldn't find a great example, but God bless the internet because apparently someone videotapes the commercials shown during Little House on the Prairie and posts them to YouTube. Don't ask me why. Let's move past the weirdness - the Kashi commercial begins around 42 seconds in:

Karen Moyer is evidently a real, live person who works for Kashi, and who was unaware of the presence of vanilla and cinnamon before the commercial was filmed (Ben Radford discusses this rather hilariously on his blog here).

The idea of a company embarking on a worldwide quest for exotic flavors plays right into what consumers want - authenticity. The same people who smugly display Asian-inspired home furnishings purchased at Pier 1 will go nuts over the idea that someone from Haagen Dazs traveled the globe to find vanilla, presumably on the shelf right next to inner peace. It's natural, right? It's wholesome and pure and probably organic too, completely in opposition to our modern, mechanized, sterile, and white-identified food system.

My students are often confused by the idea that a positive stereotype can be just as destructive as a negative stereotype. When confronted with the concept of the "model minority", many are unable to articulate why it's bad to have such a stereotype.

Stereotypes are bad not for the specific "information" they impart, but because they reduce the stereotyped group to an incomplete and one-dimensional caricature. In the case of the Noble Savage, the group is romanticized and infantilized, not to mention left out of the modern world. Those Indian women throwing grain in the Kashi commercial, those brown people walking on the beach with bananas in the Haagen Dazs commercial, they aren't modern people and they don't fit in with our idea of the modern world. We feel lucky - so lucky! - to have found these people that time forgot. And now we will exploit them for their pure and wholesome vanilla.

Because often, when Western corporations begin to use labor from Non-Western people, exploitation is what occurs. I find it particularly ironic that Haagen Dazs used bananas in their commercial, considering the havoc wreaked by companies like Chiquita in banana-producing companies throughout South America (the so-called Banana Republics). Just to give one example.

And non-western farmers are modernized! In our era of organics and the natural fad, we forget why we switched to these modern methods in the first place. To get larger, better yields and feed more people. Duh. We use pesticides, genetically engineer our crops to be bug resistant, and mechanize our processes in the interests of producing more food. I'm not saying that our current methods are the best way (boy, I am really not saying that), but that we've come down this path for a reason. When non-western farmers are shown the benefits of, say, chemically-enhanced fertilizer, they are all over it. In fact, many non-western countries don't have the same laws controlling environmental hazards like pesticides that the western world has grudgingly adopted, meaning that the human and non-human parts of the non-western world are in danger from these modern methods.

Take China, for example.**

All three of these commercials - and there are legions more - are examples of how we have some ideas that are so entrenched in our collective social mind that we don't even realize when these ideas are being manipulated. And, just for the record, using happy, nameless brown people as visual metaphors for wholesome non-mechanized food production...

is racist.

*For more information about our modern food system, I recommend the documentary Food Inc, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser, and "The Compassionate Carnivore" by Catherine Friend.

**Giving a negative example of how the Noble Savage stereotype is flawed reminds me of when my students try to countermand the positive stereotypes, they often fall back on the bad things that the particular group is associated with. For example, they'll say that Model Minority is not an accurate stereotype for Asians because there are also Asian gangs. (So close guys! So close I need another drink.)


  1. Speaking of the idolization of the "noble savage" - I beg of you, please do a post on Eat, Pray, Love. The whole time I was reading it, I couldn't help wondering what you would say about Elizabeth Gilbert's simplistic, nice-white-lady views of race and culture.

  2. What better way to counteract one stereotype than with another!

    The Noble Savage in and of itself is also a myth. "Savages" (or, you know, other people) were no more noble or ignoble than those bastard whiteys. Well, I guess the na'vi were pretty noble since they had USB connections for everything on the planet.