In today’s Slate.com, Seth Stevenson writes up a soon-to-appear (as in tonight) miniseries on USA Network, entitled The Starter Wife. Fab write-up. One of my favorite lines, actually: “Having watched an advance DVD of the first three hours, I can offer a mini-review: two thumbs up. Up my own eye sockets.” That’s funny. The review, however, is about a whole lot more, namely, how this show might be pushing ahead a new trend in funding television and movies: single-sponsored work. That just icky.
It turns out that The Starter Wife is underwritten – “presented,” as they say – by Pond’s, a major player in the age-defying face cream scene. So, Pond’s has tailored a “series of vignettes,” which is a fancy way of saying gross commercial invitations to identification and identity-based consumerism, to the show’s theme. Women starting over after major life changes (a.k.a. divorce) and all that. This isn’t new, as Stevenson notes, as branded television is as old as can be, yet having Pond’s in on the script writing sessions is just something different. Thus, Debra Messing’s (the star) character will “go through an evolution that would make her a Pond’s woman.” Stevenson writes nicely about the implications of this, both the comic and the demoralizing.
And it begs for a lot of theorizing. Very interesting cultural citation.
This phenomenon is, at one level, exactly Stevenson’s characterization: “advertising’s constant mission to creep into every corner of our lives.” What does it mean for advertising to be in every corner?
Straightforwardly, it is simply about consumerism. And advertisers make it their business to find the limits of such placement – of products in the screen, and so in our lives. This begs for a resuscitation of Debord‘s Society of the Spectacle. Surely this is the spectacle in crass form (is there any other?), showing us just how comfortable we’ve gotten with the saturation of our life-world with fetish commodities and how our becoming-spectators makes us perfect consuming-subjects. That’s just how the world is, really, with all of these things in front of us with alluring colors, names, and promises of some sort of ascendancy. (I do think we have limits, though, as in the case of this year’s The Apprentice.) And so The Starter Wife ascends – to be more dateable? – with Pond’s. Not confidence, affirmation of her Self, or some such “pure” ascension. In fact, the primary effect of the spectacle is the collapse of any distinction between Self and commodity. Again, maybe Coke does add life. And our mockery of that slogan misunderstands just where the slogan takes root: the intimacy of intensification of life with fetish commodities. What a torrid love-affair that one is!
But this is also about something else: ideological reproduction. You can’t really open much distance here between spectacular culture and the reproduction of ideological forms. That is, there is little distance between Debord and Althusser. I don’t simply mean that we’re marketing an aesthetic of unfading youth or something like that. Yes, we are, of course, and it is both a losing battle and lucrative business, but such marketing it is just as much about reproducing a set of ideological forms.
Simply put, ideological forms are what make sense of our social world; they are that in which we live and move and breathe. Ideological forms make our world familiar and comfortable, not just in terms of what surrounds us – that would be commodities as spectacle – but also in terms of what kinds of values, beliefs, and expectations we have of our world. We’ll have to actually watch The Starter Wife, of course, before we can make any sort of pronouncement. But the trailer tells plenty.
The very existential, very human, very relatable experience of unexpected divorce is saturated with all sorts of class anxieties. And those class anxieties, perhaps unsurprisingly, would seem to work us back toward all sorts of fucked up sexual politics. There’s an ideological form that is flatly obstinate. Now, it should be said that there are very real economic issues. Women suffer economic insecurity in frightening ways after divorce, in many cases. I don’t see that insecurity in this trailer. What I see is loss of membership to a fancy club, the threat of less champagne and diamonds, and so on. What the fuck? Even the transitions are drenched in champagne? Come on. Redemption, it seems, with come when The Starter Wife herself gets her groove back (thanks, hunky blonde guy) and then hooks up with a cash and emotionally loaded guy. Romance? Security and companionship? Or just perfect alliance? Perhaps one of the ideological forms at stake is the very irrelevance of those distinctions – what is more romantic than feeling comfortable and powerful?
The trailer ends with diamond rings in champagne. Revenge as the refusal to lose wealth? Nice. That does all the work of ideology-detection for you.
So, I’m interested to see how this plays out in terms of sexual politics. Not the between-men-and-women stuff, but the between-women site on which so much of the between-men-and-women is brokered. It is not simply that she’s lost her fancy club membership. She’s been laughed at by another (younger? richer?) woman. Competition between women is the classic diversionary conflict, but that’s just fab for certain ideological forms – in particular, capitalism, which counts on the individuation of conflict in order to divert the attentive gaze away from questions of systematic exploitation. In this case, patriarchal conceptions of wealth stay in place if conflict can be individuated: the smug and callous husband, those peppy, pony-tailed bitches, and then the emergence of hope in a glamorously wealthy and powerful man.
Just guessing. Again, it hasn’t even yet aired. But my point here is that the lodging of advertisement in every corner of our lives is about more than just programming consumer desires. It is about reproducing one and the same desires about the totality of how we conceive life. Power, money…we all know the “etc.” I’m about to type. That’s what I mean: ideological forms make our world familiar and comfortable.
I’m looking forward to the mini-series. Should be an ideology bonanza. This isn’t just funny or amusing or a place to be snippy (though it is surely all of those things). At the very moment Pond’s and USA Network pose as empowerment for women, they will surely reproduce notions of empowering that, well, just move the pieces around. And never think about alternative ways of living. That’s exactly what it means to say that ideology reproduces itself across seemingly real and even radical social changes.
Stevenson makes a funny remark on the Pond’s/USA Network’s “contest” for a “right hand diamond ring,” which plays the role of empowerment by, strangely, buying yourself diamonds. Who needs a man to buy me a diamond ring?! I got one right here – bought it my own self! You couldn’t find a better example of ideological reproduction.
Peruse the website. I’m only scratching the surface of possibilities here. Do they seriously have a “no nonsense, 20-something security guard” named Lavender, who just happens to be the only black character? Yes. Yes they do. Lavender, apparently, is the one you have to “reckon with” in order to get into the “colony.” Really. That’s complex shit. Or not.
Alas. That is another post altogether…