The other day, surfing around on Facebook, I came across this link http://adage.com/article/small-agency-diary/ad-sells-weigh-values-portrays/230860/ on one of my friend’s statuses. It is a review of AT&T’s newest commercial advertising their “unlimited messaging/minutes” plans. If you haven’t seen the commercial, you should take a look. The commercial features a scene of a man being chastised by his wife–who remarks she should have married another man–because he signed the family up for AT&T’s “very expensive” unlimited minutes plan. Naturally, the commercial ends with the man informing his wife that the unlimited minutes were actually free because he signed up for one of AT&T’s “great” deals. Many viewers have been outraged by this advertisement because of its objectification of marriage.
I immediately thought to bring this ad to the attention of the blog, however, when I read one particular consumer’s unique review. The individual remarked that the ad reiterated America’s longstanding consensus that “the only social and ethnic group that can be made fun of is white males.” Right when I read this line, I instantly thought to Shklar’s theory on citizenship as standing. Why is it that white men are possibly the only socio-ethnic group in America that we all feel safe to poke fun at? Why is it that we more carefully tip toe within the boundaries of political correctness with other groups, yet have less issue throwing white men under the bus across the media? Undoubtedly, the media is telling us something here about our society, right? Most obviously, these examples shed light on American’s value of capitalism, racial stereotypes and gender roles. However, the question is, can they also tell us something about citizenship? I think yes!
To this effect, I think that Shklar’s theory on citizenship as standing—particularly her emphasis on the role of exclusion—is an applicable mechanism to understanding the phenomenon mentioned by this reviewer. Although one’s immediate perspective might be that the humiliation of white males in the AT&T commercial speaks to their lesser standing in American society, it is actually just the opposite! Inversely, this very quality evidences their comparatively superior standing to all other individuals. Thus, according to Shklar’s theory, then also their citizenship. Within American society, it is not white men’s degraded status that allows for their mockery in the media, but rather it’s infallibleness, security, and social strength. Their standing is so impenetrable, that it is invulnerable to factors like “media mockery” that seriously threaten and offend the more fragile conditions of others. Thus, we all feel more justified to go along with it.
Why is it that their standing is so superior? Why do white men seem to wear some bulletproof vest that nobody else was ever given? The answer is the same as Shklar provided us with: exclusion! Where every group of Americans were once excluded from the right to citizenship, white men stand alone as the original members. We are all citizens today, but only the white man’s standing is predicated on a completely sound foundation. While making fun of white men in the media is really no less sexist and racist, it is somehow socially acceptable. Why? Where white men’s status is concerned, such media mockery doesn’t really have so many profound implications—it is just seen as “making fun.” It is for the same reason people falsely regard racism against white individuals as “reverse racism:” it isn’t perceived as a real threat.
Racism, sexism or any other sorts of typified discrimination are undoubtedly mean, hurtful, and immoral. However, that is only the smaller part of why they matter to people. The real, bigger reason they mean something, is because they have real consequences. For example, sexism against manifests in statistics that tell us they continue to be paid less, on average, than men who do their same job. An invisible condition in the definition of any form of discrimination is measurable effect. Consequently, society sees the mockery of white men as acceptable because it isn’t seen as packaged with these real consequences. They aren’t actually of low status in society, and so it is thought ok to poke fun. It is socially acceptable to jokingly call your skinny friend fat when they eat three cookies, but the crowd doesn’t react nearly the same when your friend is thirty pounds heavier. Moreover, even if your “fat” friend lost those thirty pounds—like women eventually became citizens—it isn’t anymore acceptable to joke that they are fat then either, is it? As skinny as they may be—maybe even skinnier than you now (just like a minority person might be more politically active, educated, and wealthy than their white neighbor)—it never becomes ok to call them “fat.” This is because their standing as a “skinny person”—just like one’s standing as a citizen for all others—was not the natural state. It is as equally vulnerable as the quality of citizenship is to women and minorities who weren’t always citizens.
Ultimately, what I have meant this blog to explain is that it is not a matter of coincidence or luck that white men are a group in society for which it is socially acceptable to mock. Where citizenship is concerned, standing as a white male is considered the natural state—the superior default category. To the contrary, all other groups have a variably lesser status. The media protects them, not because they have better standing, but because they have an inferior standing that needs to be protected! If we see citizenship as standing, then this seriously brings into question if it can really ever be equal. If you might think of citizenship as every American being given the same car, then you can recognize standing as the amount of money we each have to fill up our tanks. Where we all have different dollar bills in our back pockets—standing varies based on race, socioeconomic status, employment status, education etc.—each tank is filled with a disparate quantity of fuel. Just like two of the same car become considerably less equal when one has a full tank and the other only a quarter, two citizens power within society is equally dictated by their standing. The value of citizenship as standing, like money, arguably grows over time. Thus, where white men are the original and oldest citizens, their standing will always be the most powerful. Exclusion will then always work against the citizenship of the rest.