Ever since Janet Jackson’s “ wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl, audiences have come to expect scandal with their microwaved nachos and over-choreographed half-time shows. There was Prince’s phallic guitar, the child-protection advocates’ protests against The Who’s Pete Townshend, and the free-speech debates over banning commercials, sparked by Moveon.org’s Bush in 30 Seconds ad and quarterback Tim Tebow’s pro-life spot. (Does anyone just watch the game?)
This year was no different, and even threatened to smash the record for apparent offensiveness. People were offended by Groupon’s minimalizing Tibet’s troubles, Homeaway.com smashing a plastic baby into a hotel window, Snickers sending a log into the side of Roseanne Barr’s head, and a variety of other alleged broadsides to the public’s delicate sensibilities, involving everything from gold diggers to Detroit.
But no other commercial seemed to generate as much anger as PepsiCo’s “Love Hurts” spot for Pepsi Max diet soda. In it, a black women keeps her (also black) husband’s diet on track by kicking him under the table at a restaurant, smashing his face into a pie, and shoving a bar of soap into his mouth. It’s the dénouement that’s the real doozy, however. Just as matrimonial peace is restored with a shared moment over a (wait for it) Pepsi Max, Hubby ogles a cute blonde and Wifey throws her Max at him—only he ducks and the can hits the blonde in the head instead. She topples to the ground (improbable) as the couple makes a hasty getaway, apologizing as they flee. Apparently this ad is so offensive, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) felt the need to condemn it from the floor of the House.
"It was not humorous. It was demeaning,” said Jackson Lee. “An African-American woman throwing something at an African-American male and winding up hitting a Caucasian woman." And the fact that this took place during Black History Month is just another slap in the face, she insisted. “We're trying to celebrate what is good and great, it certainly seems ridiculous that Pepsi would utilize this kind of humor.”
She wasn’t alone in her outrage. J.C. Davies, a former Goldman Sachs analyst who authored a book titled I Got the Fever about interracial dating, told the Los Angeles Times that she didn’t like to see black women characterized as nasty, negative, and controlling. “I wouldn't have been so irritated by that Pepsi commercial if it hadn't promoted such a tired, negative, unfair stereotype of black women," Davies, white, complained. Over at XX Factor, Marjorie Valbrun wrote, “It was annoying not just because of the violence but also for its depiction of a black woman as a mean, angry, emasculating shrew… The reaction of the husband/boyfriend to the friendly blonde runner in the short-shorts also raised my hackles. That pleased look on his face signaled that maybe the thin and friendly white woman was preferable to the black man’s more ample and blatantly less friendly black wife/girlfriend. After all, what black man would not prefer a skinny blonde over a full-bodied black woman?”
First, I know plenty of men of all colors who’d prefer the black woman (who isn’t, by the way, full-bodied—just less skinny than the blonde.) Second, when did everybody get so sensitive? This commercial had me in stitches. I certainly wasn’t offended, and I get paid to be pissed off by our culture. If anything, I remember thinking it was good to see a married black couple outside of a Tyler Perry movie. It’s classic marital humor—a comic sub-genre descended from sitcoms and romantic comedies that skewer sexual difference to comic effect.
If anything, I remember thinking it was good to see a married black couple outside of a Tyler Perry movie.
If kicking your husband under the table defines a mean, angry, emasculating shrew, than I am guilty as charged and a disgrace to black women everywhere. Allow me the slightest autobiography in explanation. Not long ago, my husband volunteered to shovel my parents’ roof. It was a lovely thing to do, but saving his in-laws’ house was no defense when he expressed doubts about my proposed safety precautions. My response? “If you take that rope off your waist, I’ll come out there and kill you myself.” Yes, I played into stereotype, but hurling threats is a lot more efficient than calming (and whitely?) saying, “Honey, darling, love of my life. I would be bereft and despairing if you fell and broke your neck. Please wear the rope. It may be pointless but it would soothe my agitated soul.” I was trying to save a life, same as the wife in the Pepsi Max commercial. Obesity related diseases run rampant in the black community. Just being black is a risk factor for these illnesses so I say she should be applauded for her efforts, not demonized.
But there is one thing about this whole faux-fiasco that offends me: The fact that there are far worse representations of black women every day on shows hosted by Jerry Springer and Maury Povich, and we’re wringing our hands over a cola commercial. Based on her reaction to the Pepsi ad, I suspect Congresswoman Lee would faint were she forced to view 10 minutes of the “Who’s My Baby Daddy” DNA testing that occurs on these shows everyday. They’re full of black women screaming, hitting, crying, and generally losing control in front of a live audience. A reality show producer could not find a way to depict them in a more unflattering light.
Speaking of which, while she’s going to all the trouble of rushing to the floor of Congress to complain, Jackson Lee may as well decry Bravo’s Real Housewives of Atlanta, and indict VH-1 for inflicting Flavor Flav and New York upon us. The Pepsi Max commercial trades in mockery of the mildest variety when compared to the stereotypes of African Americans that saturate real-life Americans’ minds. How many still think that black people behaved like savages in the New Orleans Superdome after Hurricane Katrina? Or believe in Ronald Reagan’s Cadillac-driving welfare queens? Where are the speeches denouncing Lil' Kim or the open letters begging Naomi Campbell to stop slapping people for the sake of black women everywhere?
To paraphrase comedian Paul Mooney, why are people always complaining about shit that doesn’t matter, but silent on subjects—crappy inner-city schools, 50 percent unemployment, outrageous poverty rates, violence and incarceration all around—that will actually affect black folks for generations? If we’re really going to take depictions of African Americans seriously, we need to start with actual problems of perception, not Super Bowl commercials.
Raina Kelley covers society's issues and cultural controversies for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Follow her on Twitter here.