Editor’s Note: Remember last week, when our biggest social problem was that Pepsi had released an ad starring Kendall Jenner that everyone was mad about? Yeah, us too. It started a debate among Overthinking It writers.
We started by noting that the ad seemed fractally bad—bad at a distance, bad closer up, bad on every level you cared to examine. And we had a question: Does having Kendall Jenner in this ad make it worse?
I’ll let Overthinking It’s Pete Fenzel take it from here.
Pepsi could easily have made a different commercial that was not as bad as this one, but they made this one, and it grew huge despite the haters. This is the Suicide Squad of commercials. Taking it on these terms, I think putting Kendall Jenner in it makes it much better.
Reframing the Pepsi Commandment
Self-expression, worldly power, sexual success, popularity, physical beauty, political organizing, creativity, and the rise of elite people of color are characteristic of today’s “new generation”—not merely characteristic of the needs of the moment, but superficially characteristic of how “this generation” expresses itself, has fun, and thinks things are cool.
Which generation? The fantasy Pepsi Generation of people currently 18-25 as imagined by somewhat younger people who haven’t decided what kind of soda they like, somewhat older people who want to be younger than they are, and, last and least, people actually that age who don’t know what they think about themselves.
The fantasy Pepsi Generation expects photographers or cellists to protest for social justice and doesn’t see politically disengaged or conservative cellists as legitimate artists. The fantasy Pepsi Generation expects creative people to be sexy and photogenic, since the only way to commercial success for “a creative” is self-promotion of their work and their politics through social media, including lots of pictures of themselves along the way. The fantasy Pepsi Generation see self-image and politics as worthy and integrated subjects of art and creative endeavor.
And, unlike Pepsi Generations Past, where you would expect an elite person of color to be cordoned off into one area of endeavor—music, athletics, politics (Are you like Michael or like Mike?)—the artistic, political and commercial role of the performance of identity puts elite people of color in the center of a matrix of sexy, rich, powerful, iconoclastic, disruptive, justice-seeking success, whether that’s practically what’s true in the world or not.
And then, of course, because Pepsi is the “taste of a new generation,” by some holy creed it wrote on some stone tablets in the 80s, Pepsi is also now about these things whether they make sense or not, or whether it wants to be or not.
The commercial cynically asserts that young elite people protest without knowing or caring what they are protesting in order to appear cool to other young people, and that the subject of the protest is not important. And this sets up a bit of a matrix:
- Is this ACCURATE or INACCURATE about the desires of its target market?
- Is this HONEST or DISHONEST in its analysis of the way the world works?
- Is this MORAL or IMMORAL in its representation of protest and police, regardless of its honesty?
And I don’t think the commercial answers the questions so much as, intended or unintended, provoke and upset the audience with respect to them, intentionally or unintentionally (as if it matters; the author is dead, and no amount of Pepsi can bring it back).
The Beautiful Trolls
I think Kendall Jenner is the best person to represent all this, because without any one part of her success, the rest of it would lose coherence and cease to exist. Her sex appeal is linked to her power and wealth. She is elite in all these respects, yet not elite in any respect on its own. She is all performance, so without art there is nothing. Her primary subject is what she is photographed wearing, doing, or next to.
More on the question of race, gender and Kardashian in a bit.
If Kendall Jenner wants to continue in her station as an elite young person (and she does), she is obligated to be politically engaged, whether she has a handle on what is being protested or not. We learned this from Kendall’s participation in the video for the much-maligned remix of will.i.am’s “Where’s the Love” in 2016.
The one way this trollfest betrays itself is painting the police officer in a positive light. That’s a concession to the oldsters, and of course the thing that pissed everybody off about the commercial and the tiny crystal clog that spins out fractally and makes the whole thing a terrible failure instead of a widely hated success.
She should walk up to the police officer, drink the Pepsi in his face, and then drop the can at his feet. That is the cool/sexy/powerful/ethnic/artistic/rich/young thing to do. She should do what Kardashians do best: confound. Troll.
It still would have been rightly, but uselessly slammed as cynical and morally reprehensible to a lot of people, but it probably would have been able to play longer and stake a stronger claim to its Pepsi Generation. It would have been truer to itself, even if it didn’t aspire at all to the much-vaunted authenticity against which some of the commentariat have judged it.
To me, the problem wasn’t that Kendall Jenner was in it, the problem was that Kendall Jenner wasn’t in it enough.
Kardashians aren’t supposed to do the comfortable thing that makes the corporate executives happy. They are supposed to do the uncomfortable thing that makes them rich.
The Label on the Can
Let’s look at some actual criticisms of the commercial, exemplified by this Washington Post article by Tracy Jan.
Jenner is white. And wealthy. Daughter of one of the most superficial families in Hollywood who has not, on reality television or social media anyway, put her life on the line to protest any of the issues being highlighted by Black Lives Matter.
There are three issues here, which I’ll take on separately:
- Kardashian dismissal
- Kardashian whiteness
- The commercial’s relation to Black Lives Matter
I don’t take anyone who just dismisses the Kardashians as superficial seriously. It’s not that they’re wrong, of course the Kardashians are superficial, they deal in fashion and appearances. They just aren’t operating on the Kardashians’ level. Fashion is the art of change. It is not to be taken lightly.
If you hate something the Kardashians are doing that involves race or gender identity, you’re not alone.
“Everyone” hates Kendall Jenner so much. “Everyone” hates Kim and Kanye so much. “Everyone” can’t deal with Cait or anything else Kris has touched since her friend Nicole was murdered by somebody, whoever that was.
First, it’s not everyone even though it feels like it sometimes. Nixon’s old silent majority is now shame-watching Revenge Body.
Second, you have to be telling a lot of truth folks don’t want to hear and slaughtering a lot of sacred cows to piss off that many people that often for that long and still be the best there is at it.
And, perhaps controversially, I’d posit that just saying that Kendall Jenner is “white” in the context of this commercial, as if that’s all that’s going on with her race, ignores the 10 years of Kardashian ethnic and gender identity provocation that has been one of if not the dominant work of popular art and culture in America for the last decade.
Some people credibly assert that Kendall Jenner is white, that her whiteness, by virtue of the privilege it confers, cannot be discarded or changed. The credibility of this assertion rests on their own experience and their right to assert that experience, which is unmistakable.
But they are of course not the only people and not the only perspective, so it’s a credibility that, depending on the context of what is being discussed, admits parallel or contradictory perspectives. And the Kardashians revel and thrive in cutting across these perspectives.
To review the basics, since I’m not sure Overthinking It readers are familiar: Kris Jenner has six children.
The younger children, Kendall and Kylie, are the daughters of Kris and Caitlyn Jenner. Caitlyn Jenner is white, but, you’ll note, thumbs identity political eyes in other ways.
Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and Rob are the children of the departed Rob Kardashian. Rob Kardashian was from an Armenian family that immigrated to the U.S. from Turkey.
Slight detour here…
Because of America’s style of slavery, Black Americans have been classified in an absolute, immutable sense throughout the country’s history. If you are of mixed ancestry, but part of it is Black, you are Black – that has even been enforced by law over the years. Barack Obama is Black. Tiger Woods is Black. Whether you have been in America for 10 generations or were born in Africa, you are Black. The hegemonic discourse White America tends not to acknowledge any subtleties or differences, like the separate communities and cultures of Afro-Caribbean immigrants. They are Black, and they are treated like they are Black.
We held an entire race of people in bondage, so we constructed strong discursive chains as well as physical ones to bind them, and they haven’t gone away.
In other parts of the Western Hemisphere, notably Brazil, ideas of race are more fluid and gradual all the way up and down the various social hierarchies, with different communities and mixtures falling into more intersectional power structures. But that’s not how we do it.
But if you’re “white” in America, that has long been subject to change. There’s a great book by UCLA Professor Karen Brodkin that was the subject of many, many discussions among my friends of various ethnicities in college, How Jews Became White Folks & What That Says About Race in America. It outlines how in the postwar period, ethnic barriers to economic opportunity and social and political participation in the prosperity of the country for Jews were dropped, but strengthened for African Americans. It highlights how the social construction of race means mutability and mobility for some, but not for others. I suggest checking it out.
The reason I bring this up is that it can go both ways. Today, I think we are witnessing the reverse for Middle Easterners of various nationalities currently in the United States and parts of Europe, and the decline of the “Caucasian” definition of “whiteness.”
Increasingly Islam is being treated less as a religion and more of an ethnic cluster, with essentialism about even the moral fiber of children growing increasingly common, aspersions and suspicions cast on families and relatives more than on ideological groups and associations, and with restrictions of free movement and migration, rather than ideological indoctrination, championed as ways to enforce proper behavior by those prejudiced against them.
Of course, Armenians by and large are not Muslims, but that hardly matters to how racial identity in America works. Certain groups who are phenotypically “white” by skin color and facial structure (which includes a range of skin tones, due to, you know, the sun, among other things), and were once commonly viewed as white, are increasingly losing their whiteness because of their culture or religion. As economic opportunity for the working class expanded American whiteness in the mid 20th century, contracting economic opportunity may be narrowing it in the 21st.
Young people are confused by the “White Hispanic” category on the Census. Conservative Republican Iranian-Americans in Michigan are confused they are being targeted by their own party as foreigners. People literally from the Caucasus are no longer Caucasian.
So, if you look at pictures of Robert Kardashian from the 1990s, that’s a guy who, at the time, was white. Now, he would be Middle Eastern. He would probably get randomly stopped at airports by racists as a perceived threat to public safety.
If you look at pictures of his children: His daughters Khloe, Kim, and Kourtney, and his son Robert, they all present with much darker skin than he had. They tend to lean toward the beauty and fashion norms more commonly associated with “people of color.” Three of them married (or at least attempted to marry) African Americans (a much rarer thing than you might think: in 2013, 93% of white people who got married in America married other white people).
This is all further complicated by makeup and plastic surgery, empowering those who can afford it to replace phenotypical characteristics if, among other reasons, they do not wish to perform the associated identities.
Of course, in doing so, the attendant privileges don’t just go away, but that’s all part of why this is so complicated.
So, all this is to say that I would definitely not take it as a given that Kim, Kourtney, Khloe and Rob Kardashian, by modern American conscious and subconscious racist standards are “white,” without a whole bunch of further discussion.
Kendall and Kylie are fairer than their siblings, but Kendall in particular seems to like to present herself as a younger, slimmer version of her sister Kim, due to Kim’s undeniable status as a cultural icon and sex symbol.
This means Kendall Jenner tends to wear a lot of bronzer and have her hair, brows and makeup done such that she looks more Middle Eastern than she is.
This goes back to lived experience as the vested authority of legitimate assertions about identity.
Kendall Jenner is Kim Kardashian’s sister. They they from the same family. I would not deign to deny that half-sisters are sisters if that is how they see each other.
As such, Kendall Jenner may have a moral right, insofar as moral rights around identity construction and performance exist, to present as related to her sister, and to perform aspects of her sister’s complex ethnic identity, as they are not separable from other aspects of her sister’s identity.
It becomes an intersectional questions involving complex parent situations, mixed families, and family legacies as much as one of racial and gender representation.
And if your main takeaway from this is, “Hold on, that’s bullshit! You would upset X by saying that. It’s wrong for Y reasons. You can’t just do that,” it turns out that you can, and congratulations, you are now keeping up with the Kardashians.
The Kardashians are the great counterargument to “authenticity culture.” And just raging at them for not toeing the line doesn’t take their power away, it enlarges it. They are, as Time Magazine put it in 1993, “The New Face of America.”
Also it’s worth noting how much the police officer looks like Matt McGorry from Orange Is the New Black, which reinforces the subtle theme through the commercial and the major overarching Kardashian theme of interracial sex. Or, more specifically, challenging people to be as comfortable with interracial attraction, sex and marriage as everybody who denies being racist claims to be.
Because, white or not, Kendall Jenner is totally banging that cellist later.
The Fractal Screw-Up
Can we look at a world where the Kardashians have done everything they have done and succeeded to the extent they have succeeded and still say with a straight face that the practical rules and social norms of our culture as a country match what would call “appropriate?” Nope!
And yet, is it appropriate for them to co-opt Black American anger at abuse at the hands of police? Nope!
I’ve tried to resist using the word “diversity” with regards to this commercial, as it seems cowardly and vague, and I’m also going to try to resist mincing words regarding Black Lives Matter.
People are mad and have launched massive protests in the United States in recent years because of the racist, extrajudicial murders of Black Americans by the police. And even though all the conversation above about the complex degree to which the Kardashians participate in or perform various levels of whiteness or “of color”-ness, as I also mentioned, being Black in America is different, and they sure aren’t Black.
So, even to the degree that the commercial shows Kendall Jenner stepping away from her whiteness and toward a world populated by elite people of color, it does not show her going through what Black people in America go through and how they are abused and deprived of their rights by racists.
That said, it’s interesting how people assume the protest being depicted was their protest, despite it being a mishmash of images from different current protest movements and barely including anything more specific than peace signs. That to me says the commercial is doing its job.
Of course I don’t blame people from seeing their own reflection when they’re looking at a mirror. This is more to do with the creators of the ad: when you hold up a mirror, you should be mindful of what the people looking at it are going to see and how it will make them feel. Especially if it’s a rose-colored mirror.
But it could have also been a pro-immigration protest, since the photographer with the hijab is so prominently featured, or it could have been an anti-Trump women’s march style protest, because of the wide range of people lined up doing it and the general lightheartedness of it. And as I say, where it engages the question of how to feel about racist extrajudicial murder is where it screws up.
To go back to the three notes on Tracy Jan’s column, I don’t agree with dismissing the Kardashians, I don’t agree that Kendall Jenner being white is simple and obvious, but I do agree that what she’s doing would be hugely inappropriate for a Black Lives Matter protest specifically, if that’s what was happening.
Bury Me in an Aluminum Can
Okay, so with all that said, here’s the message of the commercial: If you, the young, want to appear/be cool, rich, artistic, sexy, and to step away from the numbing safety of your whiteness (without giving up its privileges, natch, and without facing repercussions or abuse), and you want to be seen as a political person in a way that separates it from any particular issue you might invest yourself in—then you take a picture of yourself with a can of Pepsi.
Of course, in the subsequent week, that’s sort of what’s being reproduced: people who want to appear cool, artistic, and successful are photoshopping cans of Pepsi into scenes of irrelevant, but profound political distress and sharing those around to mooch off that coolness without facing any risk.
The bottom line is I can’t see somebody else, like Chloe Grace Moretz, bringing all this to the table in such an incredibly painful, cynical and confounding commercial. Though I also hesitate to call the commercial a failure on its own terms. It’s more that it wasn’t defensible under scrutiny enough to be allowed to keep running and work its fizz-schilling magic.
Still, maybe the commercial being pulled ruins most of its ability to exert influence, or maybe it won’t. There might be a new Streisand effect in the works, we’ll see. At the very least, when something gets a reaction this big, even when it’s bad, I tend to think it is telling a real truth, or at least, hitting a real nerve. It can be hard to un-ring that kind of bell, even if you claim to intent to un-ring it in your corporate apology.
Where do you stand? Sound off in the comments, and stay tuned for a response from a different Overthinking It writer later on. —Ed.