The White Women of Empire

The New Inquiry

October 1, 2014


Despite the fact that advertising is the cutting edge of ideological production, there is little critical engagement with advertising outside of occasional controversies and industry-specific work. Truth in Advertising is a new monthly series which hopes to investigate how advertising is constructing psychic life and cultural narratives in the metropolis, often doing its work silently and unnoticed. To trace how often those narratives then emerge “naturally” as cultural criticism, political debate or interpersonal discussion: Behind every think piece, a subway car full of ads. This piece is also informed by Emma Quangel’s The Weaponized Naked Girl.

In imperialist fantasies, the most famous role of white women is the damsel in distress, the pure and purifying object of sexual desire menaced by the unclean, violent, sexualized colonial subject: Faye Wray in the grips of King Kong. There’s another major role for white woman in imperialist narratives, however: as the metonym of the homeland, the representation and image of civilization. The white woman “back home” is the reason the male protagonist goes forth, it is her image he fights for and against which the savagery of the colony is thrown into starkest relief. He may cheat on this mythical white woman with a sexualized, state-of-nature beauty, but he always returns to her in the end: To fail to do so is to fail the colonial project.

But what happens when the white woman is the protagonist of the imperialist story?


This image collapses all those subject positions into one. What and where is the “homeland” here? The homeland is present both in the form of the white woman, and as the thing implicitly menaced by the fact of her difference from those around her. It is the values of the homeland that the burka’ed other imperils, violent invasion of the homeland which their sea of monotonous similarity promises. The very idea of a “homeland” only makes sense as something which can be defended from barbarians, in this instance uniform, colorless, de-sexualized barbarians whose country we must infiltrate and dominate to protect our citizens from current danger and our culture from future threat.

But it is clear that the helpless and/or metonymic white woman of imperial fantasy will no longer do. The historical victories of feminism have forced empire to interpolate (mostly white) women as its agents as well as its objects.


It’s bold to claim a TV show clearly about the previous Secretary of State is “not politics as usual.”  Indeed, the “NOT” obviously takes up excess space in the image and is easily cropped out or visually ignored–it’s enough to make you feel like you’ve got a pair of Rowdy Roddy Piper’s magic sunglasses:


But it’s no brilliant subversion of the ad to point it out. That’s literally within the framing of the imagery: The sight lines all center on Téa Leoni’s eyes. The advertisement’s visual language undermines its own tagline, but this makes the ad that much more effective at capturing its liberal prestige-TV-loving target audience. If it works on those naive enough to believe a show about a female secretary of state is subversive, it also flatters the media-savvy viewers imagining themselves to be deconstructing the ad and to be “above” those naive fools who believe the tagline. The purposefulness of this effect is visible in the billboard as well, where the crop is perhaps even more obvious.


The ad campaign for State of Affairs, meanwhile, offers us a younger, sexier secretary and a more vulgar, militarized vision of power, the 24 to Madame Secretary’s West Wing.

"All the president's men are nothing compared to her"

And then, just in time for the fall season, the Democratic Party’s main rag publishes a think piece about the shows, pretending all this Hillary worship is some fascinating cultural phenomenon emerging from the creative ether, not an obvious piece of the Party’s electoral machine preparing for 2016. As though the entertainment industry didn’t go 5 to 1 for Obama, and, as a result, get favorable administration action on intellectual property enforcement.

Of course, empire isn’t just administered by the federal government. There are all the local internal colonies to deal with, the carceral state to defend. But as white women’s imperial function is localized, the marketing is made more immediately bodily, more familiar, more sexualized and ridiculous. As the women get closer to home, so to speak, the advertising becomes more traditionally sexist.


She has nothing to do with the law — this Bad Judge upholds and breaks “the rules.” Her casual sexiness, her red hair (as opposed to the Aryan-differentiation-from-brown-women blondes), her come-hither stare, her short skirt and ample bracelets: This judge is fuckable. Why get caught in a confusing nexus of ideological and symbolic desire production when you can just have the audience desire the state, directly, in one of its flesh and blood incarnations?


The marketing campaign is terrible–that font!–which never bodes well for either the show’s prospects or the network’s confidence in it. But the show also goes too directly for the ideological money shot, its political project is too obvious, its premise too icky. People don’t find judges desirable: The pop culture judges (Joe Brown, Judy, etc) are older, stern, maybe sassy but never hot. They evoke folk wisdom, righteous anger and final authority, not fucking. Cops, however, make much more sense in the daily circuits of family, desire, and work…

Catching bad guys. Raising naughty ones

This tagline is almost identical to the tagline from Bad Judge. But Laura here has one more role than the judge. Not made sufficiently schizophrenic by her roles as a woman and an agent of the state, Laura is also just as much a mom, the perfect triumvirate of lean-in feminism subjectivities (career-haver, family-maker, cis-white-woman), the pathetic pun on mysteries (indeed, how does she do it?) already resolved visually: Laura is literally tripled in the image. Just like Bad Judge she’s a redhead, not a blonde. Just like Madame Secretary, the pitch is the “novelty” of a woman in a man’s role, but it is a wink-wink novelty, it is actually normal, normalized, and everyone knows it.

Here the anti-feminism is particularly strong, equating the work of mothering with the work of policing. It’s a variation on the old myth of controlling mothers–a misogynist inversion of the fact that in a traditional hetero-patriarchal family, it is dads who are structurally always cops, while the relation of the mother to order and oppression is more complicated and ambivalent.


But not in these ads. In the beautiful world of the spectacle, things aren’t complicated, they’re great: Women are detectives, moms are cops, judges are babes, look at all this progress we’ve made, get ready for Hillary, rah-rah-rah to the war against those Middle Eastern women in their burqas, the horrible unspeakable women who do not give themselves to our gaze, who refuse our liberal democracy, who could never be a sexy Secretary of State, a sexy homicide detective, a sexy storm trooper with her high-heeled boot sexily poised on the throat of some horrid barbarian.


Wont you please help her help you help her save herself, the homeland? Or at least tune in on Sundays and watch her try?


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