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Gil Scott-Heron may never have realized just how relevant his critique of the appropriation of revolutionary images would still be 30 years after recording his seminal composition, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." While he skillfully broached the apparent trendiness and decontextualized politics of being a revolutionary in the early 1970s, one can only imagine his reaction to the commodification of revolutionary icons today.
Thirty-five years after dying an anonymous death in a remote region of Bolivia--the culmination of a lifelong struggle for justice and against exploitation by First World countries--Ché Guevara has reappeared on $20 T-shirts and on posters in college frat houses in the Land of the Free Market. The Latin American revolutionary has paradoxically become an icon in the heart of capitalism, stripping his image of his ideology and allowing any kid from the suburbs to transform himself into a revolutionary--a true hero of the people.
Third-world heroes have a tendency to be made into icons, symbols, and mere clichés. After the liberation movements succeed, independence is won, and the former freedom fighters become the faces of the new corrupt governments, the leaders are usually reduced to a single function, idea, or phrase. Not long after Indian independence, the world agreed on the equation, Gandhi = nonviolence. And in truly absurd cases, Ché has even become the logo of a rock group signed to Sony Records, and Bob Marley's music has been diminished to an excuse to smoke pot.
Of course, these visionaries deserve recognition, but to pimp out their images is an insult to some very complex figures. It seems that advertising firms have fully mastered the art of reducing these images of resistance to empty shells in order to sell goods. Who knew consumption itself could be so subversive?
There's no question that dissent has become cool, and nothing sells quite like "nonconformity." Billboards across the country encourage us to "think different" in a campaign that features none other than Mahatma Gandhi himself stitching his own clothes (khadi) in an explicitly anti-colonial, anti-capitalist gesture. Other icons selected for these Apple ads include Cesar Chavez, the farmworker organizer who led the struggle against capitalist forces in California's Central Valley, and civil rights heroine, Rosa Parks. Curiously, Jesse Jackson publicly complained that Parks is too 'sacred' to be included in fictional jabs in the film Barbershop, but apparently finds nothing sacrilegious about her image being used to sell neon-colored computers.
This past year, television viewers in California have been subjected to ads from the power company Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) that cleverly reinterpret the 1960s radical folk song, "Power to the People, Right On!" The astonishing contradiction lies in the fact that PG&E was a significant player in and beneficiary of the 2001 electricity crisis whose burden was borne most heavily by California's working class. And, in November 2002, PG&E successfully campaigned against a San Francisco initiative that would have created a public power infrastructure as a local solution to the nightmare created by the privatization and deregulation of the electricity market. Sure, power to the people, right on!
In all cases, when icons of resistance are commodified, they become depoliticized. In essence, dissent is cool as long as it is fashionable, predictable, and contained by consumerism. At the same time, actual political and ideological dissent is not really cool at all, especially in the post-9/11 Ashcroftian era.
So, it can be said that any item that is bought and sold, or simply used in advertising campaigns, is inherently detached from the cultures, ideologies, and movements that produced it. As with any product, the market creates a separation between the consumers and producers of those goods. In that sense, Ford drivers never interact with the Detroit auto workers who assemble their cars, and kids with Ché T-shirts need not read up on his political ideology.
Connections should be drawn to what has been termed "cultural commodification," referring to the not-so-recent trend whereby Asian, African, Latino, and Native American cultural products are bought and sold with profits usually not ending up in those communities. This phenomenon dates at least as far back as colonial times when the Dutch considered Southeast Asian sarongs to be quite fashionable.
Along the way, every African American art form from jazz through rock-and-roll to hip hop has been appropriated by white American consumers creating profit for white American companies. Madonna appeared on a music awards show in 1998 dressed in Indian garb, topped off with a traditional bindi on her forehead, instantly launching a new fad that saw the renewed fashionability of Asian symbols, including Chinese characters on everything from T-shirts to tattoos.
Examples of cultural commodification range from the seemingly benign to the downright offensive. In Spring 2002, Abercrombie & Fitch--a prominent cultural outfitter of white suburbia--marketed a line of T-shirts featuring racist caricatures of Asians with slogans such as, "Wong Brothers Laundry: Two Wongs Can Make It White." After drawing outrage--mainly from Asian American college students, many of whom organized demonstrations outside Abercrombie stores--the baffled company quickly pulled the T-shirts from the racks, while explaining that they "thought Asians would love this T-shirt."
Stripped of Meaning
In fact, the rise of market multiculturalism has led many to view the trendiness of Asian symbols, for example, as evidence that Asians are finally being accepted into the cultural fabric of America. The unfortunate inaccuracy of this hope lies in the contradiction that while it may be cool for white folks to accessorize with Asian cultural symbols, that "Asian look" is not as fashionable for real Asians, who become the targets of hate crimes and other forms of discrimination. Ironically, South Asians in New Jersey were physically beaten and two were killed in 1987 by an outfit of white racists who called themselves the Dotbusters, taking their name from the very bindi that Madonna is able to use as a fashion ornament. It goes without saying that young white girls would never have to fear being targeted as "dot heads," even when they follow Madonna's lead and sport dots on their heads.
These examples of cultural commodification illustrate that just as the cultural symbols are stripped of their original meanings when they are sold for profit, so are images of resistance detached from their ideological significance when they become hip. The type of dissent expressed by these rebel consumers does not subvert or challenge any system of oppression, because true, effective dissent is never individualist--it always requires and relies on a mobilized, mass base.
The point here is not simply to focus on the commodification of our icons, images, and symbols, but rather to make connections to the broader, deeper struggles that are always simultaneously taking place beneath the surface. Although it is quite naïve to think that the lives of Asian Americans are in any way improved simply because our cultural symbols are being bought and sold in suburban malls, it is also true that the community does not truly advance when those objects are simply taken off the shelves. Indeed, it is quite telling that Asian American activists are left wondering why it is hard to get even a dozen demonstrators out to a garment worker rally, while hundreds of Asian American college students protested at Abercrombie & Fitch stores against the racist T-shirts.
These issues of commodification and appropriation can and should be an entry point to the larger issues that confront all communities of color in America. Billboards, advertisements, and T-shirts with revolutionary slogans contribute nothing towards a progressive transformation of society. After all, Gil Scott-Heron himself prophesied that, when it finally comes, "the revolution will be live."
Anmol Chaddha is a researcher at the California Works Foundation. He directed a short film on cultural commodification, Yellow Apparel: From Coolie to Cool.