The Mechanical Bride

Best known for coining the phrase “global village” and arguing that the properties of media itself are more significant in changing our lives than the content it presents, Marshall McLuhan’s first major book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), was a fascinating look at American culture seen through its popular culture, particularly advertisements and comic strips. I first read the book at age seventeen, but his approach to looking at contemporary popular culture as folklore or mythology, has stuck with me all my life, and a tool I have taught to my kids to help them better understand the context of the world they are living in. I find in our own times, that the glitzy color magazine ads and the highly produced TV commercials are particularly interesting in revealing a cultural context in which we live.

The format of McLuhan’s book is a series of short vignettes, each generally based around a specific advertisement, ad campaign, or newspaper comic strip, creating a mosaic of American culture after World War II and transitioning into the very conformist period of the 1950s. In the vignette with the book’s title and others, you can see the move to conformity looking at the mythology of selling a certain commoditized view of women as sexual widgets that men can anticipate possessing if they buy all the right clothes, cologne, etc., and read the right magazines and newspapers.

Understanding this conventional wisdom as mythology was very important to me as an older youth transitioning to adulthood to help me develop an explicit set of values (feminist in my case) to establish my path forward within the context of these cultural messages. And remembering that, when I became a parent myself, one of the first things I taught my kids when they were old enough to want to watch TV, was to understand the real messages behind the very slick advertisements laced into the commercial programs they liked to watch on Nickelodeon and other networks.

I think it is critical to survival today, if you are going to be out in the mainstream world, that you understand and acknowledge the messages in this ad about a prevailing view of both cars and women. I believe very strongly that to not share the wisdom you have as an adult about the cultural messages youth and adults are bombarded with is to leave those youth subconsciously vulnerable to those messages.

As a key example, if messages promoting a Mars/Venus differentiation between girls and boys and the mythology of a continual war between the sexes are not called out, understood and challenged, both our daughters and sons are in danger of accepting these ideas as generally accepted, rather than patriarchal mythology, that may not be how they want to approach their relationships with people of the other sex.

Another area (though often difficult for parents to discuss with their kids) is using the promise of sexual gratification to sell products that really have nothing to do with a healthy sex life. I keep thinking of the recent Cadillac ad campaign, where the sexy woman in a black dress and heels is driving her big new powerful car down the road, suggesting to viewers that the question to ask when deciding which car to buy is, “When you turn it on does it return the favor”? My question is, how many of our youth may be saved from death or injury in car accidents if this motivation for “expressing yourself” behind the wheel is called out and delegitimized?

With our own kids it started with all those toy ads during the holiday shopping season. We pointed out to Eric and Emma how many of the toys marketed on TV are sex-segregated to only girls or only boys, and how rarely you see a toy commercial with both boys and girls playing together, except in some sort of war between the sexes context. Whenever I noticed them watching such an ad, I was vigilant to call it to their attention and explain the dynamics to them as best as they could understand. Given that, I did not find it is necessary to constantly supervise my kids watching TV, just as long as they regularly heard our opinions on those messages so they could recall and contemplate another point of view when they are watching on their own.

I appreciate that some parents take the approach of separating their kids from most popular culture and any and all commercial messages, perhaps not letting their kids watch TV at all, or maybe only videos that the parents have pre screened. There are certainly good arguments for this path, but I am more inclined to give kids early experience and wisdom about popular culture as early as possible to help them quickly build their own effective filters.

For my kids as teenagers, the most disturbing messages had to do with violence in general and sexual violence in particular, particularly in song lyrics, movies and video games. I still shake my head when you can watch people graphically kill each other in a PG-rated movie but generally only see people graphically having sex in an R- or NC17-rated one. Again, for the most part I did not limit their access (beyond maybe not facilitating their getting into a violent R-rated movie with no argument for redeeming value). Rather, I was very passionate and attempted to be articulate in sharing my own feelings about the portrayals of violence and sexual violence.

The most memorable example with our son Eric was the video game “Grand Theft Auto”, a highly commercially successful, state-of-the-art, very graphically engaging game where you play a character violently stealing cars, running people down and shooting it out with the police (just for starters, with more advanced mayhem as well). I found the game very disturbing, but rather than prevent him from playing it, I just repeatedly (when the subject came up) shared with him in no uncertain terms my strong feelings about the game. He listened, told me he felt I was reading too much into it, and continued to play, but I think my point was taken.

As a parent, I have found that when you give your kids every opportunity to develop and exercise their own discretion and their own agency, while candidly sharing your own thoughts and opinions, you promote mutual respect between you and them. Not writing you off immediately as just a controlling parent, even though they might not take your advice, they still acknowledge it and it becomes part of the cultural context they need to wrestle with.

I am happy to say that, given reasonably unfettered access to popular culture, our son Eric has charted his own path to becoming a caring and humane person who does not crave the violent entertainments ubiquitous in our culture. He abhors violence and is known for defusing many verbally or physically violent situations among his peer group rather than starting any.

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