On Saturday, Frebruary 28th, 2015, Saturday Night Live (SNL) aired a faux commercial as they are want to do each week, though this particular faux-mercial managed to generate far more buzz that most of the show’s skits have in recent months, much of it negative. The commercial is a parody of a Toyota Super Bowl commercial title “My Bold Dad”, where a father takes his daughter to the airport to drop her off as she prepares her military service. The SNL skit has a similar scenario, only instead of dropping his daughter off to join America’s armed forces, the fatehr is dropping he off to join ISIS. Though the skit has received a significant amount of support and positive feedback, some news outlets have focused on the negative response, suggesting that jokes about ISIS are not appropriate. The issue with this is two-fold. The first concern is that satire levied against any group is central to generating important discourse; impeding it limits the democratic process that is founded on freedom of speech. The second issue is that the target of the joke isn’t ISIS, it’s consumerism and, in my reading the American military.
To understand the consumer angle, one must put the skit into context. First, this I a faux commercial, therefore it is overtly about commercialism. The original commercial played on a melodramatic narrative where a father dropping his daughter off the join the military is framed as a ‘bold father’ and is therefore well suited to drive the ‘bold new Camry’. Toyota is playing up American patriotism in order to sell cars, which is understandable given that it is a foreign automaker that must combat the ‘Made in the USA’ mantra that is popular in America, most especially since the economic down turn that rocked the country in 2008, but the problem is that structurally, this is simply not appropriate. The story is about a young girl/woman joining an organization that has killed tens of thousands of civilians over the past 15 years, and Toyota frames this as a melodramatic narrative, which they then push to sell cars. That is highly inappropriate. Whatever one’s political standing is, and whatever reasons might justify military actions that kill in excess of 130 000 civilians, using that story to sell cars is inappropriate. Patriotic biases may prevent some from seeing this, but it is none the less there.
Getting audiences to see past their patriot bias is the point of the satire. In order to get the audience to see the absurdity of this approach, the satirist removes the patriotic blinders from the narrative. Instead of a patriotic force that ‘fights for freedom’, the satirist places another group in its place, a group that has likewise killed a number of civilians: ISIS. At this point, we see the brutality of this scenario. We now see that rather than simply bringing his daughter to start a new journey, he is specifically bringing her to start a new journey that will involve being complicit and culpable in the deaths of any number of civilians. The perspective no longer works to promote some kitsch patriotism, and instead is shown for the clearly insensitive instance of manipulative consumerism that it is. The tag line should read: “My daughter is going to kill people: Buy a Camry!” What is so uncomfortable about this for American viewers might be that the juxtaposition created between the two commercials actually aligns the American armed forces with ISIS. There are some who will argue that ISIS is inhumane and barbaric, and these people are spot on. That said, isn’t the US military guilty of any number of atrocities as well? The beheading and executions of Christians, Muslims, and homosexuals is savage, and so to the details of the CIA’s torture report equally brutal, which have been going on far longer. What of the torture and abuse that took place at Abu Ghraib? Some of these people were civilians. And then there was the tragedy of Abeer Qassim Hamsa al-Janabi, a fourteen-year-old girl who was held captive as her family, all civilians, were executed before she herself was gang-raped and then executed, at which point her body was set on fire. This was all done by a group of American military men. Is this not as barbaric as anything ISIS has done? Does using an institution like this to sell cars seem appropriate? Not to mention the fact that women, like the young woman in the Toyota commercial, is more likely to get raped by her fellow servicemen than she is of dying in the field, one of many disturbing fact about rape in the military. It hardly seems that the prospect of driving a young woman off to join the army is a narrative suited for selling a Camry.
ABC has picked this story up and ran with it, claiming that the target of the satire is the young girls who are recruited into ISIS and their ‘heartbroken families’. Firstly it is important to note that ABC is not exactly partial: their late-night line-up on Saturday nights get its ass handed to them by NBC’s SNL every week. That is like going to the Ford dealership and asking them if the Chevy Silverado is better than the Ford 150, or going to Baskin Robins and asking them if Weight Watchers is really as good as they claim to be. That said, there is more wrong this reporting than their bias; it carries sexist implications and has a flawed analysis. They claim that it is not ISIS, but the girls that they recruit “and their heartbroken parents” that “are the butt of the joke”, with reporter David Wright adding regurgitating the sentiment by stating parroting that “those girls and their heartbroken families” are the target of the satire. This attitude seems to conflict with how most people respond to young boy who are recruited into terrorist groups. Omar Khadr, for instance, was a fifteen-year-old boy when he was picked up in Afghanistan and shipped to Guantanamo Bay. He reports that he was tortured before confessing, and though international law defines him as a child soldier, and therefore a victim, the American and Canadian governments tried him as an adult, contrary to international law. Few have offered sympathy for this young man. Likewise, Dzhorkhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombers, was recruited at a young age by his own brother, but the search for him was a ‘manhunt’, not a ‘boyhunt’, and rather than empathizing with him for being recruited into a terrorist organization, or expressing sympathy for his ‘heartbroken family’, the media demonized him. I don’t have a problem with the way Tsarnaev was handled in the media as he was old enough to know what he was doing, but why is there this need to empathize when it is a girl who is recruited, but when it is a boy of the same age there are treated as a target? The only answer is that the media doesn’t recognize the girls as cognitively competent beings and are therefore not responsible for their choices, which is overtly sexist. That said, this was not the target of the satire: commercialism was.
The use of a young woman, though, is another key way in which the satire functions, and it has two components to it. First, this challenges viewers to humanize those youths who get recruited into groups like ISIS. By placing an American woman in the same scenario, it forces the audience to ask themselves: what if it was my child? All too often we demonize the ‘other’ without first trying to empathize or understand. The other side of the coin is the fact that whilst we might be eager to criticize militants and terrorists who recruit child soldiers, our own military has recruitment sessions in highschools and malls across the country. Is speaking to and indoctrinating a 15-year-old in highschool any different than what ISIS does? Perhaps it is, but what are the differences? Should we be recruiting people that young? Are they only enough to make such a decision? We are not so long off from a time when Americans could, as Barry McGuire wrote, be “old enough to kill, but not for voting”, meaning the government thought that at teens were old enough to make a choice about joining the military, but were not old enough to make a choice on election day. I don’t believe military recruitment should be taking place in malls and highschools as I see this as being no different that child soldiering, and I think the skit challenges the viewer to consider this view should they think long enough about the implications of the skit.
Anybody who doubts that this skit was a lampoon of American commercialism only need watch as recent Shark Tank parody SNL did when Chris Rock was on the show. In the skit, ISIS is looking to secure a 400 million dollar investment and capitalist figures like Mark Cuban (or rather somebody who is supposed to look like Cuban) show more of an interest into how they came to their valuation than the morality behind their business. When he hears that they have access to five million dollar of gas each day, his curiosity is piqued and only turns down their offer because had been burned by totalitarian regimes in the past. Likewise, the actor playing Daymond John becomes interested when he is offered and exclusive apparel deal and only turns ISIS into Homeland Security when he learns that he will secure a 30 million dollar reward. The Kevin O’Leary figure is not interest because of any moral qualms, but because he doesn’t see a profit. These entrepreneurs, then, have no interest in morality, only profit. Their refusal to invest in ISIS is because there isn’t anything to be gain, and their criticism are superficial, based on the pamphlets and logo, rather than the morality of the issue. When viewing the parody of the Toyota commercial, it becomes clear that the satires at SNL are targeting the ways in which capitalists are more than happy to profit from death where they can, and that the young girls recruited by ISIS are not the target of the lampoon, nor or their ‘heartbroken families’.
Humour is a matter of taste, and as such, some people will not find this funny. Upon watching this skit, I concede that I did not find it to be laugh-out-loud funny. It was worthy of a smirk at best in terms of laugh factors, but as a satire, the work is sharp and poignant. It doesn’t target girls who are recruited or their heart broken families, it targets the ways in which corporations and their Madison Avenue hypemen hypepersons are more than happy to turn a profit off of death. It also forces viewers to question American military action and compare and contrast it with the barbarity and atrocities committed by groups like ISIS. It also humanizes the youths who are recruited into these kinds of organizations by showing how our own children are recruited into similar groups. Upon watching that skit and really looking at how the satire functions, it is clear that the work is critical of the American military, American capitalism, and terrorists groups like ISIS. The girls being recruited are not the target, they are just talking points for people who are trying to drive traffic to their websites, or increase ratings to their ‘news’ programs, and anybody who buys that reading is simply too patriotic to confront what is really being said, or too lazy to do anything outside of a surface reading.
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