I woke up with cable this morning, in a hotel room, with a few free hours before work. I haven’t had cable in a while. This, coupled with the absence of clothing and the abundance of toy commercials aired during cartoons, led me to form a completely unremarkable political theory.
There wasn’t anything on any of the seven Showtime channels. I found my way to Cartoon Network. I was content letting my mind wander to animation, but then the commercials started, and didn’t stop. Toys, toys, toys. A plastic Mario on a ‘hovering’ plastic car. Another toy commercial, for a creepy mask and Spiderman web shooters. Two for the girls: fluorescent comb-able plastic ponies and collectible princess dolls.
While their parents are sleeping, reluctant to let go of the tasteless bliss of dreamless sleep and return to the land of dental plaque and insurance premiums, children are bombarded by footage of euphoric children intercut with the faces of facsimile animals and their favorite cartoon pals. Mass-produced objects are given names, faces and personalities to instill a sense of caring, or kinship.
According to boffins and the smug, misleading voice in our heads we call ‘common sense,’ human beings are gaga for baby animals and doe-eyed media personalities because they’re cute in the same way babies are cute. Even if you’re not especially fond of children, the sight of a delighted infant is honey poured directly inside the brain basket, whereas the woeful face of a frightened infant is a tummy full of irate honeybees.
We’re intrinsically susceptible to cuteness. Cuteness prevents us from throwing babies away when they cry all night or chew through our computer cables, and from admitting to ourselves that cutesy kittens wouldn’t think twice about making a savory snack of our faces, should the inclination present itself. This weakness for cute is bad enough, but toy manufacturers exploit this innate addiction so that we attach to nonliving objects. A hunk of plastic is given a face, and a name, and footage of these objects are strategically deployed to addle the dumb minds of children, bored housewives, and grown men in hotel rooms.
But I’m a grown man. After a string of toy commercials—I lost count after seven or eight—I surfed to Fox News, where a well-dressed older man, an alleged expert on such catastrophes, speculated the fate of a missing oil tanker. The expert wasn’t baby adorable, but his face was similar to an infant’s, in the way that old men often resemble infants, assuming the innocent smile has been surgically removed and childlike wonder replaced with unfounded, selective certainties.
The news had fewer commercials, and those commercials peddled a variety of wares, but I wasn’t about to have my Monday morning curdled by senseless prattle about ‘Christian persecution’ and ‘family values.’ It was only a matter of time before the anchors moved on from Joaquin, the latest anthropomorphized hurricane, to which Pagan god(s) Hillary Clinton is in service to.
I flipped to MSNBC, where two well-dressed, but less formal anchors discussed polls, and what the polls could conceivably mean. They asked a political analyst what the latest polls meant. The analyst stared directly into the camera, with large gray eyes that made me aware of my nakedness. I pulled the covers to my chin, shielding my unmentionables.
Her expression rarely wavered. The smile remained static as she spoke. She was composed, made up, and pretty—she analyst-explained the latest Iowa caucus polls. The contemporary tea leaves were no longer falling in Clinton’s favor, the adorable analyst explained, in a matter of speaking. The vengeful gods of the electorate had taken a shine to Bernie Sanders.
The anchors segued to Donald Trump, for having recently referred to rival Bobby Jindal as a “boy.” Being gleefully politically ignorant, I looked up a picture of Jindal on my phone. If my suspicion that toy commercials hold the key to understanding American politics had any merit, and if Bobby Jindal did indeed have the élan of a boy, Trump’s attack could seriously backfire. Voters could come to see Jindal as a charming plastic kitty-cat man, and elect him over Trump, whose face naturally assumes a constant pout—but a splotchy pout. And nothing screams “I’m Not a Boy, Not Yet a Man” like an awkward comb over.
“Bobby Jindal” sounds like a boy next door, but my search returned a gaunt, solemn man. Curiously, none of the pictures showed Jindal smiling. I tried to imagine his smile, but a grinning Bobby Jindal didn’t strike me as remotely boyish. The grin I envisioned could’ve belonged to the villain in an extremely dark afterschool special, but not to the boys themselves.
Naked in a Best Western early this morning, I concluded that, beyond contemporary tea leaves and sensationalized campfire stories, consumer media boils down to plying viewers with big kitty-cat eyes. Political ads almost always end with the candidate’s best, most practical smile. The same impossibly ecstatic smile as the boy steering his remote-control Mario into furniture, or the girl brushing the not-hair of a horse that never gallops, asks questions, breathes, sleeps, or dreams.
The synthetic manes of poseable ponies has never made adolescence easier on a girl, nor has officially licensed superhero masks turned a timid boy into a hero. Heroism demands sacrifice. Sacrifice isn’t practical in America. Those who confront and carry suffering don’t have the fresh, innocent appeal as the charismatic action figures promising to magically eradicate it.