Wednesday, May 26, 2010

15a Mule and Yippee-yi-yay

As this course comes to an end, it is worth considering what you will take from this course. How does the history of the frontier still matter? How do the skills learned in this course apply beyond our specific subject matter?

Consider Mule, a man who was sleeping outdoors around Orange County in spring 2014, but has most recently been sighted in Ventura County as I type this. Mule believes in "living on the outside." He has been travelling around California and the west with his 3 mules for the last 30 years. There is a great six-minute documentary about Mule here. (Full disclosure: I am historical adviser for this documentary-in-process.)

Mule lives cheaply, spending about $60 a month on food for himself and his 3 mules, using his savings. He is occasionally arrested for illegal camping, but he argues that this is how he lives, not recreational, and therefore not technically camping. Some members of a facebook group for Mule voluntarily contribute to his legal expenses because they admire his way of life. Mule says he is "defending his freedom."

I find that students have extreme reactions to hearing Mule's story. Is he a hero, living a minimalist and environmental life? Or is he a freeloader, shirking work? Is he a modern-day cowboy? Or is he evidence that, as Turner predicted in 1893, the frontier is indeed closed?

His story resonates, I think, because it strikes so many familiar frontier themes of rugged individualism and exploring America's open spaces with one of the animals that did help settle the frontier -- yet it is incongruous to see him on suburban sidewalks and next to urban skyscrapers. Thinking about how you feel about Mule's choices may help you think about how you feel about the frontier itself and what you see as your own choices in America now, 121 years after Turner declared the frontier closed.

A second way to think about this class is to watch Jack in the Box's ad campaign from about 2010.

This video mocks the whole cowboy theme, suggesting that myths of the American frontier are now reduced to only jokes. Yet as American Studies students, you probably realize that jokes are not trivial: jokes can be interesting windows onto cultural concerns.

I don't know about you, but after watching that video, I can't get that silly "Yippee-yah-ay" song out of my head. Ads are designed that way, of course, attempting to embed themselves in our brain, but the power of that silly cowboy song suggests that there is still some power to the American cowboy myth. We're not the 1950s generation obsessed with John Wayne and his myths, but we're not entirely free of the frontier myth either. We can't ignore it, because it's already in our heads. All we can do is analyze it.

This video features midget cowboys, partly to mock the stereotypical strong masculinity of the John Wayne myth, and perhaps even to make an American-Studies-like point about the diversity of actual cowboys. Yet I don't think this video intends to promote diversity. There are gender issues here: instead of making midgets sexy like John Wayne, the video shows them singing in unsexy chipmunks-like voices. There are also racial issues here: as far as I can tell, all the midget cowboys are white. Even in a video that questions the cowboy mystique, the myth of all-white cowboys gets reproduced.

Beyond race and gender lie other issues of production. The video is suggesting that it's funny to think that miniature burgers come from miniature cattle and miniature people. Perhaps the joke is on us, who don't really know where our burgers come from. According to the youtube commentators, cattle and prairie dogs aren't often in the same landscape: this video confuses Minnesota corn-country than with southwestern cattle-country, and therefore, the commenters declare, the video makes no sense -- as if the video were ever supposed to make factual sense. The humor of the senselessness is mocking all the Jack in the Box customers who don't truly know where their burgers come from. The Jack in the Box corporation probably doesn't want you to read Schlosser's chapters about where our burgers truly do come from, yet, ironically, this very video suggests the need for Schlosser's analysis.

The existence of miniature burgers also hints at our precarious economic times. It's a clever way for Jack in the Box to package less meat under more bun, selling us mostly puffed air. The ad distracts us from that economic point by showing us midgets semi-yodelling. That's an astoundingly clever distraction -- yet none of these points about economics, food production, environment, diversity, and race and gender represenation are ever fully buried. 

American Studies lets us think about those buried issues in this ad. American Studies aims to let you think about any piece of culture deeply, from Mule to this ad. The goal of American Studies is not to ruin the joke or ruin your lunch -- though I understand how that could happen. Really, my goal is not to ruin your life but to add greater meaning to the daily culture that's all around us.

So go forth and analyze, while humming yippee-yah-ay and thinking about Mule.

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