I have chosen three elements from “Kim” to explore my engagement: the narrative, its location, and the personal interaction between the two characters (actors). In these three elements the studium and the punctum entangle with my dispositions and produce a personal relationship with this ad that begets my rationality.
Hetero-normative patriarchal narrative
Textual analysis starts with a reading of the narrative. Even photographs are given imaginary narratives. The narrative of this ad is obviously shot from a hetero-normative patriarchal position. The ad is entitled “Kim.” He drives the motor scooter. The female actress Fatin (I was not even able to find her surname) is nothing but an appendage. Her role in the ad is to produce “one of Kim’s favorite sensations.”
One person on YouTube comments:
"This is an incredibly sexist ad. Maybe it should be "this is Kim, about to feel one of HER favorite sensations." The woman in the commercial is less important than the motorcycle, just a "sensation". I can't believe PBS would run this ad every night and not be under fire for it. It turns my stomach. I'm not a feminist, just a humanist. I don't even like the term feminism because it is biased towards one sex and not the other--just like this commercial. Let's eliminate sexism. LET'S GO!" (mindseyeworld)
If we use Foucault’s strategy of reversal and imagine a female narrator stating “This is Fatin…” with Cheong holding on to her as she drives away, my first reaction would to read it as a comedic text violating hegemonic patriarchal codes (Shumway, 1989). Queering the commercial might violate the cultural dominant even more radically. Reading either of these renditions as a joke would defend my own hetero-normative and patriarchal core. Considering my gender politics I would have to immediately backtrack. The pleasure and the reading of the text clash. Affect and analysis produce two contradictory paths to this text. Nevertheless, I feel comfortable watching the advert even though I recognize the heavy patriarchal heterosexual narrative. The studium of the ad places it in “my comfort zone.” Affect trumps meaning.
The Malaysian sign in the background in two shots locates the country for us. An added touch is the man walking quickly across the road dragging his goods, a stereotypical Southeast Asian signifier. Why is this ad shot in Malaysia? Does using a Southeast Asian couple entice me into a voyeuristic position?
Savigliano states that
"Exoticism is a way of establishing order in an unknown world through fantasy; a daydream guided by pleasurable self-reassurance and expansionism. It is the seemingly harmless idea of exploitation, cloaked as it is in playfulness and delirium. Exoticism is a practice of representation through which identities are frivolously allocated. It is also a will to power over the unknown, an act of indiscriminately combining fragments, crumbs of knowledge and fantasy in disrespectful, sweeping gestures justified by harmless banality"(I995: 189).
But why is this exotic? It is not some island paradise; it is just a city street with two young people on a motor scooter. We can find this image in any city. Does the choice of the Malaysian location and actors Orientalize my response to this ad?
Said argues that
“Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand” (1981:7).
There are two moments here: the relationship of the owner of the advert (Shell) to this location, and the relationship of me the reader to the characters in the ad. How does Orientalism manifest itself in each of these relationships?
Being a big energy company Shell has a colonial relationship with extraction locations. This ad, however, positions Malaysia as a consumer country. Shell makes it possible for Kim to ride his motor scooter. Like all advertising the commercial inflects this relationship inferring that the intimacy between these two people is enhanced by Shell. This ad is embedded in the “Let’s Go” campaign, which is designed to present Shell as a corporation that not only provides energy, but also enriches lives across the world. It’s simply a feel good ad in which we are expected to transfer the positive affect produced by the narrative, characters, voice-over, and music to Shell. This ad uses Southeast Asian tropes (motor scooter and man dragging goods across the road) to create a sense of place. And like advertising in general it “empties out” or strips the content of signifiers that may produce negative affect, such as traffic or discordant sounds of a cityscape. This is the structure of myth (Barthes, 1972). It produces the ‘feel’ of Asian-ness.
More importantly, does this commercial position me the reader as an Orientalist? Does it put me in a position of identification in which I replace Kim and have an exotic young woman wrapped around me on a motor scooter powered by Shell gasoline? Is this different than any other commercial selling sexuality, warmth, or intimacy, a standard fare of adverts? Again, I can use the strategy of reversal to explore how my own desires are organized. What if a white Anglo couple was used? Would that change the power of this advert to hold my gaze? Is my attraction anchored in a Western mythology that constructs the Orient, particularly the Asian woman, as exotic? What if there was an African couple in the ad? First, we might recognize this would be too close to home for Shell. Its oil production in Nigeria has received too much bad press in which Shell’s practices have been depicted as not only socially and politically exploitative to the local population, and also environmentally destructive to the natural world. To use a black couple would remind many viewers of the criticism of Shell over its practices there. The motivation behind legitimation advertising is to deflect criticism from real practices. We see this tactic used particularly in extraction industries, which are not particularly environmentally friendly. Using a Malaysian couple on a motor scooter and calling for “efficient energy” safely moves viewers away from thinking about real practices.
But how would my voyeurism/identification be structured if it was a black couple on the scooter? If the ad was shot in Nigeria, and the couple was black, would I still be able to identify with the driver? What does black African intimacy suggest? How is it different from Southeast Asian intimacy?
Am I infected with a cultural ‘Asianphilia?’ or the more colloquial “yellow fever?” In The Asian Mystique Sheridan Prasso places Western representations of Asian women into two stereotypical categories: submissively sensuous (geisha women and Southeast Asian mail order brides) and excessively domineering (the dragon lady). She further notes that
“the image of the submissive, subservient, exotic Oriental is a pervasive one: the tea-serving geisha, the sex nymph, the weeping war victim, the heart-of-gold prostitute” (1989: 8).
Representations of Asian women often reflect a mythical sexual fascination by Western writers, travelers, filmmakers, etc. The fantasy structure is fetishistic. It reduces all Asian ethnicities into a monolithic cultural formation built on historically rooted stereotypes. It is Orientalist because it is designed for Western audiences and it produces an intimacy based on passivity of the Exotic. Prasso further suggests that this fantasy formation of Asian women serves to ‘re-masculate’ Western men.
In a 2012 documentary Seeking Asian Female Debbie Lum follows the relationship between Steve, a sixty years old white male, and Sandy, a thirty years old Chinese woman, whom he met on the Internet. Steve was obsessed with Asian women writing to over a hundred different Asian women and posting online his desire to have a relationship with an Asian female. He collected what might be termed Asian female paraphernalia. The film follows their meeting, engagement, and marriage and their struggles. And yet throughout the film Steve never really articulated what specifically attracted him to Asian women. Sandy’s choice to leave her family and job was also fueled by an imaginary, a mediated vision of America. Their relationship appears to be based on what Said referred to as “imaginative geography,” that what was lacking in their lives could be filled by a distant Other.
In an interview for Dame magazine Lum states,
"My own definition of Yellow Fever is that it's an over-infatuation with the concept of the Asian culture and idealizing Asian women. What I find disturbing about Yellow Fever is that it's racial profiling on a basic level. Fundamentally, it's choosing your romantic partner based on race” (Gopalan, 2013).
She also notes that,
"A lot of the guys I interviewed said they were choosing Asian women because they were looking for an escape from American women—and by American women they meant white women” (Gopalan, 2013).
Is it some blend of exoticism, threat, and privatization that produce this fantasy and also affectively ties me to this commercial? If so, what is the root of this fantasy?
Writing from the perspective of an Asian American woman Shimizu(2007) locates the hypersexual representations of Asian/American women in the history of American cinema. Since the 1920’s roles, such as the dragon lady, caring prostitute, and the dominatrix, have dominated representations of Asian/American women in Hollywood cinema. These hypersexual representations, laced with imperialism, not only defined women of Asian heritage, but also created a tradition that underlies contemporary representations. For example, Shimizu asks whether or not the construction of Asian actresses, such as Lucy Liu, “belong to the tradition of imperialist images that commodify, objectify, and fetishize the bodies of Asian women” (3).