It's Only a Game...Not

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For the pure fan of the game, Super Bowl LI was the stuff of sports history: a young, fast team finally losing out to a seasoned veteran who knew exactly what to do when the chips were down.  I mean the whole thing had "TV Movie" written all over it, and one could almost imagine the ghost of Gary Cooper rising from the grave to reprise Will Kane as Tom Brady, coolly gunning down the pass defense and striding to an impossible victory.


Except that it is impossible to be a pure fan of any games in America anymore, not when everything has become a symbol of the bedrock contentiousness that is dividing the country.  Today, everyone is a semiotician, and rightly so.


We can start with the teams themselves.  By some freakish chance of history, both the coach and the star quarterback of the New England Patriots just happen to be fans of the newly elected President of the United States, which unavoidably turned the contest into a kind of allegory of the election.  Then there was the equally freakish coincidence that Melissa McCarthy's Kia ad, which had been filmed well before the game, emerged as Super Bowl LI's most popular commercial, scarcely twenty-four hours after McCarthy's devastating takedown of presidential press secretary Sean Spicer on SNL.  So, score one for the president, one for the opposition.


The whole night was like that.  Days before the game itself, for example, there was the controversy over the Anheuser-Busch origin-story ad, with a lot of Trump fans objecting that it was pro-immigration propaganda.  But such objections generally missed the most important signifier in the ad's sepia-toned narrative: the instantaneous glimpse we are afforded of the young Aldophus Busch's immigration papers being stamped.  That detail crucially distinguished the Anheuser-Busch immigration narrative from the 84 Lumber commercial, whose anti-Trump, pro-immigration symbolism was, by contrast, quite explicit—so much so that the ad was quite literally censored prior to its broadcast.


But the fact that the Anheuser-Busch commercial, as tradition-minded as it was, did attract controversy is a sign of just how fraught the situation is in America today.  While the company has claimed that it had no intention of getting tangled up in the heated national debate over immigration and was only telling its own story, the reaction shows that that was never really possible.  Though the ad's narrative referenced all of the classic elements of the nineteenth-century immigrant experience—complete with sea voyage and arrival at Ellis Island—it could not possibly escape its twenty-first century context.  Trying to have things both ways, the commercial combined conventional Statue of Liberty style nostalgia with sympathy for contemporary immigrants who face nativist hostility —as we can see signified in the street scene where the young Busch is angrily told to "go back home."  Indeed, to make certain that we see the folks at Anheuser-Busch as being on the side of social progress, the ad's creators even threw in a glancing river boatshot of young Busch nodding in a comradely sort of way to a black slave (this was 1857, after all, on the Mississippi River).  But to no avail: threats of Anheuser-Busch boycotts (read the comments section on YouTube), demonstrate that you can't have it both ways in America when it comes to immigration.


So, semiotically speaking, Super Bowl LI was a giant symbol, a grab-bag of signifiers all pointing to the same dismal message.  When the most successful quarterback in the history of the game becomes a Donald Trump surrogate, and the ads become a battleground over national immigration policy, you know that nothing can be simply what it is in American popular culture any longer.  This may be good for semioticians; it isn't good for the country.


About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.