The Lady in the Lake

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Well, fountain really. And I’m sure you already know what I’m referring to. All I had to do was take a few steps in front of my classroom while staring at my cell phone and my students knew what I was referring to. Yes, I’m talking about the meme of the month: that hapless woman who fell into an ornamental fountain while text messaging in a mall. The original YouTube video of the incident had logged at least 2.6 million views (in four days) before it was apparently taken down, only to be replaced by numerous repostings and innumerable parodies and comments. When something this trivial goes this viral you know you have a pop culture signifier on your hands. So, what does it all mean? I came upon the video by way of a link posted on an amateur astronomy forum I participate in. (Yes, an amateur astronomy forum.) After seeing the sneering reactions of the members of the forum to the incident, along with more than a touch of hostility, I decided that I would post a semiotic interpretation of what was going on right there on the forum itself. Big mistake. As I have long known, people do not like semiotic interpretations, especially when they unveil uncomfortable truths. In this case, I began my interpretation by conceding that while I myself did not find the spectacle of a woman, who was not harming anyone, falling into a fountain (and probably ruining her iPhone in the process) to be particularly funny, its humor belonged to the traditional comical category that could be called the "banana peel" gag. Named for the vaudeville performer who slips on a banana peel and lands flat on his back, such humor is based in a variety of schadenfreude—that is, the taking of pleasure in the misfortune or humiliation of someone else. In this case the schadenfreude is limited by the knowledge that its victim has not been really hurt (the vaudeville clown springs back to his feet, the lady in the fountain rolled gracefully through the water and walked away without apparent physical damage), and it forms the essence of the pleasure the audiences take in situation comedy. So, yes, I conceded the ordinary slapstick comedy in the video that was appealing to people. But something else appeared to be going on. The members of my forum seemed angry at the woman, and, more significantly, the comments appended to the original YouTube video were downright furious. One unhinged respondent wished for the death of the woman and for all text messagers. Others speculated on the woman’s alleged criminality, while others raged at her threats to file a lawsuit. Such reactions mark a crucial difference, the distinction that sets one sign apart from another and sets the stage for further interpretation. A lot of people were really responding to the fact that the woman was text messaging.  I suggested to my forum that just as cell phones themselves once carried a negative cultural connotation due to their early association with such well-to-do users as the 1980s Yuppies (remember “Car Phone”?), so too does there seem to be a certain hostility to the new telecommunications technology of text messaging. That is, once upon a time cell phones were much rarer and much more expensive, and their ownership was largely restricted to the upper-middle and upper classes. Their exclusivity led to class resentment and left a lingering sense that owning a cell phone was something to apologize for. But with practically everyone owning a cell phone (or digital equivalent) now, its significance and resulting class resentment have almost completely vanished. A new form of resentment has appeared, and the lady in the fountain has become a lightning rod for it. I pointed all this out on my astronomy forum. And people became unhinged. Angrily denying that the video signified anything more than meaningless humor while at the same time denouncing the woman for endangering all of society through her “irresponsible” behavior, members started ranting about the dangers of text messaging and driving. When I pointed out that the woman wasn’t driving, and that drunk drivers kill a lot more people than text messagers, the forum members got even angrier. So I did a little research. I went to YouTube and entered “drunk falling into a fountain” into the search box. A number of videos appeared and I picked one at random. It was of a young man with a beer can in his hand dancing on the edge of an outdoor fountain. Suddenly he falls into the water. The video had been up for over a year and had fewer than seven hundred views. I then entered (“walking into a streetlight”). That brought up several videos of young men reading while walking and suddenly slamming into a streetlight pole. Again, there were very few views. Ah, so here were some banana peel video clips that hadn’t even begun to go to viral. I reported this on my forum as evidence of a special hostility to text messagers, and, I could add, to women text messagers—the resentment this time appears to involve gender hostility rather than class hostility. That got one forum member so angry that, after one more rant against the text messagers who were destroying America, and at me for being an “academic,” he quit the forum in a huff. An interpretation of this particular meme could go on and on, but my purposes goes beyond the semiotic fact that a woman who fell into a fountain became a symbol for a broad-based hostility to a new technology with a certain gendered top spin. The primary significance here is something I’ve long known and experienced: the closer a semiotic interpretation gets to the truth, the angrier people get about it. As T.S. Eliot once said, people can only tolerate so much reality.
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.