Have you seen any ads for energy drinks lately?…the provocative women and the words that challenge men to ‘step up to the plate’? Concern has been voiced by TV viewers and participants of Women’s Media Watch workshops throughout the island about how uncomfortable – even distressed – they are about the sexual nature of many energy drink advertisements such as Mandingo roots drink.
WMW contends that the portrayal of women and the images of men conjured up in energy drink ads such as those for Mandingo, reincarnation of an age-old colonial ideology and representation of African humanity as overly sexed and animalist.
The history of the interaction of cultures and imperialism is replete with racial and gender stereotypes of Africans, Asians and Indigenous peoples. In these representations Europeans have promoted themselves as a superior standard for the rest of humanity to emulate.
For the African, the imperial project was clear: de-Africanize, racialise, dehumanise, objectify and sexualize.
Let us go back in time and explore how Europeans justified their treatment of Africans during the 15th to early 20th centuries to sustain imperial power, and accumulate wealth, human capital and lands.
During Afro-Caribbean enslavement for instance, the dominant colonial model of manhood and masculinity embodied power, property, refinement and Christian ethic among other things. African manhood and masculinity on the other hand was the negative opposite: brutish, devoid of intellect, having a large penis, thriving on strong carnal energies that could serve the needs of populating the plantation. African womanhood was perceived as “extreme lasciviousness” and prone to “simple and animal living”.(1)
The female physical endowments of African women were often exaggerated as lacking refinement, posture, and proper reproductive functions, reducing them to “wenches” to breed on plantations and subject to sexual violence by white men. This consistent ideology served to emasculate and defeminise enslaved African men and women respectively. Certain pejorative categories such as “Hottentots”, “Mandingos”, “bejewelled darkies” and many more, emerged from centuries of writing by European “explorers”, planters, colonial administrators and missionaries from the Renaissance period well into the 20th century. (2,3,4)
Compare the picture of the willing model, Maliah Michel for the Mandingo ad with the picture of Sara Baartman known as “Hottentot Venus”, the subject of 18th century scientific objectivism, often used to justify “close kinship with apes” and whose body upon death was dissected by George Cuvier (French naturalist and zoologist) who was fascinated by the “genitalia of blacks”.
Jules Virey (Naturalist and Professor of Pharmacy, 1775-1847) for example, constantly harped on the ‘animality of blacks’:
“Moreover, the negro brutally abandons himself to the most villainous excesses; his soul is …more steeped in the material, more encrusted in animality, more driven by purely physical appetites… if man consists mainly of his spiritual faculties, it is incontestable that the negro is less human in this respect; he is closer to the life of brutes because we see him obeying his stomach, his sexual parts, in sum his senses, rather than reason.”(5)
Fast forward these ideologies a few centuries, and we find contemporary versions of the “reinvented nigger” in our present media culture. The Mandingo roots drink ads, alongside others, join a spate of energy drinks on the Jamaican market that rely on racial, gender and sexual stereotypes which promote the idea of black male prowess (and little else) and lascivious, seductive and pliant black females. With a woman straddling the human size bottle symbolizing a phallus the Mandingo ads ask, “Are you man enough?” So, man is defined by his ability to perform sexually, and what’s more, his performance needs to be enhanced by the energy drink.
This self-denigration continues through time. The 1975 Hollywood film “Mandingo” (re-released on DVD in 2008) portrays black men as sexual beasts and stud-like.
Not everyone drinks in these images and stereotypes indiscriminately. It is clear from the feedback WMW receives from the Jamaican public that these ads are found wanting, even without the historical and cultural filters:
“The Mandingo ad needs a PG warning or aired at nights only.”
(Primary School Guidance Counsellor, Hanover)
“As a man, I find some of these ads offensive.” (Community Leader, St. James)
“Magnum or Mandingo is clearly selling sex…if it’s for sexual stimulation it is not supposed to be openly advertised.” (Member, Kingston & St.Andrew Action Forum)
These concerns centre on the portrayal of sexual objectification in the ad and its inappropriateness for children’s viewing. Based on the Broadcasting Commission’s guidelines the images would indeed violate the PG rating when shown at certain times. This raises the question of ethics and standards addressed by Gary Allen, chairman of the Media Association of Jamaica in a statement to the Press Association of Jamaica, February 2010.
Allen implored the PAJ to bear in mind three critical principles that should bear on their profession: Excellence, Standards and Ethics. He acknowledged the difficulty in maintaining standards in their profession and the urgency to establish a Media Code of Ethics to prevent the erosion of standards in the industry.
We hope that marketers and advertisers will use their astute business sense to make the connections between effective marketing for profit, and the preservation of our society – and align their own messages and designs accordingly. There are clear links between what we sell, how we sell and how wesee ourselves. These links affect the way we relate to each other.
Many energy drink ads, WMW suggests, present messages which recall those of former colonial powers. They remind us that violence can be mental as much as it can be physical.
The use of denigrating racial and gender stereotypes is a form of self-imposed mental violence that reduces our sense of power and our humanity. In this post-emancipation era, we have an obligation not to perpetuate these stereotypes and to point these out where they occur.
We call on those who create ads and other media products to be aware of their social responsibility. Let us use our Jamaican strength, indomitable spirit, humour and sharp intellect to create media messages! WMW
Author: Women Media Watch
Reprinted from the WMW Newsletter
1. Said, Edward, 1993. Culture and Imperialism. NY: Verso Books.
2. Long, 1774, vol. 2 cited Jahoda, Gustav. 1999. Images of Savages: Ancient Roots of Modern Prejudice in Western Culture. London: Routledge.
3. Alleyne, Meryvn. 2002. The Construction and Representation of Race and Ethnicity in the Caribbean and the World. Kingston: UWI Press
4. Wood, Marcus. 2000. Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America 1780-1865. NY: Routledge.
5. Virey 1834 Vol. 2, p. 117 in Jahoda, see (2)