In the Playground of Parody

We’ve all had that heart-stopping moment going through airport security, when our bag (or the bag of someone near us) is swept off the belt and meticulously torn apart by grim TSA personnel.   Everyone lucky enough to have already passed through watches out of the corner of their eye as they hurry to get their stuff and get away — just in case.  We all know that those orderly lines are just a stampede waiting to happen.

And we’ve also all felt the intrusiveness of a TSA agent who got a little personal and over-aggressive with the wand or with a manual search because the scanner picked up the quarter we forgot was in our breast or pants pocket.   We know that vulnerable moment of personal terror when we realize that our line leads to the scanner that requires us to raise our hands over our head rather than just walking through — in spite of the fact that our belt, now riding in the gray tub, was the only thing keeping our pants up.  We know that we’re just regular folks, but it feels like a violation when we’re singled out for further screening.  Terrifying, too, as we know that with the threat level at Orange or above, they aren’t messing around; protestations of innocence will be utterly ignored.  And forget it if you even look like you fit into one of the “terror profiles.”  You’re positive, right then, that you’re about to find out just how tenuous our freedom actually is.  Gitmo, here we come.

This spring, director Roman Coppola (son of Francis Ford Coppola) teamed up with comedian and actress Debra Wilson to play on these collective fears and feelings of vulnerability in — of all things — an Old Navy commercial.  The ad has roused much comment, running the gamut from its dismissal as racist trash and egregious minstrelsy to its celebrations as hilarious, as brilliant parody or satire.

Wilson, an eight-year veteran of MADtv, plays a TSA agent who tries to spice up a job that is both high-stress and boring, injecting a little humor to keep herself awake and alert as she’s encouraging passengers to follow the rules and keep the lines moving along:

“Sir, keep your pants on.  Ma’am, water is a liquid all over the world, so that’s H – 2 – no!”

The characterization is pitch perfect, balancing just the right amount of bored stoicism and aggression with humor.  Then the comedian takes it over the top:

So, is it a brilliant spot or is it a particularly egregious bit of corporate racist fantasy, blackface minstrelsy haunting us still?

The answer, perhaps, is both.

In creating characters, Debra Wilson draws a firm distinction between doing “impersonations” and “impressions.”  In impersonation, her goal is to “be” the person she’s impersonating, to make someone feel that they’re seeing that person, actually meeting that person.  Impressions, on the other hand, are presentations of “social perception” — take-offs of what people see or want to see, of public persona and behaviors.

Impressions are parody, and Wilson says, “I am there to represent what most people are saying, most people are thinking, most people are reading about.”  Her intent is not to represent the real person, but rather to parody what is acted out in the social arena, to parody and caricature the public actions of a person, or the public’s perception of that person, rather than the person herself.   The object of the impression, then, is to hold the public image, actions, and social perceptions up to a mirror of parody.

Wilson further argues that there’s “no point in doing it if it’s not a playground.”  She loves complex situations, with multiple levels of actions, opinions, perceptions clashing, which offer her “the opportunity to have a larger playground.”  (See interview below, of Wilson’s 2010 appearance on the Gregory Mantell Show.)

So what is the “playground” of parody offered in this commercial featuring Connie, the TSA agent?  Woven in with social  perceptions and experiences in the collective imaginary about TSA are, inevitably, social perceptions and stereotypes of race and class.  The character of the Black female TSA agent who takes lascivious pleasure in her job has been a staple of comedy routines about air travel and profiling since 9/11, an outgrowth of the long-standing sexual objectification of Black women in American culture. Wilson parodies this to absurd extremes as she goes down on her knees in front of a light-skinned, long-haired woman, making exaggerated sexually suggestive sounds, ogling, and running the wand sensually around the woman’s curves.

But it is not the light-skinned woman’s beauty or body that Connie desires.  It is nothing more or less than her form-fitting jeans — a marked contrast to the shapeless pants of the TSA uniform.  She couldn’t care less about the social markers of white female attractiveness that Black women are portrayed and perceived of as coveting. Her exaggerated and vocal admiration does not come from some deep-seated racial sexuality or desire to be like a white woman, but from American consumerism.  All she wants is to know where the jeans come from.  And in an inversion of the perception that a white woman would be threatened by the Black TSA agent’s aggressive attention or would act surprised or superior, the woman smiles and offers details about Old Navy’s sale.

Connie’s over-exaggerated enthusiasm for this miraculous economic bargain is shouted across to her Asian-American co-worker, catching the attention of all of the would-be passengers.  No matter what their background, no matter where they’re headed or how urgent, none of them can resist a great sale — and the stampede begins, not a thing of terror or terrorism but a joyous chaotic rush accompanied by music straight out of vaudeville and slapstick.  And for a last comic touch, the precious, pampered little pooch with a pink bow — held closely not by the expected well-dressed elderly white lady but by a tall muscular young man with dark brows and a menacing expression — is left behind, barking its outrage, while the woman in her Old Navy jeans (played by Nicole Muirbrook of Ford Modeling) rotates in bemusement, a parody of a model on the runway at a fashion show, surveying the now-deserted debris field.

So — does the ad use racist images?  Certainly.   The exaggerated caricatures of the TSA agents come right out of minstrels shows where blackface and “chinee” stereotypes gained wide currency.  And the melee at the end, the chaotic finale, also comes from the minstrel shows — all that is missing are the fireworks.  But the stereotypical images are both presented and challenged, juxtaposed with other characters who offer alternate realities (like the African American men dressed in a suit or a uniform replete with gold wrist bars, standing amidst casually and often sloppily dressed white passengers).  All of these images offer a “playground of parody” for the performers, an opportunity to “report” on the perceptions and actions that still plague us, the fears, prejudices, and corporate consumerism of our society.  And perhaps ironically, this is part of the legacy of minstrelsy as well.

© Sharon D. McCoy, 10 March 2014

3 responses

  1. Sharon,

    Some thoughts about your post:

    As a TSO (Transportation Security Officer), I have to add that this commercial also trivializes and parodies the work we do. Unfortunately, much of what we do is perceived by the public as intrusive and, perhaps, unnecessary. I would explain it, but the explanation is classified as SSI (Sensitive Security Information), not to be shared with the public (although I often disagree with the SSI label slapped on information about the agency’s procedures).

    Suffice it to say that the parody includes, as you note, the salaciousness of Debra Wilson’s performance and, by extension, the performance or mindset of all TSOs. In my five+ years as a TSO, I have not witnessed the kind of behavior portrayed in the commercial. I have witnessed other stupid and obnoxious behavior by TSOs, but not like this one. In fact, many, if not most, of us (at least at Charlotte-Douglas Airport) take no delight in patting down passengers or in conducting bag searches.

    Also, the agency, as well as all of us who do this work, has been stained by the misconduct of officers who went overboard in searches or who have otherwise (e.g., property theft) added to the public’s general mistrust of what we do.

    I am not offended by the commercial; or your comments about the “personal terror” of the screening process, but the commercial darkens the black mark we (TSA) already have.

    Oh, by the way, passengers are not required to remove their belts before entering the scanning machine. However, if the scanning process reveals an anomaly at the waist line, the belt has to be removed for additional screening, either a physical search or a run through the X-ray.


  2. Joe,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    I am not sure, though, that the commercial actually adds to a “black mark” against the TSA. As Wilson argues, impressions reveal and parody “social perceptions” — a caricature of public actions or the public’s perception of them, a parody of what is acted out in the social arena. The “personal terror” we feel during screening when we haven’t done anything wrong is something that I think is mocked here, as is our potential for an irrational stampede.

    And while I do think we’ve all felt that a TSA officer here and there has been over-eager or over-intrusive, it seems to me that the commercial pushes this to such an extreme as to make us notice that the professional behavior of most TSA officers is vastly different.

    I didn’t mention this above, because I was focused on other issues, but I think that the deserted and open security area at the end of the commercial is actually disquieting and disturbing. While, as you say, the public may think that some of what TSA does is intrusive or unnecessary, or at least can be vocal in their complaints about it, I think that the deserted security area at the end of the commercial would be a terrifying sight in real life. I’m not sure how we could ever go back to the days when airports were open, anyone could go to the gates, and there was little or no effort at security.


    PS — Thanks, too, for pointing out my mistake about current policy about belts. I have seen male and female passengers asked to remove them, though, especially if the buckle is large or if the belt is made of metal links, but I was mistaken in implying that it was common practice now.

  3. Sharon,

    I agree that the abandoned checkpoint would be disturbing and, possibly, dangerous. I have to say about removing belts that many TSOs require passengers to remove them (even at my airport).

    Your reply, as well as your original post, are insightful, and overwhelm my rather less learned initial reply.


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