What messy babies teach us about the persistence of narratives of privilege.
This is Gus.
Gus is a jerk.
He sits on his throne, smack in the middle of a gleaming white kitchen, eating food he did not prepare, purchased with money he did not earn, making a mess he will not clean up.
He delights in the havoc he creates. He is oblivious to the consequences of his actions. Oblivious to the work it took to establish the order he is now bent on destroying. Oblivious to the work it will take to restore order after he tires of sowing chaos.
And sure. Gus is just a baby. This is what babies do. We can’t fault Gus for being exactly the kind of jerk babies are supposed to be.
But consider what this commercial does with Gus’s unrepentant jerk-ness. See how it capitulates to his tyranny:
- Does the narrative of the commercial present Gus’s despicable behavior as a problem? No.
- Does he suffer consequences for so reprehensibly befouling the harmonious environment provided for his enjoyment? No.
- Is there any indication that his conduct might improve, that he might learn one day to think of anyone other than Gus? Any indication that his conduct should improve? No.
Gus is kind of a tool. And the commercial shows us a world that is basically ok with that.
As the story of Gus unfolds over the course of this 30-second TV spot, we learn that not only is this scumbag tolerated, he is in fact celebrated. Not for anything he has done of course, but instead for some hypothetical future thing he has the capacity to do.
We learn from our prophetic narrator that Gus will go on to create some “thing” with the power to “change the world.” Something like a circuit board with a blinking light. But better.
We don’t know what “the thing” will be, but we know it is coming. We don’t know why the selectively omniscient narrator can predict Gus’s future, but not understand his creation. Most disturbingly, despite what we have seen of Gus’s propensity for destruction, we are not asked to question whether his creation will change the world for better or for worse.
In the meantime, as we all wait around for this no-good louse to rock our world with his precious blinking thing, it is expected that others — the “we” announced by the narrator — will go out of our way to accommodate him.
The ad goes on to show a silent, unnamed woman in a lab coat, nodding with approval. A researcher perhaps, maybe Gus’s doctor? She is the embodiment of the “we” who will serve and protect Gus, the “we” who, in the patronizing language of the ad, “do health things,” to help Gus overcome obstacles so that he will grow up and gift us with his wondrous thing. Whatever we do in life, we will do in the service of Gus!
It is no exaggeration to say that the ad takes the actual and present accomplishments of women of color in medicine and positions these as wholly subservient to a little white weasel, justifying this on the grounds of some imaginary future contribution he might make. This is eerily reminiscent of the arguments used to dismiss allegations of sexual assault against young white men, when women who come forward are told they’ll be responsible for ruining the lives and careers of their assailants, as if the hypothetical future impact on male attackers is more important than the actual impact on survivors.
Obviously this ad is far from the most racist or sexist thing in the world right now. Protections on the rights of women and minorities are under attack. We’re seeing terrifying acts of violence against perceived outsiders. Sutter Health — the nonprofit healthcare network in Northern California running this ad — is not the problem. Neither is the agency that created the ad. Indeed, this ad is so frustrating to me in part because it’s part of a larger campaign that is really trying to includes some powerfully progressive images — showing same-sex, mixed-race couples and their babies receiving quality health care without judgement, for example, is kind of a big deal. It’s important to acknowledge the good work being done.
Gus is not the bad guy. But his story is a dazzling display of the dogged persistence with which white privilege is replicated through seemingly innocuous narratives.
And that’s not some imaginary future thing. It’s a real thing. Right now.