Gender Bender: Commercials with a Gay Twist

So a commercial for the Kindle Paperwhite just caught my attention. At first, it seems like your average attempt to sell a product to “mindless” television viewers: an attractive man and woman are lounging on some chairs at the beach resort. Vibrant colors and hues drown the screen. The beach looks amazing. (Jealousy is invoked as I sit here in the cold South Bend weather, wishing I were at that beach sipping on coconut water and soaking up the sun).

Amazon Kindle Commercial

We observe the man fumbling with his tablet computer as he tries to read the device under the intense tropical sunlight, a feat that is impossible because of the ever-dreaded glare reflected by electronic displays. In comes the woman with her Kindle Paperwhite to the rescue, and she spares no effort to give the man a quick and simple pitch that highlights the glorious features of the digital reading device, a device that will make the man’s beach-reading experience way more pleasant.

The man wastes no time and instantly purchases a Kindle Paperwhite from his tablet, and we are shown what is an ostensibly flirtatious exchange between the two people: after completing his purchase, the man looks at the woman and says “we should celebrate!” At this point, I thought that this was commercial was embracing every possible cliche in the book: wealthy white people reading books from their expensive e-readers while lounging at a tropical resort. My eyes began to roll at what I thought was another desperate attempt to sell a product by linking it to the celebratory victory (and fantasy) of a man seducing a woman at the beach. But then, I noticed that the commercial had an unexpected twist. If you haven’t checked the commercial, take a few seconds to give it a view. Warning: spoilers ahead!

Yes, it so happens that the man and woman depicted in the video both have something in common: they both have husbands. This twist was very unexpected, not only because of the flirtatious nature of the man and woman’s exchange, but also because of the romantic tropes that were invoked to set-up the commercial in the first place. This Amazon Paperwhite commercial is progressive and innovative, despite its cliches, for various reasons. It is by no means the first commercial to have an ostensibly heterosexual setup, only to lead to a “big gay reveal” or a surprise outing as part of its twist. Pepsi Max, for instance, aired a commercial in which this trope was incorporated.

When comparing and contrasting both of these commercials, there are noticeable differences in terms of their approaches to gender and their use of gayness as a rhetorical mechanism. First and foremost, although both commercials use the gay trope in order to achieve a surprising and humorous effect, the reactions that the “outings” provoke to other characters in the commercials are radically different. The friends in the Pepsi Max commercial react with shock, confusion, and yes, I think it can be argued that there’s a hint of disgust in their expressions as well. The outing in the Kindle Paperwhite commercial, on the other hand, is presented as a non-issue. When the woman finds out that the new Kindle purchaser also has a husband, she doesn’t react starkly and she doesn’t flinch. She’s not angry or disturbed. Rather, she smiles as both she and her new friend look back and see their husbands purchasing drinks at the bar.

The commercial also does other things that are quite innovative. For instance, as the protagonists of the commercial look back at the bar, you can’t really tell which husband is gay and which one is straight. Instead of relying on markers of effeminacy or gayness to differentiate one husband from the other, the viewer is ultimately left guessing. I know that this was probably not Amazon’s intention, but it’s interesting to see how the gay/straight binary is disrupted within this commercial.

On another note, I think that Amazon is making a radical statement when depicting the gay couple not as boyfriends, but rather, as husbands. The nonchalance in which the gay married couple is presented may seem subtle, but it is actually quite a strong political statement from the company’s behalf. Gayness in this video is not something that is incorporated as a shocking or discomforting element, but as something completely orthodox. Sure, the video does cause “shock,” to some extent, but this is because of the unexpectedness of the twist rather than the “gay factor.”

Are we now reaching a point in time in which gayness has become normalized in American media? The commercial is fairly new (it aired 2 days ago), and as of now, it doesn’t seem to have stirred much controversy. Is this due to the commercial’s subtle and nonchalant approach towards gayness? Is it due to the lighthearted and relaxed sense of pathos projected by the video? Or is this due to the audience that this commercial is targeting in the first place? Regardless, it is tantalizing to think that we are possibly witnessing the normalization of gender bending within everyday popular and commercial culture. Lets see what other gay twists await us in the near future!

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3 thoughts on “Gender Bender: Commercials with a Gay Twist

  1. jaquesmirage says:

    The commercial for me is just another “Modern Family” type depiction of gayness (‘that’s right folks, we target gay people!’). But such normalization you’re writing about is double-edged. Normalization here works at an idiosyncratic level: gayness can be targeted insofar it’s framed within the white, mid-upper class setting of confort, luxury, “beauty”, etc. In a sense, rather than normalizing gayness (which really doesn’t matter) it normalizes its consequences. The gay couple here is “accepted” because they can “afford” acceptance (gay couple is no different from straight couple because both can afford a tropical ressort, a tablet, a cocktail, etc.). After all, it definitely targets sort of a cosmopolitan gay couple: married (we can’t forget same sex marriage is not permitted everywhere), over thirty, bright “down to earth” personality (look! I bought a new -obviously better-commodity in just a second, with my obnoxiously-not-good-for-the beach $700 dollar tablet). Is like a 1950’s american-way-of-life representation of gayness. Is like it is being included in the modern, chic, american nucleus but under serious background scrutiny: (white: check, “beautiful”: check, certainly not a marginalized minority affected by partially indifferent social and health policies that displace any certain security both in terms of mental and physical wellness: check)

    I understand why everyone likes the Neil Patrick Harris kind of Gay representation, I do too! And hell, it certainly is an empowering story, however gayness is so very much than just sexual orientation, just as much race is not just about physiological difference. You certainly understand this since you recognize gayness as a trope, a cultural moment (in its bahktinian sense) that mediates meaning, representation and understanding. But normalization in this commercial works up to a certain degree, up to a certain bar that, ideally, accounts for the “acceptable-menace”, the one “we could all get to accept” because, in a sense, they look like us. The Other gayness, the one that can’t afford a tablet, or get married or be so openly “normal” about their sexuality, or the one not suffering pathological stigmatization, well, as you said, we might need to wait and see if theres going to be any other big commercial gay twist that speak to them.

    Grat blog, btw

    • Angel Daniel Matos says:

      Thank you so much for such a thoughtful and provoking reply, jaquesmirage! The primary reason I have this blog is to facilitate and stimulate intellectual conversations. I 100% agree with you… although the commercial presents a degree of normalization in terms of being gay-inclusive, when it comes down to is, it is still very much a commercial targeted towards “wealthy white people reading books from their expensive e-readers while lounging at a tropical resort.” Of course, this commercial is trying to reach out to the sensibilities of many people… but more than anything, this commercial is an attempt to capitalize on the pink dollar. As you very well pointed out, this commercial is targeted at a very specific type of gay man. It just makes you wonder how different the commercial would’ve been if it portrayed a gay man of color, or even if it were a commercial for a product that is cheaper and more accessible than a tablet. I am really glad you brought up Bakhtin… if we really analyze the the commercial, we realize that there indeed is a gay voice, but this voice is anything but polyphonic because it is only representative of a very specific type of “voice.” Once again, thank you for your awesome insights!

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