[Editor’s Note: We’re very pleased to present the winning entry in our Writing Contest’s Popular Culture category. Mikai Arion’s essay is framed as part of our Mythologie Monday series, an updated homage to Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. These are short reflections on popular culture that attempt to denaturalize the power relations and values embedded in everyday products of mass society. For more on the method, see the first essay in the series.]
Right-wing Americans burn their tennis shoes as the Nike company receives hailing praise from activists across the country. “The Kaepernick Nike campaign” as it became known colloquially; although Nike had a different idea in mind, naming the advertisement campaign “Dream Crazy.” An age-old paradigm emerges of providing the much-needed hope and motivation for the oppressed, while sidestepping the true problems that introduce this necessity in the first place.
A close-up of a young, racially ambiguous skateboarder catches the eye. He is struggling to do a trick on a railing. A clear voice snatches focus as it non-diegetically speaks, “If people say your dreams are crazy, if they laugh at what you can do, good.” A montage begins of the oppressed: the skateboarding dropout, the young athlete born with a disability, a Black boy, and a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. The voice continues to guide us as we see intense moments of struggle.
The oppressed have always been pushed to reach for the unattainable; those in power understand the significance of allowing only a small number to make it, to show that hope is possible and to keep the oppressed enslaved to the idea of becoming free. Moreover, this struggle is glorified in how one becomes great and free. The commercial is genius in its ability to hide alternate meanings the video may hold behind icons of supreme athletic ability that signify anything is possible with hope.
You can oppress people to the darkest of days, but as long as there remains a glimmer of hope they will keep believing they have a chance to change a fixed system rather than tear it down. The commercial becomes “a cult of distraction” as Siegfried Kracauer argued because visual texts like films and commercials have “one sole purpose to rivet the viewer’s attention to the peripheral so that they will not sink into the abyss” of examination. The commercial controls the examination of culture for the masses while distracting them by taking key themes or fragments of society and “gluing” them together to create “moral significance” or “sentimentality.” The audience clings to this and feels that by associating themselves with the commercial they are participating in the work of a revolution without actually having a real one.
This has been the myth of the oppressed: too busy working and struggling to see that they are no different than the mouse stuck in a maze searching for the cheese that does not exist. Although, the mouse has never seen the cheese it finds its determination to keep searching in the faint hints of smell. The Nike commercial is no different for the oppressed, it represents a distraction of hope for those in society born into the “wrong” body, whether it be by race, gender, or another organizing principle that maintains our social hierarchies, to identify with.
Who better to be the face and voice of the oppressed than Colin Kaepernick. There he stands, afro perfectly plucked, eyes staring at us, throwing you into action. Kaepernick, the messiah, in all his glory and his Black panther-esque trench coat. The man who risked everything for justice. He is struggle, he is pain, and he is oppression personified. He is a football quarterback who played for the NFL for six years and in his last season, began kneeling at the national anthem during football games to protest police brutality against people of color. He has since been blackballed from playing in the league because of his peaceful protest.
He signals the center of all oppression because he is The Black Man. The one always chosen to be the center of the oppressed, and the weakened one who can possibly become strong. As a Black woman, I have often found myself facing the conundrum of always picking a “side.” Black people are forced to be the machine of the politic. We must always be in struggle with something as our suffering validates our “Black in America” experience which is a direct result of slavery and colonialism. Yet, this is not the case for everyone. White people can hide in the status quo and not stand for anything, and do so without fear of societal punishment.
This consideration adds an interesting element to the commercial because Colin is the only figure in the ad not displaying some athletic ability. He is stagnant, surrounded by buildings of industry and a projection of the American flag. He is existing inside his intended political machine, literally standing and directing the entire commercial and movement of the oppressed with his voice and body. Everyone else depicted has room to grow, be free, and transform meanwhile Kaepernick holds a form of pseudo-control. The commercial pacifies and consolidates the issues of police brutality and racism.
People are programmed to agree with optimistic phrases and signs that were major themes in the advertisement. Perhaps those corny inspirational posters in our 5th grade classrooms merged into our subconscious and we cannot help but identify with the message of the advertisement. Or, it is the continuous badgering of this myth over and over into our conscious mind through nearly all avenues of culture that gives the commercial its strength to hide its shortcomings.
The themes of motivation and hope are drowning out the real message of capitalist labor — and anything else for that matter. The commercial is capitalism’s spawn, spewing out key phrases that encapsulate the dream and make the capitalist parent proud. The commercial depicts all of these oppressed people in a laborious internal struggle with the self. The figures in the commercial are working against themselves to fight uncontrollable things that make them less adept for the society in which they inhabit. This is the more abstract type of labor that is often forgotten in discourse but is the driving force of capitalism: keep the oppressed busy working on “bettering” themselves. This dream is the best form of labor contribution to the system, and almost all of us buy into it.
Regardless, Nike’s commercial becomes the myth of the oppressed through its use of signs like projection to represent that dreams are something in far space and essentially, non-existent or tangible in day to day reality. It also utilizes tall buildings in a city to symbolize the labor-capitalist industry and that to be a part of this one must work, dream, and work harder. The myth is so strong racists, activists, and maybe even Kaepernick himself have all been duped. Nike knew to rely on something explained by Stuart Hall: “we can only construct meaning through a dialogue with the other” and that the discourse among the audience would allow for the video to represent social justice when it in fact has nothing to do with this. Not to mention, how insidious it is to link Kaepernick and his fight for equality to the message, “dream crazy.” Yet, despite Nike’s failure to represent the issue of racial inequity and social injustice clearly, the commercial is still a step in the right direction. It signifies the recognition of the struggle of the oppressed and grants a platform to someone like Colin Kaepernick, who is dedicating his life to fighting for Black and brown rights — specifically the most basic right of all human beings, the right to live, breathe, and exist.