Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Can't afford a Kardashian? How about a Molinaro?

Melissa Molinaro in Old Navy's "Super C-U-T-E."
The second half of Don Quixote is peculiar not only for the reader of Miguel Cervantes's book but also for its protagonist.

Some of the folks Don Quixote encounters have read the first half of the book and are now running about claiming to be the old man and imitating his antics.

The old man does not like this, and so Mr. Q  forces at least one of these impersonators to carry official documents declaring that he is NOT Don Quixote.  Sort of like UNidentification papers.

I thought of this when I saw that Kim Kardashian had filed a lawsuit against Old Navy over a TV commercial featuring Melissa Molinaro.  You can watch the commercial, titled "Super C-U-T-E" here.  I admit that the first time I saw this commercial, I thought it was Kardashian.  However, when I compare photographs, the resemblance seems minimal.

Reggie Bush might disagree.  The professional football player is Kardashian's ex-boyfriend who is now dating Molinaro.

Melissa Molinaro & Kim Kardashian
In Molinaro's defense, while there may be some physical resemblance, there is little personality resemblance to Kardashian.  Molinaro is flashy and cute in the ad.  Her sexiness is more cartoonish, fitting the tone of Old Navy ads.  Although The Kim's curves are outrageous, her demeanor is more calm, her behavior more reserved.  Sultry rather than sassy.

Her suit against Old Navy is somewhat similar to one filed by Bette Midler against an advertising agency for hiring one of her former backup singers to cover one of her songs for a 1985 Ford car commercial.  Midler claimed the singer was instructed to imitate her as closely as possible.  That would have been like getting Midler without paying for Midler.

The Divine Miss M sued for $10 million but received a judgement for $400,000.

Karl loved cargo shorts.
Whether Kardashian has a case against Old Navy is not what interests me.  Instead, I am intrigued by what this means about the cult of personality in a media-saturated, capitalist system.  There are two ideas that seem to be mixed up here in some kind of Marxist Theoretical Martini: the alienation of labor and commodity fetishism.

On the one hand, Marx wrote about alienation.  He wrote about how a worker becomes alienated from his own labor.  In a highly developed capitalist system, the worker is less directly invested in what he produces, since that belongs to someone else.  The worker merely sells his labor.  He is alienated in the sense that there is a division between himself and his product. 

The worker is also alienated in that he feels that much of his working life is dictated by other people -- his working conditions, his wages, his future employment, etc.  He may have some influence on these things.  He can try to dictate his wages, but those are also influenced by the wages being demanded by others.  If someone is willing to work for a cheaper rate, he may have to lower his price.

"Do I turn you on?"
On the other hand, Marx also wrote about commodities and how they take on a life of their own in a system that depends upon the flow of commodities to consumers.  This quality is what Marx meant by the word "fetish."  Today we tend to think of this word in its Freudian sense, which means to obsess over something, to invest it with an inordinate amount of emotional energy, often times an erotic energy.  You know, to be erotically attracted to toes (a foot fetish) or leather (a Hermes bag fetish).

But Marx meant "fetish" in a more anthropological sense, referring to the human tendency to endow an object with spiritual or animated qualities.  A rabbit's foot is a kind of fetish.  If we associate luck, speed, or agility with a rabbit, we believe these qualities will be available to us if we carry the rabbit's foot.  A more complicated understanding of the fetish, though, would allow it to bestow or withhold those qualities, depending upon our behavior or our treatment of the fetish.  The fetish is not always in our control. 

Marx said that commodities can become like fetishes.  The value or desirability of those commodities is not in the control of the people making them or the people buying them or selling them.  Of course, people have some influence on those things, but they are ultimately decided by this abstract thing called "market forces."  It is as if the commodities are controlled by a higher force or are motivated by some personality they possess.

What happens when the product of your labor is a commodity called yourself?  Can you become alienated from that?

What happens when your image/identity becomes a commodity, exchanged and valued by other people?

Kardashian's lawsuit implies both ideas.  It states she has worked hard (labor) on developing her image (commodity), which has considerable value in the marketplace.  The lawsuit states she "has invested substantial time, energy, finances and entrepreneurial effort in developing her considerable professional and commercial achievements and success, as well as in developing her popularity, fame, and prominence in the public eye."

Kim has discovered that her value does not adhere as closely to her self as she had thought.  Other people can be valued for qualities that she has cultivated.  The value of what she has produced, the brand called "Kim Kardashian," does not necessarily adhere to her self.

There is Kim Kardashian.  And then there is Kim Kardashian-ness.  She thought she was selling and controlling the former, when it turns out she was selling the latter.  And that can be alienated from her.  That can be produced by others.  Once Kardashian-ness is circulating freely in the market, its value will be influenced by those market forces and less by Kim.  (The commodity starts to take on those fetish qualities.)  The danger for Kim is that once Kardashian-ness becomes a commodity, its value can decline -- I doubt a Molinaro endorsement fetches the same price as a Kardashian.  Once others can produce it, The Kim could find that she cannot charge as much as before for her Kardashian-ness.

With Kardashian, we can find a convergence of alienation and the fetish.

If Kim does not win the lawsuit, she will find herself competing with others for the product she had originated and had once held a monopoly on.  If she does not win the lawsuit, she will have been, to some degree, alienated from her own labor.  Others will have greater influence on what is produced and what price it fetches.

This is not to say that Melissa Molinaro is a counterfeit Kim Kardashian.  She is not claiming to be Kim.  This is not identify theft.  This is different from the Don Quixote situation.  It will not do Kardashian any good to make Molinaro carry a sign that states, "This is not Kim Kardashian."  Authenticity is not the issue. 

This is all very ironic, since what Kardashian sells with her products is the promise, implicit or explicit, that if you wear her perfume or makeup, you can be like her.  You, too, can possess Kardashian-ness.

One could say that Molinaro is guilty of doing what Kardashian has been encouraging all along: Be like me!

Except now she is finding that she can be outsourced.

1 comment:

  1. Melissa is so totally, way, way hotter. Just sayin'...