The Better Part of “Bravery”

So some fella thinks the Audi ad that debuted during the Super Bowl telecast is “rapey.” Frankly, I find the word “rapey” more offensive than the ad, which I’ve cued to the “controversial” moment:

The ad is called “Bravery” or “Prom (Worth It),” features the song “Can’t Win Em All” by Hanni El Khatib, and was put together by a Venables Bell & Partners team. The ad’s infringement on the socio-political presumptions embedded in the word “rapey” reflects the same spirit of its mini-narrative: The ad-makers are parking in political correctness’s spot, and you can almost hear them uttering a defiant curse through their hero at anyone who catches them, or punches them in the ideological eye, etc. The calculation is obviously that most “guys” – the typical buyer for this car would be Dad, not Son – will give the benefit of all doubt to the boy hero.

The idea of “just making a move” is one that I suppose occurs to most adolescents at some frustrated and uncertain moment, or, more realistically, at many, many moments. I know the thought used to occur to me, and not just during the time that I was a teenager, but we are told, as one supposes the makers of the ad expected to be told, that the ad is simply wrong, that it encourages wrong behavior, that it encourages nerds to get rapey about girls, that it encourages men in everyday life to grope and feel and otherwise engage in unwanted rape-ish advances. This reasoning seems to presume that a TV commercial will impact significantly on such behavior, or that the culture of which it is a tributary part is a rapey culture. Many who make this claim, or who will echo it in solidarity with those making it most vociferously, will also self-contradictorily reject any notion that violent video games and movies play any significant role in violent behavior, though there will be both “humorless feminists” as well as rightwing conservatives as ill-humored about murdery video games as they are by rapey TV.

“Based entirely on the information given us onscreen,” the conclusions from our self-parodyingly schoolmarmish Joel Mathis at The Philly Post are as follows:

• The young woman who receives the kiss chose to be at prom with someone else.

• Our “hero” forcibly turns her around and jams his mouth to hers almost before she can identify him, and certainly without any permission being sought or given. What’s more, this is a demonstration of his new, Audi-fueled power.

• He leaves prom without her—suggesting that she still chooses to be at prom with somebody else.

Contrary to Mathis’ assertions, none of the above is “entirely” based on what we are shown onscreen. We do not know that the young woman “chose” anything, or that she had any authentic choice prior to the big moment, nor do we have any idea where she is or how things are going back at the Prom. Even more to the point, “forcibly” is not merely overly strong as a description: There is no “force” depicted at all. Mathis has made it up. Possibly responding to a tap or possibly to the sense of someone near, the heroine turns around on her own. Even Mathis admits in his description, with the qualifier “almost,” that the young woman may have been fully able to “identify” our hero. If so, then there is no reason to presume that the advance was unwanted. Yet, possibly a veteran of college-required sensitivity training, Mr. Mathis remains concerned about “permission being sought or given,” conjuring a world in which all such acts are preceded by formal verbal requests, if possible confirmed in notarized pre-osculatory contracts.

Jessica Valenti at The Nation also reads a forcible and alienated message into the ad, which, according to her, “suggests [to boys] that girls your age actually like it when a guy they don’t really know grabs and forces a kiss on them.” In short, those looking for a reason to condemn the ad presume, for no good reason it seems to me, that the young woman was simply accosted by a stranger or near-stranger. That might indeed be rather rapey – just not very likely based on common sense about High School classes, about what we are given to assume about the young man (he is presented as a sensitive and self-conscious kid), and most of all what we see in the young woman’s lovestruck and very highly cooperative reaction. She may not have signed a notarizable contract, but it seems that our hero must have correctly interpreted signals prior to as well as in the moment, and that there will be no charges filed. By the end of the ad, we and our hero may safely anticipate the most delightful sequel known to human beings on Earth. Viewers inclined to join in the fantasy on the side of Audi Jr might prefer to believe that the two classmates know each other well. Drawing upon a storehouse of loner and unhappy beauty or damsel in distress or ugly duckling stories – going back thousands of years, with genders also switched (Cinderella) – we can choose to believe, for example, that, before our hero could ever build up the nerve to ask the damsel out, she was elected Prom Queen, or that maybe she was trapped in an abusive relationship with the young man who obviously gave our hero his black eye, so may be presumed to have brutish and violent tendencies…

It may be the better part of bravery not to engage on this issue in left-liberal politically correct internet circles, however, unless you are happy to be associated with conservatives primed for the fight from the other side, as observed in Mr. Mathis’ column. See also, for example, the Twitter fate of one very, very well-meaning Mr. Pyke:

Bravely Coming Out Against Bravery

Storified by CK MacLeod· Tue, Feb 05 2013 11:52:04

I suppose we can all be thankful that Alan Pyke was shown the one true way to interpret the Audi Super Bowl ad by David Roberts et al. We must not think bad thoughts.
Among other things, @JessicaValenti confirms that I was right to be creeped out by the Audi ad. Sexual assault is not “bravery.”David Roberts
And no, nerds, girls will not like it if you forcibly grab them and kiss them. They will not get dreamy eyes, like in the movies.David Roberts
@drgrist So, I’ve been wrestling with why it is that I liked that ad when I saw it, and didn’t pick up on creepiness of it ’til told.Alan Pyke
@PykeA I’m sure you’re not alone. It’s a very old fantasy that’s been reinforced many, many times in pop culture.David Roberts
@drgrist (Please take me at my word that that’s unusual for me.) Been thinking about it all day, and all I can come up with is that….Alan Pyke
@drgrist …for some reason, I chose to believe that they knew each other/had modicum of relationship that’d bring it close enough to OK.Alan Pyke
@drgrist Which is still a somewhat shit way of thinking! But that I’d be trying to rationalize it, having missed subtext creepy at first…Alan Pyke
@drgrist ….I suppose is evidence that it very effectively preyed upon the internalized & remembered sense of romantic cowardice fr HS.Alan Pyke
Try to picture an ad where a nerdy, bespectacled high school girl drives to the prom, grabs the football team captain, and kisses him.David Roberts
@PykeA @ryanlcooper It is every HS nerdboy’s fantasy that if he could just get over his shyness & make contact, girls would see his worth.David Roberts
@drgrist @ryanlcooper Right. And I think what makes the Audi ad not OK is that it’s not “just make contact” it’s “grab! smooch!”Alan Pyke
RT @UOJim: If rape culture didn’t exist, we could infer a back-story where the girl has a thing for the kid. But it does exist.David Roberts
Yes. RT @sethdmichaels: i wasn’t watching when the grody Audi ad came on, but @joelmmathis nails it here: Roberts
For all the talk of “humorless feminists,” no one, anywhere, ever, is more humorless than a macho guy when gender norms are threatened.David Roberts
@alexismadrigal People who say not to analyze the story in a particular ad are the ones who want that story to be the unquestioned norm.David Roberts

The real message and brutally familiar truth of the ad, or rather of the reaction to it, may be that “the eye altering alters all“: Ideologues will see or come to see, and their epigones can be made to see, whatever they are prepared to see, or whatever it serves their purposes to see.

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  1. Wasn’t this sort of a subplot in Back to the Future, and every other teen comedy back to 1982, not too mention the Karate Kid?

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