Civilization and Its Super-Egoistic Oedipal Butterfinger Bar
by: Sigmund Freud
During the summer of 1999, I had given psycho-analytic treatment to a young lady who had been having nightmares and experiencing severe psychological backlash in response to a confrontation she had had on the Jerry Springer Show with her step-fatherís daughterís mother about her relations with both her step-father and her step-fatherís daughter. I successfully completed treatment late that August and did not happen upon the young lady again until that fall when we met one day in passing. Before we took our leave of each other, she suggested to me that I might like to see the film American Beauty, citing it as an intense amalgamation and playing out of Eros and the death instinct, two entities I put to no small use in using my powers to cure her. And as she was obviously no longer a dysfunctional neurotic, I decided to follow her advice and, that Sunday, found myself taking an excursion to the cinema.
At the appropriate time, the lights were dimmed, but instead of finding before myself the movieís opening credits, I instead found myself face to face with a series of Werbungen--commercial advertisements. Repulsed, initially, at having paid to watch commercials that I do not care to view for free at my home, my distaste subsided slightly as a fifteen-second advertisement for Butterfinger candy bars filled the screen. Its innuendoes and latent content, naturally, struck me immediately, but as my analytical prowess must have been at a low ebb that evening, it did not until later occur to me that this seemingly unimportant commercial demanded my insight as much as the film itself did. So although it was not my original intention to discuss a mere advert, it is now, rightly, my priority.
THE BUTTERFINGER COMMERCIAL
The ad--for Butterfinger candy, an approximately six-inch long bar with a crunchy, peanut buttery nougat center, and rich milk chocolate covering, packaged in a yellowy-gold plastic wrapper. A boy and a man fill the screen: Herr Homer and young Herr Bart S____, characters featured in an American popular culture animated television series. The younger sits atop the branches of a large tree and possesses a Butterfinger candy bar; it is pictured to be nearly a third of his own size. He dangles it in front of, then jerks it away from his father. The elder Herr S____ jumps, lurches at and grabs for the bar and, with each missed attempt, lands back on the ground with a resounding "boom". The younger remarks, "Sorry Homey," unwraps the bar and consumes it instantly. Herr S___ slumps to the ground. Young Herr S____ crumbles the wrapper and drops it from his high post. It flitters down to the elder and lands, limp but unraveled, on his stomach. Homer begs, "Can I at least smell your breath?" (Beckman).
Observation of this short--a mere fifteen seconds--animated sequence gives us the sense of being confronted during our waking hours with the manifest content of a dream. The S___ís bright yellow color and predominantly non-human-like features--extreme, bulbous eyes and disproportionally large heads--make them appear to us not as man, but as mutations of him. Aesthetically, we note they are rather displeasing and find that they disconcert our requisite worship of beauty (Civilization 45). In addition, the need for interpretation makes itself apparent when we recognize the multitude of translatable symbols present. It is my intention here, then, to lead the expedition through the advertís dream-work to its latent content that has been imposed upon our waking hours.
Firstly, it is quite apparent that the Butterfinger itself represents the male phallus--more specifically, the elder Herr S____ís phallus. Drawing from my Totem and Taboo discourse, we perceive that at the core of the father-son relationship lies the young boy who idolizes his father "as possessing a big penis and fear[s] him as threatening his own. The same part is played by the father alike in the Oedipus and the castration complexes--the part of a dreaded enemy to the sexual interests of childhood" (494). By stealing the Butterfinger/the elder Herr S____ís penis and taking to the high limbs of a tree with it, Bart takes a step towards ameliorating his own fear of castration. He triumphs over his oppressor by turning what he fears are his fatherís motives against him. Before the elder Herr S____ could castrate Bart, young Herr S____ castrated him--somewhat reminiscent of childrenís games of pursuit during which one child screams, "Iím going to get you," and another responds, "Not if I get you first."
This introductory confrontation transpires, as I have duly noted, with the young Herr S___ resting atop a tree with a visibly large trunk--a proven phallic symbol ("On Dreams" 171). The elder Herr S___, we must notice, makes no attempt to utilize the trunk or climb the tree, exemplifying Bartís puissance over it and, in turn, over Herr S___ and his phallus. The young Herr S____ rules leisurely from the height of his fatherís penis, having surmounted--both literally and figuratively--and supplanted him. In addition, he dangles above the elderís head the candy bar, the castrated penis which he has captured, while Herr S___ futilely leaps and lunges for it like a primate gone mad.
Yet even without his penis, the resounding "boom" Homer emits each time he falls back to the ground informs us he is not an entirely unimposing man and we commence questioning as to how young Herr S___ actually attained the elderís phallus in the first place. The fact, however, does not emerge as explicit from what we are shown, though we may venture to deduce, from our knowledge of the S____ís weekly television series, that it was at the height of one of Herr S____ís less responsive periods, during which he was attempting to bear the inevitable misery imposed on him by life through intoxication by alcohol and vast quantities of food or through the substitutive satisfactions gained from the aural and visual stimuli radiating from his own television set (Civilization 24).
We find, then, with the penis in his possession, young Herr S____ takes on a pseudo-paternal role and thus delights not only in his newly-acquired asset, but also in gloating and taunting his father with his newly-achieved status. Yet, we cannot forget from where Bart takes his stance; he is truly out on a limb, where it is impossible to remain indefinitely, and, therefore, he must take action, less he should, by some mistake or misfortune, lose his precious bounty. He does not, as you may think, hide it, lock it up, or transfer it to his pocket, but, removing the "candyís" wrapper, exposes and devours the phallus. Thus, once and for all, the elder Herr S____ís penis is eliminated.
We must also take into account the symbolism of the color of the exposed candy itself. Though its casing is yellow-hued like the S____ís skin, (and, we would conjecture, their penii) Bart unwraps a brown candy, calling to mind the fecal matter he would have been told not to touch or take pleasure in and certainly not to eat during the anal stage of development. In this case, however, in addition to ingesting his fatherís penis, Bart also ingests his own feces in an act of retaliation against the effort to control psycho-sexual development.
His defeat realized, the elder Herr S____ drops to the ground while Bart crumbles and lets loose the candyís wrapper--the manifest, superficial remnants of his fatherís manhood. Floating downward, it lands unraveled on Herr S____ís protruding stomach. It is deflated, limp, pathetic, much like its former owner. Acknowledging defeat, the once-superior father has no choice but to assume the role of child and take on his former subservience and, marking the switch, we hear Herr S____ implore his "father", "Can I at least smell your breath?"
As I said in my essay on phantasy and the creative writer, "we can never give anything up: we only exchange one thing for another. What appears to be a renunciation is really the formation of a substitute or surrogate" (438). So although Herr S___ has ceased lunging for his stolen penis, although he has accepted its permanent disappearance, he attempts to substitute for its actual possession a brief encounter with its essence. Simply to relinquish his penis altogether would be to give up entirely a former pleasure and, as that is something infinitely difficult for man to do, Homer begs allowance from his new authoritarian tyrant to sniff the remnants of his manhood.
How is it, though, that the young Herr S___ came to carry out such an affront on his father? First, we shall note that "motivating wishes...fall naturally into two main groups. They are either ambitious wishes, which serve to elevate the subjectís personality; or they are erotic ones" ("Creative Writers" 439). We can see how searching out and conquering that part of his fatherís body which derives libidinal gratification, especially with a sexual object as desirable as his mother, would satisfy both of those drives. But the confines of civilization are meant to control and repress them, or at least control and repress any action taken in answer to their call, by cultivating the super-ego and the sense of guilt (Civilization 95-96).
The super-ego, mind you, is "not simply a residue of the earliest object-choices of the id; it also represents an energetic reaction-formation against those choices...It also comprises the prohibition: ĎYou may not be like this (like your father)--that is, you may not do all that he does; some things are his prerogativeí" ("The Ego and the Id" 642). The mutiny against his father and, in turn, against society, is, then, the certain result of Bartís failed internalization of parental authority, an initial and necessary step in super-ego formation. With Homer as Unfit Father, Bart never felt threatened enough by the elderís ability to castrate him, so, instead of sublimating his wishes to exact revenge upon the man for introducing the castration complex in the first place, the younger held onto them. Moreover, not fearing the supposed authoritative presence in his life, young Herr S____ naturally rejected a move to renounce and turn inward his aggressive instincts and, thus, escaped the development of the sense of guilt (Civilization 91).
Going straight for Homerís very penis paints Bart as the product of, one, a narcissistic ego that much prefers two phalluses to one and, two, an instinct-driven id which has no remorse about acquiring the second, even through an act of parental castration. Furthermore, it paints him as exhibiting qualities of a disintegrated, or perhaps never integrated to begin with, member of society. He evokes images of primitive manís initial act of overtaking the superior, the critical difference in this case being young Herr S____ís lack of sibling support in the coup; he overtook his father alone. We could argue this as being a result of some Ďsuper-strengthí or intelligence Bart possesses or as a simple result of a deficiency in the elder Herr S____ís effectiveness as a viable authority. In this case, we find it apparent to be the latter. Obtuse and indolent, Homer S___ represents a severe lack of authoritative force and imposition and leaves his son with very few obstacles to overcome en route to overtaking him.
Additionally, the act of eating the candy bar, which in this case plainly doubles as Bartís own fecal matter, presents us with a final blow to the elder Herr S____ís crumbled status. With the possession of his fatherís phallus, and thus no oppressive repercussions to fear, the young Herr S____ is now free to satisfy his instinctual aims outright. Casting aside societyís call for sublimation, Bart, as he was during the anal stage, is once again able to take pleasure and find value in his own excrement as a product of himself (Civilization 54).
Having completed the interpretation of the advertisement, I shall now take on the task of analyzing its agenda in our own lives. Certainly at the Werbunggís epicenter is the makers of Butterfingerís marketing tactic. Copywriters and ad makers, this centuryís answer to the creative writer, constructed this commercial as a disguised pictorialization of their own adulthood phantasies of wish-fulfillment ("Creative Writers" 443). The repressed instinctual desires of overthrowing their own fathers during childhood emerge through the Bart "hero" and are subconsciously taken in by spectators.
The successful effect of sharing their fantasies with us is twofold; the advertisement satisfies both the pleasure principle and the productís manufacturers, for, in the end, Bart gets his fatherís penis, his own feces, and a peanut-buttery Butterfinger. The admen have fabricated for us, through the interactions of the S____ís, a method of catharsis, an allowance for us to live out vicariously the wish to castrate our own fathers. As a result, we are meant to feel a fulfillment of that wish and, in turn, an escape from the guilt we should have felt from considering it.
With respect to this tacticís role in the advertís effectiveness as a selling tool, I should warn that the child is especially vulnerable. For, to him, the phantastical element of the advert--the existence of the S____s themselves--is inextricably bound to reality. In his own play, the child likes to "link his imagined objects and situations to the tangible and visible things of the real world" ("Creative Writers" 437). So although he cannot have Homer or Bart as playmates in any but the phantasy world, he can have a Butterfinger candy bar, something that, because of the ad, now forms a tangible link to that phantasy world, in reality.
I hope you will take note of the broader picture this essay presents and consider the anomaly contained within adverts, as well as other ubiquitous forms of mass media. They have wholly infiltrated our lives and we must deal with the actuality that the playing out of our phantasies and fears is no longer contained within softened and aesthetisized traditional works of literary and cinematic classification.
Furthermore, it is no longer left to our personal discretions where and when and how we shall face those playings-out. When we read a piece of literature or view a film, we willingly enter the process, prepared to accept what we encounter. But with the escalation of its importance has come the mass mediaís ability to deliver experience without prior warning. Legions of billboards await the interstate traveler. Perusers of newspapers and journals are hardly able to turn a page without dealing with the oppression of full-page color and high-gloss ads. I try to enjoy Baywatch and am utterly inundated by commercial programming. And now, as I have thoroughly proven, man shall never again be able to pay to see a film of his own choosing without prior subjection to a deliberately-crafted-to-be-subconsciously-charged succession of Werbungen.
Beckman, Peter. AdCritic.com. "Butterfinger--Smell Your Breath". 5 Nov. 2001 .
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. New York:
W.W. Norton & Company, 1961.
---. "Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming". The Freud Reader.
Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1989. 436-443.
---. "The Ego and the Id". The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York:
W.W. Norton & Company, 1989. 628-658.
---. "On Dreams". The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York:
W.W. Norton & Company, 1989. 142-172.
---. "Totem and Taboo". The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York:
W.W. Norton & Company, 1989. 481-513.
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