This is what the internet is preoccupied with today:
In the Budweiser ad below, are the soldier and the man he calls in a gay relationship?
Did it matter that I prejudiced your opinion by asking the question before you saw the ad?
Most who see it think the man and the soldier are brothers, and the hug is simply an awkward mixture of the brother’s pride, reverence, and relief in the soldier’s safe return home. But some gay viewers saw the relationship between the men as being gay. For example, Mother Jones excerpts a post from a gay blog arguing that, “if you substituted a woman for [the man who hugs the soldier], it would read pretty much exactly like a heterosexual relationship.”
What is interesting is that this is almost certainly true, in the sense that most people would see a heterosexual relationship if the person called was a woman, whereas when they are both men, they see a platonic or familial (i.e. non-sexual) one. But implicit in this is that in the dominant mass-culture any physical or overly familiar contact shown between a man and a woman signifies a heterosexual relationship. You actually need additional information to show (or signify) a more distant platonic male-female friendship.
But in a relationship between two men, the opposite is true. Familiar and physical contact is implicitly platonic, unless additional information is provided. None of this should be surprising; mass media and popular culture are hetero-normative; the presumption is that everyone is straight unless you are explicitly informed otherwise.
And it is precisely within this difference between the semiotic treatment in culture of male-female relationships (presumed heterosexual and intimate) and male-male relationships (presumed platonic and non-sexual) that ambiguity can be introduced that simultaneously communicate two different messages to two different groups. If all the men you know are straight, this is not a gay ad. If you know some gay couples, then the ad can be read as showing a gay relationship.
None of that actually matters, because it all operates on the comfortable plane of consumerism. Is Budweiser talking to straight people, or gay people? Is Budweiser saying gay in the military is okay, etc.
The truth: the two men are most certainly not in a gay relationship, because they are actors playing characters that do not exist outside of this 60-second spot. One of the staggering powers that commercials have that longer form visual media like TV and film do not have is the power to operate almost entirely subliminally, at the level of inference. You see a juxtaposition of images, dialogue, music, sound, an interplay of signs and symbols, and from it you the viewer construct the story. I show you a little girl man with a straight face. I show you a bowl of ice cream. I show you the girl smiling. Everyone thinks (completely incorrectly) that the ice cream makes the girl smile.
Budweiser: the old barn, the checkered tablecloth, Dad at the table in a blue dress shirt (if it’s a solid color it’s always blue in these kinds of ads), Mom at the sink in a comfy robe, cliche picnic condiments, arms in shirtsleeves, the SUV, people doing hard work. You see it all and so fast that you piece a story together that they never told you. Classic images of Americana, of the classic American family.
The only moment that seems out of the ordinary is the hug, which regardless of how you read the characters’ sexuality, is still odd. It’s the needle skipping the groove, it’s the ad saying right now I want you to look at this ONLY. The rest of the commercial is in a state of flow, a nice rhythm, nothing unexpected. This is staged.
And it has to be, because the commercial is actually treading some very thin ice. They want to exploit the image of the soldier returning home, to capitalize on low-hanging emotional fruit: the hug, the tear streaking down the cheek. But it has to be extremely careful: talk about the solider coming home from war, but for God’s sake say nothing about the war itself. It is the event so real that it would shatter the illusion constructed by the rest of the commercial.
So forget the gay-straight sideshow. Look at how it shows you the solider. He places a call in near-total darkness to the guy who is in bed, at home. They are both in darkness. Are they in the same time zone? So where is the soldier, that his return would be met with tears of relief?
Next shot: he loads his bag into a jeep. The jeep is desert tan, but there are very large, very lush green trees behind it. Is this Iraq? Afghanistan? Not the way we have been shown those places. They he travels on what appears to be a very long plane ride that in the split-screen appears to last a day. But when he called the man, it looked like both places were experiencing night? The ad has obliterated any possible semantic coding of the Iraq or Afghanistan war.
If fact, the ad depicts the psychological location of the war. We have pushed the war to the back of our minds, out of the light and under the cover of darkness. For most of us, the war is not an event unfolding right now at a particular place on earth. The war is a concept that we have pushed out of our minds, to be referenced only in the context of political ideology. The solider is in a war in the process of fading from our minds, and Budweiser really doesn’t want to refresh you memory about it.
The solider calls from darkness, somnambulates through his journey, and circumnavigates the globe asleep.
The soldier does not return from the war. He returns from the void.