“Defrosting Reaganite Entertainment”
A new cultural studies book series, “Object Lessons” provides an exciting opportunity for materializing media studies. Each book is devoted to the history and symbolic importance of an otherwise academically invisible everyday object. The early volumes in the series are devoted to such eclectic items as phone booths, hotels, golf balls, remote controls, bookshelves, cigarette lighters, and shipping containers. Edited by Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg, the series is affiliated with Georgia Tech University’s Center for Media Studies; however, the volumes surprisingly downplay the importance of media culture in framing our understanding of these objects in contemporary culture.
For example, in his excellent book, Refrigerator (2015), Jonathan Rees does not once mention Betty Furness, the actress turned spokesperson most commonly associated with the post-war popularization of domestic consumer appliances. In her appearances in between the acts of plays on Westinghouse Studio One (CBS, 1948-1958), Furness ushered in the sorts of transformations of domestic life Rees studies in his book. For example, the 1950s saw a massive expansion of the American diet due to the increasing availability of preserved fresh foods from around the world.
Rees does stress the importance of advertising culture for the near ubiquitous presence of the refrigerator in contemporary American homes. He cites Roland Marchand’s Advertising and the American Dream (1985) to capture the aesthetic and ideological complexity of these images: “[M]any refrigerator advertisements from the early days had groups of people huddled around an open refrigerator, staring at it in awe as if they were the Three Wise Men viewing the Baby Jesus for the first time…. Without directly competing with religion, advertising had appropriated the imagery of the sublime”(78). But the only time Rees mentions the cinema is by invoking historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s study of a General Electric-commissioned Hollywood short about the their new refrigerator in the late 1920s as the first filmed commercial (136).
The appearance of everyday objects in media representations is the motor through which the cultural transformations enacted by those objects gets framed and understood in a media-saturated society such as ours. Indeed, the link between cinema and objects such as refrigerators extends beyond representation toward their location as markers of industrial modernity. In defining the “cold chain,” Rees discusses the food supply in an age of refrigeration via a series of necessarily chilled supply sites that link where food is produced to where it is consumed: “Refrigerators serve as the end point for… cold chains, which are more than efficient enough to conquer both space and time: specifically, seasons” (71).
Refrigeration allows people in very cold climates to eat food from tropical areas all year round. The overcoming of time and space is also, of course, the mechanism through which cinema captures the world: we are able to witness on a screen that which took place long ago and far away. The cinema and refrigerator are cousins in the family tree of industrial modernity. Rees argues, “Refrigerators have become a potent symbol of the American consumer’s changing relationship with the natural world” (75), a claim that could just as well be describing, for example, nature cinema, where distant and exotic animals are brought before us without danger, smell, or inconvenience.
As just one example of the potential of analyzing this collision between the cinema and the everyday objects of modernity, let’s consider the starring role the refrigerator takes in the iconic horror comedy, Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984). Early in the film, Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) returns home from a long day as a professional cellist to unpack her groceries and put them away. Immediately after she places her eggs on the counter, they begin popping out of the carton and frying. She hears a muffled noise coming from the refrigerator, crosses to the other side of the kitchen, and opens the door. Inside is a gigantic temple, at the top of the stairs of which a horned demon dog growls his name, “Zuul.”
While certainly a plot device, what if we think further about what this appearance of the refrigerator might allegorize. For one thing, Rees discusses the ridiculous size of American refrigerators, far larger in cubic volume than any other in the world. When Dana opens her gigantic fridge in her relatively small apartment, the film expresses the disproportionate ratio via a fantastical depiction of an entire world inside of a device meant merely to keep one person’s food preserved until she can eat it.
This couples with the critique of consumerism more generally in the film. The creatures from another mythological plane are gluttonous—especially “Slimer,” the floating green glob of goo who swallows entire ice cream carts of frozen treats in one gulp—indicating that our heroes are in conflict with more than just devilish monsters. As their paranormal fighting business is about to go belly up, Dr. Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd) announces that the humble take-out Chinese food dinner they’ve just consumed was purchased with the last of their petty cash. Shortly afterward, they get their first job, at a ritzy hotel where Slimer is caught while destroying a fancy ballroom set up for a high-end wedding banquet.
In short, our heroes are associated with limited food resources, while the creatures they fight call attention to overconsumption. This thematic dynamic crescendos, of course, at the film’s climax, when Ray accidentally chooses “the form of the Destructor” when he cannot clear his mind of the “Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.” In order to save the city, our heroes use their high-tech weapons, Proton Packs to explode the giant walking sugar monster over themselves and the streets of New York. The film is essentially a successful allegory before the fact of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to ban giant sugary drinks from the city’s public school system, a plan that, unlike in the movies, failed miserably in the courts.
Significantly, a bag of Stay Puft Marshmallows is the other prominent object on Dana’s counter as she first encounters Zuul, perhaps more than just the foreshadowing it at first appears to be. In his book on the refrigerator, Rees argues that, “[T]he history of the electric household refrigerator reveals a great deal about the history of gender in twentieth-century America” (77). In response to the appearance of the Temple of Gozer in her refrigerator, Dana calls the Ghostbusters’ hotline that she sees in a television commercial.
The lascivious huckster, Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) shows up with a phallic sensor that resembles an exterminator’s wand. He waves it around the apartment as he hits on Dana, explaining his loneliness. Annoyed, she finally asks him that, since he came all this way, doesn’t he want to check the refrigerator? He opens the door slowly, and declares with horror, but not the kind we are expecting: “look at all the junk food.” Upset, Dana explains again about the irregular fridge contents that were there just a short while before. Venkman, however, continues to berate her for the nutritional contents of her refrigerator: “Do you actually eat this stuff?”
Rees argues that the traditional task of femininity in American culture has been the proper feeding of the family. Venkman’s phallic assault on Dana’s apartment takes the form of berating her failures in this regard. He lifts up a covered casserole, smells it, and recoils in disgust. Rees explains that we come to conceive of refrigeration as a triumph over nature, when in fact the process merely slows, but does not stop, decay. Venkman here exposes that the failure of refrigeration in the case of Dana’s apartment is not technological, but user error: Dana has let the food spoil due to her lack of attentiveness.
The Reaganite ideological project of the film is clearly expressed via refrigeration: Dana’s struggle to build herself into a world-class musician is not celebrated. As her unwillingness to speak with her mother on the phone indicates, she has placed her own career ahead of her domestic duties. Thus, when Venkman expresses his sexual interest in her, she is “unduly” cold, a condition the film will fix. She is first the victim of demonic possession, which results in her sleeping with her next-door neighbor, Louis Tully (Rick Moranis). This coupling in turn results in the invasion of New York City by Gozer the Gozerian and his army of demons, something the active male Ghostbusters will have to fix.
The film’s neo-conservative portrait of Dana’s shortcomings resonates with the cultural history of refrigeration as a metaphor for women’s role in domestic life. In 1943, psychiatrist Leo Kanner suggested that frigid mothers caused the newly identified disorder, autism in children. In the post-war era, in which women were being driven back into the home after the social disruptions in the gendering of labor caused by World War II, pop psychology—particularly Philip Wylie’s vicious Generation of Vipers (1942)—such arguments scrutinizing women’s behaviors as the cause of all sorts of social ills thrived. The diagnosis of the devastating effects of the “refrigerator mother” spread unchecked into the mid-1960s, and even though debunked in the case of autism and elsewhere, continued to persist well in to the 1980s, when the Reaganite backlash too full advantage of their rhetorical effects.
Ghostbusters II (Ivan Reitman 1989) begins with Venkman and Dana married, having recently had a baby. Thus, by the end of the 1980s, the ideological work had its intended normalizing effect on Dana. However, if we unpack the gender implications of that first Reaganite film’s metaphors of refrigeration, we can see that the damage to Dana’s status as a free-willed human being within patriarchal society had already been done. This is the power of fully pursuing the appearance of everyday material objects in the cinema; through representations of the objects and beyond, films give us a great deal of data about how we live our lives, and why. By using Jonathan Rees’ excellent book, we can thaw out the ideological messages that these films otherwise keep frozen.
Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. New York: Basic Books, 1983.
Marchand, Roland. Advertising and the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.
Rees, Jonathan. Refrigerator. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2015.
Wylie, Philip. Generation of Vipers. New York: Dalkey Archive P, 1996.