Brett's Reviews > Boxed In: The Culture of TV

Boxed In by Mark Crispin Miller
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's review
Feb 18, 11

really liked it
bookshelves: essays, pop-culture
Read from January 03 to February 18, 2011

Boxed In is a collection of essays by Mark Crispin Miller about television advertising, films, and music. Miller went on to become quasi-famous as critic of President Bush with his books The Bush Dyslexicon and Cruel and Unusual. In this book, it's clear that Miller is part of the left from his essay on the Reagan Presidency, but most of the essays are essentially apolitical.

By far the strongest section of the book is when Miller is focused on advertising. Miller is trained as a graduate student in English literature, meaning that he has spent a lot of time doing the "close readings" that are required by the New Criticism school of thought. He takes this technique that is normally applied to poetry and instead focuses it on television commercials with some very interesting results.

He makes explicit the racial themes that are implicit in a commercial encouraging Americans to vacation in Jamaica in the first chapter. In the second, he delves into the psycho-sexual tension involved in a soap commercial. That may sound like a joke, but it's really not. A couple excerpts from this chapter, so you get the feel of the writing:

"He comes toward her, setting himself up for a profound humiliation by putting on a playful air of suave command. Adjusting his tie like a real man of the world, he saunters over to his wife and her flower bowl, where he plucks a dainty purple flower and lifts it to his lapel: "And," he boasts throughout all this, trying to make his voice sound even deeper, "with old J.J.'s business and my brains--""--you'll...clean up again?" Gail asks with suggestive irony, subverting his authoritative pose by leaning against him, draping one hand over his shoulder to dangle a big yellow daisy down his chest."

"Typically, it woos its female viewers--i.e., those who choose the soap in most households--with a fantasy of dominance."

"This "man," in fact, is actually Gail's wife: he is utterly feminized, striking a posture and displaying attributes which men have long deplored in women."

"The crucial object in the opening shot is that the flower box with its bright geraniums, which is placed directly in front of the husband's groin. This clever stroke of composition has the immediate effect of equating our hero's manhood with a bunch of flowers."

And so on. Miller's language is somewhat overwrought (all throughout the book, unfortunately) but the subtext is striking once it is pointed out. When I've brought this sort of analysis up to people, they often respond by saying something like, "Don't you think he's reading too much into this? These are just commercials, after all." This is exactly the wrong way to think about this phenomenon though--commercials are ubiquitous and unavoidable. We are consciously and unconsciously bombarded with them, and it cannot be helped that they will penetrate our psyche. Rather than suggest that something we are surrounded by is unworthy of study, we should be all the more willing to discover what it is actually saying to us. And don't forget, the people that make national advertising are sophisticated and highly-trained. They are completely aware of everything they place in their ads.

So I think there is a great deal of value in this sort of analysis, though since this book was written in 1988, I wish there were more recent examples. Also noteworthy are Miller's chapters on Bill Cosby, Family Feud (Victory demands the absolute suppression of any wayward thought or preference, any eccentricity that might define the family apart from TV's bland reconstruction of ourselves."), and his viewer's guide to the 1984 Presidential election.

He also invents an archetype of the television ironist (David Letterman is is go-to example) that on one hand seems to say to the audience that they too smart to be watching this nonsense--say, stupid people tricks--but encouraging them to stay tuned anyway because they are in a sense, in the on the joke. That same audience is then turned over to advertisers that work on a similar principle: ads that are full of irony (you are too smart to fall for this dumb ad!) and trying to morph that irony into a desire to purchase a product.

The chapters on film and music are less compelling to me, so I won't go into detail about them. I would pair this book up with The Conquest of Cool by Thomas Frank, another interesting volume on the history of advertising.
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