- Excerpts from The Mechanical Bride, with a foreword by Linda M. Scott
We have reproduced here sections of Marshall McLuhan’s Mechanical Bride that consist of interpretations of ads showing images of women in ads for stockings and girdles. In revisiting this work, I was struck by how full of 1950s fears, how totally oriented to male sexuality, and, frankly, how inadequate this work was. I decided to reprint the material anyway, to demonstrate how far the world has moved from the 1950s vision of advertising as ‘hidden persuasion’—as well as how thoroughly we have accepted the media, once a fearsome menace, in our everyday lives. I ask readers to critically revisit the actual arguments that have shaped lingering fears about media and still haunt the feminist approach to advertising. I would ask academic readers to consider whether this work would pass muster today in blind review at any scholarly journal they know.
The essays are, first of all, completely lacking coherence. The words glance from one under-developed reference to another, all the while supported by an ambitiously arch and vaguely accusatory tone. The accusations themselves however, are never quite articulated—is McLuhan saying that machines are replacing humans, especially sexually? Did he really believe that? Even now, with artificial intelligence and reality coming into actual being, it is hard to believe than any but the most maladjusted male would prefer a line-up of all-the-same mechanical chorus girls to a real, individual woman as a sex partner. But that seems to be the argument. Or is it?
The material existence of ads—the fact that they are always intended to result in a behavior, usually purchase of a product—is completely overlooked. Instead, we get an implied theory of vulgar Freudianism that seems to say, “If you can stimulate thoughts of sex in my mind, I can be manipulated. . . .” To do what? Buy stockings and girdles? McLuhan simply overlooks the fact that the intended reader for these ads is female—and so he never considers that the female gaze may be quite different from the sex-obsessed male gaze he turns on these ads. Perhaps the most outrageous reading is when he casts the Palomino horse in the stockings ad as a sexual image pointing to danger and violence. Actually, the color of the stockings is ‘Palomino’ and the horse looks more like a children’s illustration than a stallion from hell.
Indeed, it is a little scary and perhaps more information that we care to know about McLuhan’s inner dialogue that his essay veers back to sexual desire every couple of paragraphs. But this kind of sexual obsession was typical of criticism, even of literature, at the time. Americans of the 1950s were haunted by fears that some kind of ‘manipulation’ would turn them into sexual deviants, much as they feared political brainwashing would turn them communist—or that aliens would arrive in Roswell.
Mechanical Bride is often now described as ‘pioneering’ as a critique of media culture. I suspect people who say such things have not read these essays in a long time—just as I had not revisited McLuhan before the question came up at Advertising and Society Review. Sometimes, revisiting the works of our intellectual forebears is deeply satisfying and reinvigorating. Sometimes, we are disappointed and even embarrassed to discover that were not what we first thought. This is what I felt re-reading Marshall McLuhan.
Woman in a Mirror
Just another stallion and a sweet kid?
What was that sound of glass? A window gone in the subconscious? Or was it Nature’s fire-alarm box?
The ad men break through the mind again?
The Senate sub-committee on mental hygiene reports that it wasn’t loaded?
The Greeks manage these matters in myths?
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This ad employs the same technique as Picasso in The Mirror. The differences, of course, are obvious enough. By setting a conventional day-self over against a tragic night-self, Picasso is able to provide a time capsule of an entire life. He reduces a full-length novel (or movie) like Madame Bovary to...