Up until I was in college, I had gone happily along treating the stories of scripture like puzzles. Enigmas with only one possible solution. Figure it out, and you understand the moral. And then you are done.
Imagine my surprise when my professor told us that “all texts have a surplus of meaning.”
He taught us that the act of an individual reading a text is an act that creates meaning through dialogue between the reader’s context and perspective and the author’s ideas. Words on a page, or images on a screen, are at the end of the day just that. Words and images. Meaning only emerges when the text is encountered, by people, by communities, who seek to interpret the text in conversation with their lives.
I have been thinking back to this idea a lot since I first saw 84 Lumber’s Super Bowl ad depicting the journey of a mother and a daughter seeking to enter the United States and encountering an enormous wall.
My initial reaction to this ad was overwhelmingly positive. I saw it as a striking portrayal of the humanity of two women in an environment where most often immigrants are painted with a broad-brush mean to evoke fear and repulsion. I saw it as a strong rebuke of the idea of a wall, given the juxtaposition between the hope in a young girl’s eyes with the imposing concrete barrier.
It did not occur to me for a split second when I first watched this ad that it was meant to portray the wall in a positive light. I have watched it again and again and I still can’t see it.
And I was not alone in that reading of this commercial. Supporters of Donald Trump’s immigration policies swiftly called for boycotts of 84 Lumber. They certainly did not see it as a celebration of Trump’s vision for the borderlands.
On Monday morning though I read this important piece from Latino Rebels. I recommend you read it too.
It pointed out that the CEO of 84 Lumber, Maggie Hardy Magerko, is a supporter of Trump. She said of her company’s spot, “Even President Trump has said there should be a ‘big beautiful door in the wall so that people can come into this country legally.’ It’s not about the wall. It’s about the door in the wall. If people are willing to work hard and make this country better, that door should be open to them.”
It’s a reminder that all texts —even Super Bowl commercials— have a surplus of meaning and the author’s intention is not the end-all in defining what something means.
The intention of the company in commissioning this advertisement has now been made clear. But I think they failed.
Somewhere along the line, that commercial failed to make it’s intended point to me and everyone I was watching it with (again knowing that my perspective is limited by who I am and what my experiences are). And based on the twitter outrage from the right, it also failed to make its point to its intended allies.
Maybe all the explanations and statements after-the-fact are just cowardice in the face of boycott.
Maybe the sound engineer went rogue and added that desolate wind-sweeping sound when the wall first came into view.
Maybe the actresses playing the mother and daughter resisted the script in the way they played the roles.
Or maybe we just learned that for a huge portion of our country there is simply no way to make a wall look beautiful.
I don’t know.
But what I do know is that if watching that advertisement emboldened your resistance to hate and discrimination. If it reminded you that this debate is, at its foundation, about actual human beings and not stereotypes.
If the sight of that wall made your heart break. Then let that feeling fuel your resistance.