Years ago, I taught Sunday School in suburban DC and was fascinated by the conversations with the then-teens, kids who are now in their early 30s and possibly with children of their own. The one conversation that sticks with me pertains to fashion and choice of clothing brand; two teens were slamming someone viciously – in absentia, naturally – and when I asked why she so upset them, the first response was that she was a Hollister kid. They saw my confusion and patiently explained, to the retarded adult, that they simply didn’t like anybody who was Hollister and that they spent all of their own time with Polo kids. It was a slap-in-the-face event that drove home how badly we’d become branded. But does there reach a point at which the kids revolt at the branding and begin to draw their own conclusions on the values that come with branding?
I grew up in a corporate household with corporate values and my last paying gig before opting to stay with the kids was in a corporate headquarters. I’m no fan of corporations and their exponentially greater political and economic power and one of my great concerns with the kids is how they’ll manage to maintain their individuality and integrity in a corporatist society. So I was taken aback when Youngest, the elementary school kid, came home from school and began bemoaning that Disney was thinking of buying DC Comics. He knew of Stan Lee’s legacy and that he’d already sold Marvel Comics to Disney, likewise with George Lucas’ Lucasfilm sale to the Mouse. That particular news item truly brought a surreal conversation about populating the Star Wars stories with Disney characters. This proposed sale was news to me and as we talked, I asked what it was that bothered him the most. Youngest explained that he was afraid that Disney would dumb down the story lines and characters; and being a boy, he was bothered that the level of violence in the story lines would decrease. We’re all concerned today about the propensity of violence but the simple fact is that the typical boy has a natural affinity for agression and making things go boom and comic books are an old-fashioned way of honoring that.
What Youngest was saying, in an elementary level fashion, was his concern that yet another corporate takeover would again take something away from our culture – yes, comic books can be considered cultural – in the quest for profit and earnings per share. Marvel and Lucasfilm are now iconic, but they each sprouted from the fertile imaginations of Lee and Lucas and did so in humble environments. When everything is controlled by the corporations – financial and otherwise – then we’ve lost something of ourselves and our national character. We’re already at a point where strip shopping centers, office complexes and malls litter enough of the countryside that regional architectural differences are being lost; Topeka is some ways is no different from Savannah, which is no different from Bangor. Couple that with the fact that much of the investing capital is controlled by a small cadre of financial types and we’re at risk for not just cultural homogeneity, but also cultural and technological stagnation. Could George Lucas get the backing necessary for his idea? Could Stan Lee manage to obtain the capital to start Marvel today? At least not without having to give up the special something that made these things so distinctive? It’s telling that an elementary school kid could at least sense the blandness of a corporate world, controlled by a small cadre of individuals who decide what has merit and how the advertising dollars go to support the brands that they deem of value.
Life is ironic. At the time of this long-ago Hollister kid conversation, my wife was pregnant with Eldest, our first-born child. Eldest’s first job in high school was at Hollister and she worked there through this past Christmas season. Corporate policy dictated that all employees wear brand apparel for their shifts and I understand that. But I take comfort in the fact that when she has a preference for shopping, it’s at Goodwill. Maybe Eldest also understands what Youngest understands as well.