To understand how this Jello commercial from 1957 converges food, art, and culture, it is crucial to understand first how it is significant to the culture who produced it. One might wonder, after all, what in the heck does “Chinese baby” have to do with American culture? According to Edward Said’s “Introduction to Orientalism,” it has more to do with American culture than we typically think. Said argues, for example, that “as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West” (1801). In other words, the Orient is a “created body of theory and practice” that directly corresponds to the culture who created it, namely the West, and not the ‘real’ Orient (1802). Said continues to argue that “Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the upper hand” (1803). For Said, the West collectively defines the Orient as the other, e.g. what we are not, as backward, e.g. culturally inadequate, and that the West accomplishes this task in such a way as to preserve domination, power, and hegemony over the Orient—albeit flexible and positional so that the West can maintain power when relationships shift.
I shall argue that food, art, and culture converge in this commercial under the context of Western superiority: the West’s culture is superior, their art form is superior, and from this we are to suppose that Jello, also a Western invention, is superior—so go buy some Jello immediately.
In 1957 when this commercial was produced, China had its “Great Leap Forward” and shifted toward communism. Was this commercial merely an attempt for the West, for capitalism, to maintain its power in the face of a great shift in its meaning of Orientalism? The answer to that question is beyond the scope of this short essay, but this Jello commercial clearly defines the Orient as other, characterizes the Orient as being backward, and places the West in a relative position of power. In the commercial we are bombarded with signs of otherness: from the admission that the commercial is artistically expressed as an “ancient Chinese pantomime,” to the extreme exaggeration of the eyes, to the particular clothing, hair style, and gait of the mother, to the music, to the contrast between the English and Chinese spelling of Jello, and to the Western narrator mocking the voice of a non-native English speaker. These are artistic choices that attempt to instill a sense of cultural otherness and backwardness within its predominately American audience.
The food, the Jello, affirms a sense of otherness, backwardness, and Western superiority. After all, “Chinese baby” is unable to eat Jello, “a famous Western delicacy,” because his chopsticks are not conducive for serving it. The baby becomes extremely frustrated, cries, and the mother brings “great Western invention: spoon.” The chopsticks, something the West associates with the Orient and as other, is here being marginalized as backward, while the spoon, an iterated product of Western ingenuity, is being portrayed as superior. We also see this sense of superiority in the narration of a pantomime, which is not meant to include dialogue. By including narration in a self-proclaimed pantomime, it is admitting that the form of pantomime, which is being associated with the Orient, is an inadequate or backward artistic form that requires Western refinement.
“Public Domain Chinese Baby Jello Commercial.” YouTube. YouTube, 09 Sept. 2006. Web. 04 Feb. 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-fazdN59SNg
Richter, David H. “From the Introduction to Orientalism.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. Third Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2007.