Lifestyle Pornography, Part 2

dogs1My wife, Denise, is considering adopting a dog from one of our local Austin pet shelters. There are a few complications (which I won’t go into here) that delay her decision until the beginning of the coming year. In the meantime, she likes to look at the many pictures of available dogs from the pet shelter website. She’ll be sitting on our living room couch, computer tablet in her lap, and she’ll exclaim out loud to no one in particular: “I want to get a dog!” If I happen to be within earshot, I’ll look at her and she’ll nod affirmatively as I say to her: “You’re looking at pictures of doggie porn again, aren’t you?”

Our shared understanding of the term does not refer to dogs being pictured in sex acts. Rather, we’re using the term porn generically to refer to images that entice a viewer’s psyche. I want that. I need that! Now!! The root definition of pornography: a graphic image intended to stimulate immediate emotional or erotic response.

If you are a dog lover, like my wife, images of cute dogs needing a home can tug at your very soul. Similarly, there are other types of images, plentiful in our society, that encourage and entice and tug at the hearts of their beholders. These are the images of lifestyle porn, intended to turn you and me on to materialistic living. These images, incredibly more pervasive than we realize, invade our psyches via television, movies, magazines, billboards, and the Internet.

Images of luxurious homes, expensive cars, and sleek household appliances are lifted up as possession norms in consumer society. We’re used to that. Pay closer attention, however, to certain movies and TV shows where the images of lifestyle porn proliferate and you’ll see art imitating life. Inequality in the US outpaces that of all other developed nations. Pastor Ben Dueholm has written an excellent article, “Pulp Inequality,” that details the effects of extreme inequality upon what the entertainment industry produces. He calls today’s manifestation of the classic rags-to-riches genre more “garish, random, and humiliating” than their predecessors – reflecting the much steeper climb to the top in today’s America of diminishing economic mobility.

In similar voice, author Heather Havrilesky rips the blockbuster book and movie Fifty Shades of Grey as a materialistic fantasy of “quasi-human bondage.” Her article “Fifty Shades of Late Capitalism” deems the erotic sex for which the book franchise is famous as boring as the unceasing parade of showcased luxury brands in the movie: Cartier, Cristal, Omega, iPad, iPod, Audi, Gucci. Ho-hum. We meet female protagonist Anastasia Steele as a naïve middle-class college grad, and see her evolve into a pampered aristocrat. Does it even matter how the film’s male protagonist Christian Grey made his billions? No, the main point is that he has unlimited resources and can do whatever he desires – sexually and otherwise, while hardly having to work. The American Dream, version.2015.

caddy man.jpeg
Actor Neal McDonough as The Caddy Man

Sex and the CityThe Bachelor and The Bachelorette are likewise berated for their depictions of lifestyle porn by authors like Arthur Chu; his article in The Daily Beast is honest and insightful. The Caddy Man (my blog article linked here), introduced in a 2014 Cadillac ELR commercial, articulates and exemplifies the concept of lifestyle porn better than anyone else. In response to him, and others, I will continue to ask the befitting question that fuels this blog: How much is enough?

In a capitalist society, seeing that my neighbor is doing better than me financially and materially can serve to motivate me. I can work harder, longer, and smarter to achieve what I desire. Economic mobility, although not what it used to be in the US, still avails its blessings to a select group of achievers. Alternatively – and this is radically against the grain – I can choose to be content with what I have and not strive for more.

People are free, for the most part, to chase their dreams in this society – whether their dreams be idealistic, materialistic, noble, or delusionary. Dreams consist of images; there is no imagination without images. Consumer society is predicated on the fact that people will strive for more and more; it’s for this very reason that consumer society provides many blessings and continually reboots modernization. There is a dark side to consumer society, however, and the images of lifestyle porn can inhibit our imagination, because these are predicated on the idea that what we are and what we have are not good enough.

Where do we find the images that let us ponder the reality that what we are and what we have are good enough?




This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

America’s True Religion

(It’s been a year since Cadillac – spot on – defined America’s dominant religion. Let’s revisit this classic.)

The Cadillac commercial many saw during the February 2014 Winter Olympic Games coverage precisely embodies America’s true religion: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. Check it out below.

Theologian Paul Tillich broadened the definition of religion when he described it as “ultimate concern.” The actor in the commercial, Neal McDonough, strikingly articulates America’s dominant religion step-by-step. “We’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers.” And then he tells us what we believe in, while striding aside the $75,000 four-wheeled object of adulation: “It’s pretty simple. You work hard, you create own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible.”

Don’t get me wrong – on the surface, commerce/materialism/consumerism is not a bad religion, or ultimate concern. It’s fed, clothed, housed, employed, and provided for millions of Americans (and many others) and served the common good for a number of generations. Work, a vital component of the religion, enables our survival at the most basic level. But when it goes to excess – hours worked, inordinate material and consumerist pursuits – the religion becomes idolatrous. McDonough’s character becomes a type of high priest enticing us to a counterfeit promised land found via “just a little bit more.” Americans began to work more and more hours in the late 1970s, reversing a long-standing trend of declining number of hours worked. Whereas America has been historically associated with the opportunity to work, the country now seems to be associated with the domination of work (for those who can find it).

We do work hard (only South Koreans and Australians work more hours than Americans), but the American economic mobility that used to be the benchmark for the rest of the world has significantly eroded away. The philosophy of work hard and advance applies to an increasingly smaller group of Americans than it used to. Our high priest of materialism disparages that “other countries take August off.” Does he not know that time away from work has been assiduously fought for over the decades since the Industrial era brought its blessings and curses? A bit more than a century ago Andrew Carnegie’s steelworkers worked twelve hour days, seven days a week. The upside of that? They helped build the nation that later spawned characters like McDonough’s that imply poor people have no one to blame but themselves, lazy and uninspired.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good further details America’s true religion and calls for a counter movement based in economic democracy. The book is available through this website, and wherever books are sold. The following excerpt is from chapter 5:

Work is a great opportunity in the United States. We’re thankful for it even as it saps our energy and youthfulness. But, does work always deliver on its promise to take care of us? Whom does our work benefit – ourselves and our community, or are we unwittingly part of some larger design where our contributions are parasitically annexed for someone else’s gain? Is the pace we keep with our work one that gives freedom or creates bondage? Increasingly, our rates of consumption with their propensity toward excesses speak of bondage – exorbitantly so. Americans have 1.3 billion credit cards (four for every man, woman, and child) while our savings rate continues to plummet to nearly net zero.

All rights reserved. Blue Ocotillo Publishing, May 2014.

Just a Little Bit More is available on Amazon for slightly less than $75k.