The “Big Bird” phenomenon, spurred by Mitt Romney’s comment during the first presidential debate that he would  cut spending for PBS to reduce the deficit, has evolved into one of the hottest political memes of the 2012 election. During the debate Romney’s Big Bird comment received 135,332 Tweets Per Minute, and continues to have a significant flow of Tweets- both joking and not- up to today’s vice-presidential debates over a week later. The comment also spawned the expected horde of memes, and the Huffington Post published a letter from an 8 year old girl to Mitt Romney telling him to “Find something else to cut off!”- which received 30,000 likes and nearly 10,000 shares on Facebook. And of course, Big Bird made appearances on both Saturday Night Live and the Colbert Report.

This seems to be the definitive example of the sort of content we expect to see generated during a great political spectacle like the presidential elections. The original statement was itself an offhand comment, which becomes the memorable sound-bite for an hour and a half-long debate, is extensively “fact-checked” by both sides despite being essentially a joke, and made into an easy laugh for comedians and casual commenters.

The phenomenon can be read as a truly depressing indicator of the state of politics today. Indeed, a new ad by “Obama for America” , which plays off the public outcry against Romney’s “attack” on the much-beloved Big Bird, has also spurred a torrent of criticism from both sides of the aisle about this cheap, pandering tactic that is largely devoid of any real political content. 

The whole thing seems like a perfect example of what Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism“, where the emphasis of political communications is no longer on content, but merely on the broadcasting and circulation of messages and counter-messages. In this case, Romney’s comment about big bird becomes an over-determined symbol of a political statement, whose very emptiness makes it easy for individuals to respond and comment upon it, and for the Obama campaign to appropriate and recirculate as a kind of political symbol of response rather than deep political statement. The amount of attention the original comment and subsequent ad have received, and the response visible in Youtube comments, on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, all suggest an active dialogue and participation with this political issue, but ultimately it all seems to be a sort of empty signifier, with the majority of the comments either laughing at one side or the other, or reiterating support for or against Big Bird-policies- with many making the too-obvious joke, “Big bird for president!”

Those who try to analyze the real content of the statement, pointing out that Romney made his statement in the context of reducing our federal debt and not out of a special hatred for Big Bird, that Sesame Street and Big Bird could easily continue without government funding as a private venture, and the comically tiny proportion of government spending that PBS takes up, are ultimately missing the point.

(IMAGE: Small red line is labelled “Public Broadcasting”, big red line is labelled “Defense Budget”. Proportions are accurately represented.)

In the world of media, it doesn’t really matter what the facts are, what the “whole” story is…people know that Romney said he would cut spending for Big Bird, and respond viscerally to that statement.

AND YET— I would like to here turn my whole argument on my head, and ask what this hugely popular phenomenon has to do with a genuine engagement with the political realm by the spectator-citizen. This particular meme seems to have particular power because of the instant relate-ability,  the “everydayness” of Big Bird. Unlike much of the debate, this concrete statement by Romney immediately touches the real, memorable experiences of a huge portion of the population. Ultimately, most viewers feel the same way that Romney purports in his original statement; “I like Big Bird!” So to hear what sounds like Romney promising to “axe” something even he likes, regardless of the context or rationale or “facts of the matter”, people have a very strong visceral and immediate reaction.

As one commenter on Reddit stated in one of the many existent Big Bird threads:

“My wife is generally disengaged from politics, but this morning, over coffee, she says:”Did you hear what that son of a bitch was going to do to PBS?” I can’t help but figure that conversation was had all over the country.”

Even despite the problems of over-simplification and decontextualization of the Big Bird remark, in a sense this laymen’s reading of it still connects to a sort of political reality; people do not want to lose the familiar, expected things that their government has provided for its citizens for many generations, that form a part of their childhood and potential their child’s childhood- and that is indeed a potential threat of Mitt Romney’s policies.

Many are critical of the new ad for not being “serious” enough, for using campaign money to make jokes rather than deal with the “issues”. And yet- this seems to be a clear appropriation by the campaign of precisely the same tone and message that many viewers had to Romney’s initial statement. It seems highly likely that this ad was not made in the interest of humour, but as a reappropriation of one of the most popular political modes of speech today: parody and satire. Those who genuinely support Big Bird are likely already persuaded by the sort of visceral reaction described above, but those who simply mocked the whole topic of Big Bird might be seen as an expressing a different kind of political attitude- one of detachment and cynicism about the debates, if not the political system more generally. This is likely whom the ad is meant to appeal to, by framing its political points in a sort of vaguely self-mocking manner, thus hopefully getting a more receptive ear by speaking in the sort of tone listeners themselves are prone to take with regards to political advertising. As an ad which laughs at itself, it cannot be as easily passed off by a joking remark- ironically making the possibility of serious consideration more likely.

While the whole thing is still undeniably largely just a political spectacle, there seem to be ways in which Big Bird the political spectacle has facilitated genuine political engagement and consideration even (and perhaps particularly) among those who typically remain disengaged from politics. This can be seen as a point of contact between the abstract art of political spectacle, and the concrete politics of the everyday– something which it seems that the Obama campaign has recognized and seeks to capitalize on by elevating these banal and commonplace interpretations and interactions back to the level of spectacle.

2 thoughts on “BIG BIRD: Reclaiming the Political Spectacle

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