Driving to work this morning I spotted the following billboard, promoting a new television series, which is set to debut on September 27.
Now, whether or not Blood & Oil is a commercial success or not, this billboard contains a great deal of information, not so much about the show itself (which, of course, has not yet been aired) but about American attitudes towards wealth, social class, and feminine beauty.
A semiotic analysis of the billboard begins with a description of its fundamental denotation: what it shows or contains. We see four human figures, two men and two women, standing next to each other, all but one appearing as young-adult-youthful, the fourth as well preserved middle-aged. All are dressed in black evening wear, and they are surrounded by black, some of it displayed in a drip pattern from the top of the image, and some displayed at the bottom, looking like a kind of sea in which the figures are standing.
The image is also set up in a kind of chiaroscuro effect by which the models’ faces, hair, and, most strikingly, the backs of women (strategically placed at the center of the image) stand out. Also standing out, just below the center, are the words “Blood & Oil,” in gold lettering.
Our semiotic analysis seeks to move from the denotation of the image to its connotation—that is, to what it suggests or signifies—but this is not a simple direct step. Our goal is a cultural interpretation, but to get to that we first need to look at the visual codes employed by the image. Black evening dress, for example, tends to be codified as a signifier of high status in America, and so the image suggests that these figures belong to the upper class. Their facial expressions support this connotative impression: the man on the left (some of you may recognize Don Johnson here) wears an angry, domineering expression, suggesting someone used to power. The man on the right wears an aloof expression, with an eyebrow slightly raised, hinting at total self-assurance. The women look over their shoulders (in a classic eroticized posture) with expressions that are at once daring and self-satisfied, and the way that they are placed in relation to the men suggests that each is the “trophy wife” of the man next to her. All the figures, though one can detect subtle age gradations, are physically attractive according to America’s dominant beauty values.
This first level of interpretation is supported by the gold lettered words, which suggest both family (blood) and wealth (oil). (It is also an allusive pun, alluding to the Nazi credo of “blood and soil,” thus hinting at a story about human evil.) Indeed, my first reaction when I saw the billboard, at forty miles an hour, was “Oh my goodness, they’re bringing back some sort of Dallas clone!” (Turns out I was right.)
The words “Blood & Oil” on the image also clarifies what all that black is: it’s oil, dripping down to fill a sea of goo. And while oil connotes wealth (if you own the source), it also connotes pollution, filth, and the fact that the models are standing in it helps lead to the next level of interpretation.
Because what this billboard is indicating is a story about oil barons and their women, and the barons aren’t going to be heroes. Situating the image into a system that includes Dallas, but also the film There Will be Blood, reinforces this connotative impression of a new series about a glamorous but evil oil clan.
I knew all this before I could get to my office and look the new show up. And indeed, “Blood & Oil” is a kind of Dallas reprise, but with a sympathetic working-class couple (not included in this billboard image) standing as foils to the rich oil barons this time around.
Now, what does all this tell us at the cultural level? First, we see here the fundamental middle-class perspective on social class in America as reflected in popular culture. This view could be called a love/hate relationship with wealth, one that is at once fascinated by the rich, and yet also in need of feeling morally superior to them. Consider such programs as My Super Sweet Sixteen, which lavishly displays the privileges of the very rich while also making them look ridiculous. Viewed by a mass audience of middle and working-class viewers, such shows satisfy the desire to see what the rich have while reassuring viewers of their moral superiority to such people. Dallas, Falcon Crest, Knott’s Landing, most “Real Housewives of . . .” programs, and innumerable other TV shows and movies do the same thing.
We also see a display here of what counts as feminine beauty in America, worthy of being possessed by wealthy men: slim, slinky bodies, blonde hair, high cheekbones, delicate facial features. Male beauty (though less precisely codified than female beauty) is also represented in the image. But the physical attractiveness of the men and women in the image is compromised by their facial expressions. The women are smug; the men are either domineering or too cool by half, reflecting the middle-class view that the rich are physically beautiful (men as well as women), but their beauty is of an inhuman sort, enviable but ultimately repugnant.
The fact that this show features working-class protagonists (again, not indicated in the billboard) is a very interesting addition to the Dallas narrative, however, reflecting the blossoming of class consciousness in America in the wake of the Great Recession. Described (from my online sources) as a soap opera, Blood & Oil will clearly pit the working-class couple against these evil but glamorous oil barons and their wives in a soapy dramatization of what is happening today as the 1% (really the top tenth of a percent) increasingly swallow up most of the wealth in the world.
I wonder if the show will survive the pilot.