Despite everything, television still has an extraordinary amount of power

The response to Nestlé featuring a mixed race family in an advert for Cheerios shows that the medium is still deeply conservative.

It starts out adorable, but sadly it doesn’t end that way. A little girl walks into the kitchen where Mum is sitting, smiling in that benign way mums in ads do. The child asks is if it’s true that Cheerios are good for your heart, her mum confirms it, while casually adding in some of the brand’s information. The girl smiles, grabs the box of cereal and practically skips off.

Then the camera cuts to the living room sofa, where Dad is just stirring from a nap. He rustles as he awakens, and looks down to find hundreds of Cheerios on his shirt, over where his heart would be. He looks bewildered, in the way dads in ads often look. The plinky-plonky music comes on to tell us to be charmed and we hear Dad’s vaguely hysterical call for “Jen!” (whom we assume is Mum).

It’s not a bad ad. In 30 seconds, it has it all: a family, to appease the chunk of the audience most likely to be buying a box of Cheerios; and the right music, unobtrusive and subtle. The kid, like almost all American child actors, is very good and quite cute too. The parents are not model-beautiful, just normal, everyday “not unattractive”, and importantly their respective attractiveness matches. And they’re selling cereal, the blandest of kitchen staples.

So why has this innocuous ad caused a stir? Simple: race. The little girl at the start is a mixed-race child. Her “parents” are in an interracial relationship; he is black and she is white. If you’re waiting on me to reveal that at some point the family skins a kitten and pledges allegiance to Satan, I’m afraid I can’t help you. The problem – as detailed by several of the intensely racist comments beneath the YouTube video of the ad – was that this family had the temerity simply to exist. That, despite the (unconstitutional since 1967) anti-miscegenation laws of the US, they had been formed and that a cereal company had dared to showcase them. A quick reminder that this is the year of our Lord 2013.

I saw the ad as it came up on my Tumblr dashboard shortly after it was first posted, and accompanied only by comments along the lines of “aw, cute!”. I watched it, noted the family’s mix and gave a muted thumbs up – I live in London, as I have done for most of my life, and this has been the situation on the ground for a good long while. Furthermore, even away from the world’s capital cities, the interracial family is a reality.

So what had made people watch this ad, and rather than appreciate seeing a gentle and warm family moment cynically exploited to sell crunchy cereal, leave comments where words such as “troglodyte” and “racial genocide” were thrown around, as well as references to crime, absentee fatherhood and other racist stereotypes? The answer is that it appeared on television.

Television, despite all the tears and handwringing that it is in its death throes, still has an extraordinary amount of power. Across playgrounds and offices, telly has given us the “watercooler moment” time and time again. Television is a unifier, and to a great extent a “normer” – it almost legitimises what we already kind of know to be true. The things that “shock” us on television are rarely new: what connects Brookside’s lesbian kiss with EastEnders’ incest storyline? They were things that had been happening in the “real world”.

What television does is show it, often years later, and rarely at the same levels in which it is happening in society. In fact, if we were going with the census data, just one ad with a mixed-race family is hardly representative.

Consider both of the players: TV and Nestlé. Television is deeply conservative, still. And cereal companies are not just mad about wholegrain, their very stock-in-trade is wholesome. This was not an indecipherable perfume ad, with French people kissing and exposing their nipples willy-nilly. It was a family house, with a family in it, and a cereal that purports to keep your heart healthy. The product did not matter. The existence of this family, legitimised by television did. I reckon television should clap itself on the back for this one. If people are still threatened by the realities of human society – as portrayed in a banal advert – there’s life in the old dog yet.

The Nestlé ad.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1970 issue of the New Statesman,

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism