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.

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit