Christianity

God and Butter

I’d hate to ruin something as splendidly thoughtless as butter for anyone reading this post, but Land O Lake’s label–a long-standing household image–is loaded with just as much meaning as cholesterol.

Land-O-Lakes

Beneath the Land O Lakes text, a smiling Native American woman holds another Land O Lakes box of butter in her hands. Behind her, the “O” in “Land O Lakes” surrounds her head from the exact center of the picture’s rectangular borders—creating a halo around her head.

These elements in particular ring of Sean Hall’s book, This Means This, This Means That, wherein he explains the relationship between signifiers and what is signified. The signified, in this case, is the “O” in Land O Lakes”, signifying a vague sort of divinity. From here, the divinity trickles from the halo, to the Native American woman (the bearer of the halo), to the product she is offering.

Just as important to the significations is the woman’s—and, furthermore, the box’s—placement(s) in this label. Notice that not only is she front and center with the box, all the objects surrounding her in the margin—the hills, the horizon—intensify her centricity; the hills to both of her sides are symmetrically-placed while the horizon makes a line straight through the middle region of her body. This element of placement adds yet another layer of religiosity to Land O Lakes’ product, drawing on Christian art works like Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” or murals inside of old churches.

So what is the purpose of placing a Native American woman in a Christian context when trying to sell your product? For starters, America is a primarily Christian nation, so using religious aesthetics to tap into our senses of purity and wholesomeness can’t hurt. I’m a lot more interested in the fact that this woman is Native American, though. Perhaps the creators of this label were tapping into another context—our nation’s considerably ugly formation over the Native Americans—and purifying it through Christianity. The woman in the label is sitting before a yellow, butter-like American sky and happily offering us Land O Lakes butter with a Christ-like halo.

We’ve seen similar works like this in more recent years for different, yet similar purposes:

One Nation Under God

In the controversial painting by Jon McNaughton, “One Nation Under God”, we see the same placement of divinity—this time Jesus—at the center of the work with the same central placement and same idealization (a glowing aura around his head). And, just like the Land O Lakes woman, he is offering us something: the Constitution. In both paintings, the artists are offering us forgiveness by fusing the divine with America, ultimately offering us forgiveness through what they are selling: dairy products and political agendas.

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Perverting the Pious

When Sean Hall talks about symbols in This Means This This Means That he reflects on how meaning is tied to them: In one case, he calls to mind the swastika, a symbol that once stood for goodness, but was later perverted (and flipped) for use by the Nazi party during WWII. Although still used in India, across Europe and the Americas it’s easy to see why the swastika is a no-go in terms of using symbols.

In less severe ways, this idea is mimicked in horror film, where religious imagery is often used to degrade, shock, or insult audiences and/or characters. Surely one cannot forget the scene in The Exorcist where the possessed girl Regan violently masturbates with a bloody cross:

(Viewer Discretion Advised)

While less vulgar as the above scene, the cross is also often inverted in horror film. The Petrine Cross (or the Cross of Saint Peter), in Christianity is actually a religious symbol, not an anti-religious one. But horror film, novels, television and other culture likens it to Satanism, demons, animal (and human) sacrifice, and anti-Christian doctrine. This concept in and of itself is so pervasive anymore, one could argue more people consider the Petrine Cross anti-Christian than Christian in nature.

Of course, the perversion of religious symbols is not restricted to Christianity, although other religious issues often go past the mere idea of subverting religious iconography and often border on being culturally and racially offensive. Two especially popular concepts of this can be seen in the handling of Native American religion and Haitian Voodoo in horror.

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Going past the more obvious choices of Pet Semetery and Poltergeist, we have The Amityville Horror, which goes beyond being casually problematic in its creation and story (by incorporating actual murders and being marketed as a true story), but goes one step further by implying these murders and the subsequent hauntings are caused by mystical possession in the form of crazed Native American spirits. And if we are to be truthful, like the Petrine Cross, what does the idea of Native Burial Ground signify to you: Years and years of subjugation of the Native Americans whose holy grounds (and otherwise) have been forcibly taken, or evil curses plaguing innocent (and often white) families?

I think you know what the answer to that question really is.

Haitian and Louisianan Voodoo have received much the same treatment: Voodoo is referenced in everything from children’s horror series Goosebumps and kids movies like My Teacher Ate My Homework to the popular horror film (or at least popular enough to always be on television) The Skeleton Key, where voodoo ideals, symbols, and concepts are appropriated to have an evil couple take over the body of Kate Hudson. There are also voodoo dolls in books by Dean Koontz, voodoo zombies in Wes Craven movies, and voodoo priestesses in American Horror Story: Coven. Despite all this, it is safe to say, most of the people viewing these movies probably have no real concept of Voodoo as a religious practice. Instead, voodoo is a catch-all for exotic and ethnic flavored evil.

Using powerful, religious symbols can make a statement in horror–or any–film. Which is undoubtedly why it is so popular, and why it works: But also why it can be offensive and even dangerous.