December 23, 2006
Product Naming: Che Chic?
There is a great deal of commentary out there in support of the recent move by Target to pull Che Guevara CD cases after an outcry from conservative and Cuban American groups who see no romance in the image and name of the violent Latin American revolutionary. Most blogs appear to have come out in support of an article on Investors.com that asks "What next? Hitler backpacks? Pol Pot cookware? Pinochet pantyhose?" Well, no. Most people shopping in Target (indeed, most people) have no idea who Pinochet was and would not be able to recognize an image of Pol Pot even if they were offered a free set of cookware. And while we have not had Hitler backpacks, we have all loved Hitler's cars — the VW Beetle, a vehicle produced under the Fuhrer’s order’s for Die Volk, is not only the best selling car of all time but also still part of pop culture.
Target's move offers insights into an interesting dilemma that occurs when a name or image become iconized beyond its real political origins. On the one hand, those in support of Target's move have a point: "Che chic" could, in one light, be considered the glorification of a killer.
Joseph Farah argues that "Most of the kids who buy the T-shirts and the CD cases probably have no idea who Che is — or what he was. They probably don't know he ordered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocents to the firing squads of Fidel Castro's Cuba." I would support this statement. I would add that a good number of the people shopping at Target have no idea who the picture on that CD case is of at all. The striking photo of Che has an enduring appeal that makes it an icon almost 40 years after his death. Jay Nordinger, in an essay outlining his atrocities, adds that Che, "famous as he is, is little known".
The picture of Che that was taken in 1960 by a Cuban photographer named Alberto Diaz, better known as Korda, has become emblematic, used to sell t-shirts, wristwatches, vodka, underwear, and lighters. Yet Korda and his descendants have never received any monies from the widely reproduced image. And the likelihood of them getting anything from the non-photographic reproduction of this iconic twentieth century image is pretty much nil, despite their recent legal efforts to ban its non-copyrighted use.
To millions of kids. wearing that image just looks cool. For all they know, it’s a picture of Kurt Cobain.
More than that, certain images transcend their object. Think of, for instance, the famous picture of the burning Hindenburg that graced the cover of Led Zeppelin's first album, or the anarchy symbol, or the skull and crossbones that has graced everything from pirate flags to lingerie, leading to what has come to be called "Pirate Couture" despite the fact that pirates were, well, murdering criminals. And surely we have seen millions of t-shirts of Chairman Mao, whose own atrocities make Che’s look tame.
It would first seem to me the ultimate irony that Che and Mao (and for that matter Lenin and Trotsky) have their images so readily reproduced by capitalistic society. Second, these images are in the popular domain and are highly recognizable cultural icons that transcend their subjects. Not just any picture of Che Guevara is being sold, the one from Korda is the one we recognize. Not just any pirate symbol works — only the skull and crossbones will do. Had Target been selling posters or CD covers showing almost any other image of Che Guevara, possibly those decrying his atrocities would have a stronger point, but this particular image has been reproduced millions upon millions of times since the Paris riots of 1968. For better or for worse, it’s a cultural touchstone.
One cannot condone Che Guevara and his nefarious place in history, but those people who buy things at Target are frankly buying something else: an image that means more to fashion history than political history. And what better way to neuter the effect of the image than to show Che wearing earbuds? I'm sure he'd be appalled.
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