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Midnight Pantsing

What a canceled Levis ad revealed about America's darkest politico-sexual desires

By Zack Stentz

A HANDSOME young guy strolls through the metal detector at an unnamed airport somewhere in the Middle East. "Beep!" goes the machine. Uh-oh, every tourist's nightmare. The metal rivets in his Levi's 501 jeans have set off the equipment.

The sinister-looking inspectors take the hapless fellow aside and use the hand-held detector; again, he fails the test. Now, a sexy, uniformed female customs agent walks out to inspect her latest catch; the two share a moment of meaningful eye contact.

"Strip search!" she cries out in her foreign tongue, before leading the young man away behind a locked door marked with Arabic lettering, a fate to which he's clearly looking forward.

What the hell is going on here? A distaff remake of Midnight Express? Nope. This minidrama is rather the latest installment of Levi Strauss' ongoing advertising campaign to provide 501 individual reasons for the superiority of, you guessed it, Levi's 501 jeans.

Other ads in the series also have drawn their power from manipulating the images of espionage and foreign intrigue. One early commercial took a well-deserved swipe at bored young Westerners living in the former Eastern bloc by showing a Gen-X American in Prague trading the Levi's he wears for a homely little East German Trabant automobile.

Others have extolled the virtues of the jeans' sturdy construction and seemingly pointless fifth pocket using images of James Bond­like narrow escapes and illicit meetings with rich men's kept women. But none have been so boldly transgressive or pushed quite as many political, cultural and sexual buttons as this new commercial.

Sadly, the ad was pulled after only three weeks. "There were some complaints from people in the American-Arab community, who thought it was inappropriate from a religious standpoint," said Levi Strauss spokesperson Jill Lynch. "So we removed it partly out of deference to them."

But these complaints, understandable though humor-impaired as they may be, seem to be missing a critical point about the supposedly offending commercial.

On the most obvious level, the spot works as a homage to the famous scene in This Is Spinal Tap, in which the heavy-metal bassist played by Harry Shearer fails an airport's metal detector test, only to pull an enormous foil-wrapped cucumber from his trousers.

More significantly, the commercial amusingly spoofs the enduring fear many Westerners harbor of getting busted abroad and having their orifices violated by a bunch of swarthy, sweaty thugs in some dank Third World hellhole. (Oh yeah, no one ever gets raped in American prisons.)

This particular scenario of sexual humiliation derives its power from stereotypes far older than Midnight Express or Lawrence of Arabia, as described by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said in his landmark 1978 book Orientalism.

Said's thesis, elegantly put forward in this and other tomes, is that America and Europe's relations with the Middle East have been colored and warped by the pseudoscholarly world view he calls Orientalism, which posits the Arab and Islamic world as an alien, eternally unknowable "Other" existing in implacable opposition to so-called "Western values."

A key component of this Orientalist mind-set is the view of the Middle East as hotbed of sexual deviance, as exemplified by the Arab's and Turk's supposed predilection for buggery (never mind the Koran's hostility to homosexuality) and the dual stereotypes of Middle Eastern women as repressed, pleasure-deprived drones or free spirited, Carmen-like sexpots.

Here's where the Levi's ad gets really interesting. For while seeming to validate many of these Orientalist clichés (doesn't that sexy customs agent look like Princess Jasmine from Disney's Aladdin?), the commercial actually represents a subversion of those very same stereotypes.

Instead of the enslaved baby-making machine or willing, almond-eyed houri yielding to the advances of a dashing, Richard Burton­like adventurer, here we see the Arab woman as a powerful, uniformed symbol of authority, poised to dominate and ravish the gleefully submissive Western man.

THIS LONGING to submit shouldn't come as a complete surprise. After all, dominatrixes report that their primary customers tend to be powerful male business executives who evidently want, after a long day of downsizing, humiliating and alpha-male posturing, to be flogged and degraded by a leather-wearing babe.

Perhaps, in a similar vein, the Western world's centuries-long project of political and economical domination the Third World has bred a countervailing desire in the European and American soul to be dominated, to lie back and passively bear the pokings and proddings of a dusky hand.

Paul Bowles touched on it a little when he wrote The Sheltering Sky, but neither his novel nor the ponderous Bernardo Bertolucci movie based on it said as much about the tangled web of East-West politics, culture and desire in 300 pages or three hours as this commercial does in 60 seconds.

So, while a Levi's ad might not herald a new day in relations between the U.S. and the Middle East, it's still a welcome and long-overdue turnabout. I don't think it's what Rudyard Kipling was thinking when he wrote in The Ballad of East and West that "there is neither East nor West, border, nor breed, nor birth/when two strong men meet face to face, though they come from the ends of the Earth," but in this age of draconian antiterrorist legislation, True Lies, Executive Decision and other manifestations of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racism, I'll take enlightenment wherever I can find it.

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From the November 27-December 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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