In a comment thread at Julie's about Starbucks, a couple of people mentioned the irritating advertising for the upcoming film Akeelah and the Bee which was co-produced by Starbucks Entertainment. I'm equally irritated by the general sense of overload produced by all the signs and coasters that litter the store I frequent. To state in the advertising material that a film is "inspirational" is enough to make me definitely NOT see it. And I'm still not convinced that an entertainment production company is an obvious linkage with the coffee empire. The music CDs made some kind of sense, in that SBX plays music in the stores and some people want to create the same ambience at home. But are they going to serve lattes in the movie theater? That actually would be awesome, since only some of our local theaters offer coffee at the concession stand. But I don't think that's the case here. Judging from the promotional materials on their website, they think this film expresses values that SBX wants to invoke in its customers. Blech.
But my irritation isn't just about the clutter, or the tenuous connection between coffee and a film about children. It's also about the cultural fuss about spelling bees. After all, from the description, this film seems like a mash-up of Spellbound and Bee Season with a little dash of Oprah sentiment thrown in. Now, that documentary and novel each had its strengths and weaknesses. But do we really need more? Plus, there already was a film made from Bee Season (which I haven't seen).
What I find irritating is that spelling bees, and their participants, tend to be presented in the media as amusing/touching examples of nerdiness. Spellbound, for instance, tended to emphasize the ways in which the champion spellers were misfits in their schools, either through their looks, their singleminded devotion to spelling, or their behavior. The spelling bee then becomes this redemptive space where the nerds can finally get prizes too. Because in modern American culture the only way anyone gets any social status is through sports or game-show type models of competition.
There are so many things that I find irritating about this. First of all -- spelling has nothing to do with intelligence, any more than one's ability to pitch a ball corresponds to overall physical health. Sure, some spellers are smart; but some are not. And there are plenty of smart people who can't spell. And we all know about how unhealthy some baseball players are.
Secondly -- if you want to applaud or sympathise with smart nerdy kids -- who are discriminated against and harassed on a daily basis in school -- then find better examples. Sure, they're not so easy to cheer on, because their interests and activities don't conform to a "win-all or lose" paradigm. They're awkward, eccentric, interesting, complicated, and unique. To hold up a few students who are good at memorizing stuff as if they are the ideal for all intelligent people is itself a dumbing-down strategy that tries to make Joe Ordinary feel better. Since coffeeshops are some of the few public spaces left where nerdy people can feel comfortable -- where it's OK to read a book or stare at the computer -- it seems all the more annoying to me that this film is SBX's first choice. To put a word like "pulchritude" on a coaster and make Joe Java Ordinary feel smug because he recognizes it hardly makes the world a better place.