A few months ago, I wrote about the ways in which—in a post-Trump America—people were using images of Muslim women as signifiers of resistance in protest iconography. From news reports to Shepard Fairey’s crappy art to your newly radicalized friend’s Instagram selfie—Muslims were showing up more and more frequently in the cultural landscape, albeit in highly specific contexts, and always covered in a headscarf.
On Monday, Pepsi released this ad, featuring noted Instagram model Kendall Jenner:
In it, images of Kendall Jenner at a high fashion photo shoot are spliced with footage of crowds of happy-go-lucky protesters, holding up peace and love signs, and footage of a headscarved Muslim woman, a photographer, pouring over protest images, a can of Pepsi in the foreground. Frustrated, she rushes down to the streets with her camera to capture new images of the demonstration. Kendall Jenner, apparently energized by the cheering crowds, joins them too. In the ad’s final (and most tone-deaf) scenes, Kendall offers the police officer a Pepsi—a peace offering—and when he accepts, the crowd goes wild. The Muslim woman snaps her camera, photographing the moment. Everyone is happy. Police violence has been eradicated. Racism is solved. Join the resistance (coyly referenced here as “the conversation”), sponsored by Pepsi.
(Update: The company has since removed the ad, releasing a statement on Wednesday that said, “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”)
This isn’t the first time a Muslim woman has been featured prominently in a soda ad. Back in 2014, Coca-Cola aired its now-famous “America Is Beautiful” commercial, which featured images of people around the world enjoying a can of soda, while a version of “America the Beautiful” in different languages played in the background. Headscarved women and Middle Eastern men were included in the ad.
A still from Coca-Cola's 2014 ad campaign.
The commercial upset a lot of people, particularly Republicans. A study, published by researchers at the University of Alabama and Pennsylvania State University, found that, “Nearly 54 percent of Republicans who saw Muslim and Arab individuals in the Coca-Cola advertisement changed from their initial preference for Coca-Cola products to select Pepsi products.” Coca-Cola aired the same ad again during this past Super Bowl, not long after the inauguration, to a far more receptive crowd.
So, it’s not surprising that Pepsi has decided to make a Muslim woman one of the main characters of its newest ad, particularly at a time when images of Muslim women have become politically and socially expedient. The version of events that Pepsi presents in the ad—cheerful crowds of protesters, most of them white, enjoying a cool, crisp can of Pepsi soda, as the police look benignly on—is far removed from the experiences of Muslims in the United States, who face the violence of an ever-intensifying surveillance state, or the experiences of Black Lives Matter protesters, who must confront a far more hostile police presence.
This ad makes no coherent political points, takes no hard-line stance on any of the issues: the immigration ban, the Mexico border wall, the militarization of America’s police forces, the dismantling of public health care, the complete demolition of reproductive rights.
The Muslim woman in their ad operates as nothing more than a signifier for diversity and a vague notion of resistance. She’s merely window dressing, in the same way that images of Muslim woman are used as tokens in protest photos. Here is what I wrote back in February:
Images that depict Muslim women in positions of resistance carry a special political weight in the visual economy because they are often perceived as docile or subjugated. Consider why Shepard Fairey, a white male artist, frequently deploys images of Muslim women in his political graphic art? It’s because the Muslim woman—her body, and what goes on top of it—has been rendered into a political object. But while their likeness is abundant, their voices are usually absent.
It’s not a surprise that protest imagery has been absorbed into the corporate landscape and instrumentalized to sell soda. This is how movements are sanitized and co-opted and how revolutions are defanged. This is why Muslim women make perfect vessels for messaging; they are so often depicted as passive subjects to violence, rather than perpetrators of it. It’s also why you don’t see many Muslim men represented in these same images. A light-skinned Muslim woman in a pretty headscarf is not threatening to the status quo, especially when she, already perceived as subservient, shares a Pepsi with the police. It would be lot more difficult to conjure that image if that Muslim woman was black.