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The Semeotics Of Utopianism Essay, Research Paper

The Semiotics of Utopianism

National Lampoon s European Vacation(1985),though almost certainly produced as “pure entertainment” in Richard Dyer s sense of the term, presents to the careful reader much more than simply ninety-five minutes of farce. Underlying nearly every scene and every character s motivations are cultural stereotypes and assumptions intended to go unnoticed within the text. In fact, this hidden underpinning is essential for the text to function as “pure entertainment” for readers, so that the more or less accepted cultural norms themselves are not at issue, but rather how the characters in the text act within them. By consciously identifying these norms, stereotypes and assumptions, however, we can catch a glimpse of the cultural milieu in which the text was produced. Although Dyer s theory of entertainment as utopia is integral to an examination of European Vacation, it must be viewed using a primarily semiotic approach in order to expose the text s cultural subconscious.

While the sign “Europe” usually denotes a geographical area, it is full of connotations for the main characters, the Griswald family. When the family wins an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe, each family member, with one exception, has a utopian fantasy of what “Europe” connotes to him or her. (Audrey has a decidedly dystopian fantasy about her upcoming trip, but it is no less a function of the text s cultural milieu than the utopian ones.) The unspoken stereotypes, assumptions and norms in each character s fantasy not only provide the motivations for each character s actions, they also structure the plot as a whole.

The fantasy scene takes place in dream-like sequences while the family is flying to Europe, beginning with Ellen s (Mrs. Griswald s) fantasy.

Ellen s fantasy. Queen Elizabeth, Prince Charles, and Princess Diana are standing in a receiving line at a royal ball. They re apparently very bored, since they yawn repeatedly, and muster up the politeness to greet their guests only with great effort. Then the Griswald family is announced, and the royals become visibly excited “He came!” exclaims Diana. Clark (Mr. Griswald) and Ellen enter, greeting the royals as they would old friends, with hugs and kisses and hearty handshakes. Diana flirtatiously asks Clark for the first dance, but he refuses, saying “The only princess in my life is my wife. She gets the first dance,” and leads his beaming wife off screen. Diana begins to run after him but knowing she has already lost him, stops in dismay.

At first glance Ellen s fantasy seems utopian, an innocent product of the fairy tales told to little girls, complete with princes and princesses and a royal ball. However, the fairy-tale luster of her fantasy is driven by insecurities inherent in the ideological code of gender roles implicit in the text, specifically woman-as-passive-object and man-as-agent-of-action. Although this is Ellen s fantasy, she says little in it and does even less; the primary actor in her fantasy is her husband, Clark. Ellen s happiness in her fantasy depends on her being an object of desire, not an agent of action. And in order for her to feel truly desired, she must be preferred over any other rivals, in this case Princess Diana. While the outcome of Ellen s fantasy is utopian, the tension driving her fantasy is a fear that her husband will find potential European rivals more desirable. Moreover, Ellen s lack of action in her own fantasy implies that she feels powerless to affect her husband s choice; in other words, once a man has made a decision, the woman must abide by it. Just as Diana had no recourse after Clark s refusal, the unspoken fear implicit in Ellen s fantasy is that Ellen would similarly have no recourse had her husband chosen differently. So while this finality makes her victory all the sweeter in her fantasy, the fantasy itself is a utopian response to her real-life fears of powerlessness which “Europe” connotes to her.

Rusty s fantasy. The next fantasy in the scene belongs to the Griswalds teenage son, Rusty. He enters a nightclub where outrageously-dressed and coifed Europeans are dancing. He s wearing an outfit too fashionable for him, with “Rusty: The European Tour” printed on the back. As he makes his way further onto the dance floor, then a crowd of women surrounds him the fantasy ends.

Like Ellen s, Rusty s fantasy is grounded in his gender role, man-as-agent-of-action. However, Rusty seems to feel that he needs to perform only a minimum of action simply showing up. If he does that, the text implies, he will have his pick of women to choose from. Here we see the converse of Ellen s fear of powerlessness, since the text assumes that Rusty, as a male, is empowered to choose the object of his desire. But if Rusty s fantasy is a utopian response to a situation in his “real life,” “the image of something better to escape into,” then like his mother, Rusty feels insecure in his gender role. If he has a surfeit of women in his utopian fantasy, the text necessarily implies Rusty is having trouble finding sexual or romantic involvement in “real life.” Since the traditional male role in the text s cultural milieu is that of agent-of-action, inability to “get the girl” is a threat to Rusty s self-image. “Europe,” then, connotes to Rusty an opportunity to validate his masculinity, to become the agent of action he believes he should be, to banish his own fears of ineffectiveness as a man.

Audrey s fantasy. The Griswalds daughter, Audrey, is the only family member who overtly fears the trip to Europe. She has just gotten a new boyfriend, Jack, who bluntly tells her that she needs to lose weight. Since she feels that her life was “empty and meaningless” before meeting Jack, the text explicitly indicates that Audrey feels highly insecure in her role as desired object: “I can t leave Jack,” she exclaims before the trip, “and besides, the food in Europe is fattening.” Her fantasy, then, is a dystopian response to her overt insecurity. It begins with her sitting at the head of a giant table in what is decorated like a grand European mansion. The table is filled with dishes of food, which Audrey stuffs into her mouth as fast as she can. Liveried servants clear away the dishes but always bring something to replace what they remove so that they comprise a kind of assembly line whose object is to supply Audrey with a constant flow of food. As the fantasy goes on, the servants bring more and more food, and Audrey begins to balloon up until she bursts her clothes. Her fantasy ends with her sitting at the table, motionless, bloated almost beyond recognition.

“Europe” connotes loss to Audrey loss of her status as object and hence loss of Jack. It also connotes the same kind of loss of power which Ellen implicitly fears; for some reason, Audrey is powerless to resist the plates of food being brought to her in her fantasy. Her actions are simply a function of criteria established by others, which in her fantasy is a compulsion to eat. She feels that she needs Jack, the man-as-agent-of-action, to motivate her to diet, and that without his agency she is powerless. As with Rusty, the text implies that Audrey feels she needs romantic involvement to validate her gender role. Unlike Rusty, Audrey views Europe not as an opportunity for action, but as a threat to her status as object, much in the same way Ellen unconsciously views Europe as a potential threat to her own status.

Clark s fantasy. The final fantasy belongs to Clark, the patriarch of the family. It is a direct allusion to the opening scene of The Sound of Music it takes place on a green hilltop in the midst of a mountain range, and instead of talking, Clark sings a song, “The Sound of Griswald,” similar to the title song of The Sound of Music. The scene opens with Clark alone on the hilltop, dressed in lederhosen, twirling and singing, where he is joined by his wife and children, dressed in similar Alpine gear. The family then joins hands, dances around in a circle, and then, still holding hands, dances off screen, all set to a lush orchestral soundtrack no less lush than the scenery.

Like his wife s and son s fantasies, Clark s fantasy of family togetherness is a utopian response to a less than ideal situation in “real life,” namely the fragmentation of the family. Clark s double role as husband and father makes him the most important man-as-agent-of-action in the family, and actually gives him a distinct third role: head of the family. Clark takes his role of patriarch very seriously; he continually emphasizes his belief that the family should act as one unit and do everything together, including going to Europe. Near the beginning of the film when Audrey refuses to go to Europe so that she can remain with Jack, Ellen suggests that she and Clark go by themselves. “It s obvious the kids don t even want to go.” Clark reacts to the suggested separation incredulously: “Of course they want to go! We re a family. We re going to Europe as a family.” Then, as now, the so-called “nuclear family” is a persistent ideal in American society, a social structure which members of society are made to feel is essential to maintain. As the head of the family, Clark internalizes this ideal to such a degree that even temporarily abandoning it is unthinkable to him, although he can see that there is not perfect concord on this point. The text implies that Clark feels it is up to him to preserve an “ideal family,” even under less than ideal circumstances. “Europe,” then, connotes to Clark an opportunity to cement his role as patriarch, to be an agent of action to bring his family together, to validate himself as a man.

Although the fantasy scene provides an undiluted example of the cultural norms and assumptions at work within European Vacation, it is by no means the only part of the text to do so. Because they are largely taken for granted by the text, these norms and assumptions are consistent throughout the entire film. Using the example of gender roles again, we can see that the text considers the theme of patriarchy, accentuated in Clark s fantasy, as a given. As the patriarch, Clark is the undisputed locus of power. At the very beginning of the film when the Griswalds win their trip on a TV game show, Clark is referred to as “the king of the family” when he is awarded a 10-year supply of Regal Car Polish. And though on the game show entire families compete, only the husbands and fathers give the family s answers directly to the show s host. As the family travels around Europe, Clark always drives the car, Clark always checks the family into hotels, and Clark always determines the itinerary. It is up to the other family members to acquiesce to Clark s wishes. When Audrey contemplates calling Jack from London, she considers that “Dad would rip my tongue out,” not “Mom and Dad.” And later in Rome when Rusty and Audrey want to go off by themselves, they appeal directly to Clark, not to Ellen. Clark is clearly the agent of action for the entire family.

The theme of women as passive objects also appears throughout the text. Before the family s departure, Ellen gives in to Clark s sexual advances when she comes out of the shower although she is reluctant at first. However, when Ellen wants to initiate sex in Paris and Clark doesn t catch the hint, Ellen has insufficient agency to make Clark acquiesce to her wishes. They instead, at Clark s insistence, go out to a Parisian nightclub for some “French culture,” which consists of a topless female revue. (It is also significant that the theme of the act is an aerobics class; the patriarchal utopian ideal of in-shape women represented on stage echoes Audrey s “real life” insecurities about her own figure.) Clark enthusiastically enjoys the show, but Ellen, perceiving Clark s sexual desires for the women on stage, is confronted by the fear of rivalry underlying her earlier fantasy, and gets up to leave. And until Audrey receives a letter from Jack telling her that he is leaving her for someone else, she conscientiously avoids any fattening foods in order to preserve herself as an object for Jack. After receiving the letter, though, Audrey feels powerless just as she feared in her dystopian fantasy and without Jack as agent-of-action to prevent her from overeating, she immediately goes on an eating binge. Once she is no longer an object of desire, Audrey in her passive role feels powerless to change her status.

Rusty, who as a male is assigned a more active role by the text, comes into direct conflict with his father s dominant role as he tries to live out his fantasy and meet women throughout Europe. A perfect example of this is the episode in Paris when Clark wants to make the entire family wear cheap, touristy berets with their names embroidered on the brim. Rusty is the sole protester, defiantly saying “I m not going to wear it. It looks stupid. No girl will want to talk to me.” After a brief verbal conflict with Rusty, Clark prevails in imposing his will on Rusty, thus achieving at least in his mind the sort of familial cohesion he feels it is his responsibility to maintain. For Clark, then, the berets are a metaphor for his patriarchal authority and a validation of his gender role, whereas for Rusty the berets are a metaphor for his own hobbled role as male agent of action. Later on, as he flirts with a Parisian girl and realizes she is making fun of his beret and not really flirting with him, Rusty becomes acutely aware of his impaired status and once more appeals to Clark for reprieve from the beret. This time though, since Rusty asks in supplication instead of his earlier defiance, Clark lets Rusty take off the beret, because Rusty s recognition of and appeal to Clark s superior power reinforces Clark s status as patriarch. The beret is still a metaphor for Clark s role, except now its signifying power lies in its absence instead of its presence.

Although the ideological code of gender roles plays an integral part in the semiotics of European Vacation, it is by no means the only code at work within the text. Both the text and the characters construct a code of commodity around the sign of “Europe.” Just the very fact that a trip to Europe is a prize on a game show commodifies the concept of Europe and helps make it into a sign. “Europe,” then, becomes a commodity just like any other, like the motorcycle, the “dream kitchen with brand new major appliances,” and the ten-year supply of car polish which the family has previously won on the show.

Clark in particular views “Europe” as a commodity, as something quantifiable. In Paris Clark asks the American newlyweds at the next table what they ve seen so far, and it becomes apparent that the couple have spent most of their time in their hotel room instead of sightseeing. “What a waste. We ve seen ten times as much as they have,” Clark says to Ellen with a whiff of superiority. As the primary agent of action for the family, Clark keeps everyone to a relentless schedule so as to see as many sights as possible, as if being able to quantify Europe in some way will help him measure the value of the family s trip. On the steps of the Louvre Clark urges his family on even though they re exhausted: “It closes in fifteen minutes, there are 100,000 works of art to see. Come on!” The next scene is shot in fast-motion and shows the Griswalds dutifully trotting through the Louvre. This is followed by a lightning-fast montage of paintings from the museum as a metaphor for Clark s overzealous commodification. (One could argue that Clark commodifies not only the concept of “Europe,” but the concept of “culture” as well or at least “high culture.” For Clark the so-called high culture contained in the Louvre has significance only as an item on a checklist. Once seen, it can be safely forgotten, as long as the quantifiable fact of simply having seen it is duly noted.)

This attitude of commodification, however, is not confined to Clark. Rusty and Audrey also think about Europe in terms of commodity more precisely, they think about Europe in terms of lack of commodity. As they sit in their London hotel on a rainy day, pining for American television, they forlornly sing commercial jingles for Miller beer and AT&T while the TV in the corner broadcasts static. Here the text implies that Rusty and Audrey are used to living in a highly commodified society, and, when removed from that society, they grow nostalgic for the signs of commodity which formerly surrounded them, in this case television commercials. So while Clark can stretch his concept of commodification to include European “high culture,” the children are incapable of doing so.

In addition to commodity and gender codes, a code of nationality is at work in European Vacation. (Although such a code is not described in Chandler, it can certainly be included in his list of “ideological codes.”) The code of nationality, perhaps more so than any other code in the text, is inextricably entwined with Dyer s theory of utopia. While “Europe” is a connotative sign unto itself in the text, individual European countries have their own individual connotations. The various signs of each country operate in an interconnected code. As Chandler states,in reading texts, we interpret signs with reference to what seem to be appropriate codes. Codes thus tend to stabilize the relationships between signifiers and their signifieds. The conventions of codes represent a social dimension in semiotics: a code is a set of practices familiar to users of the medium operating within a broad cultural framework. Indeed, as Stuart Hall puts it, “there is no intelligible discourse without the operation of a code.”

Their relation to America is that of Europe-as-dystopia to America-as-utopia, and this becomes apparent only when viewed in relation to Dyer s theory.

Like the Griswalds fantasies, each European country seems utopian on the surface, but on closer examination, each country connotes an underlying tension. England, for example, connotes politeness (as is seen by the cloying politeness of the three Englishmen Clark hits with his car) and glamour, as Ellen s fantasy with the royal family demonstrates. But on a deeper level, the text jabs at the norms of the British class system. Again, it does this in Ellen s fantasy when the Griswalds greet the royal family as intimate friends, hugging them and calling them “Chuck” and “Di.” And when Clark does what would normally be unthinkable snubbing Princess Diana the text implies a triumph over stuffy Old World conventions and makes the very concept of royalty laughable. There is no question here of which system the text wants readers to think is better, and it is the American “classless society.” (Of course, there is no such thing as a “classless society” in America, but as far as the text is concerned the Griswalds represent that utopian ideal. For another example of the idealization of a mythical “classless society,” see Frank Drebbin s ridiculing of the British monarchy in The Naked Gun.)

Clark, too, perceives France, as utopian on its surface, but the text makes sure that the reader will think otherwise. While the family is at an outdoor caf , Clark tells them that “France is world-famous for its cuisine, so just about anything s going to be great,” revealing his utopian expectations. However, the text lets the readers but not the characters see that the food is in reality frozen meals the cooks toss into a microwave oven and then garnish with a small paper French flag, as if to add insult to injury. Moreover, the waiter insults the entire family and makes vulgar comments about Ellen and Audrey s bodies. Since the Griswalds do not speak French, they think the waiter is simply being nice, but the subtitles the text provides for the reader prove the opposite. In fact, the text makes it clear to the reader that France has set up an elaborate dystopian system whose sole purpose is mocking Americans, and that the caf is its metonym.

Germany proves to be more overtly dystopian to the Griswalds than England and France, although Clark initially idealizes it as his “motherland.” After a visit with a couple that Clark thinks are his distant German relatives, the family goes to an Oktoberfest-style festival in the town square. Clark, dressed in lederhosen (per his fantasy!), joins in a traditional dance, but one of the Germans begins to hit him in rhythm with the music. Clark hits back, and a brawl breaks out. The Griswalds are chased through the cobblestone streets of the town by townspeople in lederhosen brandishing pitchforks, spears, and similar instruments. By evoking images of classic horror films such as Frankenstein (and the innumerable parodies of it which followed), this scene makes the townspeople metonymic of stereotypical German aggression and warmongering. So the text tells us that Germany is yet another country which does not live up to the Griswalds utopian expectations.

Italy is the last stop on the family s itinerary, and it proves to be so disastrous that the Griswalds finally realize that America signifies the utopia they have been fruitlessly searching for throughout Europe. The first disaster befalls Clark. After reluctantly letting the children go off by themselves, Clark gets into an argument with Ellen, and Ellen in a rare moment of action goes back to the hotel. Clark, left alone without his wife and children, realizes that he has failed in his duties as patriarch. He tries to enjoy the sights of Rome by himself, but the text makes it obvious that he is actually unhappy. At the hotel, a mysterious European criminal in the culmination of a very minor sub-plot kidnaps Ellen. Rusty, still largely unsuccessful with European women, is still companionless, and Audrey is still stinging from her failed relationship with Jack.

Just when things seem the most hopeless for the Griswalds, resolution comes for each of them once they allow positive connotations of “America” triumph over their false utopian hopes of Europe. Audrey, sick of being passive, phones the girl Jack has left her for, calls her a “bitch” and orders her to buy Audrey a ticket on the next plane home so that she can have it out with her. So although Audrey feared passivity and powerlessness in her fantasy, she overcomes those fears when she focuses on her life in America. Rusty meets an American girl who is also on vacation with her parents. They hit it off and go to a caf on an impromptu date. While Rusty s attempts with European girls were unsuccessful, he finds happiness with an American. It turns out that Europeans did not provide the utopia he dreamed of; only an American could help him overcome the fears implicit in his fantasy. Meanwhile, Ellen is separated from her husband, which she unconsciously feared in her fantasy. Though it seems that her secret fears are coming true, Clark comes to her rescue, proving to her that she is indeed Clark s object of desire. And Clark, by actively defeating a European (thus defeating “Europe”) and reuniting his family, fulfills his role as patriarch. Even Rusty agrees with his new girlfriend that his parents are “actually pretty cool.”

The semiotics of utopianism in European Vacation make it clear that America, not Europe, is the source of the utopian ideal of family togetherness. In a larger sense, the text compares the Griswalds experience to Dorothy s realization in The Wizard of Oz that “there s no place like home.” “I had no idea how much I missed America,” Ellen contentedly sighs on the plane ride home. In contrast to the fantasy scene on the flight to Europe, the scene of the return flight shows the Griswalds as a cohesive unit, interacting with each other as a family, not withdrawing into solitary fantasy worlds. While they may not have gone to Europe “as a family,” as Clark insisted before they left, they certainly return to America as one, thus fulfilling Clark s ideal of family togetherness. And since Clark s utopian ideal mirrors the same ideal shared by the text s intended readers (i.e. an American audience), the text clearly ascribes utopian connotations to the sign of “America.”

Even the contrasting imagery of the opening and closing credits reinforce the text s connotative power. The opening credits show the Griswalds passports metonymic of America being mutilated by faceless European customs officials. The officials stamp them, tear them, spill coffee on them and burn them with cigarettes. By the end of the opening credits the passports are a tattered mess, as if presaging the misfortunes awaiting the family in Europe. In contrast, the closing credits are a series of traditional American signs, shown one after the other. They include Uncle Sam, repeated images of the American flag, Bugs Bunny, a football game, cheerleaders, billboards, a busy highway, the MTV logo, a professional wrestling match, and many other signs which, taken in the aggregate, signify “America.” The closing credits are also set to a lively rock song (an originally American musical genre) called “Back in America.” The lyrics proclaim that America is “back where I belong,” reinforcing the text s underlying connotation of America as utopia.

Once we expose the semiotic workings of European Vacation, the cultural assumptions and norms underlying the entire text become apparent. Moreover, the text s explicit and implicit elements of utopianism give Richard Dyer s theory of entertainment and utopia special significance within a semiotic analysis of the text. In addition to the “pure entertainment” level of European Vacation, a richly layered semiotic level exists alongside it, describing the cultural milieu of the text s producers and consumers. Indeed, without its cultural underpinnings, European Vacation would probably not be able to function as entertainment, “pure” or otherwise.

1 National Lampoon s European Vacation. Dir. Amy Heckerling. Writers John Hughes et al. With Chevy Chase. Warner Brothers, 1985.

2 Dyer, Richard. Entertainment and Utopia. The Cultural Studies Reader, Simon During ed. (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 272.

3 Chandler, Daniel. “Semiotics for Beginners”. Online. Available: http://www.dsc.ufpb.br/ ernesto/semold.html. 6 October 1998.

4 The Sound of Music. Dir. Robert Wise. Writers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. With Julie Andrews. 20th Century Fox, 1965.

5 The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!. Dir. David Zucker. Writers Jim Abrahams et al. With Leslie Nielsen. Paramount Pictures, 1988.

6 Frankenstein. Dir. James Whale. Writers John L. Balderston et al. With Boris Karloff. Universal Pictures, 1931.

7 The Wizard of Oz. Dir. Victor Fleming. Based on the novel by L. Frank Baum. With Judy Garland. MGM, 1939.


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