Woke M&Ms Will Not Save Us




Full disclosure: somehow I have lived a full life without once thinking about M&Ms’ animated characters. Now, that bliss is over, because now, they will be woke animated characters. And that word I first loved, with its sense of awakening from a dull slumber to fresh, sharp insights, has itself been commodified, stripped of meaning and rendered shallow.

A friend tips me off about the M&M makeover, rolling his eyes at the schticky absurdity of what looks like a sycophantic marketing stunt. Yep, I say, they are sucking up to Consumers of Conscience who would rather feel good about their snacks than take a risky action. Then I worry that we sound too grumpy, too calcified, like two old guys sitting on a bench complaining about the world’s revisions. Surely this is progress—why, the words “progressive” and “inclusive” are even in the url! And it should come as sweet relief, to know that Brown M&M no longer has to wear high heels and Green M&M no longer has to wear go-go boots. She may instead lace up “cool, laid-back sneakers to reflect her effortless confidence.”

Except that I feel a lot more confident in boots than I do in sneakers, the shoe of childhood and frantic conformity.

How else does a progressive and inclusive philosophy play out in candyland? I read the rest of the news flash. The first conclusion I draw is that we are to emphasize personality rather than gender. That is fair. But does it mean we must sever personality from gender? I get the sneaky feeling that we are abandoning all hope of being whole, integrated individuals who meet the world at ease, bringing all of our identity along with us. Gender got tricky, so instead of relaxing about it, we decided to ignore it?

On the other hand, at least Green M&M is now empowered as a strong female and “known for much more than her boots.” Which is swell—as long as she can command a man’s salary, find decent childcare, and reach the C-suite or the White House if her abilities warrant the rise. If the glass ceiling remains in place, I worry that all of this is a distraction. A trivial reminder that we keep doing this to ourselves: We fuss about the details because they are easier to police than deep systemic inequities.

I read on. Green M&M and Brown M&M are now friends, “together throwing shine and not shade.” Gulping down a tiny bit of throw-up at the back of my throat, I try to feel good about a “force supporting women.” Although, judging from the example, they have sailed right past friendship and just might be in love, holding hands on the beach. Which is fine, as long as it is not just the obligatory lesbian scene, always more appealing to heterosexual men than the tiresome projects real female friends throw themselves into, forgetting the housework while they register voters.

The psychological shifts in the M&M makeover are far more profound. Big bullying Red M&M is now kind. (If only we could rescript ourselves so easily.) And neurotic Orange M&M is about to “embrace his true self, worries and all.” What the hell does that mean? Somebody who finally found a therapist he likes and now can talk of nothing but his last session?

The only answer is that Orange M&M’s shoelaces will be tied, representing his cautious nature. Apparently we are allowed to retain a few bland, neutralized personality traits in this new landscape, once they have been sanitized and reduced to sensible quirks. Mars knows exactly what it is doing here: Orange M&M has been “one of the most relatable characters with Gen-Z,” the “most anxious generation.” In other words, our struggles can be celebrated as long as they can also be turned into corporate profit.

By now, I am wondering if one of the M&Ms is about to suffer an accident so they can live with a disability. Or if they will intermarry and have a pastel baby. The makeover is going to distort their little lentil shapes, to make sure they are not all one body size and can feel positive about bulges or elongations. These M&Ms will feel good at the beach, no matter how much of their hardshell coating cracks when that excess melting chocolate jiggles.

Oh, and nobody gets respect anymore. Brown M&M used to be Ms. Brown, but now all honorific titles will be erased. This is how American society rolls. Instead of honoring one another’s differences, we try to erase them or pretend we cannot see them. Our notion of egalitarian meant a flattening of the populace, no kings and queens or lords and ladies.

No nobility.

We threw out too much, I suspect. We tossed out the nobility of title and privilege, but we promptly replaced it with a hierarchy of wealth, and that helped erode the other kind of nobility, the moral pursuit of principles and ideals. That sort of nobility is available to anyone—but we consistently allow financial success to outweigh it, probably because real nobility does not prioritize profit. It puts morality first, and morality has to be based in a deep understanding of someone else’s struggles. We just erase words and doctor images instead.

I mention the emerging need for woke M&Ms to another friend, and she blinks, puzzled. “But they’re just candy,” she says. “We know the difference.” This time even I, quick to see and argue symbolism, have to agree with her.

In the old sitcoms, ensemble casts had strong differences and personalities and cheerfully wrangled with bias and personality clashes, letting us all laugh about the inevitable—and better understand it. Now we watch computer-generated superheroes battle for survival or dysfunctional families try to damage one another. And because marketers know we are deep-down weary of all this strife, ads are full of sunshine and lollipops. Or M&Ms as cheery as fifties housewives.

Well-paid marketers came up with the Mars campaign. I envision them hashing it out in a long succession of virtual meetings, the rhetoric flying. If the same team brought back the Fruit of the Loom guys, they would be a manscaped drum circle. If A.A. Milne were revisited, we would worry about Winnie-the-Pooh’s BMI and Piglet’s codependency. Owl would give TED talks. Tigger, clearly bipolar, would be treated with careful patience.

Charles Schulz was the master of temperament, but he would not fare well, either. As a curator at the Charles M. Schulz Museum writes, “Charles Schulz tempered the humor of Peanuts with melancholy and failure; trading slapstick for frustration. Readers typically assign suffering to Charlie Brown, but no character was exempt. Schulz found that touching this reality of life made a more honest and thus more relatable comic.” As Schulz himself said, “I know one thing: humor doesn’t come from a happy situation.”

Ah, but we want to fix up all the rough spots, clean up anything that could offend. In a marketing makeover, Schroeder would have to spend more time with his friends and limit his obsessive piano practicing. Lucy would be reimagined as assertive but kind; Pig Pen would shower daily, so as not to offend anyone who has a hoarding disorder; and Charlie Brown would be taught how to read the room.

Judging from the reactions to the Mars campaign, marketers might need that skill too.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.