Last night I was so bored I actually turned on Fox News. I do this now and then, with the same sort of feeling I get when I pass a roadside accident and, against my better judgment, turn briefly to glimpse the carnage. It was around 10:30, so the execrable Sean Hannity was on. After a minute or so of the usual Obamacare coverage they went to a commercial. It was then that I received the revelation, and my life changed forever.
The commercial began with a tarty-looking young woman holding a ruler in a suggestive fashion and grinning lasciviously at the camera. Then a male voice intones: “Guys, this Valentine’s Day size really does matter.” The camera pulls back to reveal a four-and-a-half foot tall teddy bear. The Vermont Teddy Bear – specifically the “Big Hunka Love Bear” model. Available for Valentine’s Day at the very reasonable price of ninety-nine dollars. “Score big,” the narrator advises male viewers.
We see a tall, hunky guy entering what is presumably his house, handing the Big Hunka Love Bear to what is presumably his wife. “This guy is a four-and-a-half foot pile of awesomeness,” the voice-over proclaims. (I’m not kidding you.) Presumably, he means the stuffed bear, because the guy looks like he’s about six feet tall. But maybe something else about him measures only 4 ½ (more about this later). By the way, at this point in the commercial, a big, pink upward-thrusting, fat arrow appears on the screen, over which is superimposed “4 ½ FEET TALL.”
The hunky guy’s pretty, redheaded wife embraces him and the bear. Over his shoulder, we see her grin in a peculiarly self-satisfied way – as if she and the bear share some secret to which the husband is not privy. We are then informed that the Big Hunka Love Bear is a much better Valentine’s gift than flowers or chocolates. And in one shot, we see a brunette dumping out her box of chocolates. The suggestion is that they will make her feel fat. But something else is going on here. We’ve all heard that women crave chocolate because there’s some sort of hormonal thing involved, right? The message we are getting, in fact, is that the Big Hunka Love Bear is better than chocolate as a sex substitute. He is like a great, big, cuddly dildo for a woman’s heart.
This analysis is confirmed moments later when we see what appears to be the same brunette leaping onto her sofa and into the warm, hairy arms of her Big Hunka Love Bear, where she no doubt feels safe, secure, and affirmed. And this bear is not going to leave her, no matter what. Because the ad informs us that it is “GUARANTEED FOR LIFE.” As she lies in the arms of her prodigiously-endowed bear watching the Lifetime channel, she can enjoy the fact it gives every outward indication of wanting to be there just for her. It will not try to initiate sex when she’s not in the mood. It will not change the channel when she gets up to make herself a cup of soothing chamomile tea.
We next see a blonde executrix entering her tastefully-appointed office only to find, to her squealing delight, the Big Hunka Love Bear sitting at the desk. This bear, you see, is for powerful women too, not just housewives. He is big, strong-looking, and dependable. He will make her feel safe – while never actually displaying any genuine masculine assertiveness. The best of both worlds, in short. The Big Hunka Love Bear is actually empowering, because although it is like a big pacifier the woman is in control of the bear at all times.
Then we glimpse the same blonde, now wearing a sexy, slinky red dress, jumping into bed with the bear and giving us a “come hither” look. The voice-over promises us that the bear will “keep her thinking about you.” But I’m not so sure about this. Another scene shows a different husband surprising his wife in the kitchen with the Big Hunka Love Bear. Again, she hugs him and the bear ecstatically. He grins at the camera with a look that can only mean one thing: “Oh boy, I’m going to get some tonight.” To confirm this, the narrator now tells us “It’s a great gift for her. It’s sure to pay off for you.” But, again, I’m not so sure.
In case it’s not already obvious, this commercial suggests very deliberately that the bear is a giant phallus – in a way that’s so sick and weird it’s actually tough to describe. In a different Vermont Teddy Bear commercial, a woman working in an office is thrilled when her bear is delivered by special courier. “He’s much bigger than I thought!” she exclaims. “I could just kiss it and kiss it!” Meanwhile, the guy who (it seems) sent the gift is in the next cubicle watching the scene furtively, like an impotent voyeur spying on his wife’s sex tryst with another man. This is then followed by a succession of really dumb guys practically drooling over the (very probably mistaken) idea that this stupid bear is going to get them laid.
But they are all living in a fool’s paradise – for this stuffed bear spells their doom, their obsolescence.
Several years ago I watched the Coen brothers film Burn After Reading with my parents. Everything was going well, until we got to the scene where George Clooney presents his wife with a present he’s been building for her in his spare time: a peddle-driven dildo machine. I wanted to crawl under my seat. My parents had no reaction – either because they didn’t understand what was happening, or they were too embarrassed to acknowledge that they did.
The scene was funny on multiple levels. It was a perfect, and perfectly extreme parody of men’s often shocking ineptitude and insensitivity when it comes to selecting gifts for their wives and girlfriends. It was also a hilarious sendup of that semi-autistic, Aspergerish quality in most men: their fascination with machines and with tinkering. But one also has to ask, what self-respecting man would give his woman a penis substitute as a gift? I’m reminded of the scene in Fight Club where Tyler notices the dildo on Marla’s dresser and she says “Don’t worry. It’s not a threat to you.” But only Tyler Durden would accept an answer like that.
Giving your wife or girlfriend a dildo as a gift would be a stunning admission of inadequacy – of not being up to the job, so to speak. But I don’t see how giving her the Big Hunka Love Bear is fundamentally different. It’s like you’re saying “I know I’m not big enough, strong enough, stable enough, mature enough, or dependable enough. I know I’m just a weak, modern, emotionally-stunted, overgrown boy. I know I can’t make you feel safe when I hold you in my arms. Sorry, but it’s time for us both to admit I’m just not man enough. So, here, I’m giving you this giant stuffed bear as a man-substitute. And he’s hairier than me, too.” These commercials very deliberately play on men’s anxiety that perhaps they just don’t “measure up” – in all sorts of ways. Whispered, nay shouted solution: buy her the bear, buy her the bear, buy her the bear . . . In a perfect world, these Vermont Teddy Bear spots would be followed by ads for Enzyte.
Of course, the real solution is to be a man. And this, gentlemen, is what you should give your wives and girlfriends for Valentine’s Day. Yes, give the traditional flowers and chocolate – and give her the gift of male strength. (But for God’s sake don’t tell her you are doing this! Just do it.) Don’t create a vacuum that she needs a stuffed bear – or, uh, anything else – to fill.
I feel I should end this essay here, but I know many of you will be curious about the cynical, twisted minds behind the Vermont Teddy Bear. This company is indeed based in Vermont – in Burlington, to be exact. They are one of the world’s largest manufacturers of teddy bears, around 500,000 a year. If you go on their site, you will find they even offer magical, Wonka-like tours of their factory. But, given what I now know, I think it would be best if you left the kids at home.
In another example of the company’s good taste, a few years ago they marketed a “Crazy For You” bear wearing a strait jacket. It even came with its own “commitment papers.” Mental health advocacy groups and even the governor of Vermont protested, but the company kept selling the item until they ran out of stock (it’s not been offered again). As a result of the controversy, company head Elizabeth Robert was forced to resign from the board of Vermont’s largest hospital.
It’s no accident that these ads appear on the Fox News Channel, by the way. The Vermont Teddy Bear Company’s radio ads have been carried by Premiere Radio Networks, which syndicates the Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck shows. I’ve even heard that the Vermont Teddy Bear people marketed a “Rush Limbaugh for President” bear, but I’ve not been able to confirm this. What is it with the taste of these Republicans? Imagine: once you’ve gifted your special lady a Big Hunka Love Bear you can curl up with her in your Snuggies and watch Fox News, or listen to Rush on your Bose Wave Radio. While drinking Snapple, of course – or, better yet, smoking cigars.
Do you need further proof that we are living in the Kali Yuga? Okay, how about the fact that when I typed “awesomeness” above, my computer recognized this as an actual word.