The televised broadcast of the 2016 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade begins with a performance by the Muppets. They perform an original song about the excitement surrounding the event with backup dancers from all performance groups scheduled to have more exposure later in the broadcast. From the start, the theme of inclusivity is blaring as the most repeated line in the song claims that the parade “will be starring everybody.” This new song leads into a second Muppet performance featuring the song “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles. During this number, the camera focuses on members of the audience of all races and ethnicities standing along the parade route. This inclusive message is resonant only temporarily. As the camera looks again at those lucky few who are able to get ticketed seating at Herald Square, where the parade holds it’s main stage, it is difficult to find any audience members who are not white sitting in these coveted seats. Upon closing this opening sequence, the viewer hears from the announcer that the parade is “The Great American Thanksgiving Tradition.” This seems fitting. This is hardly the first American parade to simultaneously highlight and hide a racialized class structure, although it is noted that this is the first time that the viewers can see the announcer filmed as opposed to only hearing voiceovers. This is what progress looks like.
Macy’s Executive Producer, Amy Kule, prefaces the proper parade with a speech. Tatyana and Hannah McFadden, sisters who competed and won medals on the US Paralympic Team in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, join her.1 It is a wonderful and unprecedented inclusion of disabled people, but it sets a high bar for what someone with a disability would need to accomplish in order to get recognition at a corporate event of this size and stature. It is sensible that one would be famous, but it is interesting that physical ability would be the nature and origin of the fame. The themes of liberal progress through tokenism and conservative, traditional nationalism are working in tandem throughout the spectacle. The first performance number is of “Blue Skies” out of Irving Berlin’s renewed musical, “Holiday Inn”. Berlin’s first ever show landed a spot on Broadway in 1914, making this opening another example of the intertwining of these themes.2
It is an interesting time in history to examine the cultural significance of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Following the presidential election of nationalist Donald Trump and the vote by the United Kingdom to “Brexit” the European Union, nationalism is on the rise in the Western World. Domestically, awareness of black rights and the Black Lives Matter movement is growing; LGBT rights are expanding with a burgeoning trans rights movement; and disabled rights is at a peak. The polarizing context surrounding this event leaves many challenges for Amy Kule and her team to present America with an apolitical or nonpolitical experience. With the largest audience in the last thirteen years of the production, appeasing all 25 million spectators involves many competing factors.3 The only show airing on NBC in 2016 with higher ratings was the first “60 Minutes” interview of Donald Trump himself.
The parade is touted as being the largest holiday parade in the world and includes 27 balloons, 30 floats, 34 performances, 12 marching bands, and 33 clown performer groups. For the first time this year, “balloonicles” were added to the lineup, which are balloons created to travel on bicycles. All performances occur at Herald Square; some on the “stage” before the parade arrives, and many others on floats. The parade route begins at 77th Street and Central Park West and takes a turn at Columbus Circle to continue down 5th Avenue, ending at 34th Street, Herald Square, the site of Macy’s flagship store which is the largest department store in the world. The main hosts at Herald Square are Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, while Al Roker interviews celebrities advertising their new projects by the parades start line. Considering the cultural impact of parades meant to celebrate individual cultures or hyphenated ethnicities, it is interesting to see how a parade functions culturally while celebrating “all” Americans on a national holiday. Subcultures are given the ability to come together at a more specific cultural event, such as the Puerto Rican Day Parade, where many discrete groups celebrate their commonalities and this theme is echoed in the ways that many large groups can celebrate an American tradition with one another.4 Although the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade may appear to be a compilation of many separate groups, it is also the grandest display of multiculturalism on such a large American stage.
Many balloons and floats that made an appearance are repeat attendees including the Felix the Cat balloon, which is a replica of the first character balloon ever to be displayed at this parade in 1927.5 Also making comebacks are a dinosaur, first debuted in 1963 and a five foot Power Ranger. A fan favorite is Trixie the Bouncing Dog, a massive balloon that is held down by accordion legs monitored by volunteers instead of traditional strings. The dance group, The Rockettes, perform at Herald Square in their 58th time in attendance; and for the 58th time, their precision is unmatched.
Much of the spectacle is founded in unmovable tradition, but the decision to produce the parade at all happens to be an exception. In 1942, 1943, and 1944, the parade was cancelled due to US involvement in World War II.6 It is worth noting that the US has been involved in other major military action since the mid-1940s, but the show no longer is affected. It was broadcast during the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and wars in Panama, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The show must go on today, while the US military has combative troops in Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, amongst others. But with as much corporate sponsorship and advertising sales that are at stake now, it is unsurprising that the world keeps turning, wearing blinders to block the military activity that has become so normalized. Once the parade arrives at Herald Square, the viewer learns that leading the parade is the New York City Police Department.
Behind the NYPD is a Thanksgiving Tom the Turkey float adorned with participants dressed as pilgrims. Savannah Guthrie says they, “of course, represent America’s early settlers, and their Plymouth, Massachusetts harvest feast, which of course, is known as the first Thanksgiving.” This history lesson, of course, does not mention the Native American protests that are contemporaneously going on in North Dakota to protest a corporate oil pipeline expected to be constructed through their sacred land. In fact, this history lesson does not mention Native Americans at all and is the only legitimate reference to Thanksgiving that occurs throughout the production. The true history behind the holiday is much more violent than the feast children learn about in public schools, but with as many as 25 million viewers, it is important to keep the content light.
One of the most exciting, yet underrated, aspects of the parade is the high school marching bands. They are some of the best in the country, but judging by their costumes and their talent, not to mention their ability to travel to attend, these bands come from schools with seemingly unlimited budgets for the arts. We see here, again, a celebration of inclusion of Americans from everywhere in the country. But this celebration also serves as a reminder that some students in America could never get this type of opportunity to travel and perform. The decision making process as it pertains to cultural event inclusion, while having its legal technicalities, also has many caveats. While it remains true that anyone, regardless of class, has the legal opportunity to participate in a parade, the current class and cultural environment draws straight lines through socioeconomic class, which leaves some Americans out.7 The right to be considered is largely irrelevant without the prerequisite opportunities that would qualify a band or dance troupe.
One exciting marching band that exemplifies the future of the genre is the Harrison High School Band from Georgia. While most bands performed band standards or holiday classics, the students of Harrison played a new arrangement of “Shut Up and Dance”, a current popular song by Walk The Moon. The marching band can be the most traditional type of performance showcased at the parade, but it can also be the most modern. Their costumes are futuristic, featuring black suits with blue piping meant to look like circuitry on a computer chip. The dancers are in bright, flowing blue numbers with the same circuitry in black. For every marching band that is broadcast, the dancers are all young women. They perform their dance routines while simultaneously performing their gender role; often noticeably holding inhaled breath to make their waists look smaller. This complex adolescent display is an exact reminder of the ways performance can frame the gendered body and “reinforce social norms of femininity” particularly when mediated by an event viewed by so many.8 Similarly, throughout the parade, cheerleading groups were comprised nearly entirely of women. These women also performed their gender flawlessly, but the viewer can’t resist doling out some sympathy considering how much skin is exposed in the costumes despite the forty-five degree weather. The few male dancers wore full suits.
Included in the procession, were two new floats created to empower young girls. The first was sponsored by the Girl Scouts, and featured a giant planet Earth broken apart into puzzle pieces. Pasted on were mock Girl Scout badges representative of all that girls can be taught to do as members. The second, from the children’s television show Goldie Blox, displayed pink and purple mechanisms and machines that are presumably built by the main character, an engineer. The performers on both floats were young women, Maddie and Tae (a country duo) and Grace Vanderwaal respectively. These floats, while holding on to some gender norms aesthetically, work to disrupt the societal expectations which do not hold girls to a high enough standard when it comes to talent or ability.
Another talented group is the Na Koa Ali’i Hawai’i All-State Marching Band. Their costumes walk the line between being modern and traditional, using bright yellow grass skirts and red leis. The women have a red flower in their hair. This bright and vibrant display is reminiscent of Hula’s original introduction to New York City a century ago. When they first arrived, the Hula dancers set a precedent for altering their art form for mass consumption, while maintaining their culture in the art form itself.9 The Hawaiian dancers are aesthetically more similar to foreign dance and music groups than American ones, showing off their ownership of their pre-imperial identity. The dancers without instruments wear ornate headdresses. Following this performance is an Aloha float, complete with working waterfall and confetti-spewing volcano. It is another wonderful display of this part of America, which is often left out of “typical Americanism”. Atop this float there is a performance by a pop group, called Fitz and the Tantrums, from California.
A later performance of interest comes from an Armenian dancing group, Sayat Nova Dance Company, from Massachusetts. Considering the parade’s American nationalist traditions, this troupe is one of the few that celebrates a culture from abroad. In the quest to please all viewers, this performance represents viewpoints from across the political and cultural spectra. The costumes are beautiful, but are not contemporary Armenian or American fashion. Instead they are an updated version of traditional Armenian dress, which serves both purposes of allowing a performance with foreign background, while continuing to relegate hyphenated Americans to be the “other”. Even so, their presence at all is radical activism, telling viewers all across America that Armenian-Americans are here and are working to be visible. Given Armenian history, it is no surprise that this display is as much about survival as it is about art. This performance was one of two major groups that were interrupted by commercial breaks. The other is a dance group from the Sino-American Friendship Association, a Chinese-American culture organization. This group had incredibly ornate costumes laced in gold, and included panda masks.
In a less fetishized display of multiculturalism, the feat of the event was the dance performance by the National Dance Institute, a not for profit group featuring children of a wide age range wearing bright clashing colors. Due to the organizations location in the heart of Manhattan, participants in this group were the most diverse, coming from all races and ethnicities. The dancing was upbeat and exciting and performed to the song “Harlem Night Song.” The themes of teamwork and friendship felt unabashedly obvious to the viewer, and this perhaps is what all dance groups would look like in a liberal progressive far future.
One achievement of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was its ability to include modern popular technology. One balloon featured extensively is a character from Skylander, a toys-to-life video game, in which separately purchased toys interact with the game. A performance of Hairspray! Live was also featured, advertising the new television special genre. Hairspray! is one of the first stage musicals that has been produced as a live television event as part of a wave of many others. The hype surrounding this hybrid experience has been great because it is meant to bring a medium to an audience typically unable to see high-value production theatre. By highlighting parade features like these, this American tradition is partaking in “nation branding”.10 The parade is a vehicle for US soft power. As visibility for new types of American consumer culture increases, American soft power increases as well. But perhaps the greatest example of this can be found in the many ways that one could access the parade. In addition to network television, NBC.com live-streamed the event, and Verizon collaborated with YouTube to create a 360 view of the parade in real time. On Verizon’s YouTube channel, one could simply click and drag their mouse to look all around at the parade as it passed the cameras. This is the first time that live 360 viewing has been available for an event of this size.
Before the parade reaches a close, the finale is all about Christmas. Sarah McLachlin sings “Silver Bells” preceding four different giant elf balloons. In a new display, Mother Ginger from The Nutcracker sits on a ten-foot tall dress, hiding children who come out to dance. Tony Bennett makes an appearance, sharing his ninetieth birthday with the parade. But the main event is Santa Claus. It is at this point in the parade that the viewer is reminded that the tropes found throughout of multiculturalism were nothing more than Roderick A. Ferguson’s “diversity management”.11 The most important part of the American cultural spectacular is its references to a holiday which belongs to one religion. The parade was titled “Macy’s Christmas Parade” for the first few years of its production. Small changes like these allow for the appearance of inclusion, while maintaining cultural hegemony. Opposing or minimized groups are silenced by small breadcrumbs meant to keep them full.
The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is an astounding event in scope and stature, able to capture the entirety of contemporary American culture. It is a snapshot of the context it exists within. Noam Chomsky says, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” This parade exemplified that spectrum and its limits. In the racialization of Armenian-Americans, the country music stars, the dancing girls in short dresses, and even the Christmas finale, the audience can witness one end of the cultural and political spectrum, while the multicultural New York dance group, the Hawaiian marching band, and a Spanish speaking rock band represents the other. There is no presence of New York’s vibrant LGBT community, its Latinx community, or, as aforementioned, Native Americans (once considered an important facet of the holiday itself). Perhaps, at least in the case of the LGBT and latinx communities, this is exclusion is made easier given their separate pride parades occurring at other times throughout the year. It is what is absent from this synthesized moment in American culture that reflects the true magic of the parade, truly achieving its mission to please all 25 million viewers in the face of such political turbulence.
- Kiser, Bill. “McFadden Sisters Aim to Continue Paralympic Journey Together in Rio” http://www.teamusa.org/News/2016/July/01/McFadden-Sisters-Aim-To-Continue-Paralympic-Journey-Together-In-Rio (accessed on November 30, 2016).
- “Irving Berlin” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irving_Berlin (accessed on November 30, 2016).
- Collins, Scott. “’Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade’ Scores Highest Rating in Thirteen Years” https://www.yahoo.com/tv/macy-thanksgiving-day-parade-scores-highest-ratings-13-180012307.html (accessed on November 30, 2016).
- Schneider, Jo Ann. “Defining Boundaries, Creating Contacts: Puerto Rican and Polish Presentation of Group Identity Through Ethnic Parades”. The Journal of Ethnic Studies 18.1 (1990): 33-57.
- ”A Historic Procession” http://www.macysparadepress.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Macys-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-2016-Overview.pdf (accessed on November 30, 2016).
- ”History and Fun Facts” http://www.macysparadepress.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Macys-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-2016-History-and-Fun-Facts.pdf (accessed on November 30, 2016).
- Stychin, Carl F. “Celebration and Consolidation: National Rituals and the Legal Construction of American Identities” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 18.2 (1998): 265-291.
- Manning, Susan “Performance” from Keywords for American Cultural Studies: Second Edition edited by Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York City: New York University Press (2014): 190-193.
- Imada, Adria, L. Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the US Empire. Durham: Duke University Press (2012).
- Gienow-Hecht, Jessica C.E. “Nation Branding” from Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations edited by Frank Costigliola and Michael J. Hogan. New York City: Cambridge University Press (2016): 232-244.
- Ferguson, Roderick A. The Reorder of Things. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2012).