Imagine a packed movie theater in 1950. An audience awaits Hollywood’s latest picture — but first, the commercials. An animated steamboat appears on the screen, chugging along to cheerful music. Then a beautiful woman alights. Or rather, a banana. She is “Miss Chiquita” representing prominent fruit company Chiquita Banana. By 1950, the filmgoers know her song by heart. The advertising jingle has dominated radio waves since 1944, with as many as 376 plays in a single day. Talk about mass media.
Fast forward to the modern era. The Chiquita Banana company has since updated the lyrics many times, most recently in 1999. But the image from the commercial persists in our minds. It even continues to influence pop culture, appearing in Halloween costume shops and the Woody Allen film “Everyone Says I Love You,” for example. And Chiquita Banana employs an actress to make national appearances as Miss Chiquita. (Now a woman, not a banana.)
Trick-or-treaters evoke the original Chiquita Banana commercial in this scene from Woody Allen’s “Everyone Says I Love You.”
In the original commercial, the anthropomorphized Miss Chiquita appears as a Latina from the “tropical equator” — any one of a number of Central American, South American, or Caribbean countries. Her appearance depicts a generalization of Latino culture. While Miss Chiquita may initially appear to represent Latinos positively, a closer look reveals that she reinforces a popular — and erroneous — stereotype.
An analysis of the commercial should begin with Miss Chiquta’s roots. (Er, stems.) Bananas, native to the tropics, were not a household staple in the 1940s. So Chiquita created “Miss Chiquita” to not only sell bananas but also teach consumers how to treat and eat them. The result, as exemplified in the early commercial, mixes advertising, education, and entertainment. To explain bananas, Miss Chiquita sings:
I’m Chiquita banana and I’ve come to say
Bananas have to ripen in a certain way
When they are fleck’d with brown and have a golden hue
Bananas taste the best and are best for you
You can put them in a salad
You can put them in a pie-aye
Any way you want to eat them
It’s impossible to beat them
But, bananas like the climate of the very, very tropical equator
So you should never put bananas in the refrigerator.
In the background, the music is upbeat, cheerful and rhythmic, accented by trumpets, clarinets, and drums. After descending from the steamboat, Miss Chiquita sashays around the dock. Dishes of bananas and banana-foods have been displayed on long tables covered in white tablecloths, where men in tuxedos have gathered for the event. Miss Chiquita has a banana body plus human facial features and skinny yellow arms. She wears a flouncy red skirt and ruffled red sleeves. A red hat resembling a large bowl tops her head, and flowers and leaves peek out from the brim. Her impossibly large eyes bear long, fluttering eyelashes. Her red lips curl as she croons. She signs off with “¡sí, sí, sí!” and a wink, both hands planted on her hips.
The Chiquita Banana commercial from the 1940s.
Who can resist this singing banana? That must have been the attitude behind Chiquita Banana’s thinking. Miss Chiquita is cute and coquettish. Slim and stylish. Vivacious and exotic. Totally appealing — at least to non-Latinos. The target audience is obvious — the white upper class. After all, the commercial’s characters besides Miss Chiquita are balding white men in tuxedos, preparing to enjoy a lavish banana feast. The commercial doesn’t depict any women, although they would be more likely than men to cook and grocery shop. Instead, it seems that the commercial aims to emphasize Miss Chiquita’s sex appeal by situating her as the object of male attention. Her sexuality – the swinging hips, wiggling shoulders, suggestive winks – make her “otherness” as a Latina seem exotic and alluring, not foreign or threatening. The same notion is intended to translate to the product itself. Why else would Miss Chiquita appear as a literal banana? The upbeat music and bright colors also help create an enticing sense of fun and excitement.
In addition to teaching viewers banana-appreciation, the commercial sends a message about Latino culture. While not overtly negative, it is problematic in its one-dimensionality. For non-Latinos, it reinforces the stereotype of Latino culture as exotic and alluring, slow-paced and carefree. Latino culture is presented as a door to escapism – not reality. The commercial neglects to present any reasons for non-Latinos to view this culture or its contributions seriously. By alluding to similar depictions, such as Brazilian actress Carmen Miranda’s flamboyant, fruit-hat-wearing character in 1943’s “The Gang’s All Here,” the commercial packs a bigger punch. In reinforcing a stereotype, the commercial caters to existing beliefs held by non-Latinos about Latinos. These viewers do not necessarily grasp the deeper nuances. But Latinos do.
Carmen Miranda as “The Lady In The Tutti Frutti Hat.” Note the bananas!
While Miss Chiquita is obviously a Latino immigrant – literally “fresh off the boat” — nothing about the commercial accurately depicts Latin America. The commercial does not even name Miss Chiquita’s home-country. Latinos, meanwhile, know that they are not a homogenous people. The customs, traditions and values of their native countries are distinct. A Mexican may have little in common with a Colombian. To suggest otherwise creates a false impression for mainstream society.
Another flaw is that the commercial obscures the banana’s true provenance — plantations controlled by American companies infamous for mistreatment of workers. For example, consider the 1928 “Banana Massacre” in Colombia, where the United Fruit Company used fatal measures to end a worker’s strike. (The event was later fictionalized in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude.) For Latino immigrants who experienced such conditions, the commercial is offensive in misleading the public.
Miss Chiquita’s sexiness also does a disservice to Latinos, particularly women. Latinas are not all lose, carefree spitfires. Miss Chiquita does not evince the characteristics of a serious, hardworking woman. Even her name makes this clear. “Chiquita” translates to “little girl,” or “girlie.” While it can express affection, it can also be belittling, a literal indication of diminishing a woman’s worth. The lack of a human in Miss Chiquita’s role makes the concept worse — it is pure objectification.
Ultimately, the commercial exploits Latino culture for financial profit by presenting an erroneous generalization. Latinos, in turn, gain nothing. Non-Latinos do not benefit either from the one-dimensional portrait. Miss Chiquita introduced herself by singing, “I’ve come to say…” And now, unfortunately for society’s perception of Latino culture, she is here to stay.
Originally written for USC journalism course on “People of Color and the News Media,” spring 2013.
Great post! Very informative and tracks the intertextuality of the commercial really well.