Rhetorical Highlights: Jennifer Price’s “The Plastic Pink Flamingo” (1.18.12)
9: 0 5: 32%
8: 3% 4: 39%
7: 5% 3: 0
6: 21% 2: 0
The Prompt and the Task (and why so many of you received 4’s and 5’s)
Here’s the prompt:
Write an essay in which you analyze how Price crafts the text to reveal her view of United
Implicit in this prompt are two difficult tasks. First, you must decide how Price perceives United States culture. We’ll handle this in more specificity later. Then, you must determine how Price crafts the text (uses language) to reveal her view. Language and purpose. Purpose and language. Every rhetorical analysis prompt asks some variation of this.
Your thesis (also known as a claim) is your first opportunity to respond to the above two tasks. It is, essentially, a one to two sentence answer to the questions of the prompt: What is the author’s purpose?
How does language affect said purpose? Here is an example from a classmate that answers those questions clearly and specifically:
Jennifer Price uses rhetorical devices such as colorful diction, imagery, irony, and allusions to
symbolize America as a lively but fake country.
This may be true, but it may not. That’s the beauty of a claim—it’s an argument that will need proof. Instead of clear, specific answers to the prompt, many of you offered vague, evasive non-answers. Here is a composite thesis (one inspired by your essays but not from the essays):
In the excerpt from “The Plastic Pink Flamingo,” Price uses rhetorical strategies to reveal her
view of American culture.
Some of you may have mentioned specific devices (that’s half the battle), but quite a few of you offered
that exact purpose in your thesis statements. You may recognize it as the same general statement of purpose from the prompt. This won’t do as a claim. Some of you chose, instead, to prove the popularity of the plastic flamingo—a task already completed by Price in the essay (and not part of the prompt).
Is it possible to still adequately answer the prompt with an evasive thesis statement? Yes, but your chances of reaching a 6 (or better) decrease significantly with a start like the one above. Of the 14 essays that I identified as beginning with evasive thesis statements (which is 37% of the scored essays), only 1 received a score of 6.
Did Anyone Use the Chronological Approach? (and the problem of asyndeton)
Like many of the excerpts found on the rhetorical analysis prompt, Price’s essay can be broken into
different parts (or movements). First, she describes the flamingo’s origins as a symbol of prestige and class—a symbol hijacked by the middle class and the shady pioneer developers of Las Vegas. She accomplishes this with a mildly mocking tone, a narrative style and a series of associations that begin to
create a complex portrait of American culture—a culture that at once wanted to represent an air of wealth
with a plastic lawn ornament and thought a lawn ornament could successfully make that statement. The second part echoes the strategies of the first—tone, narration, and associations, and adds a condemning
commentary by Tom Wolfe—but does so with a focus on the color pink. Price concludes her piece with a contrast between the sacred flamingo symbols of other cultures and the “sacred” flamingo symbol of wealth and style in America.
It is difficult to accurately analyze this movement when focusing on devices in isolation, especially a device as minor as asyndeton (a device that appears just once, mind you, and only in a quote by Tom Wolfe—not Price herself). This is the problem with the device-driven essay. A student can get obsessed with a minor device, and in the midst of such an obsession, try to fit the passage’s often complex purpose
into an analysis of just that one device. Please consider the chronological approach on future exams.
soapsTONE! (and why you should always assume complexity until proven wrong)
Here’s what the College Board hoped you would see in this passage:
[Successful students] identified [Price’s] attitude as whimsical, amused, playfully mocking,
and mildly critical. They understood that Price presents both sides of the American dream and
that her essay operates on at least two levels: her overtly amusing and informative history of pink
flamingos, and her more subtle critique of culture that operates through her use of the plastic
bird as symbol.
Crazy, huh? How on Earth is one to arrive at those conclusions? I’m sure you don’t want to hear this, but the answer is SOAPSTone. Tone is defined as the attitude the speaker takes toward his or her
subject (subject being the second “s” in SOAPSTone). The subject in this passage is the pink flamingo and its relationship to American culture. Now look back at the essay. Do you see the absurd diction employed to describe a lawn ornament: “splashed,” “semiotic sprouts,” “wading across an inland sea of grass”? How about those glimpses of mockery: “this was a little ironic” and “But no matter”? It was more than a little ironic, and it did, in fact, matter. This is called sass, and Price uses her fair share. And plus, she is writing the “natural history” of a plastic flamingo with all the gusto one might write about the history of the dodo bird or the bald eagle. This is goofy, on purpose.
Back to the original question: how would one pick up on this? By assuming that an author’s purpose is complex, two-fold, and subtle. By assuming a text is complex, you will remain vigilant throughout your analysis, and you won’t mistake “playfully mocking” for “excited” or “flashy.”
The What v. the How (and the importance of topic sentences)
Two quick definitions. When I say “the what,” I’m referring to the content of the passage: what it says and even what it means. If you were to analyze what is says or what it means, then you would be conducting a content analysis. When I say “the how,” I’m referring to the language used by the author and how language choices (rhetoric) affect meaning and purpose. Hence, the rhetorical analysis. One
fulfills the prompt at the top of last page, and one does not.
It becomes clear in the first sentence of each paragraph which kind of analysis a student is conducting. Here are two examples:
In the first two paragraphs of the passage, Jennifer Price uses historical allusions from
America’s past culture to exemplify how the American culture is always drawn to what sticks out
and represents wealth and prosperity over all else.
The flamingo’s color also played a part in its transition to icon status in American Culture.
Do you see a difference? The first indicates an analysis of the relationship between a rhetorical choice—
historical allusions—and the author’s purpose. The second describes the content of Price’s essay. The first will lead to a focused, purposeful analytical paragraph. The second? Well, it had the potential to lead to a summary of Price’s ideas—not an analysis of her language and its effect on her view of American culture.
Where did Price go? (and the power of the word “to”)
Which leads me to my last piece of advice: keep Price involved in your analysis. In a rhetorical analysis, the author’s choices and the author’s purpose are the subject of the essay. Several of you mentioned Price in the introduction and conclusion only. She should be everywhere. Here is a sentence I found in the middle of a first body paragraph:
Price uses long flowing sentences to illustrate the progression of the flamingo’s success.
It looks a lot like a thesis or a topic sentence, doesn’t it? That’s great. Keep tying language to purpose—
all over the essay. And the best word I know to tie language and purpose together is “to.”
Every Wednesday morning, 6:15 until 7:00. Bring your AP binder, and we’ll talk about your writing.