Not all great works of art are lucky enough to be recognized as such at the time of their unveiling, and perhaps this is the sad fate of the misunderstood short film otherwise known as the Peloton commercial.
This 30-second piece of narrative advertising was deemed to be so bad, so tin-eared, and so offensive that just days after its initial broadcast, fierce online backlash caused the company’s stock price to plummet 10%.
Detractors claimed the ad was sexist, and found it be guilty of “skinny shaming.” These complaints are based on a standard (if hasty) interpretation of the film as an oppressive domestic drama about a husband who buys a $2,000 stationary bike for his already-fit wife, whose tearful gratitude, critics infer, speaks to years of gaslighting and psychological damage on the level of Stockholm syndrome.
A close read and frame-by-frame inspection of the film, however, reveals an entirely different narrative, and in fact positions the story as a heartwarming holiday tale as profoundly moving and spiritually substantial as “The Gift of the Magi.”
Let’s start with the prologue. Standard holiday scene: A young girl playfully pulls her mother into the living room, past a Christmas tree. Mom pretends to have her eyes closed, and when her hands fall away, she spies the shiny Peloton and responds with tears of joy.
Everyone can agree that the response is inappropriate and almost surely not credible, and while we will investigate this in greater detail later, let’s first stop to consider important visual information conveyed in this scene.
Look at the house itself. The words “lived in” do not spring to mind. Is it a Pottery Barn showroom? A wing of the Tom Cruise house in Oblivion? It is expensively but soullessly decorated, with the kind of pricey genericism you might find in an upmarket Airbnb.
We learn, however, that the family lives in the house for at least a year (background shots of snow, flowers, leaves and pumpkins, snow again). So that it seems more likely they are staying in an extended-stay hotel, or they’ve rented a posh address, leading to a question: Why?
There are more clues in the early frames. Your eye is drawn to the $2,000 bike, a blob of obsidian back in the middle of a cool expanse of white, so perhaps you do not notice the cloth monkey in the hand of the girl who leads her mother to the Peloton.
And so another question arises: In what sort of family does the mother get a $2,000 stationary bike while the child, on Christmas morning, is left to be satisfied with a cloth monkey?
Now let’s take a look at the other character in this three-person melodrama. Dad. Is he, based on the information available, the sort of contemptible Master of the Universe who’d use exercise equipment to inflict mental cruelty on his wife? Not likely — not in those shabby pajama bottoms and ill-fitting thermal Henley.
In fact, he seems only dimly aware of what is going on. This is crucial, because it likely explains the otherwise mystifying behavior we see in subsequent scenes — the wife taking extraordinary steps to document her use of the $2,000 stationary bike.
This is on its face inexplicable, since there are only three people in the house, and there is no chance her use of the Peloton could escape the notice of anyone, least of all the husband, since we are led to believe his wife awakens each day at 6 a.m. to use her $2,000 stationary bike.
It develops that the woman is assembling material for a documentary about her relationship with the Peloton — holding her mobile phone aloft to record her thoughts and movements as they relate to the $2,000 stationary bike.
The most telling of these has her coming through the front door of the home, announcing her arrival, declaring that she can’t wait to get to the room where is kept the Peloton. Note how she’s dressed — wool slacks, cashmere sweater, and cashmere coat. As an outfit, it’s surely more expensive than the bike, not counting the shoes and bag. Kept woman? Look closer. No groceries, no shopping bags. This is a professional woman on her way home from work. Remunerative work. If there is a Master of the Universe in the house, it’s her.
Note, too, the scene of mom “working out” next to the patio in the summer. There next to her is a chaise longue, a towel, some flip-flops, and a 20-ounce vodka and cranberry, still sweating, which is more than we can say for mom.
This places in a startling new light the “reveal” that concludes the 30-second film. The puzzling, redundant documentary she’s been working on? It is her surprise gift to him. She seats him on the coach the following Christmas and makes sure that he watches it, leading him through it so that he grasps that she actually used the $2,000 stationary bike that he bought for her.
Look at him there on the sofa, dad jeans and flannel. Dull, barely comprehending, sensing on some primitive level that he’s done something that’s met with her approval.
This is not Charles Boyer.
This is Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry, afflicted with some sort of brain injury, shuffling around the house in a Brian Wilson-ish stupor.
Now it makes sense — the impersonal rental house in the permanent care community. Even the cloth monkey, which dad probably stitched together with fishing line and old tube socks, acting on some residual sense of paternal obligation. No wonder it’s the daughter’s most prized possession.
He saved his $50 weekly allowance and bought his wife a Peloton, and she didn’t have the heart to inform him that it also requires a $50 monthly subscription fee. He probably still doesn’t know why it has voices coming out of it.
The movie, though, speaks loudly and clearly about the enduring bonds of love and mutual sacrifice that a $2,000 stationary bicycle can inspire.