Judith Butler and Jigna Desai’s “Manolos, Marriage, and Mantras” and Kristen Ghodsee’s “Potions, Lotions and Lipstick,” both capture the startling state our society is in regarding gendered consumerism. “Manolos…” examines South Asian American “chick-lit,” the style in which almost all chick-lit is written evidences a high stress on the importance of consumption, while “Potions…” examines the effect of post-socialist Bulgarian consumerism.
First, I would like to digress by explaining an unhealthy addiction of mine. I did not plan on becoming addicted. It just sort of sneaked up on me. First I was just doing it because it has been normalized by society. There was nothing wrong with this. It was normal. Then I realized how good it made me feel. I found myself going out in search for different places that would help me feel the rush of it all. Even just the thought of it gave me this yearning - I needed more, more, more. Then one day I found myself talking to a shelf, saying “don’t worry, you’ll all get your chance to shine,” to objects.
And, recently, as I said this to all 49 pairs of shoes which I own while reorganizing them by colour, height and type (boots, wedged, heeled, flats, professional-looking, too-nice-to-actually-even-wear-more-than-once-a-year and not-nice-enough-to-treat-as-well-as-all-the-others), it became clear to me that I have a problem.
Hi. I’m Kathleen. And I’m a shoeaholic.
I realize that the reason I am so drawn to shoes is they enable me to be a consumer and yet feel consistently good about it. I am constantly being told what it is to be feminine, to be a woman, to get respect; this involves excessive consumption of essentially unnecessary goods. Yet, if I am told that dresses are what will make me beautiful, and the dress fits too tightly around my stomach, I’m going to wish I didn’t have extra inches to “pinch.” By contrast, if a shoe fails to fit my foot properly, I just look down and think, on to the next. I can’t change my shoe size, and no one will judge me for being a size seven and a half. That’s “normal.”
The article “Potions, Lotions and Lipstick,” by Kristen Ghodsee explains Juliet Schor’s theory of the “aspiration gap,” whereby individual consumers in the United States have an “inflated sense of the material things” that are seemingly needed in order to have a “normal" life. Schor explains that in global capitalist societies, people who once compared their own economic success to that of their immediate friends and neighbours now "measure themselves against economic elites, celebrities" whose lavish ways of life they must evidence in order to be considered successful.
In Butler and Desai’s article, the success of the heroines in chick-lit novels is studied; similarly, their success is measured in part by their luxuries. They are supposedly empowered by their ability to spend their income on ostentatious goods. For example, the main character in Goddess for Hire drives a hummer and drinks Starbucks; the main character in For Matrimonial Purposes owns all the best brands of shoes (drool), such as Manolo Blahniks and Dolce & Gabanna.
In the chick-lit novels the authors look at in “Manolos, Marriage, and Mantras,” the “right to consume” not only gives the female protagonists the illusion of feminine sexual and gender agency; it gives them a sense of citizenship in America. Their pursuit of beauty culture is alarmingly important and a huge factor in all three novels discussed by Butler and Desai.
In “Potions..” beauty culture is discussed in how it affected Bulgaria during socialism and post-socialism. In the article, evolutionary biologist, Nancy Etcoff says that the desire for beauty is not the result of “societal conditioning, but a biologically-based set of preferences hardwired into human beings.” This is fascinating to me, because it seems as though beauty is subjective, and the opinions of others are perpetuated and end up influencing our own ideals. Yet, if this desire is hard-wired, I wonder what beauty would mean without cosmetics and brand-names.
In the aforementioned article, women in Bulgaria were obsessed with attaining the higher-quality cosmetics and brand-names of the West. One woman tells the author that “[a]ll women want to be beautiful, and we all believed that women in the West were more beautiful than we were because they had better products and more time than we did.”
The strangest thing is hearing beauty described as something that can be improved by oneself as long as they have the right products, and time. I think it shows how effective and prevalent advertising is; we are told that, no matter what our body type, with [insert!product!here!] we can be that size 1. With products, anything is possible, we are brainwashed to believe. We can improve ourselves through objects, through chemicals compounded into a little tube, through materials.
The importance of these material goods in the chick-lit novels mentioned seem like the real centrepiece of the genre of novel. For example, Goddess for Hire is about a woman who finds out that she is the reincarnated Hindue goddess Kali Ma. She acquires mystic powers and the ability to sense malevolence. A major stream of the novel is supposedly that she is a symbol of justice, yet when she witnesses an armed robbery, while — of course — filling up her Hummer, she is unable to act in a heroic way. She merely scratches the criminal before hitting him with her handbag. The materials are framed and constantly stressed as important. Maybe, whereas most literature integrates allusions into their work and rich references to other works, chick-lit places references to glamorous items to enhance the work. After all, that’s what the audience they are writing for will be impressed by, right? And as this is done, readers will become more and more aware of these brands, of the flashiness, and place more and more importance on it. The cycle will continue, an endless crescent of pointless admiration and desire.
But that’s just society. That’s just normal, right?
This year my aunt showed my mother her “Coach” bag and told her how much it cost. My mother is the most thrifty person I have ever met, yet she thought that because my aunt had this bag, it must mean something, not just about status — but about being normal. My mother, who cannot afford to pay for my tuition, took me shopping at the Outlets in Seattle and walked around asking people where the “Couch” outlet was. “Mom, it’s coach.”
We walked into the outlet, and everything was evidently overpriced, even for an outlet. My mother spent time speaking with people working there, looking at different bags and wallets and other do-hickeys of sorts.
"Mom, I don’t need this," I told her, looking around at the blindingly white displays with their immaculate arrangements of scarves and bags in complementing colours.
"Kathleen, I don’t want you to be like, deprived, though," she told me.
This was coming from a woman who never purchases things for herself, from a woman who has done everything in her power to make sure that I have a comfortable life… and she thought… no, this wasn’t happening.
"Mom, we’re leaving."
"No, really, it’s okay Kathleen, Auntie Pat was saying how they are all the rage and I don’t want you to feel like we can’t—"
"MOM, SERIOUSLY? I AM A PRIVELEGED WHITE KID," I said a little louder than intended. I got some strange looks for that one. We left.
I couldn’t believe that someone as thrifty as my mother could buy into what was being pushed on her by society about brand-names and the importance of these titles. I felt angry at the world of consumerism for affecting someone as strong-willed as my mother. The media was brandishing their words like weapons, and even my mom had been hit? Even she thought that something like owning a certain kind of purse makes one successful.
She ended up buying me a thirty dollar bag at Nine West and seemed to feel better in some way, like she had done her part. She helped me be part of the consumer world, helped me feel — helped me be — normal.
Is this really a measure of being “normal,” and what happened to wanting to be an individual, a noncomfomist, a free spirit? Now people just buy hippie-chic or “indie” clothing to be individuals.
I’m not much of a true individual when it comes to separating myself from consumerism. Right now as I watch my painted fingernails scatter across a keyboard (in Urban Behaviour's Coral Peach colour) and look over at my rows upon rows of shoes, I know that I am no different. Do I think that, in a sense, this is a sign of me being a “normal” young, female adult? Am I just as at fault as the next woman who gets sucked in to beauty culture? Call me Casey Anthony, because I am
Ghodsee, Kristen. “Potions, lotions and lipstick: The gendered consumption of cosmetics and perfumery in socialist and post-socialist urban Bulgaria.” Gender and Women Studies, Institute for Advanced Study, (2007): 27-37.
Butler, Pamela; Desai, Jigna. “Manolos, Marriage, and Mantras: Chick-Lit Criticism and Transnational Feminism.” Meridians: feminism, race, transnational 2008, vol 8, no. 2, (2008): 1-31.