Bargain Hunting in Babylon
“A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
“Shopping has a lot in common with sex: Just about everybody does it. Some people brag about how well they do it. Some keep it a secret. Most people worry, at least a little, about whether they do it right. And both sex and shopping provide ample opportunities to make really foolish choices.” As I sit here in a fabulous new pair of striped, sparkly, 1972 polyester pants and a furry-collared shirt with dachshunds racing across the sleeves, I wonder what my shopping habits say about me in the context of these words from cultural critic Thomas Hine’s newest book, I Want That!: How We All Became Shoppers.
Hine, the author of four previous books including Populuxe and The Total Package: The Secret History and Hidden Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans, and Other Persuasive Containers, provides a general historical and sociological overview of the passions that animate modern-day shoppers, spanning in just 240 pages the evolving desires, needs, and anxieties of shoppers from prehistoric times to the age of the Internet. Additionally, each of the book’s nine chapters embodies a force that Hine believes drives shoppers in their zeal for the never-ending shopping spree: Power. Responsibility. Discovery. Self-Expression. Insecurity. Attention. Belonging. Celebration. Convenience.
I Want That! pops in and out of significant eras that mark evolution in shopping and concepts of markets. Hine points to the beginnings of fashion branding in Roman times and describes ancient Athens as a booming marketplace where merchants were known to wet their wool to make it weigh more. One of the more interesting topics relates to the takeover of shopping centers following the new idea of manufacturing garments that were ready to wear, versus what had always been a process of waiting to have each of your clothes custom-made for you. Moving up to present-day consumerism mania, Hine touches on the weirdly secular and commercial aspects of Christmas and how, in times of crisis such as the days following September 11, government officials tout shopping as an act of patriotism.
Most of the time, I Want That! relies on light, sometimes-hokey commentary to carry the reader through the book. Hine attempts to sum up neatly the psychology of shopping in mainstream Western culture but turns to sweeping and stereotype-based statements that often seem more a display for Hine’s own coined term, the “buyosphere.” Not to be confused with the ozone layer and comet tails, the “buyosphere” is a cultural realm that consists of “a set of physical and virtual places and a state of mind” in which “we live much of our lives,” relying on shopping malls, department stores, television programs, fashion magazines, advertisements, and music videos as our chief arena for expression.
I started to feel uneasy about where this book was going when, still in the Introduction section, I noticed the “Responsibility” chapter addresses “shopping as a nurturing activity, especially for women.” As I read through this chapter, I started to imagine Hine in a former life, as a fly, living on a wall trapped in Beaver Cleaver’s house in the 1950s. Likely tapping into past insect memories of Mrs. Cleaver muttering aloud during the day when nobody was home, Hine describes what he believes goes on in the mind of a woman as she shops: “As she pushes her cart through the store, the shopper is constantly making judgments. She considers how to spend a limited budget, and balances this against the needs and desires of her family. She worries about whether her children are eating the right foods, and whether her husband is getting too fat.”
Statements like this are problematic as they inherently assume Hine’s female subjects (and readers) to be heterosexual as well as married. In addition, if you happen to be a married, heterosexual woman, Hine assumes that you have children, that you do all shopping for your kids and your lazy husband, and that you have a real interest in thinking about all your exciting grocery shopping possibilities as you roll your squeaky cart down the spaghetti aisle.
Pressing on for a definable gender link to shopping, Hine points to a “vast literature of marketing surveys” that examine the difference between men’s and women’s shopping habits. Referring to the authors of these vague surveys as “they,” Hine states “they know, for example, that women want to be able to feel the fabric of a blouse, while men like to feel their shirts are wrapped and untouched.” Hine goes on to describe his own lack of success in buying a good vacuum cleaner to illustrate “what it’s like to shop like a man.” He states that a woman in his situation wouldn’t make the shopping mistakes he did because she “would try to learn something [about vacuums] before she went shopping” versus Hine’s eagerness just to get a vacuum cleaner and get out of the store. Hine adds that even though “she might well be susceptible to the same sale price that hooked me . . . she wouldn’t feel awful about it.” His reasoning for this assertion? Because “contemporary women understand their role to be that of Chief Consumption Officer for the household.” Holy sexism, Batman!
In one sub-chapter entitled “Are Women Born to Shop?”, Hine brings up “two popular, purportedly scientific explanations for the differences between men’s and women’s shopping behavior.” The first explanation “says that women’s brains are different from men’s, and somehow more shopping-oriented,” although neuroscientists haven’t yet been able to pinpoint “‘a female-only shopping center’ in the cerebrum activated by the announcement of a blue-light special.” What? The second explanation relates women’s roles as gatherers in hunter-gather societies to a predisposition to shopping, likening the gathering practices of tribal women of the Kalahari to women in Boston shopping in Filene’s basement.
The real problem with this book, aside from its melodramatic chapter endings (“You’re looking. You’re learning. You’re alive”), its random assumptions (“We work in order to consume, and we consume in order to somehow compensate for the emptiness of our lives, including our work”), and its repetitive ideas (how many ways can you restate To Live Is To Shop?), is that it seems to be not only constructing women’s primary roles as that of passionate shoppers for their families, but that such a task is a hugely responsible, serious, and powerful activity that women should be somehow grateful to take charge of. It is one thing to examine the merits of buying power. But it is another thing entirely to state that when it comes to shopping and men, “it’s not their job. Men may shop, but it’s not what they do.” Obviously, Hine has never been to San Francisco’s Castro district, where a female shopper can kiss her chances of buying a fabulous pair of hot pants goodbye as she is run down by eager male shoppers.
By the end, the book touches on a couple of amusing factoids, but all I can say about I Want That! is I don’t want it!
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