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This just in: Women enjoy shopping

Maybe I'm missing the point, and I know it's just a dumb article about marketing, but it seems like this NY Times article seriously wants us to consider the inclusion of women in shopping focus groups as "the first step to a matriarchal society." The article's opening gambit is about how women were able to bring their domestic sensibility to revise a Calgary builder's home plans with such touches as a better laundry room and kitchens with windows that permit maximum surveillance of children. Bravo! It's woman's world after all! Men design and build the houses and make the money from selling them, but because women have been asked what they think of these houses, we're supposed to herald the fruits of the female-centric revolution.

Never mind the insuting propositon that purchasing power is an equivalent to social power (the organizing ideological tenet of the consumer society that consigns a populace to perpetual fits of fruitless desire and ceaseless identity-building lifestyle projects.) The idea that women do the shopping -- that "women are running their households like purchasing managers" -- is an old one, is one of the pillars of the home economics conceit that would segregate women from "real" economics and entrepreneurial activity. The time-honored stereotype is that men earn the money and women spend it, and this article only tweaks that narrative slightly: The women now earn money (fancy that!) and they may be involved with buying some traditionally male products like electronics gear. But the overriding tone remains one of mild astonishment at women's presence in the economic realm. "Market researchers are now embracing women as much more than domestic divas. They recognize them as buyers with their own careers and fattened pocketbooks, who are finding plenty to do and plenty to buy outside the home. Over the last several years, a cottage industry of consultants and authors, all offering advice and analysis, has sprung up around the pervasiveness of women in the marketplace." (Note "much more than" -- because all women are at their root "domestic divas," hypersensitive shrews preoccupied with inconsequential household trivia to boost their self-importance. And note the pejorative "fattened pocketbooks," and women's "pervasiveness" in marketplaces, as if stores were just clotted with women.) We're still expected to react as if this were a radical departure from their accustomed place in the home, sheltered from the hugger-mugger world of commerce.

With the ultimate aim of arguing that hotels are becoming more amenable to crucial women's needs (like storing jewelry and having better places to put their makeup in the bathroom) the article offers an anecdotes of women giving stereotypically male behavior the feminine touch: "When they arrived, the hotel gave them gift bags containing OPI nail polish that they swapped among themselves, based on their color preferences. They dined in the hotel’s restaurant and then returned to their suite for a private Texas Hold ’Em lesson from a poker expert, while the hotel sent up a steady flow of cocktails and snacks. 'We really had a good time,' Ms. Krause said. 'We played a round of blackjack, and craps, too.' " A whole round of blackjack. Very exciting, very matriarchal, not at all patronizing.

Also shoehorned into the piece is the tenuously related concept of special tourist packages designed for women to allow them to get together and shop unimpeded by men and thereby bond.

Ms. Biringer also arranges travel shopping trips for small groups of women to places like Los Angeles and New York. “Some of us end up in Prada, some of us in Century 21, but we always have a blast and, yes, ring up the purchases,” said Barbara Travers, who also attended a Crave Party in Seattle in August. “I’m usually the one dragging us into four-star restaurants and wine shops; they’re usually dragging me into Henri Bendel and Saks.”

Group events like these are tailored to women’s interests, Ms. Biringer said. “We need to get away from it all and be with our trusted friends,” she said. “Despite what people think, we don’t really pamper ourselves that much. When we do, we’re really happy, and men appreciate that.”

Women's interests: shopping, conspicuous luxury spending, "trusted" friends, but not too much self-pampering, not that much. This article is truly breaking new ground in discovering what women "really" want.

The article wraps up by returning to the home-builder anecdote, and lays the emphasis not on how women produced award-winning designs, but on how women's nagging bogs the process down: "Mr. Wenzel says that Shane Homes now takes about five times longer to design a home than it did just a few years ago. 'It’s critiqued once, twice, three times,” he said. “It’s a longer process, but we end up with better designs.' "

In all the article is a fine example of how journalists lean on gender stereotypes to structure their evergreen lifestyle articles, to make them smoothly familiar for readers, reinforcing comfortable but slightly outmoded stereotypes while pretending to challenge them. Readers can have their fears of the real threat (actual feminist progress; shifting responsibilities among gender lines) assuaged by the phony narrative the story supplies interstitially, wherein the yearned-for past is presented as the oncoming inevitable future.

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