October 8, 2008

Women, consumption, the economy and the environment

This recent post at Jezebel on The Real Housewives of Atlanta entitled “The Real Housewives of Atlanta Represent the Crass Consumerism that is Ruining our Country” inspired me to spend some time talking about the larger role of women and consumption.

The Real Housewives of Atlanta — made up mostly of women who are wives of athletes — are the shallowest, bitchiest, and most materialistic we’ve seen in this Bravo series. All of them act like the girls you see on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 — demanding designer labels, extravagant birthday cakes, and fully loaded Escalades — but perhaps the most disgusting is Shereé, who talks about how much “class” she has, which is a sure sign she doesn’t have any.

If you still have’t seen The Story of Stuff, now is the time.  Annie Leonard brilliantly breaks down “our stuff” and details the story of consumption from extraction to disposal.  Within a fairly short period of time, Leonard connects this system and “our stuff” to advertisement messages we receive via the media and the impact that extraction, consumption and disposal has on our environment…and us.

Sut Jhally has been making these connections for years and his concern has guided his work on the media, advertising and consumption. His article, “Advertising at the Edge of the Apocalypse” was published in 1990 and is worth the time it takes to read.

20th century advertising is the most powerful and sustained system of propaganda in human history and its cumulative cultural effects, unless quickly checked, will be responsible for destroying the world as we know it. As it achieves this it will be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of non-western peoples and will prevent the peoples of the world from achieving true happiness. Simply stated, our survival as a species is dependent upon minimizing the threat from advertising and the commercial culture that has spawned it. I am stating my claims boldly at the outset so there can be no doubt as to what is at stake in our debates about the media and culture as we enter the new millenium…

…It is not enough of course to only produce the “immense collection of commodities” they must also be sold, so that further investment in production is feasible. Once produced commodities must go through the circuit of distribution, exchange and consumption, so that profit can be returned to the owners of capital and value can be “realized” again in a money form. If the circuit is not completed the system would collapse into stagnation and depression. Capitalism therefore has to ensure the sale of commodities on pain of death. In that sense the problem of capitalism is not mass production (which has been solved) but is instead the problem of consumption. That is why from the early years of this century it is more accurate to use the label “the consumer culture” to describe the western industrial market societies.

So central is consumption to its survival and growth that at the end of the 19th century industrial capitalism invented a unique new institution the advertising industry to ensure that the “immense accumulation of commodities” are converted back into a money form. The function of this new industry would be to recruit the best creative talent of the society and to create a culture in which desire and identity would be fused with commodities to make the dead world of things come alive with human and social possibilities (what Marx would prophetically call the “fetishism of commodities”). And indeed there has never been a propaganda effort to match the effort of advertising in the 20th century. More thought, effort, creativity, time, and attention to detail has gone into the selling of the immense collection of commodities that any other campaign in human history to change public consciousness. One indication of this is simple the amount of money that has been exponentially expended on this effort. Today, in the United States alone, over $175 billion a year is spent to sell us things. This concentration of effort is unprecedented.

With industrialization and the harnessing of machine power, factories were able to mass produce commodities in startling numbers.  As Jhally indicates, mass production REQUIRES mass consumption.  How is that possible in a cultural environment that valued thrift?


Advertising was (and still is) the vehicle that sold images, desires and lifestyles and created shifts in terms of the country’s values.  Rarely, can you identify the product that is being sold to the consumer.  That’s because it is not the product that is being sold.  It is the idea of who you could be, what you’ll feel like or how people will respond to you if you wear that perfume, drink that beer, drive that car.

What does this have to do with women?  Everything, as the Jezebel post indicates.

Women have been at the forefront of the shopping frenzy.  At the end of World War II, women returned to the domestic sphere or were demoted in the industrial jobs they held during mens absence in the war effort.  Upon their return, with renewed economic prosperity and the building of the suburban maze, women were targeted as professional homemakers and shoppers.

While advertising does not discriminate and manufacturers break down markets into specific demographics, shopping is still attributed to women.  Rarely, do I hear men proclaiming an afternoon of shopping as “retail therapy.”  Women have been socialized  to identify shopping as a fundamental female pursuit, hobby or, perhaps, even an art.  Shopping is neither of these things and shopping is not encoded into a woman’s biology.  Interestingly enough, while women are not experiencing an earning parity with men, they are shopping more…and falling into debt.

We can choose where we spend our money and how much of it we spend.  In the same way that women were urged to support capitalism post-WW II by shopping and filling their homes with appliances and furniture, we can begin a new revolution by limiting what we buy and where we buy it.