Empowering Women Through Bangles

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While strolling the streets of quaint and chi-chi Winter Park, with friends this past weekend, I made my first visit to an Alex and Ani store. This jewelry trend was new to me, but my friend who teaches high school knew all about it. The company has been around for a decade, but has only had retail stores for about five years, and the store in WP only opened last year. So perhaps I can be forgiven for my cluelessness. Now I’m completely fascinated by this company.

In case you, dear reader, are also not up on the latest jewelry trends, here’s the deal:

Along the lines of Pandora, Alex and Ani offer a sort of do-it-yourself experience; shoppers choose charms, combine bangles, or select symbolic stones  to create something unique for them.

The company says it is all about empowering women and expressing identity: “ Alex and Ani believes in the power of positive energy, a core company principle. We have made it our mission to share the benefits of positive energy through the unique beauty and symbolism of our products.”

(See their website, which is fascinating in itself.)

In its appeal to femininity, Alex and Ani taps into some centuries-old understandings of women as mysterious and nature-oriented. It also calls upon a vision of “you go girl” sisterhood that offers female bonding without the politics of 1970s feminism. (This puts me in mind of the great chapter in Susan Douglas’ book Where The Girls Are in which she talks about how advertising in the late 1070s and ‘80s co-opted feminist ideals of empowerment and independence by equating those goals w/ products. Everyone should read this book.)

The store promotes female uniqueness and difference (what students of feminism might call “cultural feminism,” which says that women have unique, special qualities that will enable them to contribute to society differently from men but in important ways). Here, you can express and attain that inner spirit through carefully chosen jewels and charms.

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Text here:

“Natural Wonders/Innate/Untamed/Mysterious

The heart and soul of the sixties flower child is firm rooted in a deep respect for the Earth. Inspired by this vast planet and the ancient belief in the healing properties of natural gemstones, the Natural Wonders Collection contains stones specifically chosen for their innate power. Let the vibrations created by these patterns empower you on a lifelong journey of joy and exploration.” 

Made in America With Love/www.alexandani.com

The company also  “honors a legacy of American tradition and culture with influential licensed partners, in alignment with our positive brand mission, across a broad array of institutions – from Major League Baseball® and the United States Olympic Committee to the five military branches.” (See photo: “sorority collection” and “collegiate collection”.)

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The organization also sells charms representing certain charities and benefits them by giving profit back to the charitable organization.

Cynically, what I draw from all this is how fabulously the company has created opportunities of marketing and cross-promotion. Creating a “sorority line,” for example, insures a built-in audience for the product. Same with the “collegiate” line.

The colored stones, each with a special meaning, IMG_0288remind me of the New Age crystals craze that swept the nation in the ‘80s; that was a sort of return of a hippie healing mindset, a step removed from the politics of late ‘60s America. Today’s version is yet a step further from its origins, updating and prettifying the crystals craze so that mystic connection to nature comes sanitized, pre-packaged, neatly presented in charms, beads, and bracelet wire.

Of course, what Alex and Ani offers is only a pre-packaged uniqueness; shoppers can decide who they are and how to express themselves, but they have to choose, of course, from the possibilities laid out before them. That’s nothing new in the world of consumerism—the illusion that choice offers us possibilities to define ourselves, but in fact, those very choices are limited from the start. That’s not my idea; see the Frankfurt school theorists Adorno and Horkheimer if you want to know more. Or for an updated take on what choice means to American consumers, check out Barry Schwartz’ book, The Paradox of Choice.

All that said, Alex and Ani has some very cool company goals and policies. (http://www.alexandani.com/our-story) They make their jewelry in the U. S., they hope to improve local economies by adding to vibrant downtowns, and it celebrates female individuality.

So, here we have a fascinating blend of ideologies and artifacts: appeals to a type of essential femininity, a quasi-feminist celebration of personal identity, a reiteration of traditional femininity expressed through jewelry, an appeal to national loyalty, a social consciousness (community, making and buying American. All of this deep meaning is available for a price.

And it’s not THAT expensive; you can buy a charm bangle for $28. But of course, one is not supposed to stop there; the store’s website suggests layering multiple bangles to make a unique look. One bangle is merely a gateway bangle to more.

So, is a company like this a way to change the world through stuff? Designers and sellers can create products, infuse them with meaning, offer that meaning to buyers, who then presumably sign on to the meaning in order to own the product?  And it’s not just talk; after all, women built and run this company, so there is real female empowerment going on here. Or is this merely a superficial way to acknowledge world and life issues of justice, the battle for individuality, and women’s social role? I’m thinking the latter, but I’m open to discussion. To really answer these questions, we’d need to know more about the buyers’ motivations and the role the jewelry plays in their lives. We’d also need to follow the company over time to see how much impact they are able to have on the charitable missions they support.

In Nairobi, Kenya, women make ceramic beads by hand, producing beautiful jewelry (Kazuri) that is marketed across the world. These women make money from this work and gain status in their community. The organization is part of the World Fair Trade Organization.

So, how is this different from what Alex and Ani is doing? In both, we’ve got beautiful jewelry, social consciousness, and a good story. I like the Kazuri jewelry better, but that’s not really the point. In Alex and Ani, empowering women seems to be a marketing tool; in Kazuri, it seems to be the real thing.

One news article describes Alex and Ani as a “lifestyle brand” ; perhaps that’s the difference.

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Southern Identity For Sale at the Mall

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Check out this mannequin in the window of Dixie Heritage, a shop in a Sanford, Florida mall. Draped in fragments of the Confederate battle flag, she performs her “Dixie Heritage” a for passers-by, linking female sexuality, southern womanhood, and southern identity.

Dixie Heritage continues a long tradition of marketing regional identity, packaging southernness in objects and icons. For more, see the great essay collection Dixie Emporium: Tourism, Foodways, and Consumer Culture in the American South (Ed. Anthony Stanonis, U of Georgia Press, 2008)

Though everything in this shop window epitomizes the creation of regional identity through consumerism, I find the mannequin particularly interesting. She may be the latest in a long line of women performing southernness for audiences.

If you’ve ever seen the infamous yet classic D. W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation (1915),* you may remember how the little sister of the Southern Cameron family, Flora, decorates her worn dress with cotton to welcome her older brother home to their South Carolina town after the Civil War. Because her family lost their wealth during the war, the cotton is all she can manage for adornment, so it represents her pride, the family’s lost wealth, and the defiance that would characterize Lost Cause ideology. In that scene, Flora embodies the linkage between white womanhood and the South that had been a major element of antebellum white southern identity and that continued to define post-Reconstruction depictions of the white South.

Flora was pure and chaste, as the white upper-class Southern belle of her era (and the many later iterations of her) was supposed to be.

This mannequin embodies an updated version of that image, one that makes room for working-class womanhood, for a self-defined “redneck” womanhood,*** and for sexuality. The mannequin doesn’t pretend to modesty. She celebrates her own body in a modern way that some might claim as feminist (and others might see as exploitative). Her association with camo and a reclaimed “redneck” identity (see photo below) demonstrates she is not of the wealthy belle class.

There’s something to celebrate in the broadening of idealized southern womanhood beyond the upper class, to be sure. And there’s something great about a version of ideal womanhood that challenges the very idea of an ideal; these women can be tough, gun-toting, beer-drinking, race-car driving just as a man could.

But on the other hand, having woman stand in for region is no more progressive than it ever was. Possibly this mannequin has traded one set of stereotypes for another.

I’ve used the word “embody” a lot here for a reason. The mannequin-woman trades on her body and her sexuality; her womanhood IS her body, and that reductionism has never been positive for women. Of course, she’s also a marketing tool; her clothes and her image are for sale and the allure of her bikini-d mannequin body intends to draw customers into the store. There, they can purchase southern identity made tangible in belt buckles, towels, clothing and other paraphernalia, available in shades of camo, laced through with the red, white, and blue of the rebel flag.

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* Birth of a Nation is the film about the Civil War and Reconstruction infamous for its racist portrayals of African Americans played by whites in blackface, its twisted portrayal of history, and its celebration of the KKK; classic for its pioneering film techniques)

**Flora also ends up jumping to her death, running away from Gus, a biracial man who was running after her asking her to marry him. The presumption in the film was that Gus was going to rape her, and thus she had to jump to her death to save herself. Flora’s brother and his KKK buddies lynch Gus in revenge. The whole sequence justifies the violent actions of the KKK in the Reconstruction era and previews the violence the second Klan would exert on black men following its founding in 1915. The film helped sustain the myth of “black man as rapist,” one of the most damaging stereotypes of the post-Civil War era, used to justify lynchings of innocent black men at the hands of white mobs.

***Thanks, Gretchen Wilson; the lyrics to “Redneck Woman” (2004) pretty much sum up the image.

 

American Identity in a Candle

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Perhaps not accidentally, adjacent to “Man Candles” (see post below) Yankee Candle showcased patriotic American candles. Given, again, that the brand claims to be   “America’s best loved candle,” this is not surprising.

Turns out, you can find patriotic feeling through a candle. All you have to do is purchase a candle from the “Great American Summer Home Accents” collection and learn “what spirit smells like.” From the “God Bless America” candle (garnished by the statue of liberty) to “Clean Cotton” (a Yankee Candle standard, this time around featuring an iconic image of laundry hanging near a white picket fence) to  “Stars and Stripes” and “Let Freedom Ring,” YC offers plenty of choices for lighting up the summer in an all-American way.

(It turns out that “spirit smells” something like cinnamon and other spices with a little bit of woodsiness and apples.)*

 

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Talk about nostalgia. A nostalgic product in itself, Yankee Candle has always conjured images of cozy hearths and traditional homes; now, with this “Americana” iconography, it harks back to the most enduring (and problematic) of American mythologies—that simple values and simple times are the bedrock of American culture.

With a candle, then, people can return to some imagined, distant, dream of a true “American” summer. They can also return to a simple notion of national identity embodied in the “glory of an All-American Summer,” an identity far easier to deal with than the complex reality of a rising class gap, messy foreign relations, eroding infrastructure, and polarized national politics. Perhaps it’s reassuring to think that, for a moment, courtesy of an “America the Beautiful” candle, life can seem a little safer and patriotism a little simpler.   Of course, this reassurance comes only from consuming a product (and what could be more American than that?).

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(* A side point: I couldn’t help but think about Nirvana’s “teen spirit,” when I read this YC copy, as probably anyone of a certain age might, an association that takes this ad copy even funnier, since that particular brand of grunge “spirit” is antithetical to the YC message. And of course, there are no threatening teens in these ad images, only cheerful, multicultural children wearing stars and stripes.)

Man Candles! Finally. Really.

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Glimpsed in a mall shop window: this display promoting “man candles.” Man candles! What are those? Clearly, an accessory for the “man cave.”

Courtesy of Yankee Candle, this poster—and the store display—provide quite an education in the gender of candles.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that candles have gender (a quality traditionally reserved for humans, who, as living beings, actually enact conventions of masculinity and femininity, something inanimate objects would find hard to do); certainly, candle stores have strategically, if often implicitly, appealed to female consumers. Now Yankee Candle makes explicit its gendering of this inanimate object.

If these items are “man candles,” then all the other candles in the store must be “woman candles.”) Yankee Candle promises “this year’s must have gift for Dad,” with an air of solving a longstanding problem: Finally, the half of the population left out of mass candle buying has products for them.

Of course, the “man candles” herein conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity in ways almost too easy to bother analyzing: hunting, outdoorsiness, big machinery, alcohol, and, well, just SMELL.

This promotion made me wonder. What DOES camo smell like? (Turns out, it smells a little like the woods, in a good way.) Why do we NEED “man candles?” Have men been lacking candles? Do women just secretly want reasons to buy men candles as a way of increasing their own candle supply? Do men want to buy each other candles but feel constrained by the feminine associations with this product? (After all, the usual scents are things like rose, gardenia, pumpkin, cinnamon and so on. Everyone knows those are “woman smells.”).

Candles could be an aid to romance, which might certainly transcend heteronormative gender assumptions, but on the other hand, will prospective consumers find themselves in the mood when they sniff “on tap” or “riding mower?” I’m thinking not. (“On Tap,” one of the man-scented candles, smells truly foul, like the most stale of bars passed by on the street on a Sunday morning).

“Man Town” smells pleasantly of traditional aftershave, clean and fresh, but still, it’s kind of a weird scent for a candle. If none of these fit the bill, there’s always “MMM, Bacon!,” which like all candles, you could purchase as a candle or as a car air freshener (because who wouldn’t want their car to smell like bacon).

The man-candle marketing doesn’t end with the window; a full display inside (looking ahead to Father’s Day) includes an enticing array of these new scents, along with the “Man Candles Toolbox Gift Set,” which packages “tumbler candles” in , you got it, a toolbox. I guess candles seem even less like candles if they come in a glass the man could put liquor in and a container he could pack tools in later. Or perhaps, the candles ARE tools.

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The Father’s Day conceit continues in the store’s seasonal catalog: “give dad what he really wants. . . it’s really not that complicated.”

On another page, options for holding the candles: “Hero’s Boots Jar Candle Holder.” The text proclaims, “Boot, Baseball and Beer. . . Things Dad Loves.” See photo above for the boots in action with some camo candles.

What more is there to say about this? Probably I’ve said enough, except to conclude that this marketing ploy fits a trend I’ve noticed in mainstream consumer culture: products become ever more gender-specific—in the most traditional ways—even as women and men in the United States continue to test gender norms in their own lives, from changing roles in relationships, to changing conceptions of normative relationships, to increasing understanding of transgender identity and genderqueer identity.

Yet mainstream consumer culture holds steadfast to these norms, sometimes in the most farcical ways. Yankee Candle clearly wants to reassure its customers that in their shop, at least, traditional social norms prevail. And since they are (as they claim), “America’s best loved candle,” this message clearly matters.

Feminist History for Sale

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Spotted in a Barnes & Noble women’s studies section: This new “keepsake journal” version of Gail Collins’ 2010 history of “American Women from 1960 to the Present.” This book also comes in a totally regular paperback edition (see below), but you’ll notice something is missing from the original version: a way to make the reader feel involved by contributing her (presumably her) own thoughts and experiences.

The new version nicely synthesizes trends in journaling and scrapbooking with reading. Really, this book is now a sort of DIY coffee table history. Why was this necessary? Do readers need to be guided to “preserve memories of the way things were?” Perhaps so; certainly, the “reading group guides” in the back of so many popular novels nowadays suggest that publishers believe readers need much guidance, indeed.

Here, again (not unlike in the WFM example, below), a particular irony emerges: this book is implicitly and sometimes explicitly a feminist history of a period when women made great advances, some of which centered on questioning dominant societal institutions. This keepsake version plays right into the dominant institutions of marketing and consumerism while reiterating the image of women as keepsake-makers.

It’d be interesting to know the rationale behind this edition. Certainly, this “ Keepsake Edition of the national bestseller, now with space to preserve and share personal memories of the way things were” (Amazon) retails for more ($20 as opposed to $16 for the paperback or 9.99 for the kindle), but it’s safe to assume that generating a wider audience was equally important.

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Organic Groceries with a Helping of Irony

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California 2013 127California 2013 125  California 2013 126Organic Groceries with a Helping of Irony

Here are some shots of the Whole Foods Market in Haight-Ashbury, on Haight Street right across from Golden Gate Park.

This decor is a great example of how consumer culture–retailers, advertisers, and the like–co-opt progressive movements to serve consumer ends. So here, we have the (somewhat) progressive, organic, chi-chi, and trendy Whole Foods Market (see Michael Pollan’s commentary on WFM for an explanation of the “somewhat”)embracing a kitschified hippie aesthetic. Note the flower power on the walls and dangling from the chandelier, along with the artsy “Peace Out” sign. The obvious irony here (perhaps so obvious I shouldn’t bother stating it) is that hippie, commune culture was really about the opposite of bougie-WFM consumerism.

See Thomas Frank’s great book, The Conquest of Cool, for how advertisers back in the 1960s themselves co-opted the discourse and imagery of the hippie movement to sell their products. Clearly, the same strategy is at work today.

Opened in 2011, this particular WFM was built partly from recycled materials.