Where are We Now? Balancing Homogeneity and Distinction

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Consumer spaces often  balance awkwardly between homogeneity and distinctiveness.  There’s a kind of overwhelming sameness to American consumerism–similar chains, products, experiences, aesthetics– (even if sometimes this sameness can be reassuring in its predictability–part of what made hotel chains so successful in the first place).  Even places that promise distinction are often different in similar ways. Think about a road trip–you get off the highway and you encounter the usual suspects–hotel chains, grocery chains, gas station chains, fast food and higher-end fast food depending on the place you’ve stopped. The higher-end places are grouped together. You can read the consumer landscape based on what chains you see. But some of these interchangeable locales make some nod to place–acknowledging that though they might look like any other Hampton Inn, McDonald’s, etc., they are actually located in a specific town, state, or highway interchange. The difference might be in a color scheme, a mural, brochures, a welcome sign. So customers can feel at once reassured by the promise of reliability but also be reminded they are somewhere specific with its own history, identity, and local culture.

I’ve seen these local adaptations at eateries and grocery stores from McDonald’s to Panera to, as you see here, Trader Joe’s. This Trader Joe’s is in Athens, Georgia, making customers feel at home with its murals of UGA and other Athens landmarks and its support for the Bulldogs. Other TJ’s appeal to the their own local histories.

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Somewhat paradoxically,  these homogenous consumer spaces contribute to shaping a sense of place. They also tap into the deep American desire for community. Local events advertised on a bulletin board at Starbucks make people feel even more like they’re in a “third place,” connected to other people, to a place, to a sense of identity. The same chain shopping experiences that can undermine this sense of connection endeavor to reproduce it.

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The South in a Koozie and Other Thoughts on Selling Regional Identity

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This spring, I visited Greenville, South Carolina, a great little town in the north west corner of the state. I went for a conference, but Greenville turned out to be a perfect case study for everything I’ve been thinking about— connections between place and history, between history and consumerism, and how consumerism shapes—and is shaped by—regional identity. My trip to Greenville came in the middle of a semester teaching my course on Southern History & Culture(s), in which we talk a lot about different ways of thinking about the U. S. South. We focus on issues of place and historical memory—we read essays from W. Fitzhugh Brundage’s great edited collection Where These Memories Grow —and we also talk some about how tourism, marketing, and consumerism have helped define the South (this semester we read selections from Tara McPherson’s Reconstructing Dixie, Anthony Stanonis’ edited collection Dixie Emporium , along with K. Stephen Prince’s Stories of the South , all books that have influenced how I think about these things).

So I had lots of ideas about Southern identity running through my head as I walked the streets of Greenville in the hours I was allowed out of the windowless conference chambers.

Greenville is an interesting mix—a revitalized, thriving small city that’s making the most of its history to attract residents and tourists, benefitting from the presence of nearby universities, a growing corporate presence, an arts scene, and a downtown that’s twice won the Great American Main Street Award.

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The downtown looks modern and nostalgic at once with brick-lined streets, nicely re-vamped historic buildings, artsy streetlights and foliage, statues and plaques commemorating people and events important to the city.

Lots to think about there in terms of marketing place.

But to move on to the koozies: I also found this intriguing store in Greenville: Southern Fried Cotton, http://southernfriedcotton.com (has another location in Clemson).

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The name is evocative, as no doubt intended—a seemingly incongruous blend of a classic Southern cooking style with a major symbol of the historical South.* Who would fry cotton and eat it? No one, probably, but that’s the point— a distinctive name that also thus implies the distinction of the products and perhaps of Southernness itself (more on this later).

The Southern Fried Cotton website promises “all things southern in all your favorite colors.” (The website is worth a visit—the imagery on the front page is striking, melding romance—a hallmark of any standard representation of the Old South, enticing flora and fauna, symbols of American pride—for Independence day—and old-style script that conjures bygone times.)

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So how can you buy the South in this shop? These photos help tell the story: Southern Fried Cotton is “inspired by southern style” and here, that “style” is wrapped up in images of the outdoors, objects that reference individualism and self-reliance (re-purposed bullets made into earrings), images of sweet and presumably loyal dogs.

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What I found most interesting (though not surprising) was the way gender norms inflected these products and this version of Southern “style.” These t-shirts and hats and decorative plaques offer more than a set of ideas about the South; they supply prescriptions for gender roles that tap into some very old ideas about (white) southern identity. So a “Southern Lady” is “someone who … has a pitcher of sweet tea at the ready-always writes a thank you note-knows pearls match everything—grows her own tomatoes and bakes pies for her neighbors….” and a “southern gentleman” can follow these “rules:” “always open doors for ladies. . . be kind. . . stay humble. . . cherish southern food. . . respect your elders. . . wear bow-ties, khakis. . .” And he can buy a “man-candle.” IMG_2017

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So these products reiterate boundaries for appropriate gendered behavior, boundaries around which conceptions of southern identity were built in the pre-Civil War era.  These lines are softer now; the consumerized (and popular culture-zed version of southern womanhood celebrates the active, steel magnolia southern woman); the gentleman memorialized on the t-shirt lacks the rigid, violent component of southern “honor.”

These sentiments echo in similar shops, on similar websites, and on myriad such products in the world of the consumerized South.

They are souvenirs, not of any particular South or part of the South but of a consumerized concept of the South. This consumer South lacks historical specificity and lacks, even, the specificity of a particular historical place.

Thus in Greenville, you can buy a piece of “Southern Fried cotton” that proclaims (or asserts, or borrows) a southern identity, but there’s nothing there to remind you that you got it in Greenville, South Carolina, a South that is different from Greenville, NC or Greenville, FL or Greenville, LA or Greenville, GA. And so, in the end, there’s really nothing distinctive inside the distinction of the fried cotton. Once the cotton is fried, the product is generic.

*and not surprisingly, the images of cotton are fluffy and nostalgic, devoid of the circumstances of production under first the plantation slavery system and then in the rigors of the post-Civil War textile industry. I don’t expect a t-shirt or drink koozie http://southernfriedcotton.com/collections/koozies/products/sofrico-navy-koozie to offer a history lesson, but it’s worth noting that such imagery is one small piece of the processes—in consumerism, in tourism—in popular culture that disassociate the nostalgic images of the Southern past from the gritty realities of that history (and its connection to equally grittier realities in the larger American history). (Tara McPherson makes great points about this type of nostalgia in Reconstructing Dixie.)

And yeah, I bought a couple of koozies.

The DeLand Bike Rally: Spectacle, Consumer Identity, Consumer Experience

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In early March, 2015, I checked out the Bike Rally in downtown DeLand (one of the kick-off events for Bike Week, most of which takes place closer to the coast in Daytona Beach and New Smyrna Beach). The rally transforms downtown and reorients local businesses. It’s a spectacle, a community event, a celebration of subculture, a family event (to an extent–the DeLand rally is way more tame than its coastal counterparts). It’s also a consumer events. Biker gear connotes biker identity. Gear shows brand identity. And gear is for sale.

Local shops cater to these guests. Signs welcome bikers at incongruous businesses like “Grrs-n-Prrs”, a pet boutique (though given that some bikers do travel with pets, this appeal might make some sense). Food and beer, biker accessories and event t-shirts are for sale. So are patches to sew on the backs of jackets, themselves both products and badges of identity–actual or ironic.

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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.