Come to the Table: Shopping for Easter

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Easter! a time to buy chocolate, stuffed rabbits, hide eggs, and refresh your spring china collection. (Oh wait, that’s not the origin of Easter? It’s not originally a consumer holiday? Right.) One could be forgiven for imaging the origins of Easter lie solidly in bunnies and baskets.

Easter window displays at a shop in Asheville, NC.

Consumer culture marks holidays and signals seasonality, as Jack Santino describes so well in his work on holidays (New Old-Fashioned Ways: Holidays and Popular Culture ).

And so we know  Easter is coming when weird yellow marshmallow bunnies and Cadbury eggs arrive at the grocery store, and when home goods stores redesign their displays for the coming holiday.

Pier One (“Hoptown” Easter display)

 

This spring, so far before Easter that I wasn’t even sure what date the holiday was this year, I wandered by a Pier One and stopped short, called in by the  fantastical appeal of the Easter decor. Quirky rabbits, bright colors, matching china and decorative but pretty objects with no purpose (e.g.fake bird nests and wreaths with eggs) create a festival of Easter experience  all about the look and the stuff.

 

Just being in the store is an experience in itself; a few steps in, the Easter aesthetic subsumed me and I felt, as I was supposed to feel, lured, comforted, attracted to and compelled by the artful displays with their suggestion of order, conviviality, comfort, and pleasure. Browsing these displays is akin to a vicarious Easter celebration, and too much time spent here is an overdose that nearly negates the need for the holiday itself or its attendant products (an effect that undermines the store’s intentions!). If only they served food, the vicarious holiday would be complete.

The table settings were the most engrossing feature of this holiday cornucopia. Like other such stores (Pottery Barn offers similarly intricate Easter table displays), Pier One models the Easter table to its customers. Here, the store says, is how to have a holiday and how to set a table. These tables invite viewers (potential consumers) into an imagined dinner, encouraging us to envision our own experiences made better, made special—indeed, created at all—through  this aesthetic.

These displays follow in a long tradition of hostess how-tos. Even before 1869, when the Beecher sisters published An American Woman’s Home , housekeeping was never morally neutral (the good housewife, to Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, was also the one who maintained a moral Christian home).

The Easter table is about many things: food, community, perhaps faith, family, friends, and tradition. The table is never free of meaning, and the table aesthetic at Pier One helps convey these meanings. Some of the meanings are about money: the store’s Easter tables assume a certain income. If you can buy it, you, too, live this Easter dream (or maybe just a few place settings of it).

The store carries on the fantasy on its website, expanding the “hop town” theme and welcoming us virtually to this imagined space.

Real or virtual, the holiday table at Pier One offers a recipe for success and a prescription for how to produce the ideal holiday. And the way to produce that is to consume an interrelated family of products  that promise us the same kinds of emotional synergies and cohesive, bright holidays for ourselves.

*(In closing, I will disclose that though I managed to leave without any Easter paraphernalia,  I did spontaneously buy new wine glasses.  Pier One’s strategy worked.Once I was in, I went from looker to buyer. )

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Masculinity Underground

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Spotted in a Toronto subway station: These billboards for Harry Rosen, the elite Canadian men’s clothing store. I was intrigued by the no-holds-barred equation of masculinity, sexuality, physicality, money, and ownership. Also, these men “own” the “night” and the “weekend,” not traditional work times, but of course, presumably these hours extend (and are made possible by) their “ownership” of the daytime. This ad also reflects constantly shifting norms for male beauty, including a multi-racial man and a man with heavily tattooed arms who appears a model of business suave—his arm decoration enhancing rather than detracting from the power and success he represents. These men suggest progress in representations of ideal masculinity but yet of course, maintain the norm that it is beauty—however defined—that means success. And though different men may step on to this stage, they play the same parts when it comes to notions of masculine power. Harry Rosen’s models may be objectified, as targets of a gaze, but, they “own” their surroundings in traditional masculine style.

Covering Up Women’s Health at the Check-out Rack

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Publix, my (generally wonderful-other-than-their-refusal-to-support-the-CIW) regional grocery chain, saw fit to conceal this recent TIME Magazine cover on the rack, in the traditional manner of hiding pornography (I uncovered it to take the photo). As you can see, this issue—with the cover story discussing women’s changing approaches to breast cancer—was adjacent to Shape,  also concealed, presumably due to the scantily clad model on its cover (who was herself adjacent to a headline screaming “Shrink Your Belly!”).thumb_IMG_2832_1024 [At least, I’m guessing it was the model’s barely covered breasts that earned the Shape cover-up, and not the general offensiveness of reproducing tired and destructive messages about the female body and the need to make it ever-smaller. ]

Certainly, it’s intriguing that TIME chose a naked and conventionally slender female torso to make its point about a woman’s wrenching choice when it comes to investigating her propensity for breast cancer. On the other hand, the magazine is clearly depicting a woman doing a self-exam—not a sexual act—and yet the store has  relegated it to the status of quasi-pornography on the check-out rack. (This juxtaposition seems particularly evocative when we also consider the widely socially accepted sexualized discourse around breast cancer—the “save the tatas” movement.)

Surrounding these two magazines—one actually about women’s health, the other about marketing women’s bodies and sexuality—both covered in the manner of pornography—are other magazines promoting multiple varieties of American consumerism and intersecting it with gender, in the home, in the bedroom, in the mall. These messages, of course, gain no such censure.

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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.

Your Childhood Teddy Bear Grows Up

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Apparently, the Vermont Teddy Bear company has produced a “Fifty Shades of Grey” bear for Valentine’s Day, complete with handcuffs. I thought this was a joke when I heard about it on a news show. ( I’m still not convinced it isn’t, though evidence suggests otherwise, in form of the company’s website. And if it is a joke, then multiple news outlets include The Today Show were also taken in. It would be a great hoax, for sure.)

The copy on the company’s website reads: “If you want to dominate Valentine’s Day, skip the roses and send the limited-edition Fifty Shades of Grey Bear. Inspired by the best-selling book, the adult gift is specially designed for fans obsessed with Grey, biting their lips with anticipation over the movie. He features smoldering gray eyes, a suit and satin tie, mask – even mini handcuffs.”

Only 89.99.This particular bear comes with a safety warning: “Contains small parts. Not suitable for children.” Indeed.

The 50 Shades Bear is only one of a panoply of special Valentine’s Bears. They include: “The hoodie-footie bear,” “The I-Love-You-More-Than-Bacon Bear,” and the “Zombie Bear.” These specialty bears all average around $80.

I want to write about how the Fifty Shades bear shows an interesting trajectory for the classic teddy bear–from kids’ toy/love token/ to BDSM signifier (or at least, the book’s version of that). There’s really something rather brilliant and hilarious about turning a cuddly teddy bear into a symbol of sexual domination. As irony, it works. But here, I get caught in the conundrum of questioning intent–is the bear supposed to be funny? a pricey gag gift (surely no pun intended) as Today wondered, in a typical product placement bonanza on its website listing listed multiple Fifty Shades products? Or is it just seizing an opportunity? Who will buy the bear?

This column from The Daily Beast by Melanie Berliét makes very interesting points about how BDSM has been used as an advertising tool in recent years, along with critiquing the film and book’s portrayal of the practice.  Seen in this light, the Fifty Shades Teddy Bear is certainly nothing new. But the trend that Berliet describes raises another perpetual question in popular and consumer culture–once a subversive or alternative viewpoint or lifestyle becomes commercialized, what happens to it and its perception? Does the commercialization increase knowledge and change attitudes or just dilute the meaning of the original? Though Berliét’s article–and the teddy bear–reference a specific set of sexual practices, this question exists for lots of trends in popular culture.

Thus, the universe of “Fifty Shades” themed products merits discussion, though such cross-marketing is no surprise. We’d be more surprised if a potential movie block-buster did NOT arrive with products in tow. (And of course, this movie, given its subject matter and arrival on Valentine’s Day Eve, just begs for marketing tie-ins. The marketing of the film itself–with its emphasis on romance and its promise that love is sometimes neither black or white–is also intriguing, perhaps casting the book in a softer and more romantic light for film audiences?

Also, of course, this bear is just one artifact in a universe of Valentine’s Day goods, itself worthy of another post I promise to make soon.

And now I see my own Vermont Teddy Bear (very plain, devoid of props, received as a gift to celebrate some long-ago accomplishment) in a totally different light.

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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