Monthly Archives: February 2014
Panty Politics: Consumer Activism and Commodity Politics
In the annals of consumer activism, last week’s protest of Eurasian Economic Commission regulations may not seem especially momentous. Consumer movements have often been at the heart of consequential political moments: Nonimportation Agreements and the Boston Tea Party rejected state control of one of the American colonies’ most prized commodities; antebellum free labor stores lobbied for purchasing goods that were not produced by captive labor; and “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns by African Americans made consumer space a battleground for civil rights from the 1920’s onward. Last week that activist heritage was revisited by women gathered in Moscow, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to protest a Eurasian Economic Commission ban against the sale of underwear containing less than 6% cotton, which eliminates all lace lingerie. Thirty Kazakh women in Almaty were sent to jail while wearing panties on their head and chanting “freedom to panties.”
This may have somewhat different historical consequence than the Greensboro sit-ins, but it is symptomatic of the political meaningfulness invested in prosaic commodities and the way such things fuel contemporary political consciousness and activism. Things have always been moralized and politicized, but Jean-Christophe Agnew argues that in the second quarter of the 20th century Americans’ politics began to be articulated in consumption; Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America argues that American rights are measured by access to consumer goods despite the persistence of longstanding class, racist, and gendered barriers to such access. It is one thing to argue that a material thing like lingerie is politicized; it is another to suggest that our public political practice springs from consumption, that we articulate our rights and the state’s obligations in response to our material desires and consumer experiences. Read the rest of this entry
The Anxious Enchantment of Poverty
Westerners have long been fascinated by poverty, simultaneously enchanted by human resolve in the face of hardship and anxious about gross human injustices in the midst of affluence. In 1896, for instance, traveler H.C. Bunner noted that “I have missed art galleries and palaces and theatres and cathedrals (cathedrals particularly) in various and sundry cities, but I don’t think I ever missed a slum.” Bunner and many of the observers chronicling the lives of the poor often painted pictures of impoverishment that are patently ridiculous at best, and in many cases the representations of penury are simply reprehensible.
One of the most crass contemporary interpretations of poverty may be the Emoya Shantytown Hotel, a faux South African “informal settlement” in Bloomfontein borrowing the aesthetics of South African townships. The hotel allows guests to “experience staying in a Shanty within the safe environment of a private game reserve. This is the only Shanty Town in the world equipped with under-floor heating and wireless internet access!” It is difficult to resist ridiculing such offensive enthusiasm for an overnight descent into poverty. Gizmodo, for instance, mocked the resort’s effort to “recreate the joys of slum living without the nuisances of crime, disease, or poor sanitation”; Atlas Obscura concluded that “Unlike the atmosphere of struggle and danger that exists for the millions of people living in real South African shanty towns, Emoya’s Shanty Town attempts to foster a warm vibe of back-to-basics community,” which “may be the nadir of class tourism, a place where people can pay more to pretend to have less”; and Stephen Colbert dubbed the odd resort “glamour slumming.” Read the rest of this entry
Unapologetic Defiance: the Post-Feminist Barbie
Since her introduction in 1959, Barbie has been greeted by exceptionally zealous defenses as well as fevered attacks on the doll’s representation of femininity, sexuality, and consumption. Barbie is often reduced to monolithic symbolism: e.g., Barbie as hypersexualized breasty flame; ditzy hedonist; or a model that “girls can do anything.” Such simplifications tell us very little about why the doll has been so compelling to over a half-century of consumers, and Mattel has often remained studiously separated from discussions about Barbie and sexuality; instead, Mattel suggests that Barbie is a sort of “blank slate” onto which children project their unfettered imaginations.
This week, though, Barbie appears in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue alongside flesh-and-blood models, an appearance that comes nearly simultaneous with Mattel’s ads that proclaim that Barbie is “unapologetic.” The embrace of Barbie’s inescapable sexuality and the brazen pronouncement that she is not apologetic is an interesting shift in Barbie’s social meanings that reflects Mattel’s willingness to celebrate Barbie’s idealized beauty and attack the doll’s critics. Read the rest of this entry
Domesticating Dissent: Consuming Johnny Cash
In 1957 Johnny Cash played a concert at Huntsville State Prison in Texas, the first of Cash’s roughly 30 prison concerts that railed on the American penal system and cemented Cash’s populist politics. Two these concerts were committed to vinyl: Live at Folsom Prison was released in 1968 and At San Quentin a year later, and the set lists are a masterful musical confluence of messages of religious redemption, the challenges of love, and the sobering realities of prison life. Cash cultivated a rebellious image that has expanded since his death, but he never spent more than a night in jail (all for misdemeanors); nevertheless, he is now painted as a hard-living, stylish, and thoughtful renegade expressing resistance to inequalities and repressive social values.
Cash secured pop culture stardom by the time of his death in 2003, and since his death Cash has become a compelling mass-consumed symbol. One of the most famous images of Cash was taken at the San Quentin concert, when photographer Jim Marshall requested “a shot for the warden” and Cash gave him the finger. The image has been endlessly reproduced, including ads run by Cash’s label in 1998, tattoos, smartphone cases, posters, stickers, and numerous t-shirts. Read the rest of this entry