The media hype surrounding Black Friday this year astounded me in its hijacking of the Thanksgiving holiday into something commercial and crass. As many commentators pointed out, a day that used to mean spending time with your family has become a competitive spectator sport. Stores opened at obscenely early hours for “specials” that had shoppers stealing out of each others’ carts. This scarcity tactic led to people mobbing shops and even pepper-spraying other shoppers to get something they certainly didn’t need in the first place.
In the mid to late 90s, my women’s studies students and I organized an event called Why Shop? Week to raise awareness about the connection between women producers of products—generally low-paid workers in underdeveloped and developing countries—and women consumers—the audience for fashion and beauty advertisements founded on the message that women are never good enough so buy, buy, buy, including products that are unsafe and unhealthy. Both of these groups of women should be natural allies because they face a common struggle for women’s rights. That is, women’s lives should not be limited and trivialized by sexist stereotypes of women as merely producers or consumers of products. When women consumers realize that the products they’re told to buy to improve themselves are often produced by other women in unsafe and exploitative working conditions, shopping can be seen in another light. By learning the story behind the product and asking “Who Made It?” Who Needs It?” and “Who Profits from It?,” we can start to free ourselves from a misogynistic consumerism that profits from women’s economic and social vulnerability. Women are more than what they buy and they deserve fair wages and working conditions for any job they undertake.
Sure, it’s not simple. Women all over the world need jobs, but low wages and dangerous conditions for some women should not be the necessary conditions upon which other women’s self-esteem is based.
These connections are not easy to make but my students came up with innovative ways to—at the very least—start questioning the link between US consumption practices and women’s labor exploitation. One year they staged an alternative fashion show called “Crimes of Fashion: Are They Worth It?” exposing the real world of fashion, especially the labor exploitation of sweatshop workers in the U.S. and overseas. Here the students modeled “recycled” clothing from a second-hand store to suggest creating one’s own fashion sense rather than following trends found in magazines.
Another year they created an alternative beauty pageant called “Ms. Assembly Line” whose talent segment featured contestants from garment, athletic shoe, appliance, and agricultural businesses demonstrating their production skills, while a red, white, and blue-sequined Ms. Super Shopper displayed her talent running up a hefty credit card tab. The students’ even revised the lyrics to the famous pageant song: “She is the poorest of the poor/ Except in the U. S. where she has more and more.”
Another year, the skit, “Shop ‘Til They Drop,” included talk show host Sally “Dressy” Raphael interviewing guests with shopping addictions, including Cher, a teen shopper from Beverly Hills; “Grandma Claus,” an overly generous holiday shopper; Mikey Swoosh, a Nike fanatic; and Annie Smith, a high school student addicted to beauty products. Experts helped guests face their addictions by educating them about their consumption habits.
For each of these events, the students decorated shopping bags highlighting the disparity between wages and profits for common women’s products while questioning the message that enough is never enough.
With Why Shop? Week, we tried to raise awareness about the role consumerism plays in limiting women’s rights. I hope when my former students hear about Black Friday, they reflect on the ideas we discussed years ago. I’m discouraged that shopping has been raised to a national holiday and that people are even harmed by manufactured scarcity and media hype. Black Friday sounds like a plague—and like a disease, it seems to have spread a terrible contagion: greed. I hope next year we say “Enough is Enough” to the stores, advertisers, and manufacturers that trivialize our freedoms and cheapen our lives with a shopping mania in service of profits for a few rather than rights for all.