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Is the High Street Really a Liberating Arena for Women?
January 5, 2005
by Diana Goss & Ian Pace

To open the New Year, the Observer ran an article by Amelia Hill and Anushka Asthana, entitled ‘She’s young, gifted and ahead of you at the till’ (Observer, 2nd January).

The thesis of this article is that the high street in Britain is now a thoroughly ‘feminised’ space which attracts affluent and educated young women in particular. These two authors unwittingly portray women as atomised mindless shoppers set up to meet the demands of large corporations under the guise of thus being ‘educated’, then try to consider how similar marketing strategies might be employed to encourage this group of young women to vote more often (only 36% of 18-24 year old women voted in 2001, 23 percentage points below turnout rates of all voters and 7 per cent fewer than young men). Reading this article, I personally could only feel exasperated at the notion of the high street as a liberating arena for women, a notion which the authors of the article seem to accept almost uncritically. Shopping and consumerism as a form of feminist liberation is an argument that has been advanced by other writers in the British press recently, notably Linda Grant in the Guardian and India Knight in the Sunday Times (and in more extreme form by Naomi Wolf in her article ‘Anti-Consumerism equals Anti-Womanism’) and sadly seems to be gaining a lot of currency. All such writing begs the question: who benefits? Women or the retailers?

The authors point out that such women have a ‘large disposable income’ but then later point out that ‘women's borrowing doubled between 1996 and 2001, with the average woman in debt owing more than 13 times her monthly income and more likely than men to possess store cards with outrageously high interest rates’. Nowhere do they question how ‘real’ this disposable income is in such circumstances. The archetypal female consumer, here described as ‘Joanna Public’, a few rungs up the economic ladder than in previous times, maybe ‘represents the most influential sector in modern British society’ but is also the most likely to be targeted by the retailers, who have similarly unscrupulously targeted the tweeny market, kids with a disposable income.

According to the article ‘Joanna’s value to the economy is immense: she not only chooses the larger purchases for herself and her partner but also decides where they eat, how they decorate their home and what they wear’. As Naomi Klein points out so vividly in her book No Logo, a large proportion of the products thus being bought are produced by young women (whose aspirations and desires may not be so dissimilar to Joanna Public) in export processing zones in Asia, working in abominable conditions, sleeping in barely converted pigsties, their sleeping places marked out with white lines not unlike car parks, urinating in plastic bags under their sewing machines because of lack of toilet breaks, and forced to take not only amphetamines to keep them awake if a large order is due for the western market, but also contraceptives on the grounds that pregnancies amongst staff are ‘bad for business’. This is the reality of the working conditions that produce the clothes that this new breed of affluent educated woman has been seduced into buying. In the Philippines alone there are fifty-two such export processing zones (EPZ’s) with 229,000 female workers, mostly young and living away from the rural communities their families inhabit, working 12-hour days for wages way below the subsistence level in order to fill orders for companies mostly based in the USA, Britain, Japan and Germany. Estimates suggest that in China there are 18 million such women working 16-hour days in 124 of these EPZ’s. This is the dark underbelly of this ‘new era of shopping that is entirely driven by what will encourage women to spend money.' The ‘emancipation’ of women as ‘key shoppers’ needs to be viewed in this light. True emancipation for women might come better from boycotting firms (which include many of the major high street chains) who exploit their Asian sisters in this manner.

The authors quote the director of Allegra Strategies as saying ‘Women have always controlled the high street but in the past five years they have completely dominated it’. This is exactly the message that the large corporations wish to propagate, suggesting disingenuously that they are merely responding to a demand that was already there. On the contrary, it is the corporations who control and have always controlled the high street. The notion that the consumers, female or male, are ‘in control’ is a seductive fantasy but nothing more than that. Consumerism is supply- rather than demand-led; needs are very carefully created (rather than merely responded to) by the identification of vulnerabilities that can be exploited through advertising. These strategies have infiltrated the less commercialised arenas of terrestorial television as well, as witnessed by the growth of ‘make-over’ programmes over the last 5 years or more, in which ordinary people are made to feel uncomfortable about how they dress, eat, decorate their house, even conduct their sex lives, with the promise of redemption through some type of ‘make-over’. A hairdresser like Niki Clarke found fame and fortune by seeking to better the allegedly dull existence of women at home; the abominable Trinny and Susannah belittle women into dressing differently using similar techniques. These programmes are aimed at demonstrating to women how much better they can look, dress and be attractive to whom? Men, of course. They identify the vulnerabilities so as to create a need, then offer a ‘solution’, just as advertising and marketing bodies have done for decades. Is this really anything other than demeaning to educated women?

According to the Observer article, the most successful stores are those that have ‘feminised’ their products. Does this not equally patronise women by suggesting that the purchase of pots and pans or the operation of a vacuum cleaner are naturally ‘feminine’ traits? The notion that as a woman I would prefer a power tool with a rubbery handle I find extremely insulting, and wonder what the next step might be? A DVD player decorated with pink ribbons? A lawnmower designed in the shape of a vacuum cleaner?

Peter Yorke does at least point to the bright pink, lightweight power spiral saw, produced by RotoZip Tool Corporation and targeted at women as a prime example of the ‘patronising pink tool’ syndrome. But he might ask if more affluent women are likely to do their own carpentry, rather than employing a tradesman (or woman) to do so, just as an affluent man often takes his automobile to the garage to be fixed rather than doing the work himself. Perhaps the retailers might similarly market some butch knitting needles in order to induce men to knit more often?

Young women certainly do have a greater control of their income than previously, and this is of course something to celebrate. If it is ‘she, and not her boyfriend or husband, who decides how much to spend’, is this maybe because men have different types of leisure pursuits, such as playing golf, watching football or tinkering with the car in the garage?

Where is the evidence for Joanna Public’s ‘strong opinions’, especially if she is less likely to vote than her male counterpart? I sometimes wonder how much has really changed in terms of perceptions since Freud wrote in 1933 that ‘women are deemed to be closer to nature, more passive, weaker in their social interests and as having less capacity for sublimating their instincts than men’ Jane Ussher wrote in 1991 that ‘women’s sexuality was set by the gender elite’. It would seem that women’s consuming habits are set by the male-dominated corporate elite today. The Victorian woman was held ‘to have a head almost too small for intellect but just big enough for love’, (Shfrock, 1966). The retailers and marketers seem to think along similar lines when considering her potential ‘love’ for consumer goods.

Are young women really ‘the great untapped power in today’s society’ or more of the ‘untapped purse’ in corporate eyes? As the article points out clearly, women continue to earn substantially less then men, so their purchasing habits are focussed upon smaller items such as household goods, clothes and now small household tools. I would imagine that the property, plant and car markets remain targeted towards male consumers. There is evidence of changes in the car market by the more ‘feminised’ cars such as Ford KA or Vauxhall Tigra, small cars aimed at the 20-30 market with a cabriolet option, usually 2 door and with a boot big enough for a jolly good shopping spree. Even the names of these cars are presented as more non-aggressive, e.g. ‘Tigra’ as opposed to ‘Tiger’ (and where does that leave the ‘Cobra’, a powerful car with the name of a venomous deadly snake, a phallic symbol?). And of course, ‘KA’ is so easy to spell even for the educated woman! Lambourgini, Porsche Boxter or the well-known phrase ‘Voorsprung durch Technik’ are all clear examples of the male-dominated language designed to exclude women. One can imagine one of Harry Enfield’s 1950s characters speaking to a female potential buyer, saying ‘Now, don’t you worry your pretty little head about that, pet, let’s just call it a Ka!’ This is emblematic of the type of cynical contempt with which the automobile industry treats female purchasers. Similarly, the cigarette companies successfully ‘feminised’ their products in order to increase the number of women smoking, by changing names form Navy Cut to Silk Cut, the billboard ad showing a piece of purple ribbon suggestively slashed to bear a resemblance to a vagina.

The ‘feminisation process’ spoken of is nothing more than yet another cynical marketing ploy. It’s hardly difficult to visualise the talk around the boardroom table about how to find yet more strategies to extract the female pound from her purse using key words such as ‘pink’, ‘small’, ‘manageable’ or ‘hard and rubbery’, rather like a penis, to appeal to her subconscious libidinal needs. This whole process is just yet another example of women’s needs as perceived by men, coming close to urban myths of sexually frustrated housewives sitting on top of the spinner whilst their husbands are at work (doing a proper job, no doubt). Most of those working in consumer research and retail cited in the article are men (Jeffrey Young, Robert Clark, Patrick Gray, Will Glagey, Peter Yorke, Chris Garner), who continue to dominate this field, believing women to be vulnerable and easy targets, to be bullied into buying more products in order, supposedly, to be able to make themselves less vulnerable to men’s power over them. Who is really in control in a sexual situation if not the seductress?

Of course this will all be anathema to Naomi Wolf, who reiterates patronising male put-downs of earlier feminists when she says, with reference to women involved in the anti-globalisation movement:

‘And here and there, hanging back, you will see their misguided, self-hating female collaborators, doing their best to look like their male Alpha-wolf leaders in deliberately unflattering hairstyles and cast-off biker and soldier garments. The sheer unattractiveness of these victims' style is itself the best evidence for the benefits of shopping -- benefits these women have chosen to forego.’ (from ‘Anti-Consumerism equals Anti-Womanism’)

Perhaps these women might do better to buy into the ‘Beauty Myth’ that we all thought that Naomi Wolf deplored so much? She buys totally into a construct of some essential ‘femininity’ created by men and the mass market, and denigrates those women who choose to reject it. It is her, rather than the courageous women opposing globalisation, who is in league with patriarchy and the rigid models it imposes upon women.

‘Future democracy relies on engaging their [women’s] voices and their votes in a way we have so far failed to do’, says Vera Baird QC, Labour MP for Redcar and spokeswoman for the Fawcett Society. Maybe a genuine democracy might come about if women weren’t besieged by adverts and television programmes designed to breed self-consciousness about how others see them. Educated women need to vote with their feet away from the male and corporate-controlled high street and visit, say, an art gallery instead of a shopping precinct.

The sinister words of Patrick Gray of Experian, hoping to make women ‘use similar brand values when it comes to buying for her children and partner’ is enough to make anyone concerned about globalisation scream. Maybe he would like children to be given sticks of rock with ‘Buy buy BUY!’ written through the middle, targeting them when they are really young (which in other ways they are already doing).

Retailers’ success in persuading Joanna Public to spend ‘18 per cent more on clothing, footwear and accessories in 2004 than in 2003’ is a success for them, not for her. If women could be persuaded to spend less time in the shops, they could spend more time fighting for better wages, or engaging in ‘culture jamming’ exercises as suggested by Klein. The success of retailers in targeting a still economically disadvantaged group is not so different to the establishment of casinos in poorer parts of the UK.

The ‘neat categories’ that the marketing men construct for young women are and always have been social constructs, exacerbating the social pressure to conform to some types of role models. As a psychotherapist myself, I know clearly how much emotional and psychological strength it requires to allow oneself to be seen as ‘different’ and risk ostracisation from a social group. ‘Neat categories’ offer a ‘felt’ safety, free from the unpredictable one where individuals do not always conform to preconceived categories. The retailers and marketing men know this as well as I do, and exploit it mercilessly, whilst pretending to offer ‘emancipation’ for the women they exploit in this manner. Compulsive shoppers rarely act from a position of genuine individualism; rather they are victims of a collective narcissism disseminated from above. This article colludes with the patriarchal notion that women are essentially mad, in need of treatment. The doctors of the Middle Ages were able to make a comfortable living out of this notion of female madness, followed by the pharmaceutical companies. Now the retailers have jumped onto this band wagon, substituting ‘retail therapy’ for Bedlam, ECT and valium. This is a tribute to the marketing man and lifestyle guru and certainly not beneficial to women.

The anti-psychiatrist, Jeffery Masson, sees therapeutic help as ‘corrupt, where the therapist has power over the patient, exposing patients to financial, emotional, physical and sexual exploitation’. How is this different from the actions of retailers? Why are we seeking a cure for a non-existent pathology? Or has one been artificially created so as to be ‘cured’ in such a manner? Surely education should help us to see through this rather than leave us blind as implied by the authors?

The serious question that the article fails to raise, yet is absolutely pertinent to the issues being discussed, is whether the pursuit of a consumerist pseudo-utopia has actually become a substitute for other forms of engagement, political or otherwise. More informed debate and dissemination of information on the real strategies, mechanisms and forms of exploitation that underwrite this era of mass disposable consumption could well be the real trigger for women, of whatever age group or earning bracket, to become actively concerned about and involved in the thoroughly political debates and forms of activism that are quite advanced in the anti-globalisation movement and elsewhere. If conversely one accepts the premise of the authors of the Observer article, that politics should be re-packaged as just one more consumer activity (a process which is already well developed in an age of public relations and spin-doctor driven politics), then the ideologies of big business have succeeded in colonising and appropriating yet more of our collective imaginations. This phenomenon is in the interest of no-one, male or female, other than those who stand to reap large profits from it.

But maybe the authors of the Observer article just might be onto something? The Labour Party could present party political broadcasts featuring tall, rugged, chisel-chinned politicians shopping at the Gap, Next or Levis in the mall, going to a bar during happy hour and cheerfully gulping down two-for-the-price-of-one drinks, whilst sharing their purchases with the group. They would continue to drink themselves into an alcoholic stupor, until they throw up in turn and collapse en masse onto the pavement. This should appeal to the twenty-something female binge drinkers, surely, and consequently get so many of us intelligent and educated women down to the polling stations? Now where’s my coat……

This article has been written by Diana Goss, a UKCP Registered Psychosexual & Relationship Psychotherapist, Research Scientist, and fellow of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, together with Ian Pace, a classical musician and research fellow at the University of Southampton. Diana is currently seeking to publish her first book about the prescribing of drugs for non-medical concerns, in particular those for 'so-called' sexual dysfunctions. Ian writes frequently about issues of culture and aesthetics from a Marxist perspective. Any comments regarding this article will be warmly welcomed and can be sent via www.caretotalk.co.uk

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