Archive for the ‘Consumerism’ Category

RAISED BATON: A policeman threatened a child with a baton during clashes with garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday. Thousands of people protested low wages and poor work conditions. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons. (Munir uz Zaman/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

So I participated in two threads on Feministe over the past few days.  I hardly ever comment on big blogs, but this time I couldn’t help myself because everyone was arguing about something I started noticing a while ago,  namely, the upper-middle class American tendency to propose individual consumerist solutions to systemic problems.   Want to take a stand against the maltreatment of garment workers in Bangladesh?  Shop at a thrift store instead of Target.  Want to save the environment?  Buy green cleaning products.  Think the U.S. agricultural system is fucked?  Buy organic.  And so it goes.

These tactics are obviously never going to work by themselves, so why do people constantly emphasize consuming the right products instead of other forms of action?  Why is it so hard for supposed liberals to admit that corporate and government policy are responsible for these structures, and that they’ll never go away unless corporations and governments change?

The answer,  I think, lies in the fact that people are reluctant to acknowledge the problem in its entirety.  If you focus on consumer response to certain issues, like  exploitative garment factories, or destructive environmental policy, then hey, if you ride a bike everywhere and get all your clothes at Goodwill, you’re placing yourself outside the system and you get to feel all awesome about it.  Except that you, as a consumer in a developed nation, can’t escape the system in any meaningful way.   Everything you buy, from tires to computers to underwear, is produced by exploited workers in the third world.  There’s no way for individuals to extricate themselves from that.  But since this realization is kind of a downer, people like to talk about ethical consumption instead.

There’s also probably some kind of subconscious (?) notion that the act of consumption carries transformative and even salvific power.  Also, unyielding faith in the existence of a free market.


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For the past month, I’ve had a seasonal job selling jewelry in a large department store.  Most of the merchandise is expensive and, in my opinion, ugly.  But, as retail jobs go, it really hasn’t been so bad.  And now that I’ve sufficiently damned it with faint praise, I’ll even go so far as to say it’s been interesting–and fun, sometimes–to help confused but well meaning men buy gifts for the various women in their lives. Mostly, though, it’s made me think about what a strange and fraught role gift-giving plays in heterosexual relationships.*

Here’s an example.  One day I was helping a guy who’d bought a diamond pendant for his fiancée.  Since he was also in the market for an engagement ring, I was showing him diamond solitaires and asking about his girlfriend’s tastes and what he thought she’d like.  And he replied, “Oh, she never wears jewelry.  She’s really outdoorsy, and she likes camping and hiking, and whenever I ask her about what ring she wants, she shows me something really simple.”  He then proceeded to tell me that he only liked the bigger, more expensive settings, and that that was what he was going to buy for her.

Obviously, this guy is a clueless boyfriend and a bad gift-giver.  He was very resistant to my suggestion that he look at the simpler settings we had, or that–God forbid!–he go ring shipping with his fiancée so she could give more direct input.  Now, on some level, I can understand the pressure to buy a fancy engagement ring, since the whole practice is historically predicated on the man proving his worthiness as a husband/provider.  But why would anyone buy a diamond pendant as a Christmas present for someone who doesn’t like jewelry and probably won’t wear it?

I think it’s because (in addition to this particular guy being thoughtless) gift giving is supposed to be one of the sacred duties men perform in romantic relationships.  Sure, women are supposed to buy things for men, too–because everyone is supposed to buy everything all the time–but I think it’s fair to say that there’s much more cultural pressure for men to prove their love and commitment to women by giving them presents than the other way around.  Men want to be with women because they want sex, and women will have sex as long as they get DIAMONDS, or so the narrative goes.  And so jewelry and flowers and candy become shorthand for a man’s love and fidelity.  That he is only obligated to buy these gifts about four times a year–Holidays, birthday, anniversary, and Valentine’s Day–heightens their symbolic importance.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “that’s just what Jared wants you to think!”  And it is.  But Jared and Kay and Weisfield aren’t pulling these mores out of thin air; they’re merely using them to their advantage.  I also have to think that part of the appeal of the diamonds-and-flowers brand of romancing stems from the fact that heterosexual relationships are still mostly unequal.  Women are expected to put up with a lot from their male partners, and they’re also conditioned to believe they’re so undesirable that few men would willingly be with them.  So overt displays like diamonds become both a consolation prize and a necessary assurance that your boyfriend thinks you are, in fact, valuable.  And a guy who is trying to be a good boyfriend will probably pick up on all of this and consider something like a diamond pendant the best proof of his affection.

It’s a pretty fucked up, insidious dynamic.  I don’t really give a shit about marriage or diamonds or engagement rings, yet I’ve still found myself wanting similar kinds of validation.  In fairness, though, I only felt that way when I wasn’t getting much respect and emotional validation to begin with.  It’s much easier to feel secure in a relationship when things actually are secure.  But that knowledge didn’t stop me from beating myself up for being silly enough to want to go out to dinner on Valentine’s Day.

*I have no idea whether it’s like this for gays.  I can only call out the craziness I know.

UPDATE:  This old post on Pandagon is very apropos.

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The New York Times has a fascinating piece on the woolly legal issues surrounding surrogacy, highlighted by a sad, complicated case in Michigan.  The short version of the story: an infertile couple, the Kehoes, created embryos with donor eggs and sperm.  They then selected a surrogate, Laschell Baker, to carry the pregnancy to term.  The Kehoes reimbursed Baker for her medical expenses, and expected to gain guardianship of the babies after they were born.  Things got dicey, however, when Baker learned of Amy Kehoe’s psychiatric history during the guardianship hearing.  (Kehoe had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and had been arrested years earlier for cocaine use and driving under the influence.)  Despite the fact that she was on anti-psychotics and, according to her psychiatrist, had had no symptoms of mental illness for nine years, Baker argued that Kehoe was an unfit mother.  Since Michigan law regards surrogacy contracts as void and unenforceable, she successfully disputed the Kehoe’s guardianship and the twins are now in the Baker’s custody.

It’s a heartbreaking story, and I’m pretty disturbed by the fact that Amy Kehoe was determined an unfit mother not because she was currently displaying erratic or abusive behavior, but because she had a medical history of mental illness.  I don’t think that Laschell Baker was right to withhold the babies for that reason.  But!  The article really drove home the idea that in surrogate situations, children (or potential children) are being treated as commodities—straight up, I-paid-money-for-it-so-it’s-mine commodities.  The basis for the Kehoe’s legal claim to parenthood was that they commissioned and paid for the babies’ creation.  To wit:

“We paid for the egg, the sperm, the in vitro fertilization,” Ms. Kehoe said as she showed off baby pictures at her home near Grand Rapids, Mich. “They wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for us.”

While I’m not discounting the importance of either this or the obvious emotional investment they had, the idea that parenthood in these situations must necessarily be awarded to whomever paid for the conception and gestation of the fetuses, as opposed to whomever did the gestating, is not immediately obvious to me.  One of the commenters on Jezebel, purpleshoes,  summed it up really well:

To me, there are two different questions here: whether a woman gains the legal right to decide what happens to other people’s genetic material once it’s in her uterus, and whether women can sign ultimately binding legal contracts dealing with the disposition of a fetus that is not yet born. I say the precedent for the first is clearly sperm – in that a woman has a right to continue or discontinue a pregnancy even though some portion of the genetic material involved is not hers, because the major requirement to continue the pregnancy is not the existence of the initial cells but rather the major involvement of her internal organs – and the precedent for the second is clearly adoption, in which women can’t sign away rights to children that legally don’t exist yet, so any decision made before birth can only be considered provisional.

In other words, carrying a pregnancy to term is A Big Deal, both ethically and biologically.  It’s not like watering someone else’s house plant for nine months.  There are good reasons why most states have been reluctant to recognize surrogacy contracts.  Parental rights and obligations cannot usually be contracted away, and like that last quote mentions, it’s legally impossible to opt out of one’s parental responsibilities to a child who doesn’t exist yet. Birth mothers considering adoption cannot relinquish custody while they’re still pregnant, and a lot of states allow a grace period of a few days after giving birth before they have to make a final decision.


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Today my ex-boyfriend (who knows me well) sent me this little  gem of a blogpost.  It’s written by a guy–no, a dad–who got in some really precious father-son bonding time by taking his eleven year old to that exemplar of family-style chain restaurants, Hooters.  The post and its comments are chock-full of stupidity, and I have had a bad day and am not in the mood to take stupidity seriously.  So we’re going to play a game of, “re-write the stupid statements for comic effect.”  Ready?

I am sure that my children’s interest in all things sexual is stamped in their DNA somewhere and not subject to rise and fall based on how many boobs they see over a cheeseburger.

Sexuality is TOTALLY impervious to social conditioning.  That’s what DNA means.  Impervious to social conditioning. It’s also why I had to put my son in an artificial setting with hyper-sexualized women in order to help him understand how to be the right kind of guy.

In the end, I would rather my kids be exposed to such things and see their reaction rather than driving through McDonald’s for yet another Happy Meal in which nothing is gained but a 1,000 extra calories of processed food.

When my son was two, I was like, hey sweetie! come over here! daddy has a treat for you! And then I gave him a bottle with lemon juice in it, and he grimaced and spit it out, but you know what?  He could’ve been drinking canola oil, and that would’ve been worse because it would’ve made him fat.  No one has sex with fat people.

The trip to Hooters, I saw, as an opportunity to see how he conducts himself around women. If he drooled and couldn’t take his eyes of the waitress, then that would be an unmistakable cue to me to start preparing another birds and the bees talk.  If he acted embarrassed and shy, then that would be a sign that such a pointed talk could wait a bit.

The great thing about my son is that he would never be embarrassed and shy because he knew I was intently watching his reaction to a pair of DD boobs a foot away from his face.  He’s cool like that.

And from the comments:

Wow. I can’t believe how uptight some people are. Seriously, this is some Puritanical stuff going on right now.

Look, I don’t understand why you guys don’t get it.  It’s so simple.  There are two choices; you can either be a Hugh Hefner, or a Jim Bob Duggar.  Pick one. I personally chose Hugh Hefner because he has better hair.  Although Jim Bob does have a bigger harem.  I go back and forth.


She’s [the Hooter’s waitress] not being sexually molested. She’s not a stripper. No one is attacking her in way. . . I, personally, have been to a strip club with my father when I was 18. My dad is a great father and one hell of a person. He’s been married to my mom for 32 years and they’re still together. But you know what? He’s human! I know he looks at other women, because it’s only natural.

I can’t make fun of this one, because when I read it all I can think about is this Lifetime movie I saw years ago.  The protagonist was a prim, artsy girl, an aspiring actress, who got into stripping to pay for her acting classes because her super WASPy parents wanted her to be a lawyer and refused to help her out.  So she keeps it a secret and gets this cokehead roommate who steals all her money (natch) and then DIES when she has a botched breast implant operation.  (Way to show those hussies that get fake boobs, lifetime!)  And then one day her father and brother visit the strip club for kicks, and they see her stripping!  Yelling and tears ensue, and she ultimately goes home with them, but no one, not one person, asks why it was ok for her father and brother to go to the strip club, but not for her to be a stripper.

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The infamous Faith Hill cover; the unretouched image is on the right.

Some British politicians are calling for a ban on photoshopping images in advertising aimed at children.  They also want mandatory disclaimers to accompany images marketed toward adults which detail the extent to which the images have been retouched. (more…)

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