Monday, July 17, 2006

Calling a Spade a spade?

Speaking of "the content of our character," I have a question apropos of one of today's lead features (again) on AOL. It informs site visitors that if they really want to "turn heads" this summer, there's no better way than by appending a new $500+ Kate Spade or Gucci handbag to your arm (or how 'bout both arms, if you really want to turn heads?) We all fall prey to this: We all want to "turn heads" in one way or another... but .... why? Seriously. Whence this need to attract the attention of others? Especially through a means as (ultimately silly?) as a handbag? Is it just an extension of the peacock effect, where we want to show off our colorful feathers? It would not seem so in the example given here, inasmuch as peacocks do it to draw the attention of the opposite sex (or so we're told, no one having actually interviewed a peacock on the subject, to my knowledge). I'm fairly certain women don't carry expensive handbags hoping to impress men, most of whom wouldn't know a Louis Vuitton from a Louisville Slugger, and could care less anyway. So, what gratification--what self-benefit, if you will--is there in having other people merely look at us, especially when they're not really looking at us, per se, but at something we're carrying?

One day some years back, my wife and I were straphangers on the New York subway. Now, my wife just may be the least image/status-conscious woman I have ever known. But she does have That Shoe Thing* that seemingly links all women at the molecular level. That day on the train, she glanced down and said to the very frou-frou young woman who sat beneath us, "Oooh, cute shoes." The woman smiled. Knowing how competitive females are, I asked my wife later if she felt strange about giving another woman, especially that kind of woman, kudos in that manner. She replied, "Why? I said the shoes were cute. What's that have to do with her...?"

Feedback sought. By the way, pictured here, for the benefit of male readers, are (left) a Louis Vuitton handbag, retail about $595, and (right) a Louisville Slugger bat, retail about $29.95.

* Though to her credit, she buys hers in places like Payless and DSW.


Anonymous said...

Since most of these appurtenances are a) inherently ugly and b) basically ads for the makers, since their names are plastered all over them, there can only be one reason to carry/wear them, and it crosses gender lines: status. "Look at me! I've made so much money I can afford a Kate Spade bag/Manolos/a Hummer! I've made it! Don't you wish you were me?" In a society that values material wealth as the very essence of success, ostentatiously displaying that wealth is essential to secure one's status. And since the perception of success is often the foundation for actual success, such a display may also help further the careers/love lives of those who are still trying to make it.

Mark Nakata said...

Where can I buy a Louisville Slugger autographed by Ichiro, A-Rod, or Pujols for under $595?

Steve Salerno said...

Hmmm. Good point--though I'm not quite sure whether you're trying to MAKE a point, or just ask an honest question.

For the record, it makes my own "self" very happy to know that I own a genuine Hank Aaron bat--one of his personal collection. It is indeed a Louisville Slugger, vintage 1959, individually numbered and engraved...I assume he might've used it to hit at least a few of the 39 dingers he belted that year for the (then) Milwaukee Braves. Best of all, I found it lying next to a trash can in a park where I play men's senior baseball, on a hilltop in sleepy Emmaus, PA. True story.

Anonymous said...

many unfortunate generalized assumptions about both women and men...sorry dear are a lovely writer but no, not all women are competitive with each other. and by the way, i am a bona fide biologically real woman who doesn't give a rat's ass about shoes. you at times give a marvelous critique of the culture and yet buy in to some of the worst stereotyping yourself, especially about gender... i noticed these stereotypes in your book as well (which i enjoyed in some ways alot)...assumptions about men and women are as invidious as generalized assumptions about race..

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Anon. (Thanks, also, for reading SHAM.) I grant you that not every woman--perhaps not even the majority of women (though I doubt it)--is afflicted by "that shoe thing" (henceforth, TST). However, if TST weren't a reasonably common tendency among the fair sex (even though, as I'm sure you'll be quick to point out, all women aren't fair--in multiple senses), then nobody would've gotten the running joke on Sex and the City (a show that, I hasten to add, was inspired by a woman's book, and catered to female sensibilities throughout). And humorist Dave Barry wouldn't devise so many fiendishly hilarious asides that lampoon female glamour-consciousness. What's more, I should stress that when I talk about TST, I'm really talking about female vanity as a whole; I'm using it as a metaphor/microcosm. Now, perhaps you're one of those rare women who doesn't give a "rat's ass" about her appearance in any respect at all. If so, I think you'd have to agree with me that you're in the minority. Were that not the case, the many billions (perhaps even trillions) of dollars that manufacturers invest in feeding the female psyche in that area would go for naught. Think about it--clothing makers, diet plans, cosmetic manufacturers--they'd all be out of business save for (again, in an extended sense) "that shoe thing."

Indeed, there is probably no industry in America (with the possible exception of clinical psychiatry) that could survive if it DIDN'T generalize based on what it THINKS it knows about its target market as a class: gender, age, race, etc. I dare say, without sweeping generalizations (translated into social "standards," right down the size of seats on buses), it would be impossible to run society as a whole.

You raise a very interesting point, however, that I've been meaning to get to for a while now--since it's touches on something I've been accused of in my media work for SHAM. Which is to say: How large a sampling does one need to compile before one feels that one has one's finger on the statistical pulse of things? Look at the Nielsen ratings, for example: Here are major decisions made about what we get to watch (and DON'T get to watch) on TV, based on an almost infinitesimally small sampling of viewers. Yes, Nielsen takes great pains to ensure the demographic validity of its sample...but still.

Fairly or not, we all make assumptions about life based on generalized info. (And really, as alluded to above, how else would we get through the day and make choices for ourselves without relying on the empirical evidence of what we've seen and experienced?) I'm sure, for example, that you're assuming--based on what you've read in my posts and my book--that I'm something of a male chauvinist pig. I am not. I do have certain MCP tendencies, perhaps owing to my background as a writer for men's magazines and an editor with the Men's Health organization. Yet there are also many ways in which I depart sharply from that stereotype...and I'm guessing that that would surprise you, wouldn't it? (Or am I merely showing my OWN tendency to stereotype again...?)