‘Tis the season. Etc. I’m sitting once again in the public library trying to write while surrounded by, well, the types of people who use the computers in the public library. It’s late December. In 1-2 days, it will be Christmas. And how does Christmas most visibly manifest itself in America? I’d be lying if I said it didn’t involve money, sales, price tags, advertising, and merchandise.
Much has been said, endlessly, over several decades, about the notorious “commercialization of Christmas.” And, I guess, I’m here to add a little to this fretful discourse. Much hand-wringing persists every December; many remarks about what we’re celebrating and how dollar signs have replaced Christmas trees, or Santa Claus, or whatever it is the speaker holds sacred in the first place (also, at times, baby Jesus?).
My perspective on this came as I was wandering around the malls in this area. I have an affinity for malls, which Ashley and I were discussing last night: they’re simultaneously communal locations where people can gather, and also hubs of economic exchange. You can go to a mall to be around others, but the central purpose is always to spend money. Clothes, jewelry, other necessities, even food (hell, even “courts” of food!) – to quote Homer Simpson, “For an evening or a week, there’s no place like the mall. Food, fun and fashion – the mall has it all!” (It’s telling that malls would be emblematic of Homer’s hedonistic, spend-happy attitude toward life.)
So I spent some time at the Ridgedale Mall, currently thriving and crammed with rushing consumers, as well as the Knollwood Mall of St. Louis Park, MN, which is slowly dying. Go into either of these places at any time of year, and you’d see them bustling with people who want – nay, need! – to buy things. Visit them a few days before Christmas and you see crowds of people desperate to buy massive amounts of gifts. The socially encouraged need to spend is so heavily compounded by this one time of year when everyone needs to spend more than ever.
One curious phenomenon is window shopping. Stores like to dress up their front windows to show what kinds of products they have to offer inside. So you can peer through, yearn for what you see, and then go in and buy some of it. I’m always a little disturbed by the mannequins. They’re intended to look appealing – for example, see the ones with the silver and gold skin. Clearly they want to give off a feel of affluence, yet all you wonder is, Where did the head go?
The sad truth, of course, is that when the heads are still attached, the mannequins fall into the eerie territory of the uncanny valley. That’s pretty obviously the motivation behind the headlessness. So the fact is that there’s no way for mannequins not to be unpleasant on some level: it’s an attempt to represent human beings wearing clothing without actually having human beings. Either you have a headless doll, or else one with a plastered-on smile, or else one with no face at all, which is prime horror story material by itself.
Maybe I just overthink these things, but mannequins seem to open up all kinds of weird avenues: Pygmalion-and-Galatea fantasies for the consumers, voyeurism, being able to dress up and look at a woman without a subjectivity of her own. After all, these mannequins are being posed with their hands at their sides, passively modeling. And do I even want to get into the issue of their uniform body sizes, suggesting that every woman should imagine being this life-size doll, proportioned like this, wearing these clothes?
Some of the images I found in the Knollwood Mall, a place that’s rapidly running out of stores, felt almost like grotesque self-parodies. Consumerism is a fickle mistress/master/whatever gender word you want to apply to consumerism. There were escalators, no longer in use. There was no food court; instead, they had the “snack shack”:
So barren, so desolate, so unintentionally comical. There’s not much of a shack in sight, unless those white lines painted on the wall are supposed to represent the framework of a building. And aren’t “shacks” pretty shabby buildings in the first place? It feels like a rip-off on top of a rip-off, as if they’d had a sign saying “Crumbling Building Containing Food,” and instead there was just a big box of food, with no roof or door of any kind.
Usually when I encounter a vending machine or two purveying liquid or solid nourishment, it’s without much fanfare. The vending machines are pretty self-evident. Their very presence itself says, “We’re vending machines. Come put coins or bills into us, but don’t try any really crinkled or torn dollars, because we won’t accept those.” In the case of the “snack shack,” however, these two vending machines are clearly trying to be something. I.e., a replacement for a restaurant.
What’s sadder? A temple of money in full bloom, or one in decay? At the former, I was being buffeted by dozens of eager consumers, streaming past kiosks and potted plants, arguing with family members, carrying shopping bags, being barraged with free samples by the folk managing those kiosks. At the latter, I saw a few shoppers, looking dazed and tired, with no opportunity to have their children meet Santa Claus. I also saw a sign advertising advertising.
So at once, this sign is making us aware of the frequency with which advertising enters our lives, and implores us to contribute. Unfortunately for the advertisers, this sign is not being seen every 10 seconds by someone with a product to advertise (and I personally doubt whether it’s actually being seen every 10 seconds; I know that for a few minutes, I was the only person seeing it). I guess I find it a little humorous that a sign should appear both so desperate and so self-aware.
“Advertise here!” it seems to say. “Please, I’ll let you in on my little secret if you do!” Advertising is about creating awareness of a product; this advertisement is about creating awareness of how often awareness is created. It’s fascinating, and a little sad – it’s like a lost puppy, a sign without anything to sell. As if it’s forgotten what it’s like to shill for a specific company. Let’s pray that for Christmas, that sign gets what it so obviously wants: something to sell to people, whether every 10 seconds or every 10 minutes.
So that’s my little visit to the yuletide abyss that is the mall, a place designated solely for shopping, yet one engineered to feel strangely like home. Carols are wafted in over the PA system; a large and jolly man is dressed up in red and white. Tinsel is strung with care by people employed to string tinsel with care. Then the shoppers come, because they must. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t really be Christmas, now would it?