Love, Inc

The intersections of emotion and capitalism.

Are Black Friday Stampedes Sacred?

Black Friday stampedes might tell us something deep about capitalism

I hate shopping. Perhaps my hatred is political, based on a deep belief that we must stop consuming so much stuff or we will make the earth uninhabitable in the very near future. Perhaps it is personal, based on a variety of childhood psychodramas that left me deeply ambivalent about consumption. No doubt my hatred of shopping helps explain my rather perverse fascination with Black Friday stampedes. I watch video collections of shoppers brawling over TV sets, pushing pregnant women to the ground in order to get into a store, and even threatening to knife someone if they don't let go of the very important piece of junk in the box. Recently I even started watching the Black Friday death and injury counter with a certain sense of horror and dismay. 

A friend jokes that these stampedes show the sacred nature of the Xmas season. I laugh, but deep down I wonder if he is right? Are these people pushing and shoving and fighting over bits of useless plastic in cardboard boxes or is there something deeper, more spiritual at play here? After all, consumer capitalism has always been based in the religious idea of a "better life." This is also the message of any religion, even if the better life is delayed until the afterlife. Buy this god, follow these rules, find enlightenment. In the same way, consumer capitalism seduces us with its siren call to a better tomorrow. Buy this product and find happiness and well-being is the message behind every box of toothpaste as well as every X-box. And certain consumer products have always been held as not mere products, but special fetish objects that are a gateway to that more perfect, more heavenly future. Think about wedding dresses or engagement rings, products whose cost is not based in their real worth, but their symbolic weight. 

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Holiday gifts, like engagement rings, carry symbolic weight. They symbolize our love for our family and friends. There is something sacred in that scarf we choose off a shelf as we picture our aunt's face when she opens it. Forget the fact that there are 10,000 other scarves just like it being sold in that particular chain store all over the country—that scarf, the one you put your hand on and just knew to be the right one, literally vibrates with the sacred power of love expressed through consumption. 

Consumer capitalism has always operated on emotion. It's not just that it preys on our feelings; it produces those feelings in the first place. Xmas Season abounds with a variety of cultural products—from advertising to movies to the endless stream of songs piped directly into our brains- all of which teach us what family is, how important that family is, what emotions are produced in the family, and how to properly express this emotion.  

And so now we have cultural productions that produce now just the usual holiday feelings of familial love and the need to consume, but a certain hysteria about Black Friday and the need to consume in highly competitive and even brutal environments if we really care about our families. This one for Target, where doors open at 4am, shows a rather ruthless and yet ideal woman giving tips on outsmarting other shoppers.  And this one for Kohls, which opens at midnight, shows Rebecca Black singing "It's Black Friday, Black Friday..." rather than her original song, an internet sensation as the most annoying song ever, "Friday, Friday." Black talks about standing in line since the day before. After all, if we can get more stuff cheaper then we must love our families even more than the person to timid too face a Black Friday stampede. 

Until we create a different set of cultural scripts, scripts that teach us to express love without stuff, we can expect the Black Friday Death Count to rise. These stampedes may be spiritual in nature, but their expression is depressingly profane.

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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