In the late 90s, when I was doing research for Women and Desire: Beyond Wanting to Be Wanted, I discovered something surprising about women and shopping. Everyone knows, of course, that women love to shop. Most men, it seems, shop only reluctantly and at the last minute, especially during the holidays—except perhaps for cars, trucks and big-screen TVs. But women, regardless of the season or the state of the economy, seem drawn to shopping. Even in these times of economic downturn and scarcity, my women psychotherapy clients struggle with their material desires. "Should I really buy that new pair of boots?" "I probably shouldn't go out for Black Friday or the after-Christmas sales at all." "He asked me to make a budget for my holiday shopping, but I don't know how to do that. I've never done it before, and besides, I resent doing it because I am the bigger wage-earner and this is the only time of the year that I splurge!" These, among others, are the comments, laments and complaints I hear on a recurring basis—especially so at this time of the year. But what is the root of women's irresistible desire to prowl the malls and department stores?
Women's shopping is often crudely explained as a "female drive." Such naturalistic reasoning seems to originate with socio-biologists, who search for reductionist biological explanations for sex differences as though our all of our habits, even ones that are clearly culturally influenced or determined, developed in a jungle. Frankly, as a feminist, I find myself in passionate disagreement with a theoretical stance that too often implicitly depicts men as superior: in this case, as just naturally more frugal (i.e., "reasonable") than women. Until men and women are on a level playing field in terms of rights, income, and leadership, we won't be able to separate true gender differences from differences that arise from unequal power. Shopping is a case in point.
According to the socio-biologists, women are linked to shopping in the same way that men are linked to sports. Often women's behavior is explained by something like the "shopping gene": men are the "hunters" (conquering stuff) and women are the "gatherers" (finding stuff). Remarkably, though, shopping (as in "real shopping"—serious bargain hunting and a whole day of meandering around through different shops) is not a primordial urge. It began historically, as an offshoot of advertising and commercialism, as a way to encourage women to feel in charge—deceptively inviting them to make choices and decisions of their own.
Beginning in the late Victorian era and continuing through the explosion of full-blown American consumerism in the 1920s, women were seduced by a "liberation" movement they didn't design. Previously excluded from significant economic activity, they were suddenly thrust onto center stage. The dry goods stores of earlier eras (where women went to buy personal items and materials required to make clothes) had been dark and unattractive places. No one wanted to spend the afternoon there. But at the turn of the century, enterprising merchants began transforming these dark, unattractive spaces from an environment you'd want to avoid into places you'd dream about visiting.
When glamorous, well-lit and artfully decorated "department stores" first opened in cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, they were celebrated as a cultural achievement. Macy's, Marshall Fields, Wanamaker's and Altman's were among the first to lure middle class women into their soothing interiors. Shoppers were encouraged to come to the stores for pleasure, conversation, and to avail themselves of a range of new, ready-made garments. But it wasn't just to "buy things;" they were encouraged to "make their own choices." Attendants brought a variety of attractive offerings into a sitting-room environment (where shoppers were having tea and refreshments) for women to review. For the first time, the American woman was being asked directly what she wanted! She was being encouraged to become the Subject of her own Desire (instead of the Object of Desire, the muse). And so, well before upper and middle class women had won the right to vote, they were allowed to practice individual freedom in department stores and told they could shop for what they wanted.
Once ready-to-wear became widely available, department stores began to promote an increasingly extravagant and widespread demand for new clothes, cosmetics and other personal products. Prior to the advent of department stores, "fashion" was the province of the most privileged women only. But now, keeping up with fashion began to make all the difference to the life of an ordinary middle-class woman, who could not—naturally—stay current with an image that changed repeatedly and was manipulated by advertisers and retailers (mostly men) who were creating a national appetite for consumption. Perhaps most important for an understanding of current-day shopping warriors, however, shopping felt liberating to ordinary women. Across the country, women increased their number of shopping days. Instead of shopping for dry goods twice a year, they were shopping every third or fourth day. In this way, women and department stores paired up to create a profound new cultural environment that openly encouraged women to act on their own desires.
Even today, in the grip of the Great Recession, shopping continues to hold out the intoxicating promise of controlling one's destiny ("getting what you really want"). It is perhaps the single activity on which all shades of the political spectrum agree (even the liberals believe in shopping sprees, especially during the holidays)—encouraging women to make their own choices and indulge their desires! No wonder even feminists like me can still be compelled by the smells and sights of a well-appointed department store—taken in even by the incidental glamour of its branded shopping bag.
In the archetypal shopping heaven of the "right" department stores, we women feel a measure of control we rarely feel at home when we are overwhelmed with our responsibilities, out with our spouses who may keep an eagle eye on our spending, or hampered by the ever-dwindling possibilities for autonomy at work. We feel we can make choices for ourselves when we're shopping; finding a "bargain" is a triumph, and picking just the right color is magic. Shopping offers an escape from our resentment at having to "give in" to others' wishes and desires; and it promises that we, too, can mold our images to fit the current cultural muse.
In reality, of course, women are not in control of the iconic images of current fashion or the retail enterprises that trick us repeatedly into believing we must transform ourselves to mimic the momentary Object of Desire. Retailers seduce us into buying an illusory freedom—a freedom that is in fact no freedom at all, only another form of subjugation. Sad to say, modern consumerism creates desire but doesn't satisfy it. Those beautiful, sensual, pleasing displays—the sights and smells of the modern-day department store, real or on-line—evoke over and over again memories of our first taste of freedom. No wonder our male counterparts fail to understand what motivates us to "shop until we drop." They don't have a black hole of self-doubt where self-determination should live.