Consumerism and the American Dream: Freedom or Constraint?

The article “The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism” by Minh – HaT. Pham discusses how consumerism – particularly women’s consumerism of fashion, was portrayed as a fundamental American freedom following the terrorist attacks September, 11 2001.  It was pitted as a uniquely American  freedom, one which supposedly doesn’t exist for Muslim women who are forced to cover themselves in public, and one which terrorists were trying to take away from us, by forcing us to live in fear.  Neo-liberal politicians of the time urged women to go out and shop, as it was their “duty” to keep our economy alive.  Pham quoted the Mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani in his speech at the launch of the Fashion for America: Shop to Show Your Support campaign: “Freedom to shop is one of the fundamental liberties [that] terrorists want to deprive us of” (386).
            This “freedom” and “duty” of consumerism was definitely portrayed as a gendered script, as journalists pitted fashion-conscious American women against oppressed burka-wearing Muslim women.  And in general, shopping is typically thought of as a feminine activity or even an obsession – that need to keep up with the trends, and always buy one more pair of shoes.  Women are often compelled to spend beyond their means, maxing out credit card after credit card out of fear that they might be left behind in the latest trends.
            I began to think of the show What Not to Wear, which I find to be very addictive despite the fact that I question its message.  The show goes through a routine, of following its nominees around with a video camera, secretly video-taping them  in their outdated or unflattering clothing.  Then, they surprise the unsuspecting victim with an intervention, where they tell them that they look horrible, and are obviously going nowhere in life with their wardrobe looking like that. 
            In the episode from season 8 “Linda”, Linda is a producer and manager at a high-profile theater in San Diego, but her wardrobe, apparently, doesn’t play the part.  Before they meet Linda, Stacy and Clinton, the show’s hosts, interview a few of Linda’s friends, who believe Linda is limiting her opportunities by not dressing well.  One of her friends says, “Linda is a great leader at work, but I think Linda’s clothes defy that.  And I think she might have a little more credibility if she had a fresher look.” 
            Their message to the guests on their shows is always the same – even if you are very talented at what you do and work very hard, your opportunities for success in life will always be better if you dress well and are confident in your appearance.  This message is particularly interesting because all of the guests on their show are women (though there were some men in the first few seasons, but the transformations weren’t dramatic enough, and the message wasn’t as important for men).  Perhaps Stacy and Clinton are realists in this respect that it is essential for women to look good in order to succeed in the workplace, but watching this show has made me think more about the “American Dream” and what it means for women.  Is consumerism – the freedom to buy lots of pretty clothes – truly an American “freedom” or is it a constraint, in that women are expected  to invest their hard-earned money on, or to go into debt for,  fashion, beauty products, and plastic surgery in order to achieve their dreams?
            At the end of every episode, the guest of the show is transformed, wearing new form-fitting clothes, sporting a new hairdo and fresh make-up, and they reveal themselves to their friends, peers, and loved-ones with a renewed sense of confidence to tackle the world, and they express gratitude to Stacy and Clinton for saving them.  And though I feel happy for these women who now feel more confident in their bodies, it makes me a bit sad that they had to spend $5000 in New York City boutiques and department stores in order to feel like they have the confidence to achieve their goals and get the most out of life.

Robyn Brush

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