Livin the American Dream

This is a test post for AmSt 450

After feeling an awful sense of guilt for EVER shopping at Walmart last week, a trip to Ten Thousand Villages in Central Park was a breath of fresh air. Ten Thousand Villages is a chain store that buys goods from artisans in other countries, sells them in the United States, and gives the artists a fair share of the profits. On Friday, I visited the store for a Students Helping Honduras fundraiser. 15% of the profits made that night went to SHH. I purchased two 12 oz. bags of Equal Exchange Columbian Drip Grind Coffee (try saying that three times fast!) Equal Exchange is a Massachusetts-based organization that trades directly with democratic cooperatives in foreign countries. They “provide alternatives for small coffee farmers by working directly with small farmer cooperatives, helping to built pride, independence, and community empowerment”. Equal Exchange buys and sells coffees, teas, cocoa, and chocolate. The variety of coffee I purchased is “known for producing a balanced cup, this distinctive coffee from the state of Caldas in Central Colombia delivers creamy body, mild acidity and subtle notes of ripe plum”. I can’t wait to try it! I purchased this 12 oz. bag for $8.00. It can also be purchased online for $9.00 (plus shipping). The product also comes in a 5 lb. size, which sells online at the EE website for $47.00.

I think organizations like Equal Exchange are very promising. Doesn’t it make sense to pay farmers fairly for their products? By making money on their own, a sense of pride is instilled in the workers, allowing them to suppor their families based on the money they earned. In a country that is so rooted in capitalist culture, we should applaud efforts such as this to help people become independent workers. Best of all, I can feel guilt-free while drinking my coffee in the mornings.

Last week’s class discussion was dedicated to Juliet Schor’s book, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. I found this book to be fascinating. It was all about how the American identity is tied to consumerism. Schor argues that what we acquire and own is tightly bound to our own personal identity. Our belongings create and support a particular image of ourselves that we present to the world. Because of the competitive nature of consumerism and acquisition, many of us are constantly comparing our own lifestyle to those of a group of people we respect and want to be like, whether they are our neighbors or our “friends” on TV! What people spend both reflects social inequalities and helps to reproduce and even create distinctions. I think this phenomenon can be demonstrated by the recent “OC craze”. There are currently at least a dozen shows on cable television that glorify life in Orange County, California. People accross the nation are comparing their lives to these overly tanned bleached blondes, wondering why their lives aren’t like that. Girls especially are spending tons of money on the “OC look” – ripped jeans, peasant tops, gold jewelry, big sunglasses, and oversized purses. Here’s a picture of the four girls from the hit MTV “reality” show, “The Hills”. Lauren, Heidi, Audrina, and Whitney live in Los Angeles and spend their time at their fabulous jobs at Teen Vogue, in exclusive night clubs, lounging by the pool, and galavanting around with male models. Yep, just four regular girls, being real. Pretty much could be me and my best friends. Ha, yeah right.

In the second half of the book, Schor exlpores how Americans constantly try to “keep up with the Joneses”. We subconsciously spend our money on things that make us look as wealthy as those around us.  On a recent episode of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”, one of the characters responded to the question “How do you keep up with the Joneses?” with “PLEASE! I AM the Joneses!” (Check out my post with clips from “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” to see just how rediculous these women are). Because we live in a time that emphasizes technological progress, we feel like we must constantly upgrade to stay in line with the times. There is absolutely no reason to have ten editions of the ipod, yet one almost feels ashamed to be listening to the original ipod that came out only a few years ago when now there is the ipod Touch to be coveted! Schor also explores how kids have become a part of the consumer culture.  Receiving gifts from their parents, craving new fads, and being involved in expensive extracurricular activities all make kids an important part of the consumer base. Gifting is another phenomenon that Schor talks about. Whether it is conspicuous gifting or self-gifting, it is just another way for us to justify spending our money as a status symbol.

Schor presents portraits of Americans who have been able to swim against the current of consumerism. She calls these people “downshifters”. These are people who are either voluntarily or involuntarily living on less money; getting back to “the basics”. Some of the people she studied live on $20,000, $10,000, and even $6,000 a year! They have really been able to make a distinction between wants and needs. Think of how much money we could all save if we didn’t spend as much on frivolous items such as Starbucks coffee, manicures, movie tickets, dinners out, and other indulgence items.

At the end of the book, Schor makes recommendations for how we can cut back and prevent ourselves from becoming overspent Americans. She suggest that we all make attempts to downshift in our own lives. She offers that we need to have a better understanding of advertisements and spend more time listening to consumer organizations instead of just manufacturers. We must promote saving and teach students how to save money and manage their spending.  I am so glad my mother taught me how to write a check and balance a check book before I became a teen! Schor also proposes luxury taxes, progressive property taxes, and no corporate tax credits for advertisements. I think that Schor has presented an enlightening and informative wake-up call to us overspent Americans!

On a recent trip to Walmart, my friend asked me upon our entrance to the store,”Wanna see something freaky? Look up”. I looked up to the ceiling of the Walmart Supercenter and almost lost my breath as all I could see was neat rows of flourescent lights for what seemed like miles. I made a trip to the same Walmart Supercenter last Friday, November 14, coveniently located in Fredericksburg’s Central Park. I visited the store from about 2:00-3:00 pm; not exactly prime shopping time, yet for some reason, Walmart seems to be frequented by shoppers at all hours of the day. It was a drizzly, gray day, which could have contributed to people spending the day shopping indoors.

Walmart’s newest slogan is “Save money. Live better”. The first Walmart store opened in 1962 in Rogers, Arkansas. Sam Walton is the father of Walmart, and the source of its namesake. Sam believed in three basic values that Walmart still upholds today: respect for the individual, service to their customers, and striving for excellence. Here, you can watch videos about the history of Walmart. Today there are 7,390 Walmart stores located all over the world that employ over 2 million people. An estimated 200 million customers shop at Walmart each year for millions of different products.

Our local Walmart is a “Supercenter”, which means that a full grocery-store and other specialty services are offered at this location. Upon my entrance to the store, I was immediately overwhelmed by the jolly holiday atmosphere. Christmas trees adorned in red and green ornaments greet you as you walk through the entrance. An entire “Christmas Shop” is located at the back of the store, where customers can find all of their Christmas needs. To the left of the entrance is the grocery store, selling all of the food that a normal grocery store does, including fresh produce, a deli counter and a bakery. Even on a Friday afternoon, the grocery section was teeming with shoppers. I noticed that the prices of the groceries were significantly lower than what I had paid last weekend at Giant.

The Walmart Supercenter offers much more than just discounted groceries. You can buy just about anything here, including clothes, electronics, home furnishings, craft supplies, toys, cosmetics and toiletries, office supplies, lawn care equiptment, sporting goods, jewelry, and even pets! You will also find a fully functioning pharmacy, hair and nail salon, optometrist and vision center, and other specialty “boutiques”. As I was browsing around the store, I found everything from camcorders to Hannah Montana Christmas Tree skirts. Walmart is the epitome of a “one-stop shop”, making it popular for working class families who don’t have a lot of time to run from place to place doing errands.

The shoppers at Walmart were your typical Fredericksburg crowd: parents with children, elderly couples, single moms, students, and even a few businessmen and women who must have gotten off work early. The shoppers seemed to range from lower to middle class. These are the types of “regular joes” that the presidential candidates referred to as “real America” – the kinds of Americans who need to save money whenever possible. This is why Walmart has been so successful over the past 40 years. People of any socioeconomic status can afford to furnish their home with nice things for themselves and their families.

I visit Walmart often. For the past two years I have had a leadership position on the CCM council, and it has been my responsibility to run errands for the center. We go to Walmart since it is significantly cheaper to buy things like groceries and cleaning supplies there. I usually run errands like these once a week, so I’m very familliar with our friendly Fredericksbug Supercenter. I have always noticed that Walmart is good about hiring older people, immigrants, and people with disabilities. They seem like an equal-opportunity employer to me. On Friday, I purchased a roll of pink ribbon. The friendly African American woman at the cash register asked me, “Is that it for today, Big Spender?” I laughed and said thank you and good-bye, which she replied to with “Have a blessed day, Big Spender!” Things like that make me feel almost like I’m at a local general store, and not at a huge corporate chain. But then I remember to look up at the sea of flourescent lights…

The issues discussed in Schor’s book, The Overspent American, are disturbingly applicable to a new season of the Bravo TV show, “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”. The clips below illustrate issues of conspicuous consumption and competitive acquisition that Schor is talking about.

Brutal Bowling

Keeping Up With Sheree

Here\’s to being real

…sorry Chet.

Last week, we finished our discussion of Rome’s study, The Bulldozer in the Countryside. Chapter 5 discussed “where not to build”, referring to the tendency of housing developers to build on land that is not conducive to such development. Developers have not hesitated to build houses on marshes, hills, and floodplains. This causes serious problems, as the land is not meant for track housing. By leveling the land in these areas, there is no natural run-off of water. This causes serious flooding. Houses built on hills collapse in on themselves because they are on inclines that are too steep. A steep incline, with the help of erosion, is bad news for a homeowner. In areas such as New Orleans and the Mississippi River deltas, houses are built directly on the floodplains.  Developers build in places like this because they are cheap land.  Not everyone thinks this is a smart business strategy, however. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service vocally disagreed with building in these areas, especially the wetlands. Wetlands are productive, natural drains. Also, hunters, gamers, and fishermen need these spaces.  Wetlands help clean water and provide food with nutrients for smaller animals.  Estuaries, or saltwater wetlands, are important to the water cycle.  Ian McHarg was a developer who wanted to “Design with Nature”. He recognized the coexistence of man and nature, and thought that housing patterns should respect this. If over 50% of wildlife lives in urban and suburban areas, we should make efforts to protect them! Communities like The Woodlands in Texas and Lake Barcroft in Fairfax, Virginia are good examples of this design.

The last chapter of the book discusses the legislation enacted in the 1960s to develop a land ethic for developers.  States became more involved in regulation policies, as local governments weren’t doing the job they should have. Land regulation policies were put into practice in places like Hawaii, where different land was sectioned off for different uses. The debate between the uses of private vs. public land were taken into consideration with the formation of these regulations.  William Blackstone, a British legalist who recorded English common law, set the legal precedent for American law. He determined that private land is sacred, and that the government could not tell you what to do with your land. The American government modified this idea, saying that people can not use their land in ways that are harmful to the public good.  It is too difficult to compartmentalize land, thus, whatever you do on your land affects your neighbors’. The idea of stewardship also comes into play here: humans don’t have ultimate control over the land.  We have to think about how it affects other life before we abuse it.  A grassroots movement in favor of public land use was spearheaded by organizations such as the National Association of Homeowners, the National Association of Realtors, the Chamber of Commerce, and also the Associated General Contractors of America.  By the 1970s, other crises were developing that pushed the environmental agenda aside. Only now are we starting to see the push for environmental awareness reemerge. Rome calls for three things in order to control the effects of continuing suburban sprawl: legal action, organized opposition, and government regulation. These three key factors can help protect the environment before it is completely taken over by housing developments.

When reading this book, especially chapter 5, “Where Not to Build”, I kept thinking back to my trip to Louisiana this summer. I was doing some rebuilding in the greater New Orleans area, in a small bayou town called Houma. The bayous in Louisiana, at a normal water level, are directly level with the street. As soon as it starts to rain, the bayous flood. Needless to say, when Hurricanes Rita and Katrina hit, many of the residents houses in Houma were flooded and severely damaged. Relief efforts are being made to put houses on stilts and also to reinforce foundations and roofs to prevent damage the next time a hurricane rolls through. While in Houma, I couldn’t help thinking, “WHY do people LIVE here?!” Why don’t they just move? The answer to that question is more difficult and complex than the question. People have lived in these places for generations. It is a part of their identity. Also, it costs MONEY to move, something that most of these people do not have. It is also very cheap for builders to put up houses on this land. Below are some pictures from my trip. The first is of my friend Brad climbing a ladder. Notice the concrete stilts on the house. Also, note the flooded ground. At the point this picture was taken, it had been raining for less than an hour. Imagine the flooding when a hurricane hits!

Here is a picture of my work crew with our residents. Notice how high up Mr. Eudrass’ house is! We were working on reinforcing his deck, so that the shingles wouldn’t fly off the next time a big storm hit.

When Katrina hit, Mr. Eudrass and his wife fled to Texas, where their daughter was living. A trip that usually takes about ten hours took over two days, due to the mass exodus of nearly all the residents of that area in Louisiana. Most of their house was flooded and their belongings were destroyed upon their return. When I asked them why they continue to live here, they simply replied, “that’s life in the bayou”.

I found myself in a shady Richmond parking lot at 11 pm last Sunday night, shivering and watching my Dad fumble with his broken car jack, attempting to fix a flat tire. I wiped away a tear as I thought about all the work I had to do that night, and also as I heard my Dad utter a long string of swear words. “I just fixed a flat tire with this two months ago! This thing is a piece of crap!” he yelled in his best Bronx accent. The car jack that he was using came standard with his 2004 Honda Accord EX that he purchased four years ago. Apparently, the jack stops working after four years, and at the best times, such as that evening. Once we found someone with a legitimate jack, and a nice homeless man named Pete to help us out, we were able to get the spare tire onto the axle and hit the road, after over an hour-long “reststop”. As we were driving back, my Dad made the point that I have the same jack as he does, since I have the same car. I had a premonition of me, stranded on the side of 95, with a broken car jack and a sense of hopelessness. I need to buy a reliable jack. So I searched on Google’s “shopping” feature, that allows you to type in a product, and hundreds of targets will surface and link you right to the product’s website. I found this 2.25 Ton Capacity Trolley Jack from Wesco Tools. Wesco Tools is a website that sells other manufacturer’s tools at a discounted price. This particular car jack is made by Sunex Tools. Apparently, this type of jack is much easier to use than the standard scissor jack that my Dad was using. Wesco advertises that “the internal safety valve and built-in bypass prevents the user from overloading or overextending the jack. Plus, at only 14.5 lbs. anyone can carry it and the rear swivel caster will make it easy to position under the car.” That’s great! Beacuse I think they are thinking of people like me when they say “anyone can carry it”. Wesco is selling the jack for only $48.81 (plus shipping). I think I’d feel a lot more at ease when driving knowing that I had such a reliable tool on hand, just in case…

Last week, we focused on Adam Rome’s book, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism.

Rome focuses on the emergence of suburban neighborhoods in America and their lasting effect on our environment. The Introduction and Chapter 1, “Levitt’s Progress”, discusses the beginning stages of suburban development. In the late 1940s, the United States experienced a building boom. Between 1945 and 1955, Congress approved multiple bills intended to expand the housing market and encourage large scale building operations. The G.I. Bill allowed returning veterans to become homeowners with no money down and monthly payments stretched over 30 years. The Housing Act of 1949 provided funds for research on ways to reduce the costs of building and increase production. With all of this legislation, homes were being built outside of the crowded cities that average American families could afford. William Levitt was the most famous developer who made this homeowning dream possible for the American people. By dividing the construction labor into smaller tasks, homes went up quickly and affordably. Families could afford homes in these developments, such as Levittown, due to decreased construction costs. The typical American family could now partake in an integral part of the American dream: homeownership. 

The following chapters of the book introduce the problems that rose from the hasty development of these suburban communities. Although solar power technology was developed in the 1950s, the federal government didn’t get as involved as they should have in mandating its use in suburban homes. Developers and architects were working on ways to store the sun’s heat and conserve energy, although the research didn’t follow through entirely. Too bad, or maybe we wouldn’t have such an energy crisis today! Air conditioning was also a huge selling point to homes in the suburbs. An air conditioned home was a healthy home. Air conditioning, in conjunction with electric heat, made the electric companies money year round! Another issue Rome brought up was the use of septic tanks in the suburbs. Septic tanks were not intended for areas that are heavily populated, like the suburbs.  After 2-3 years, septic tanks stopped working, and created problems in these developments. The groundwater was polluted from the toxins that the septic tanks created. Imagine turning on the kitchen faucet to find soap suds spilling out instead of clean water. This is what happened due to the build up of laundry detergent in septic tanks. The federal government, more specifically the department of Housing and Urban Development, had to require more regulations for safer sewers and drainage in suburban developments.

There is also the issue of the loss of open space.  This is the main facet of the environmental conservation movement that emerged with the rise of suburban sprawl. Local organizations developed in order to protect open space and protest “the rape of the land”.  In order to build so many houses, land had to be leveled, trees had to be cut down, and wildlife had to be displaced. Americans were losing green space, and they were losing it fast. The Audubon Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other environmental agencies protested the loss of open space. Organizations such as People for Open Space in California, the Open Space Action Institute in New York, and the Open Space Council in St. Louis emerged as well. Americans wanted to ensure that their children would have parks, lakes, and woods to play in.

On Friday we explored what life was like in these suburban homes in the 1950s. We read a few sections of Russel and Mary Wright’s Guide to Easy Living, published in 1950. This book contains tips for the modern 1950s housewife in order to make her home run more smoothly. The name of the game was minimalism – no ruffles or frills were necessary! Departmentalizing, that is, keeping each home activity strictly in its own place, worked for all rooms of the home, was also important. It was interesting to read about how the Wrights thought a 1950s kitchen, living room, and bedroom should look like. The key was simplicity.

Uncovering the dirt behind suburban sprawl made me feel a little bit guilty to be so comfortable in my home in the suburbs of Washington D.C. I guess I never realized all the problems there are with such rapid, dense development in areas that can’t necessarily support it. A lot of the problems that Rome discusses make sense now that I can apply them to my own suburban experiences. Now I know why we can’t flush toilet paper at my grandparents house in the Poconos – the ground is already saturated from a nearby marsh, and the house has a septic system. It also makes sense now as to why suburban basements flood so easily. There is no gradation of the land for rainwater to run off and collect in, so, it collects in our basements! What should we do to counteract the negligence of our neighborhood’s contractors? Maybe we can all do our part by cutting back on our energy consumption, carpooling to work, and recycling. Maybe we should just cool it on the developing for a while. There are so many Toll Brothers communities sprinkled around Northern Virginia that have no people living in them, that I think Toll Brothers can afford to sell their houses before they build any new ones.

This week was all about “cool”. On Monday, we watched the “Merchants of Cool” PBS video. I think I can sum up this experience by the comment Irene made to me as we were leaving class after the video. She gave me a blank stare and said “I want a lobotomy after watching that video”. So true, Irene.

It certainly is upsetting to know the inside story about how merchandisers try to convince teens to buy their “cool” products. The video explored how big corportations from MTV, Madison Avenue, to Hollywood try to enter the complex world of buying and selling cool. Teenagers hold the most disposable income among any group of Americans. Teens spend over $100 billion a year! Teens receive lots of “guilt money”: money that their parents give them instead of their time. With all this money floating around, merchandisers try their hardest to capitalize on this teeming teen market. Teens are constantly exposed to marketing messages and being told what’s “cool”.

Most of the video was about market research and how it is conducted. “Culture spies” such as those who work for the Look Look website try to find the 20% of teens who are the trendsetters that influence the other 80% of those trying to look “cool”. “Cool” is difficult to keep track of — once trends become popular, they are no longer cool. Those conducting market research try to understand teens are customers, not people. A feedback loop exists as a result of market research: the media observes kids and sells that image of themselves back to them.

It was also interesting to see how the media creates a teen culture of “mooks” and “midriffs”. This video was made in 2000, when I was 13 years old – exactly the age the media targets to buy their products. I am a product of the Britney Spears generation. I didn’t realize until watching this video what a warped sense of sexuality and what it means to be a woman teen idols like Britney Spears had on me and other girls my age. Like the girls in the video, I would watch Britney Spears’ music videos and her strip teases on the MTV Video Music Awards, confused about why my body didn’t look like hers. That’s what I thought being “sexy” meant – a dangerous notion for girls who have just started going through puberty. Also seeing how groups like Limp Bizkit and Insane Clown Posse begin as a part of underground culture and end up on the mainstream stage of TRL is a testimony to the power of the market.

We continued “The Coolhunt” with Gladwell’s article on Wednesday. Gladwell discussed the art of looking for what’s “cool” and how to sell this image back to teens. This is called diffusion research: the study of how ideas and innovations spread. It is a sort of anthropological study of youth. Gladwell discovered that the margins of teen culture dictate what’s cool to those in the mainstream. This adds to the cyclical nature of trends. What once starts out as “retro” becomes mainstream, and once it becomes mainstream, it becomes obsolete. I have tons of left-over body glitter from the early 2000s to prove that point.

The article pointed out three “cool” rules:

1. The act of discovering what’s cool is what causes cool to move on.

2. Cool cannot be manufactured.

3. Cool can only be observed by those who are cool themselves.

Trends spread from the adventurous innovators to early adopters, then to the early majority, next to the late majority, and then finally to the most traditional laggards. The article explored how things get “cool”. This process is often inexplicable. For example, Tommy Hilfiger, a white preppy designer from the WASPy Connecticut has become central to the hip hop identity. One rapper wore a Tommy jacket on his album cover, creating a Tommy craze among the hip hop community.  Here’s a picture of rapper “Lil John” (complete with Pimp Cup) and Tommy Hilfiger himself at a Tommy Hilfiger 20 year anniversary party.

Overall, this week was eye-opening and kind of upsetting. The media really gets me aggravated. I think the root of so many problems in our culture (the crumbling of the family, the use of drugs and alcohol, the increase in premarital sex, and oh so many more issues) can be traced back to the media and what they try  to tell kids is “cool”. I wish that there were more positive role models for kids. If they are going to spend their money, at least they could be spending it on positive things, not tickets to sleazy teen movies and slutty Forever 21 clothes. But, teens are a big market, with a LOT of money. I guess corporations are just…doing their job. Yeesh.

Barbie Girl

Filed Under Shopping

After this week’s discussion on Ann DuCille’s article, “Toy Theory: Black Barbie and the Deep Play of Difference”, I have been fascinated with learning more about the warped sense of femininity Barbie conveys to young girls. I was on the Toys “R” Us website, searching for the latest addition to the Barbie merchandise craze. Let me tell you, for Mattel, the name of the game is LINE EXTENSIONS. Mattel sells Barbie-brand everything, from dolls, to clothes, to accessories, to dollhouses, to powered mini-jeeps, to roller skates, and beyond. I found this interesting new product, the Barbie Diamond Castle Playset Doll and Pet.

The reason why this product caught my attention was because it is priced at a whopping $92.99! This toy appeals to girls aged 6-9 (according to the Toys “R” Us website) who dream about becoming a fairytale princess. The product description is nothing short of a fairytale itself: “Just like in the movie, the breathtaking Diamond Castle playset has a gorgeous light show in the magical tower and plays a special song! This castle has lots of enchanting furnished rooms to play in with three stories of magical fun!” Only $92.99? Can you really put a price on three stories of magical fun? Apparently, there is a Barbie Diamond Castle Princess movie that this toy is based off of.  With your $92.99, you not only receive the three-story dream house, but also the Barbie Princess Doll herself, Barbie’s pet puppy, furnishings for the house, and three AA batteries. Princess Barbie is dressed in a luxurious purple Rappunzel-like gown with her traditional flowing blonde locks. On the Toys “R” Us website, customers can rate products and recommend them to other customers. All 6 customer ratings reported their little girls loving the product, but complained about how expensive it is. “Not enough castle for the money” one grandparent commented. The fact that parents will pay almost $100 for a dollhouse reflects the mystique of Barbie. There is a “fetish” quality to anything that is emblazoned in that traditional pink and white logo. Fads will come and go, but Barbie will always be a constant in the lives of young girls.

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