Sunday, November 11, 2012
A while ago — a few years ago now — a friend gave me a copy of How to Travel with a Salmon, a book of essays by Umberto Eco. I had read The Name of the Rose many years before and didn’t love it, so I might have been inclined to turn down the offer of this book, but my friend said it was really good, she thought I’d like it, I should take it.
So I took it and I started it and would read it occasionally and some of the essays are very good and some are good but very dated (most were written in the mid- to late-1980s, and many of them deal with various forms of technology, so you can imagine how those read now) and some are parodies of things I don’t get at all so I just skipped those.
Last week I was visiting the friend who had loaned me the book and was thinking I should try to wrap it up and return it to her while I was there, even though I think she probably doesn’t care much whether she gets the book back since she’s reading everything on her iPad these days. But regardless, it seemed like a good idea to finish it, so I was reading it on the bus, and the essay I happened to have been in the middle of the last time I was reading it on the bus (it’s a good bus-reading book, the chapters are all short and self-contained) is called How to Eat Ice Cream.
And as I opened the book and continued with this essay, I realized that it was about consumerism. And that it was brilliant.
Eco tells the story of his childhood in the 1930s in the Italian Piedmont, where street vendors would sell ice cream in two forms: a 2-cent cone or a 4-cent pie. He was allowed to get either the 4-cent pie or the 2-cent cone. However he says that he was fascinated by some of his peers whose parents bought them two two-cent cones.
These privileged children advanced proudly with one cone in their right hand and one in their left; and expertly moving their head from side to side, they licked first one, then the other. This liturgy seemed to me so sumptuously enviable, that many times I asked to be allowed to celebrate it. In vain. My elders were inflexible: a four-cent ice, yes; but two two-cent ones, absolutely no.
At the time, he couldn’t understand their refusal, and as he points out, “neither mathematics nor economics nor dietetics” justified it.
The pathetic, and obviously mendacious justification was that a boy concerned with turning his eyes from one cone to the other was more inclined to stumble over stones, steps, or cracks in the pavement. I dimly sensed that there was another secret justification, cruelly pedagogical, but I was unable to grasp it.
He then goes on to discuss what he has come to realize was the real reason.
Today, citizen and victim of a consumer society, a civilization of excess and waste (which the society of the thirties was not), I realize that those dear and now departed elders were right. Two two-cent cones instead of one at four cents did not signify squandering, economically speaking, but symbolically they surely did. It was for this precise reason, that I yearned for them: because two ice creams suggested excess. And this was precisely why they were denied me: because they looked indecent, an insult to poverty, a display of fictitious privilege, a boast of wealth. Only spoiled children ate two cones at once, those children who in fairy tales were rightly punished, as Pinocchio was when he rejected the skin and the stalk. And parents who encouraged this weakness, appropriate to little parvenues, were bringing up their children in the foolish theatre of “I’d like to but I can’t.” They were preparing them to turn up at tourist-class check-in with a fake Gucci bag bought from a street peddler on the beach at Rimini.
Nowadays the moralist risks seeming at odds with morality, in a world where the consumer civilization now wants even adults to be spoiled, and promises them always something more, from the wristwatch in the box of detergent to the bonus bangle sheathed with the magazine it accompanies, in a plastic envelope. Like the parents of those ambidextrous gluttons I so envied, the consumer civilization pretends to give more, but actually gives, for four cents, what is worth four cents. You will throw away the old transistor radio to purchase the new one, that boasts an alarm clock as well, but some inexplicable defect in the mechanism will guarantee that the radio lasts only a year. The new cheap car will have leather seats, double side mirrors adjustable from inside, and a paneled dashboard, but it will not last nearly so long as the glorious old Fiat 500, which, even when it broke down, could be started again with a kick.
The morality of the old days made Spartans of us all, while today’s morality wants us all to be Sybarites.
How to Eat Ice Cream was written in 1989, and I would argue that we’ve moved from the morality wanting us all to be Sybarites to the morality insisting that there is something wrong with us if we are not. It feels like “ambidextrous gluttony” is no longer the exception but the rule. You will never have to explain why you want something — a new computer, phone, television, car — but you often have to explain why you don’t.
Oh, for the days when the Italian grannies were in charge.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Aside from the fact that Ree Drummond talks about “Keepin’ It Real” then does nothing of the sort, a second problem I have with The Pioneer Woman relates to the concept of reference groups.
One of the books I read that changed how I look at the world is The Overspent American, by sociologist Juliet Schor (chapter one is posted on the New York Times Books page). The book was published in 1998, and much has changed with the economy since then, but I think the book remains valuable. One of the most important parts for me was her explanation of how people judge their level of success not in absolute terms but in relative terms — how am I doing in relation to the people I interact with. In sociological circles, this is called a person’s reference group.
She notes that in the past, people generally compared themselves to people they knew directly — friends, relatives, neighbors. But in recent years, reference groups have expanded to encompass not just real-life acquaintances and friends but also media figures. (In 1998, she was talking about characters in TV shows, though if she were to update it, I suspect she would include bloggers and other internet figures as well.) Most people are unaware of this dynamic, and if you ask them, they will deny feeling pressure to keep up with anyone. But in a comprehensive study on which much of the book is based, the effects are fairly clear.
The problem is that lifestyles presented on most television shows far exceed what is within the grasp of the average American. Hardly any shows portray typical American households — nor do advertisements, for even the most pedestrian of products. Practically every image you see is of an upper-middle-class household with a large house, new car, nice furniture, and fashionable clothes. Even in ads for toothpaste, or light bulbs.
Schor notes, “My research shows that the more TV a person watches, the more he or she spends. The likely explanation for the link between television and spending is that what we see on TV inflates our sense of what’s normal.”
Blogs have elements in common with tv shows — they have “characters” you follow, and you tune in on a regular basis to see what’s new. The Pioneer Woman is probably more like a television show than many blogs, because the life she portrays is so far removed from most readers’ everyday lives. It’s also romanticized. As Amanda Fortini notes in her May 2011 article in the New Yorker, the blog is “aspirational” — it’s designed to make people think about what it would be like to have a life like that. Or, as Fortini writes, Ree Drummond “is who her readers would be if they had more time, more money, a quiet life in the country, a professional teeth-bleaching, or the support of a laconic cowboy husband.”
Ree, in her guise as The Pioneer Woman, focuses almost entirely on the positive in her blog. She might complain about piles of laundry and having to get up in the wee hours of the morning to “rustle cows,” but even those elements are presented as part of what her detractors refer to as a “rainbows and unicorns” world. Fortini sums it up succinctly: “Whole continents of contemporary worry go unmentioned: this is a universe free from credit-card debt, toxins, ‘work-life balance,’ and marital strife.”
At the same time, with the lil ol’ ranch wife/keepin’ it real angle, The Pioneer Woman is working to plant herself firmly as part of the average American’s reference group, in a much more direct and personal way than TV shows do — she is literally presenting herself as “one of us.” She also uses product giveaways as a means of driving traffic to her website, which provides an even more direct link between her blog, her lifestyle, and consumption.
In the same way that Friends set out the idea that you could work in a coffee shop and live in a killer apartment in Manhattan with great clothes and fabulous hair; and that Sex and the City sent the message that you could support a lifestyle filled with restaurant meals, late-night clubbing, and really expensive shoes by writing the occasional newspaper column; The Pioneer Woman sends the message you can work all day taking care of your family, write chirpy blog posts and Photoshop images to within an inch of their lives, while at the same time maintaining spotless Le Creuset cookware, a commercial-grade kitchen, and a closet filled with endless flowy tops.
The difference is that Friends and Sex and the City didn’t present themselves as documentaries. And the characters didn’t tell you that they got where they did by starting a little project in their spare time, in between homeschooling the kids and cooking dinner for their chaps-clad husband who makes their hiney tingle.
So in that way, I think The Pioneer Woman is actually more dangerous than Friends or Sex and the City. It makes people compare their actual life — filled with problems and frustrations and tedium and not enough money and recipes that don’t turn out right — to a life where all the men are strong, all the women are good looking, and the skies are not cloudy all day.
But unless you married into a family of wealthy landowners, have a guest house that you remodeled to include a TV studio kitchen, and make a million dollars a year from advertising on your blog, The Pioneer Woman is not part of your reference group.
Escapism is fine, but don’t compare your life to those you see or read about — your life is yours. For better or for worse.
Next up, advice on what do when you find yourself thinking about what your life lacks. (There’s an answer, really, there is! And it doesn’t involve getting leftover flowy tops from Ree Drummond’s closet.)