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The Cycle of Consumer Culture

July 21, 2010

“Money don’t talk, it screams,” sings Richard Theisen of the Orange County-based band The Union Line. While driving my car through suburban Valencia, this particular lyric seemed poignant and relevant to me—almost crucial even. I listened to the song “Pearls” again with urgency. What influence does money have on us? A more provoking question may be: In what ways has money not affected us yet? Is there any place that its influences have not leaked into the cracks? Since my relocation back to suburbia, I have been overtly aware of how strange the uniformity is. I would argue that this solidarity of appearance is due to the effect that the social media has on us. We are told to buy tract homes in particular neighborhoods, to lease the newest cars, to eat at certain restaurants, and to wear certain clothing. However, with only these options being locally available to us, how can we develop our identities outside of them?

Money influences us—the consumers—in several ways. The more money a company can spend on advertising, the more likely it is that people will spend money on their product; and the more money a consumer has, the more likely they are to increase the company’s profit. This cycle is an unavoidable truth. Especially in suburbia, the influences that society has are inescapable. We are all products of the suburban experience. Outside of suburbia, we become products of the city experience, or the rural experience, or the overall experience of mankind. It is ultimately inevitable that everyone will be impressed upon by the greater society. Like it or not, society shapes us.

As members of a consumer culture, we have a constant influx of intake through advertising. We become products of consumerism; and in turn, we become consumed as a whole. Individuality becomes an illusion, because in actuality, we lack unique identity among the uninspired masses. The more society progresses, the more the media has an effect on us. The Union Line continues with, “I woke up from a dream / And this whole world had its filthy hands on me.” We can be idealistic, but in reality, the world forms who we are to become. We are told what to do, what to wear, what to eat, and what to listen to. We are subliminally told what to like rather than being allowed to form our own opinions or identities—even if these are purely exterior identities. No matter how anti-society or anti-consumerist you believe you are, you still base your worldview on what you are told to like; you are still defined by your relationship to commodities. And in declaring yourself counterculture, you join a culture in and of itself. You still define yourself in relation to the majority. This paradox of the counterculture illustrates how the dominant culture is purely a successful conquest. Do we even stand a chance against the inescapable media machine?

Our generation has not had the same opportunities as older generations to define ourselves. With identities being recycled, we are at a loss. This denial and rejection of other groups continues to promote the formation of identity in relation to another. We need to break this cycle that we are turning in. Older generations have been categorized as part of the “Other.” They seem foreign to us, so we want to dress like them; but at the same time, we do not want to be them. We emulate them only in fashion. We have placed mainstream fashion (the mall shoppers) in this category as well; they have simultaneously separated themselves from us. Much of the hipster society has “othered” themselves by their signature denial of their belonging to the hipster culture.

In terms of fashion, two ends of a spectrum have developed. In suburbia, one either becomes hip (according to what the majority of suburbia would say or wear), or hipster. But when the hipster moves to San Francisco, they become a dime a dozen. This is all due to marketing. Here people are told to buy clothing from Hollister or Abercrombie & Fitch; but in San Francisco, billboards domineer over the city telling people to buy hoodies from American Apparel. In striving to stand out, we are still conforming to some other idea. And in terms of consumerism, it has become increasingly expensive. If one wants to appear counterculture in suburbia, he or she will have to spend more money on gas to travel to stores that sell expensive reproductions of vintage clothing.

Despite this division, there is still emulation. While a large portion of society tries to reject mainstream fashion by wearing old flannel shirts, this number inspires clothing companies to mass produce these items. This, in turn, allows for the majority to have access to counterculture fashion, thus robbing it of its origins. If it is sold, it will be bought. And this works in opposition as well. An item that was once popular—i.e. flannel shirts in the 1990s—is adopted by the counterculture in an attempt to seem a part of an older era. By identifying with an older generation, you are attempting to disconnect from modern society. All of this borrowing shapes us. There is a theft of ideas, and in return, we are robbed of original identity.

We are a consumer culture, but we cannot allow money to define us. We consume everything, whether willingly or not. Even if we do not purchase particular advertised items, we are still taking in the messages that they convey. The oppressive nature of consumer culture and society has taught us to construct ourselves to conform to a specific appearance or standard. Many conform their personalities, their hair, their clothing, and even their bodies. But why is there this need to fit so snugly into a mold? Does it provide a sense of community? It is impossible to develop without the influences of society; this is innate in us. But it is possible to address the issues that coincide with our consumer-driven culture. Many of us will never reject money, but we can either accept or reject society’s influence the best way we know how. And if we do not fit in aesthetically or personally, at least we can decide for ourselves what is real.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. RachelStoll permalink
    July 21, 2010 10:03 am

    “I would argue that this solidarity of appearance is due to the effect that the social media has on us. We are told to buy track homes in particular neighborhoods, to lease the newest cars, to eat at certain restaurants, and to wear certain clothing. ”
    > Tract homes (like a tract map, not track) and the auto push was directly related to post WW2. With men coming home from war there was a large push into development of homes, infrastructure and automobiles in order to stimulate the economy and give these soliders something to do. With this development style came the idea of the “american dream” as we know if: tract home, picket fence, wife at home, car.

    “Many conform their personalities, their hair, their clothing, and even their bodies. But why is there this need to fit so snugly into a mold? Does it provide a sense of community? ”
    > It provides a sense of identity. Maybe people don’t really conform, but like what they choose.

    ” If one wants to appear counterculture in suburbia, he or she will have to spend more money on gas to travel to stores that sell expensive reproductions of vintage clothing.”
    > Not with the internet, and really options like goodwill and garage sales exist.

    “An item that was once popular—i.e. flannel shirts in the 1990s—is adopted by the counterculture in an attempt to seem a part of an older era. By identifying with an older generation, you are attempting to disconnect from modern society. ”
    > Or you are just following what the stores are selling through their seasons. Or maybe you like flannel shirts. I don’t think it’s a disconnect from modern society but a homage to a former era that has influence the modern scene.

  2. Gia permalink*
    July 22, 2010 3:48 am

    Rachel,
    Thank you for your quick response. You raise some interesting and challenging points. However, a point I am trying to make is that people need to question what is being sold to them. Do we have any say in what we consume? Why do modern Americans still feel the need to own that house with a picket fence? Is this desire genuine? Or is the desire merely a product of societal construct? Also, how does one maintain a unique identity while blending in with the masses? I suppose an identity that fits with the majority is still an identity nonetheless. How can we differentiate between what we genuinely like and the static that the media feeds us? It’s definitely a blurry line.
    Thanks again for your feedback!

  3. Elaine Newton permalink
    July 26, 2010 8:37 pm

    The older I get, the more I realize that “living the American dream”, ain’t (sorry Gia) all it’s cracked up to be unless you are a self made millionaire, have inherited alot of money, invested in real estate years ago or hit the lottery. I’ve worked hard all my life, raising children, lived on a ranch, bought the houses, new cars, clothes, vacation timeshares, put the kids through activities, paid for my college and theirs only to wake up one day and realize that due to economic conditions, income variances, taxes, housing market value crash, among other unforeseen circumstances, the time has come to seriously think about the facade of the suburban lifestyle I’ve been accustomed to living. Recently I saw an article about “tiny houses” (see it for yourself) http://www.tinyhouse.com. The builder thought it was time to downsize and he certainly did! How about living in a 89 square foot house? The moral to the story is that he’s happy and oh yes he’s making alot of money building these houses for others! So my point is…how much do we really need and for what purpose? To be in debt to a bank, credit card companies, auto dealerships is really what living the suburban lifestyle is all about in our generation. What do we really own? How much do we really need? It’s time to get back to some basics for this suburban Santa Clarita wife, mom and working woman! My 87 year old mother is visiting with us. My dad bought their house in 1959 for $13,000 in the first tract house suburban community in Levittown, NJ. They had no washer, dryer, dishwasher, microwave or any of the “luxuries” we have today. While my Mom is staying with us, she insists on hanging our clothes outside to dry instead of using the dryer because it saves electricity and they “smell fresh”! Don’t get me wrong, it is nice to have the luxuries, however, I’m finding ways to save money, pay cash for everything, reduce expenses and being a consumer of more affordable products, services, clothes, food, etc. I’ve come to realize in the past two months since my Mom has been with us that being a smarter consumer in suburbia is still possible – we just need to retrain ourselves by thinking of better ways to spend less and save money. Designer fashion millionaires aren’t paying my bills therefore I have no “need” to pay theirs- unless of course, I can find it at a thrift store (and I have found designer clothes with the tags still on them!) I hope that my children learn from my generations’ mistakes and take a lesson from their grandmother (one of the original suburban Housewives of New Jersey)! Thanks Mom for the lessons in saving, paying more attention to where I purchase things, cutting back on expenses while still enjoying suburbia in a more sensible way.

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