Sally Aitken, “Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 2: A Modern Game)” (2011)
Continuing briskly and trippingly from Episode 1 “A Genius Idea”, Sally Aitken leads viewers into the 20th century, with frequent jumps back into the 19th century, with her visual history of department stores and their influence on Western culture. Using as before a mix of interviews, fictional dramatisations and archival footage, Aitken casts a sometimes critical eye over various social and occasionally political issues and manages to fit in brief biographies of three major department store founders. The film style is light-hearted, flitting from one topic to another in a way not always logical or natural, but with just enough depth to stimulate coffee-table or next-day water-cooler discussion.
Whereas Episode 1 presented department stores as liberating for women in the 19th century, even as promoters of female political emancipation and participation, Episode 2 casts the same phenomenon as enforcing a new kind of bondage in a myriad ways both physical and psychological: topics touched on include the commodification of women’s bodies via the adoption of standard sizes and the elevation of physical beauty as a major crutch for female self-esteem through the advertising of cosmetics, perfumes and clothing. Department stores become amateur psychologists in developing and promoting desire and social conformity; they also start shaping cultural rituals and values. Through the example of a major US department store founder John Wanamaker, who originally intended to train as a religious Presbyterian preacher, department stores turn religious holidays into opportunities for drumming up retail business and profit, and even create new holidays such as Mother’s Day to encourage more spending. Retailers discover children as a market in themselves to be targeted and play on parents’ anxiety and guilt that they’re not doing enough for their precious bairns by promoting children’s goods as educational or beneficial.
In the process of encouraging and feeding desire, department stores give rise to new concepts and values: instant gratification of material wants, built-in obsolescence in products, the use of season-based fashions and trends, social competition in purchasing and flaunting goods, an obsession with individuality (and at the same time an obsession with being part of the middle class – a concept that might have been created by department stores themselves – and fitting into that class) and growth. The programme unfortunately doesn’t extend its investigation of department stores’ manipulation of cultural values into the consequences of that manipulation: the excessive waste of resources in making products that last only one or two years before they must be tossed aside for new products that self-styled fashion leaders declare by statement or example that people must have; equally, the exploitation of resources, any human labour involved in making new products; and the pollution that results from the manufacturing process or from outdated or superseded products dumped into landfills. It’s probably beyond the scope of the programme to investigate how the particular cultural values promoted by department stores intersect and agree neatly with the values of capitalist economic systems and debt-based / growth-oriented financial systems though there’s a very superficial look at how department stores have played a role in the social acceptance of consumer debt and how that might have led to the current global debt crisis.
A further issue the documentary looks at is department stores’ attitudes to worker rights: department stores have often been leaders in granting their usually large workforces benefits and good working conditions but the reason is not necessarily altruistic – the generosity is usually due to the store management’s desire to prevent workers from forming trade unions.
The emphasis in the film moves away from France to Australia, Britain and the US through brief biographies of major department store founders such as Sidney Myer who fled pogroms in Russia and came to Melbourne, reinventing himself as a patriotic Australian while establishing the Myer chain of stores across Australia; Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American who earned a grand fortune through Selfridges in London but threw it all away on gambling and ended up dying in penury; and John Wanamaker, the pious Christian who turned Christmas and Easter and their respective rituals and symbols into money-making opportunities.
The film does not make any predictions as to the future of department stores or shopping as a cultural activity generally and I think this is a major flaw in the documentary. New forms of technology such as 3-D printing have the potential to allow people to create customised versions of products and send department stores, reliant on mass production and enforcing social conformity, into historical oblivion. There was an opportunity in this second episode for Aitken to look at the dark side of the department store as a cultural phenomenon and how it has shaped our thinking, judgement and morals, and that opportunity, although not missed, is not exploited to the full.