The cast of ‘Sex and the City’/Image © HBO
Editor's Note: Elaine Dimopoulos is a graduate of Yale, Columbia, and, Simmons College, where she earned an M.F.A. in Writing for Children. Currently, she teaches children's literature at Boston University and is also an instructor for Grub Street. She served as the Associates of the Boston Public Library's Children's Writer-in-Residence during which time she wrote her new Young Adult novel, Material Girls. Visit her website at elainedimopoulos.com. We asked Elaine to speak to the issue of excess and materialism on film. Here's what she said.
A decade ago, I sat under a puffy blue comforter on my boyfriend's couch watching six-episode DVDs of "Sex and the City." Neither an empty stomach nor a full bladder could move me from my cocoon. Carrie Bradshaw and her friends enthralled me - their hapless romances, their Manhattanite meltdowns, their designer shopping trips.
When I ejected the final DVD and threw off the comforter, I knew one thing. I needed to buy some shoes.
And go shoe shopping I did. Not for Manolo Blahniks, Carrie's high-end brand of choice, but for knockoffs from moderately priced retailers. I also shopped for clothing that would never be considered "sportswear": eccentric statement pieces that made me feel like a melodramatic Manhattanite arriving at brunch, fashionably tardy.
Because that's what the show did, and that's what fashion does: It presents a fantasy. If I wear four-inch heels and structured white blazers, I too can have the sexy, foodie, gallery opening-filled lifestyle of these fictionalized TV characters.
But what some people who fall under this spell realize, and what eventually inspired me to write my novel, Material Girls, is that the satisfaction these garments offer is hollow. Marx called this act of acquisition false consciousness. During my DVD binge, I was spending half of my life at Teachers College on 120th Street in Manhattan, and the other half in front of my computer writing papers. Neither setting called for high heels. When we buy clothes for a lifestyle we don't live, motivated by advertising or a gilded HBO series, we spend money in pursuit of a fantasy that often turns to dust after we leave the store. And so we're let down. And so we buy more, thinking that this new dress, or this new pair of shoes will fill the void.
In Material Girls, Ivy Wilde, a manufactured pop star, lives an it-girl lifestyle but feels empty, despite the throngs who gaze at her, and despite the mountains of clothes in her two-story closet. In the novel, she tries to shake off her false consciousness and find a truer existence, though she realizes it may come at the cost of her fame.
And yet ... what about the pleasure fashion offers?
It doesn't sit right with me to condemn all mention of shopping and fashion as frivolous. Shopping is often maligned because it is a pastime associated with women. Television sitcoms have depicted women as superficial and irresponsible with money since Ricky berated Lucy for her lack of willpower and closet full of dresses on "I Love Lucy."
No doubt citizens of developed nations spend too much time shopping. One show that captures this excess is the recently concluded "Parks and Recreation." Donna Meagle and Tom Haverford indulge in a once-a-year "Treat Yo Self" day, during which they shop and dine and book spa treatments like royalty. Part of the comedy is that Donna and Tom are superficial characters, but there is also a sweet camaraderie between them on "Treat Yo Self" day. The day is frivolous, but it is also undeniably fun.
Fashion can be fun, too. It is a form of artistic expression, after all. Who can forget designer Sean Kelly's creative "rainway" dress on Season 13 of "Project Runway"? We watched the dyes sewn inside the white cloth bleed into yellow and pink blossoms when hit with water. Judge Nina Garcia calls the metamorphosis "sublime," and indeed it is.
Marla Klein never loses her love of fashion in the profit-driven world of Material Girls. She holds fast to her aesthetic, even when it differs from that of her fellow teen trendsetters. As a result, she finds herself at risk of losing her prestigious job at a major fashion label.
Although it is imperative that we stop consuming clothes so aggressively, not only for our psyches' sakes but also for the sake of the planet, neither is the answer utter restraint. F. Scott Fitzgerald believed that intelligence means holding two opposing ideas in mind, so let's be smart consumers. Let's look at our shopping habits critically and take joy in treating ourselves.