Stevi Costa is here to talk to you about credit card debt, the marketing of “chick-lit,” her “Fashion as Rhetoric” class, and why the hell Disney thought releasing a movie like Confessions of a Shopaholic during the Great Recession was a good idea.

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In 2009, Americans were in the throes of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Unemployment was high, the housing bubble burst, and the subprime mortgage crisis found folks losing their homes. Amidst all of this, Disney, a corporation that has never lacked financial solvency, released Confessions of a Shopaholic, adapted from the best-selling Sophie Kinsella novels of the same name.

I’ve never read the Shopaholic novels (yes! novels! more than one!), as “chick-lit” was a genre of fiction I never indulged in, but I’m really interested in “chick-lit” as a marketing phenomenon in the early millennium. We’re all well-aware at this point that 20th century advertising made use of perceived differences between genders to sell more products, therefore capitalizing on and further reinforcing supposedly “natural” distinctions between men and women. (If you were trans or non-binary, you were blissfully free of having stuff marketed to you, which also served as a cutting invalidation of identity.) This also means that products deemed “feminine” and those specifically marketed toward women are culturally denigrated, and simultaneously overvalued. Ergo, we mock women for reading romance novels, but charge them an extra dollar for a razor that’s pink or purple and allegedly somehow better at protecting women’s skin, as though it’s really all that different from anyone else’s skin, as though it’s somehow more delicate because she reads romance novels and likes pink. Chick-lit enters the literary scene around the turn of the millennium, featuring novels that center on issues modern women face in terms of dating, work, friendships, etc. in “lighthearted” ways. They are written by women, for women, and are marketed to women. They are rarely as intimacy-focused as romance novels are, and rarely as “deep” as the plethora of novels about exactly the same subjects written by white men with MFAs from around the same era. But this is merely a tonal contrast. I don’t think those books are actually very deep at all, but because they are by men and about men (though not marketed exclusively to men), they assume an automatic depth that the derisively named “chick-lit” could never hope to achieve simply because men have nothing to do with it.

So while I’ve never read the books because the genre itself is not my cup of tea, I’m not going to decry the existence of “chick-lit” as the worst thing to happen to literature. I don’t believe in punishing the feminine—even if accepting and enjoying feminine things like chick-lit often plays into tired expectations about gender, sexuality, race, class, and body type (as heroines are typically straight, white, normatively thin, very feminine presenting, and middle class). But as a feminine-presenting cis-woman (and a femme-identifying bisexual at that), I like feminine stuff. I like pink. I like dresses. I like jewelry. I love lipstick. I hate when people shit all over something just because it’s “girly,” even though “girly” is not my personal version of femininity. (I’m more of a leopard print and faux leather and clean lines and boots kind of babe.) So, no, I’m not going to shit on chick-lit.

But I do have to ask: How does a film like Confessions of a Shopaholic get made at the height of the Great Recession? I suppose if I’m going to proffer an answer to that question, I could find it in this line, spoken to the protagonist by her father in the film’s third act:

“Your mother and I think that if the American economy can be billions in debt and still survive, so can you.”

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Let me back up a minute and tell you the plot to contextualize that line a little further. In the film Confessions of a Shopaholic, Rebecca Bloomwood is a Manhattan journalist working at a shitty gardening magazine who dreams of being a writer for Alette, the Vogue of this cinematic world. She is obsessed with fashion and loves shopping. She wears outrageous outfits styled by Pat Field of Sex and the City fame, but unlike Sex and the City’s fashion-loving journalist Carrie Bradshaw, we never have to wonder how Rebecca affords these clothes on her journalist’s salary. We know she can’t. She tells us in voiceover at the beginning of the film, which lovingly pans over sparkling new commodity after sparkly new commodity, that she always wanted beautiful, disposable things she couldn’t have as a child. Her mother only bought her plain wardrobe staples that would last and last (and were on sale!). But she learned that the beautiful feminine princesses of her dreams acquired what they wanted with little plastic credit cards, and that if Bex had, say, 12 credit cards (and one emergency one in the freezer) she could have whatever she wanted on credit.

I understand Bex in this moment. I, too, am the child of baby boomers. They, too, rode the line between investing in what would actually last and buying what was on sale because they had succumbed to the seductive rhetoric of the bargain. I could have whatever I wanted as a kid—as long as it was on sale. I also grew up in a military family, so part of our weekend routine was to drive to the base and shop at the commissary and the PX for whatever we needed. Sure, we could have gone to an outlet store or a strip mall near us. But we drove 45 minutes to base because it was cheaper. We never left empty-handed. The point is: most of the stuff we bought we didn’t really need. We bought it because we could. Because it was on sale.

This, unfortunately, is an attitude I really had to curb myself from when I was in my early 20s and not as financially solvent as I am now. I worked in San Francisco and it was so easy to go shopping after work on my way to the BART station. If I stopped in at Macy’s or Club Monaco or Banana Republic or Betsey Johnson on the way home and shopped for a while, I’d actually miss all the traffic that awaited me at the end of my train ride. Additionally, sometimes days were really slow at work and I didn’t actually have to leave my desk to shop. To this day, I remain a devotee of Zappos.com, and it was far too easy to scroll through pages and pages of shoes and handbags whenever I was bored and buy something less boring. I didn’t make much in my “project manager” job at a super low-level transcription company, but, to quote Shopaholic’s Alette Naylor, “That’s what credit cards are for. You know that, right?”

So, like Bex, I had credit card debt. I think most of us do. Honestly, I’m shocked at how low Bex’s debt is considering where she shops, what she buys, and how many debt collectors are after her. Her stated debt in the film is just upwards of $16,900. That’s a shockingly low number for a person who “speaks Prada” and buys Emilio Pucci boots—even if she’s only storming sample sales. That is also a shockingly low number to have spread out across 12 credit cards that seem to be at their max or near it at all times. Even if she had really shitty credit, which she obviously does, that amount should only max out four cards. Five cards, tops. Maybe six if every creditor reduced her line of credit to $3,000, which I think is about the lowest they would even bother with.

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In Shopaholic, Bex tries to achieve her dream of landing a job at Alette magazine while outrunning her creditors. While trying to come up with the last $20 she needs to purchase a beautiful green silk scarf to wow Alette magazine at an interview, she gets a loan from a handsome stranger at a hot dog cart. She misses out on the Alette interview because the magazine decided to hire an internal candidate. (And didn’t call to cancel? Rude. Red flag! Don’t work for that company, girl. They are assholes!) But a “magical gay” at the help desk snags her an interview spot at a different magazine in the Dantay-West family: Successful Saving. If the irony of someone in severe credit card debt working at a finance magazine isn’t enough, then get ready to be totally wowed by the fact that her interviewer is the very hunk who loaned her $20 at the hot dog cart to buy “a very important scarf.” It’s two meet cutes for the price of one! Successful Saving!

It is unclear to me why finance editor hunk Luke Brandon would give this woman a chance at all, but we’re also meant to assume that he’ll discount her because she’s so overtly feminine compared to all of the boring, stodgy suits at this failing finance magazine. But he doesn’t, and that makes it clear to us that he’s a Good Dude. Clearly, what Successful Saving needs is a new perspective, and Bex might just be it. And wouldn’t you know it? She totally is. Bex writes an article that becomes a viral sensation (before that was really a thing) in which she explains the danger of store-financed credit card APRs through the metaphor of cashmere-blend coats.

TBH, that is actually a brilliant metaphor. If I saw that in a student paper, I’d give it very high marks. Her finance writing is really good for a particular audience. (And that audience is the very 2009 PopSugar network, which I think actually did once have a finance avatar? Idk. I once interviewed there but was not quite right for the celebrity gossip part of the site at which I was interviewing. Maybe I should have bought a magical green scarf before my interview? Would that have helped?)

Her success leads her closer to falling for her boss on a business trip to Miami. Debt collectors continue to chase her, tracking her down at work. She lies and says the most pernicious one is an ex-boyfriend who is now stalking her. She tries to kick her shopping habit by going to Shopaholics Anonymous, but inspires everyone to relapse. Her column, “The Girl in the Green Scarf,” is so successful that she’s invited to a morning TV show and gets to go shopping with her idol, Alette Naylor, who approves of her choice to buy a very feminine purple dress to make a splash on TV. (I like it. It has a big ruffle collar.) But when she arrives at her Shopaholics group with this new purchase in tow, as well as her bridesmaid’s dress for her best friend’s wedding, the new group leader (Wendie Malick, in the worst wig I’ve ever seen on film) forces Bex to donate them both to charity. Bex only has enough money to buy one back. She chooses the TV dress. Her best friend rightly gets mad about it. (Although, yes, Kysten Ritter did choose what I can only describe as The Most Krysten Ritter Dresses.) Then a debt collector outs her as being in massive debt on national television and we arrive at Act 3, where her father (John Goodman, for some reason!) utters the line I quoted earlier. The magazine, which she had almost saved with her column, tanks, but Luke secures the capitol to start a new magazine. Bex frees herself of her debt by selling all of her beautiful clothes, parting even with the green scarf. Alette Naylor offers her a dream job, but she turns it down because Alette doesn’t believe in affordable fashion. There is, naturally, a happier ending than being debt-free and morally justified, though, and it’s this: being gifted said green scarf by her British hunk boss who professes his love for her AND gives her a job at his new magazine, reviving her “Girl in the Green Scarf” financial advice column.

So actually, you don’t survive by remaining in debt; you survive by getting out of debt and rethinking the seductive allure of consumer culture to join a world ruled by monogamy and austerity. It is a hopeful fantasy of the freedom that is a life without debt—a life most Americans will never functionally know.

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Listen. Let’s talk about debt for a minute. Credit card debt is bad. We all know that. But people don’t typically accrue credit card debt from shopping as a habit. (Unless you are like me, a middle-class white woman who could easily be the heroine of a piece of chick lit, except for the bisexuality part.) People accrue credit card debt because they live paycheck to paycheck and use their credit cards to pay bills. It isn’t as though most people spend beyond their means. It’s that most people don’t have the basic means to survive in the first place. Additionally, there are institutionalized forms of debt that we have accepted into our lives as necessary evils that one can never be free some—not as long as we live in a world where the housing market is supremely overinflated with shitty out-of-the-box condos, where new vehicles cost at least $25,000, and college tuition rates continue to rise, forcing young people who have been told that they MUST attend college to take out soul-crushing amounts of student loans that they will probably be paying until they drop fucking dead.

Those three things—shelter, transportation, education—are all things that are theoretically good investments. Theoretically, investing in real property such as a home or a plot of land is the only thing that should maintain its value over time. Stocks are speculative. You may win, you may lose. But a home? You can increase its value by continuing to invest in it. And if you choose to maintain its value, it will maintain, as long as the market bears it out. A vehicle depreciates in value the minute you drive it off the lot, but you can always live in it if you lose your house. Your college education? Well, the value of that is really more personal than anything else, right? No longer does a college degree guarantee a good job. The market is flooded with college-educated job candidates. So many folks in my generation are underemployed and overeducated. I will never devalue education itself, but what I am attempting to do here is decouple it from the idea that a college education offers a quantifiable return on investment. It may have for my parents, but even my parents eventually got master’s degrees to increase their earning potential.

And here I am, a fucking adjunct instructor with a PhD. Cool, cool, cool.

But truthfully, I’m luckier than many of my peers. I’ll be honest here and state that I carry no student loan debt. I am still paying off my car. I don’t own a home. I do carry a little bit of credit card debt from time to time, but not like I used to. I am in a financially stable position where being overeducated and underemployed doesn’t impact me nearly as much as it does my peers, many of whom will never be without debt of some kind.

So to make a movie about a get-out-of-debt-free fantasy in 2009, at the height of the Great Recession, seems perhaps a hopeful tale for many viewers, but is also an impossible dream.

Here is where Bex’s get-out-of-debt-free fantasy must be balanced against Luke’s austerity. The final coupling with Luke in both a romantic partnership and a business relationship is a move toward both an appropriate monogamous relationship (as opposed to a relationship that appears to be toxic and polyamorous with multiple creditors and commodities) and a move toward austerity. Love, I guess, is the ultimate commodity we should strive to possess, and that we must restrict our expenditures in order to maintain that love, as credit and clothing are inappropriate relationships to maintain. Put in these terms, it is so clear that this is actually a very British novel that’s been transplanted to the U.S. to piggy back on the success of the “single gal in the big city” storytelling mode of Sex and the City. But the moral principles of this ending feel practically 19th century to me: the heroine learns to cast off her girlish excesses as she moves toward a marriageable position. Does she get what she wants? Certainly. But she also gets exactly what an appropriate woman should have: career success, good looks, and a Mr. Claire Danes for a partner.

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Mr. Claire Danes, by the way, is an ideal partner not simply because he chooses not to reject Bex immediately based on her feminine excess, but because he is, in fact, old money. He reveals that even though his mother was socialite Elinor Sherman, he never wanted to use his family money and instead chose to make his own way in life—a fact we learn when he expertly serves a tray of fish at a party to save Bex from a comic mishap in which she is mistaken for a waitress. (The only thing we see Bex consume in this film that isn’t clothing, by the way, is alcohol: tequila shots with Suze and a fancy cocktail at a party in Miami. It is definitely easier to afford clothes if you don’t purchase food.) His rejection of his aristocratic inherited wealth feels extra British. (So hot when Percy Shelley did it!) But also somehow extra American. Even when he chooses to start his own magazine, he pursues traditional channels for economic liquidity. He makes pitches to investors, rather than staking the magazine with his own money. Asking someone to invest in you is, of course, not the same as credit. Luke is merely asking someone to invest in him and his ideas, and to believe that, based on his hard work at Successful Saving, the investor will earn a return. Luke takes on a bootstaps mentality about his economic position, choosing austerity over excess because working for a living equates moral good in this narrative, and this makes austere characters as good investment. Bex’s parents worked all their lives and never spent any of their savings, for instance, and they provide their debt-ridden daughter with moral assurance that everything will turn out fine. They’ll even offer to sell the RV they saved their whole lives to buy just to make her happy. But unlike the Bloomwoods, Luke’s austerity is a personal choice that is always securely backed by the promise of an inheritance. In short, Luke is the best investment. He’s low-risk, high-reward on all accounts. The Bloomwoods are less sure, with no secure financial backing, but they live appropriately within their means under austerity measures: always save, never spend. Working, earning, and saving are the principles by which morally good, economically austere characters in the film live their lives, in contrast to the hundreds of women who tear through sample sales like hyenas with no concern for their own lives of the lives of others, and the bitchy fashionistas of Allete magazine and our heroine, who eventually finds her way to austerity and, subsequently, moral goodness.

Bex’s own articles about shopping also ask us to buy into this austerity stance, even if we still want to embrace some elements of conspicuous consumption. You can still buy something expensive, she argues, but make sure you know what it’s value truly is. This is what every style show from the mid-Aughts also preached. Whether it was Tim Gunn saying it on the short-lived Bravo series Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style or Clinton Kelly and Stacy London chirping it at some woman who lived in oversized men’s tee shirts until they came to save her, the argument for investment pieces is an argument about knowing something’s true economic value. What’s it made of? How well is it made? Where did it come from? Will it last? Bex is right about the cashmere blend coat. It ultimately is not worth it. It will leave you out in the cold. Buy the coat that’s 100% cashmere, even if it’s more expensive. Then you will only need one and it will last for many, many winters.

It should seem a little weird that films like this and shows like What Not to Wear and Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style, which are all ostensibly about shopping and dressing well, also come with this message of austerity. The programming entertains us with commodity after commodity, telling us how much they cost, and how good they’ll make us look and, moreover, feel. But we are always treated to the moral warning to make choices that align with austere points of view: invest wisely, and well. Doing so will make you look and act in ways that espouse an appropriate moral subjectivity. Women who like fashion—the Alette bitches, the sample sale mavens, the other shopaholics—are presented, then, as occupying the incorrect economic and moral subject positions. And I do want to emphasize here that it is only women (and one gay man) in this position, and that is a problem. For a film that is marketed to women, based on a book written by women and for women, it certainly seems to think women suck for liking the very things we have been culturally normed to like.

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Properties like Confessions of a Shopaholic and related shopping shows are caught, it seems, in an unfortunate double bind where they signal that austerity is antithetical to conspicuous consumption, while using the visual language of conspicuous consumption to make that point. I don’t think any of us watch shopping shows for any reason other than to look at people’s wardrobes becoming more aesthetically beautiful through shopping sprees, so while the message may be austerity, the packaging it comes in is most certainly not. But I think this is a problem that fashion as an industry also seems to grapple with. Fast fashion is the byproduct of our conspicuous consumption modality, producing poor-quality products cheaply using labor practices that are euphemistically described as questionable and more accurately described as exploitative and abusive. Additionally, because clothing is made so cheaply, quickly, and disposably, this has created massive environmental problems from piles of rags filling up African cities after they’ve been discarded from American secondhand stores, to poisonous run-off polluting rivers outside Asian garment factories, to the increasingly smoggy air in major Chinese cities. But we don’t see all of that when we see a cute blazer at H&M for $39.95. What we see is the garment before us. We see the commodity, the abstraction of the labor value that went into creating it, the masking of the after effects of its creation.

When I teach my “Fashion as Rhetoric” course, my students learn about the fast fashion industry and critique it. They know that to contribute to this industry through constant, disposable conspicuous consumption does not make one morally good. But if you recall what I said about debt earlier, then it won’t surprise you that they can’t invest in sustainably, ethically made clothing either. I’m personally trying to. Every time my students give me a Dress Your Professor assignment in which I have to count the countries of origin on the labels in my closet to see how much fast fashion I buy, or wear an outfit that’s made entirely out of sustainable or recycled clothing, I am challenged to consciously consume. But I know as a person who buys recycled deadstock dresses from Reformation and Rothy’s shoes made from recycled water bottles that these items are often as expensive as anything Rebecca Bloomwood might buy at a designer sample sale. (My husband bought me a new silk skirt from Reformation for my birthday this year. His comment when he gave it to me was, “This is a very expensive skirt.”) I am trying to rid myself of my fast fashion habit. I am trying to rid myself of my “buy stuff when bored” tendencies. I, like Rebecca, am trying for a kind of austerity in my fashion choices, one which aligns with a specific ethical stance that comes with having the privilege to make such a choice. But this, too, is also a double bind. In order to show this to my students, I still have to model it for them. Literally. (You can follow the project on Instagram at @dressyourprofessor.) I have to be conspicuous about what I consume in order for my ethical investments to be recognized.

When I initially agreed to review Shopaholic, I thought the angle for this piece would be “What is it like to watch this movie about shopping in a Marie Kondo world?” Kondo, like the equally popular Danish principle of Hygge, espouses that a living space that is tidy is best. The commodities we keep should be those which spark joy to us. (Tim Gunn calls these “soul stirrers” when he refers the kinds of garments one should own.) This philosophy, with roots in Shintoism, seems to align neatly with contemporary minimalist design aesthetics. Clean lines, clean surfaces, less clutter. I would say that a 2019 aesthetic is an austere aesthetic, in a way. An austere aesthetic is certainly not a Pat Field ensemble. It’s not Carrie Bradshaw’s walk-in closet. It’s not the moment in Shopaholic where a closet full of space bags zanily explode and bury Bex’s poor roommate Suze in a mountain of garments. But Shopaholic moves Bex away from her aesthetic of feminine excess to something more austere and more streamlined. She sells all her worldly possessions to achieve this. So perhaps Confessions of a Shopaholic is a film that really holds up in 2019 for this reason and this reason alone.

Is it a good film? Does it spark joy? Absolutely not. It in no way stirs my soul. It’s exceptionally unfunny for a romantic comedy, and the plot feels like a series of story beats rather than a genuine narrative.  (I hope you got a feeling for in my plot summary above. I really tried to capture what I think is the writing style of the film there.) But under the shiny Louboutins and elegant Gucci silks and terrifying glossy hallucination mannequins that line the store windows of Manhattan shopping districts, there remains a kind of worth in this get-out-of-debt-free Pat Field fantasia on national economic themes.

— Stevi Costa

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