Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Making Shopping Safe for the Rest of Us: Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic Series and Its Readers

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Making Shopping Safe for the Rest of Us: Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic Series and Its Readers

Article excerpt

There is a kind of cultural production within consumption.

-Willis, Common Culture

No one knows how many Americans suffer from compulsive buying tendency.

-Schor, The Overspent American

Certain popular culture forms more than others lend themselves to readings in which opposition features as prominently as do more hegemonic imperatives. Listening to grunge or rap music, marking the body with tattoos or piercings, dressing in accordance with distinct subcultural rules: each of these practices suggests resistance to, as well as compliance with, the dictates of contemporary popular and consumer culture. Shopping, not shopping for these items but simply shopping, is rarely thought of in and of itself as a particularly oppositional practice. Exceptions to the rule include thrift store or tag sale shopping, or perhaps even ebay shopping, but we generally think of a trip to the mall as programmed rather than negotiated practice (for exceptions see Fiske and Bowlby). In fact, much contemporary research on shopping identifies American shopping practice as "upscale emulation" (Schor 8), in which people shop far beyond their means in order to identify with the most wealthy. It is difficult to visualize resistance when throwing over the shoulder a $500 Kate Spade handbag. This article, however, attempts to complicate the popular representation of shopping, to explore it as cultural mandate and cultural resistance through a reading of the enormously popular Shopaholic book series and the ways in which the series' female fans explore their relationships to the book and to their own practices of shopping.

British author Sophie Kinsella first introduced protagonist Becky Bloomwood, an "irresistible one-woman shopping phenomenon" (Shopaholic & Sister coverleaf), to readers in the United States with Confessions of a Shopaholic, a 2001 novel that had been released in Britain the previous year as The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic. Three subsequent installments have followed: Shopaholic Takes Manhattan in 2002 (published as Shopaholic Abroad in Britain in 2001), Shopaholic Ties the Knot in 2003, and Shopaholic & Sister in 2004. Becky lives up to the shopaholic moniker, humorously displaying her addictive behaviors in every possible retail venue from London to New York and then globally after she marries and then honeymoons with boyfriend Luke Brandon. From book to book, Becky's whirlwind existence includes career deliberations and changes, the angst of romance, and the trials and tribulations of relationships with family and friends, but above all, her life centers around shopping. "These are my people; this is where I'm meant to be" (Kinsella 215), Becky declares in Shopaholic Takes Manhattan, not about Luke or her family of origin but about the upscale shops she encounters on her first trip to New York City. Becky fervently and repeatedly displays the behaviors that seem most likely to lead more and more Americans along the road to bankruptcy, and on this level the books seem to do little more than provide readers with roadmaps for economic servitude to credit card companies. A more nuanced reading of the chick lit genre of which the Shopaholic books are a part, however, alongside reader responses to the books, complicates contemporary women's consumerism in important ways.

What follows in this article is, first, a discussion of the Shopaholic series in the context of chick lit, a contemporary fiction phenomenon of which the Shopaholic books are a unique representation, and second, an exploration of reader responses to the Shopaholic books and their emphasis on shopping as pleasurable activity for women. Arguably, the books and their readers reveal that reading about shopping, as well as engaging in it, provides contemporary young women with a space within consumer culture in which to explore and respond to contemporary cultural mandates about the self. In this reading, representations of shopping provide something of an oppositional practice, oppositional to some of the mandates of contemporary heterosexual culture, namely that the body defines the female and that having a man in one's life defines a woman. …

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