Ordinary Lifestyles: Popular Media, Consumption and Taste

By David Bell; Joanne Hollows | Go to book overview

13 Gender, childhood and
consumer culture

Melissa Tyler and Rachel Russell

In this chapter we consider the relationship between gender and consumer culture with specific reference to what Allisa Quart (2003: xxvi) has described as ‘the unbearable commercialization of youth’. The research on which the chapter is based began in 2000, and focused initially on a UK-based chain of retail outlets called Girl Heaven (Russell and Tyler 2002), aimed primarily at 3 to 13-year-old girls and described variously as ‘a piece of retail folklore’ (Lumsden 1999) and as ‘Guardian Wimmin Hell’ (Kettle 1999). In 2003, we followed up this study with a broader focus on the relationship between young girls' lived experiences of consumer culture and gender acquisition. The aim of this second phase of the research was to reflect on the transition from childhood to teenage status for the same group of teenage girls who took part in the initial research, to consider, with particular reference to their experience of consumer culture, both continuities and changes in their understanding of gender, and to examine the role of media culture in shaping their lived experience of gender and consumer culture.

Our discussion here argues that while on the one hand retail environments such as Girl Heaven appear to provide a celebratory social space in which girls can affirm their femininity, they also seem to epitomize the commercial appropriation of childhood and the transition into young adulthood. As a way into exploring these two alternatives, our focus is concerned initially with what it means to ‘do’ feminine childhood and young adulthood against the backdrop of contemporary consumer culture. It then outlines the methodological approach that we took to researching Girl Heaven, and the ways in which we explored young girls' lived experience of consumer culture and gender acquisition more generally in the second phase of our research. Our analysis culminates in an attempt to reflect critically on the complex relationship between consumer culture and the process of becoming a young woman, highlighting the ways in which this is mediated, at least in part, by consumer culture. We reflect on retail formats such as Girl Heaven – with which, our research suggests, young girls themselves are acutely aware of having a relationship that is far from straightforward – as a notable manifestation of this complexity.

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