Holiday Shopping Edition: On Christmas Movie Miracles, Makeovers and Shopgirls

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Enjoy this heart-warming moment while you can, little girl. When you grow up, you might write a chapter in your dissertation that spoils it for everyone.

[Note: Sadly, teaching 4 classes at 2 schools hasn’t left much time for blogging this term. But, in honor of holiday shopping season I thought I’d share this excerpt from my dissertation.

The chapter looks at the shifting role of makeovers in shopgirl films, focusing mainly on the relationship between the genre’s heyday in the 1930s and early 21st century retail stories like Shopgirl (2005), The Good Girl (2005) , Last Holiday (2006)and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (2007).

The transitional representation, in my analysis, is my favorite holiday shopping film, Miracle on 34th Street (1947).]

From “The Last Shopgirl” to “The Teen-ager”

Perhaps the last great department store movie, Miracle on 34th Street (1947) doesn’t even have a shopgirl in it. Or rather, it features a woman, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) who could reasonably be imagined to have begun as one, and who has climbed Macy’s ranks to the position we find her in, coordinating the Thanksgiving Day Parade. Miracle on 34th Street parodies all of the qualities that were extolled less than twenty years earlier in works like Frances Donovan’s The Saleslady and in films such as Job Matching For Women (1931), produced by the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, that promoted scientific management as a way of reducing “human waste in industry.” Miracle’s villain is the store psychologist, hired to administer aptitude tests, but who has developed an inflated sense of his own importance in the store and lost touch with the individual humanity of his “cases.” Doris has also become rational to the point that she is no longer a “natural” woman – she doesn’t believe in romance and is raising her fatherless daughter, Susan (Natalie Wood), with the same businesslike efficiency that has made her successful at work. She has lost her “womanliness” and Susan is at risk of never learning it. Hence, both are in danger of identifying primarily with their labor, rather than their consumer roles (a dangerously Socialist identification). They require the intervention of an idealistic lawyer (John Payne) and the patron saint of consumer culture, Santa Claus (Edmund Gwenn).

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Overly rational no more. Successful working-woman, Doris Walker, gets a “Christmas Spirit” makeover.

The “true” identity of “Kris Kringle” is ambiguous throughout the film. But we learn in the end that his identity isn’t the point: the point is how belief in Santa Claus transforms – or makes-over – the individuals around him. As the owners of Macy’s and Gimbel’s learn, being strictly logical is bad for business, we must buy into the religion of consumerism as well. And Doris must reinvest in capitalism’s fantasies and pleasures, to be willing to let uncritical “believing” override her “common sense” in order to become a balanced, unified subject. So, whereas the Clara Bow, Joan Crawford or even Ginger Rogers model shopgirls of the previous decades were eventually successful because they could perform white, middle-class, married femininity while maintaining an “authentic” working-class, “ethnic,” independent core, for Maureen O’Hara, her residual “shopgirlness” is a barrier to happiness.

 

At the end of the film young Susan is the only character who still doubts Kringle’s true identity, or more accurately, still believes that the distinction between reality and fantasy is important. In the penultimate scene, she is in a car, seated behind her mother and the man who will presumably become her father, reciting in the monotonous tone of a child learning her multiplication tables, “I believe. I believe. It’s silly but I believe.” That’s when Susan spies the gift she wanted most: to be part of a “normal” nuclear family, signified – for this urban apartment dweller – by a single-family home in the suburbs.

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Goodbye, boring labor rights!

 

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Hello, suburbia!

For a film that is composed largely as a love letter to Macy’s and to shopping, it’s fitting that Doris Walker, a character I’ve come to think of as “the last shopgirl,” ends her journey by disappearing into suburban domesticity.[1] By the end of WWII, according to Lisbeth Cohen, department store retail work had become a viable, sustainable career, largely because of several successful urban union drives in the 1930s (Macy’s included). However, Cohen goes on to note that this success was short-lived. With the growth of suburban shopping centers and branch stores, retailers circumvented union codes by employing temporary, part-time (women) employees. Decentralization was a key aid in large stores’ efforts to makeover their image, from the “store family” model with a heavy investment in each employee and focus on highly trained sales people, to becoming a fun place to earn extra “pocket” money and where, ostensibly, few real skills beyond flexibility were required. In other words, the new image for retail was a place where there were no employees anymore – only more deeply invested consumers.

On February 22, 1949 Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia sent out a press release with the headline, “Into the ranks of fashion steps a new personality: the teen-ager!” (Wanamaker’s Archive). The store’s promotion of its new “Teen Club,” reflects a phenomenon that was happening at department stores across the country, as the teenager became the ideal consumer/spectator. It cannot be a coincidence that the shopgirl figure faded from popular imagination at the same time that the teenager emerged as a symbol of modernity, personal transformation and upward mobility. A similarly liminal, transitional subject position, the teen took on many of the most appealing characteristics of the shopgirl: youth, attractiveness, confinement for long hours within institution she’s told will raise her status (culturally, if not always materially), and eagerness to spend her small allowance on fashion and movies.

In The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, Thomas Hine writes, “Like the Hoover Dam, the American teenager was a New Deal project, a massive redirection of energy. The national policy was to get the young out of the workforce so that more jobs would be available to family men” (4). So, while figured as the ultimate leisured consumer, from the beginning the teenager was constructed in relation to labor. This quote points out another issue with the teenager: like many subject positions, the assumed “baseline” is masculine, and frames labor as a man’s problem. Cultural studies scholars (e.g., Angela McRobbie, Susan Douglas, Julie Bettie) have often challenged analyses of teenagers that are implicitly gendered masculine. My addition to this project is to point out that the entire construction of the teenager is a mask for figures, such as the shopgirl, that have difference built in to them. A labor-based identity like “shopgirl,” though in some ways more confining, also has the benefit of being somewhat more transparent. Unlike the shopgirl, itself a temporary uniform or “mask” for a variety of age, class and ethnic positions, that could be “put on and taken off,” the teenager was constructed as a foundational identity category, grounded in biology and human development. Yet, one piece of the shopgirl story that became almost universally associated with “teen movies” (especially those aimed at teenage girls) is the makeover as part of a transition from adolescence to adulthood. Paradoxically, the makeover or commodity driven identity transformation – by definition an unnatural process, one that is consciously undertaken – has become naturalized as part of the teenage experience. This is the time when youth are figuring out who they are, and it is common to invoke the language of “trying on” identities in reference to people of high school age.

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A teen dancing club ca 1953 (Library of Congress)

It’s important to remember that the category “teenager” was not a neutral synonym for adolescence or youth. It emerged alongside several, overlapping social and economic upheavals in the middle of the 20th century. The adolescent became the teenager only when high schools became widely populated by poor people, immigrants and people of color. So-called “teen” issues are inherently class, race, gender and labor issues disguised as individuation tales in which young people must navigate a world too complex and dangerous for their parents to recognize. Yet, “The American Teenager” framed the problems of growing up as universal; one’s race, class, gender, sexuality were just details of plot, the central themes were the same. The anxieties surrounding the teens only made them more ideally suited to the necessities of mass consumption, both as commodities and consumers eager to “fit in.” The image of the teenager carried all the seductiveness and anxiety of the shopgirl, without the messy subtext of exploitative female labor, ambivalent racial and ethnic assimilation and structural class inequity.

Ironically, the same move towards decentralization that helped department stores to break down union authority and transition to an emphasis on part-time, high turnover staffing also sped along the end of the department store’s reign as the American shopping hub. By the late twentieth century, as shopping malls rose (and fell), branded chains and big box stores took over the retail landscape. Cinemas underwent a similar transition, moving from large, single screen theaters to suburban multiplexes and increasingly, home viewing technologies. In both industries, niche markets became more important, and perhaps the only consistent ideal consumer was the teenager. Simultaneously, the U.S. was transitioning from a production to a service-based economy. At the same time that retail was becoming the largest employment sector in the U.S., as the ideal service worker, the teenager also naturalized the notion that retail work was a juvenile life stage, and that identities should be shaped through personal consumption, more thoroughly than the shopgirl ever could.

When Doris Day released a version of “Hooray for Hollywood” in 1958, several outdated lyrics and confusing references had been changed from the 1937 original, including the line “where any shop girl can be a top girl, if she pleases the tired business man.” Meanwhile, by the 1950s teen films constituted a full-fledged genre and niche market. While the shopgirl character was never completely overtaken, she did become less and less visible in the mid-twentieth century.[2] Re-working the shopgirl into multiple characters whose identity is defined primarily by imagined “foundational” categories had a significant impact on the way that retail workers were depicted and what they represented in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

[1] I just want to add that more than any other film I’ve written about, Miracle on 34th Street was an important part of my childhood, and my personal proof that, for better or worse, the things we consume become part of who we are. I know I’m not alone in this – I was recently at a party and mentioned that I was including a critique of Miracle on 34th Street in my dissertation. The person responded, “What did you do with your heart while you were writing?” And it’s true; it feels like deconstructing my grandma.

[2] When she did appear, she was often associated with the child-womanish “gamine.” If she was not Parisian, then she was quickly carted off to Paris, and often the object of desire, rather than the subject of the film. (e.g. An American in Paris 1951; To Paris With Love 1955; Funny Face 1957; Made in Paris 1966).

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About saratatyana

Sara T. Bernstein, Ph.D. has been writing about and teaching media, cultural and fashion studies for over a decade. She's served as a contributor and reviews editor for the Fashion, Style and Popular Culture Journal, contributed to Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty and published essays on subjects ranging from fashion in the work of Charlotte Bronte, to the meaning of luxury, to feminist pedagogy. She teaches visual culture, media, and fashion studies at Pacific Northwest College of Art.
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