Cheap Thrills

A story of American women in financial jeopardy

That’s right—that’s what distressed skinny jeans cost now: $300. Carolyn tried on jeans at the mall for three hours before she finally found the right snug fit. Let’s not even count the new high-heeled strappy shoewear to go with the jeans, the $120 haircut with highlights. (I admit—when she asked, I sent her to Taz!) Carolyn’s self-esteem is glowing. She’s going out more at night. She’s contemplating a vacation, maybe a cruise, with salsa dancing, windsurfing, parasailing. There’s more confidence, laughter, tossing the head back.

In America today, I can’t think of one person who wouldn’t pump the air and say, “You go, girl!” I can’t name one female self-help book that urges you, now that you’re forty, to simply accept … the extra seven pounds (talk about egocide). If we were all wearing sarongs, no one would know the difference—that’s why we need skinny jeans. When it comes to oppression, jeans are our burka, our religion, our god. We labor for the jeans, we starve for the jeans, we pray to the jeans that they’ll close … The fact that we’re paying $300 is only good news. Female emancipation is always defined in terms of expanding our economic presence. Our personal power is defined by our earning, our cultural power by purchasing, how we vote with our dollars.

Which is to say, conversely, the woman who buys nothing is nothing.

Nothing … nothing … nothing.

I resent it bitterly, and I am in revolt.

However, having now made a $25 purchase at Borders last week, it is I who gaze in awe. It is I who wave the saggy old bra in salute. Because it turns out there’s a new mistress of the shabby pavilions, a new Queen of Cheap! She is New York writer Judith Levine, and I so enjoyed her new book, Not Buying It, that I’ll be “gifting” my copy on this Christmas, in turn, to each member of my penurious family.

Nauseated not just by her own maxed credit cards but by her weakness in a hyperconsumerized world, Levine decided to try to survive, for one year, on just “essentials”—a strategy that saved her $8,000 (out of a gross income of $45,000). Yes, there was a diabetic cat requiring expensive veterinary care, and no, Levine’s vanity (which I respected her for fessing up to) would not allow her to give up her $55 haircuts. But beyond that, the strictures were urban-spartan. She and her partner, Paul, were to buy no clothes or shoes. There would be no restaurants, movies, gifts. They could buy groceries, but not fancy ones. Toilet paper, yes; Q-tips, no (this impressed me—I consider Q-tips essential).

Levine’s yearlong Visa-free journey reveals a hitherto-invisible realm. Without the whirl of buying, vast quantities of time open up—and not just from a lack of purchased entertainment; consuming itself takes time. (In The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz illustrates how we can fritter our days away even on trying to choose the best price for something on the Internet.) But perhaps Levine’s most pointed observations are political. She is no fan of Bush—he who advised patriotic citizens, post-9/11, to go shopping. But she’s troubled too with her fellow Democrats’ click-and-buy approach to political organizing.

If participating in the election by joining MoveOn or Concerned Wom­en for America is not as satisfying as shopping, it feels a little like using an Apple computer or wearing Nike shoes—what Merkely + Partners brand manager Douglas Atkins calls “joining a brand.” The twenty-first-century political group is not a group in the human sense. It has no voice, no flesh. There is no room to meet in, no one to meet. You send your money (or not), you get your e-mails (just like your software updates and porn-site come-ons), you “buy in” to the organization’s politics.

Meaning that “Kerry” (windsurfing gunboat captain, Ivy League union supporter) was simply a brand that didn’t work. These days, Americans are not citizens so much as consumers; says one friend of Levine’s, “What’s left of the counterculture is the counter.”

That’s not entirely true, of course. There are those eco-footprint fetishists (almost always white males, natch) who retreat to little dwellings in the woods (notably often the woods of Vermont) to compost and crack their own wheat berries and tinker ad nauseam with revolting gadgets like batteries powered by their own pee—all while doing a lot of calculations about how much “nature” they need to sustain their lifestyle. Generally these types like to keep their income “below taxable level,” in the words of Vermont conservationist Jim Merkel, a reformed weapons engineer and the author of the veritable bible of eco-footprint reduction, Radical Simplicity. “Then,” as he says, “not a single cent of mine would rain bombs and bullets onto peasants who live near coveted resources.” Of course, taxes sometimes go toward good things—bridges, schools, and … well, never mind. Idaho Panhandle, meet the Green Mountains.

But women have a whole different style of going “off the grid.” Men like to live alone in a rusty old school bus in Vermont, whereas for women (OK, white women), the romance, the adventure, of getting off the grid comes through travel abroad, away from America’s Jeans Nation. I’m thinking now of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Rita Golden Gelman’s Tales of a Female Nomad. The narrative always begins with an affluent urban woman weeping alone in her creature-comfort-filled home with the as-though-slugged-in-the-stomach pain of knowing her marriage will end in divorce. She emerges on a whirlwind journey of Third World villages that always, wonderfully enough, involves Bali. Common tropes include sumptuous weight gain, deep conversations with barefoot shaman-type medicine men, untrammeled sex with males of all ages (including Ecuadorian fishers).

All of which sort of confuses the issue of American Women in Financial Jeopardy. Let’s face it: it’s a lot cheaper to sit in the native woods and put your pee to use than it is to wander the world in search of spiritual advice and sexual catch-and-release. So, what’s really going on here, emotio-money-wise?

Liz Perle traces her beliefs about the complex relationship between women and their money to her Yiddish- speaking grandmother. Perle remembers the day about one year after her mother had died that, driven to impart an important life lesson, her grandmother frantically rooted around in her bureau drawers, past stockings and scarves (“each new thrust released the scent of Chanel No. 5”), until finally, from deep inside an underwear drawer, she pulled out a little woven metallic coin purse. “It’s a reticule … It’s something a woman wears to keep her valuables hidden,” her grandmother says. “This is the beginning of your knipple.” Perle writes:

In my grandmother’s hierarchy of what mattered in life, money silently reigned. She believed that at the end of the day, a woman’s safety and security (not to mention social position) depended on it.

The phrase that leaped out at me, upon reading that, was “social position.” What a stunningly unique situation modern American women are in. For perhaps the first time in the history of civilization, a woman’s social position is completely fluid, hers to somehow ferret out and determine and sustain. It’s not just that the West is unlike the East. (It’s not just that it’s unlike India, where you have an oppressive if impressively well-defined caste system, or unlike Bali, where of course so many are descended from Javanese royalty—for rapt Westerners, yet another of Bali’s intoxicating-as-a-jungle-flower features.) Think how far we’ve come, baby, from Jane Austen’s day, when women clearly understood that marriage to an alpha male was upon what their social status depended … from brilliant ascension to Mr. Darcy’s £10,000 a year at Pemberley, to the mournful poultry-tending outpost of a union with the rector Mr. Collins.

A modern American woman’s social position is not so easy to calculate. If only it were still just about money—the old Yankee Protestant families, the polo ponies, the little dogs, the ladies’ lunches, the charity balls, the coiffed hair, the dull face. My Los Angeles is littered with the wives of giant Hollywood Mr. Darcys who materially want for nothing, but who continue to be gnawed at by the novel that won’t get written, the environmental cause that can’t quite gain celebrity traction, the holistic fitness line that won’t sell (it’s not the money itself they need, but the prized creativity-and-success marker of the money). Nor is female professional success/independence the cure-all. I think of a novelist friend whose books unfailingly receive burnished notices in The New York Times (making her, literarily, extremely high-caste). The problem is that in person, people find her insufferable (at dinner parties she’ll drain the life out of a room with her endless pedantic monologues, much as Elizabeth Bennet’s own sister Mary would, plodding on and on with her Scotch and Irish airs). As a result, this friend can’t even find her Mr. Collins—or at least not a straight one. On the flip side, I have a vivacious writer friend who lives in a trailer in Topanga who wrote a rickety (yes, Bali-inspired) chapbook several years ago to a spray of pungently mixed reviews that ran only on the West Coast. No New York Times mention for her, not even a capsule. And yet, she’s not only an attendee but a hit—especially with flirtatious males of dubious repute, a chain of Mr. Wickhams only adding to her allure—at A-list canyon parties. In the drab wake of pretend feminism, where women share the fuzzy poncho of “sisters,” this woman has social capital—which is to say access—to burn.

Jane Austen would lie down with a headache doing this calculus, which isn’t really all about the money. It’s about the hunger for self-definition, the terror of never knowing where you stand. In lieu of Mr. Darcy (and the ladyship of Pemberley, which I believe I would have handled quite well), at least I have this: a stale, old wedding-gift Tranquility candle.

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Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media’s Marketplace. She can also be heard on KPCC-FM, in Pasadena, California.

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