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

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2005, Volume 4, Issue 2
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/fall_2005/scanlon.htm



Jennifer Scanlon
Bowdoin College

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. Arguably, however, the books offer more that is compensatory than oppositional, in that consumer capitalism in the end seems a less than utopian alternative to the shortcomings of either contemporary media-driven expectations of womanhood or contemporary heterosexual relationships. Following an analysis of the books and their messages, the article describes the results of an online research project in which Shopaholic fans were invited to describe their own passionate relationships to the books and to the practice of shopping.

Chick Lit, Postfeminist Fiction,
and the Shopaholic Series


At the onset of the Shopaholic series, Rebecca Bloomwood, twenty-five years old and recently graduated from college, takes advantage of the signal offer to become indoctrinated into post-baccalaureate consumerism: she accepts the overly generous line of credit offered her by a London bank. It doesn’t take long for her to succumb to the dual afflictions of mall-aria and affluenza (see Farrell, DeGraaf), and in record time Becky is in trouble with banks, employers, friends, and family. Her real-life practices are juxtaposed with the advice she gives on the job as, ironically, a financial journalist and advisor, and with the more studied consumer practices of her far-more wealthy roommate Suze and boyfriend Luke. Becky’s addiction to shopping, and her hilariously inventive if ultimately unsuccessful attempts to curb her spending practices, also provide the narrative framework for each of the subsequent books in the series.

The Shopaholic books are light reading, beach reading, airport reading. They belong to the genre of chick lit, a phenomenally successful body of girl-centric fiction initiated with the publication of Bridget Jones’s Diary in 1997. Although there is no consensus on what a book must feature in order to fit into the genre, and although it has subsequently spawned sub-genres such as Christian chick lit, wedding and bridesmaid lit, black chick lit, bigger girl lit, and mom lit, certain characteristics hold the increasingly diverse group of books, often bestsellers, together. They most frequently feature young, urban, professional female protagonists who, while not taking themselves too seriously, work through romantic, career, and body image trials and tribulations. As Red Dress Ink, the Harlequin imprint founded to respond to the enormous popularity of these books vis-à-vis traditional romances, declares, “Red Dress Ink is women’s fiction with attitude! From young and crazy to contemplative and witty, these stories are all about navigating life’s little curves” (Harlequin).

The Shopaholic books, like chick lit in general, have a curious relationship to the romance genre as a whole. When Harlequin founded Red Dress Ink specifically as a chick lit imprint, it did so recognizing, as had other publishers, that this new phenomenon posed the first serious challenge to traditional romance fiction in decades. The traditional romance formula, in which romance provides women not only with fulfillment but also with a secure sense of identity, quickly felt the pinch of the more liberated explorations of romance, sexuality, work, and life in general posed by chick lit protagonists. Carolyn Heilbrun is among the many scholars who have written provocatively on women’s relationships to the romance genre. In her reading, the traditional romance fiction narrative is one in which the female remains central only for a short time before she gives up that space to her love interest. Even that brief centrality, Heilbrun argues, has as its purpose “to encourage the acceptance of a lifetime of marginality” that will follow the end of courtship and mark the long future of married life, which is comprised simply of “aging and regret” (21). Chick lit disrupts this pattern to a degree, as women in these tales move from lover to lover and laugh at as well as obsess over their own human weaknesses and foibles. Nevertheless, as Martha O’Connor writes, the most tedious, and arguably plentiful, chick lit plotlines feature “a twenty- or thirty-something heroine who lives in a large metropolitan area (preferably New York); we’ll call her Chick. Chick despises her horrid boss and is desperately in love with Mr. Wrong. But fortunately Chick’s best friend, who was right there under her nose all along, transforms into Mr. Right!” (“About the Author”). It is an updated rather than overturned romance scenario.

To some degree, the familiar romance formula plays out in the Shopaholic books as well. Becky falls for Luke, they date, they experience the misunderstandings lovers experience that nearly break them apart, and they then reconcile and marry. Luke, like many romance fiction heroes, suffers from an inability to communicate intimately, emotionally, other than through sex: “I wish he’d open up to me, like they do on Dawson’s Creek,” Becky laments, referencing a popular television program. “But whenever I say, ‘Do you want to talk?’ and pat the sofa invitingly, instead of saying, ‘Yes, Becky, I have some issues I’d like to share,’ he either ignores me or tells me we’ve run out of coffee” (Shopaholic Ties the Knot 161). The humor only underscores the degree to which Becky, in some ways a traditional romance heroine, does not actually desire a relationship with an overly sensitive and communicative, insufficiently male-identified man. This plotline will resonate readily both with readers of romance fiction and with scholars who have read and been influenced by Janice Radway’s formative work on the romance genre.

Arguably, though, Becky’s devotion to shopping threatens the marginality looming in the background of the romance plot. While by definition a romance ends with a wedding, Becky’s consumer-driven tale readily includes the honeymoon, which offers tremendous shopping opportunities, and the first home, which opens up entirely new consumer avenues. The fourth book in the series, Shopaholic & Sister, concludes with the suggestion that Becky is pregnant, which rather than nailing the lid on the coffin of sex and romance in real life, on screen, or in the pages of a romance novel, invites consumer daydreams of an entirely new type, for the self and the new baby, an in-vitro extension of the female shopping self. Becky’s very particular romance outlasts courtship, a wedding, a honeymoon, perhaps even pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. This angle resonates with contemporary readers and commodifies the romance genre itself in new, invigorating ways.

What is perhaps most interesting about this new genre of female pleasure reading, for this analysis, is its association with a “postfeminist” present for women. Chris Mazza, editor of two compilations of chick lit fiction, falls short of describing what chick lit is but calls attention to what it is not:

Not anti-feminist at all, but also not: my body, myself
my lover left me and I am so sad
all my problems are caused by men
… but watch me roar
what’s happened to me is deadly serious
SOCIETY HAS GIVEN ME AN EATING DISORDER
A poor self esteem
A victim’s perpetual fear
… therefore I’m not responsible for my actions. (Mazza 8)

In Mazza’s telling, postfeminist means moving beyond feminism’s victim mentality to claim a space of personal responsibility, agency, and deliberate ambiguity in response to feminist and other directives about how one “should” conduct one’s life. Scholars and others who continue to define themselves as feminist may find in this definition of postfeminism more than a hint of antifeminist ideology, and will hardly be moved by Mazza’s argument that “Postfeminist writing says we don’t have to be superhuman anymore. Just human” (Mazza 9; see also Walters). Postfeminism liberates women from the demands not of sexism but of feminism, as the subtitle of the second chick lit compilation makes clear: Chick Lit 2 (No Chick Vics) (Mazza). In another reading, however, the postfeminist label is ultimately as vaguely postfeminist as is the third-wave feminist label — and as consumerist. Postfeminist, arguably, is “post” inasmuch as any other “new and improved” product is new and improved. “Post” feminist works well as a label, as a brand, in a consumerist society in which an ideology now as longstanding as feminism is surely due for a makeover. Postfeminist, third wave, or lipstick feminism – it is, arguably, wholly compatible with the marketplace approach to women’s choices. As one reviewer of chick lit argues, it is all about choice: “One of the points of third wave, ‘lipstick’ feminism, is exactly that – that women don’t have to be one kind of human being, with one kind of pleasure, all the time” (Razdan 21). Shop around.

One chick lit website features a roundtable discussion among some of the genre’s practitioners. Jennifer Weiner, author of the bestseller Good in Bed, slated to become an HBO series, argues that the genre is in keeping with the times. “I think the women who read the books are a lot like the women in them – young (ish), accomplished but somewhat insecure, looking for fiction that serves as both entertainment and road map,” writes Weiner. “My theory is that my generation of women has more choices and options available than any generation in history, and that these choices are empowering but also terrifying. I think that novels, even the ones derided as light ‘n’ fluffy, can help them think through their choices and make peace with their decisions” (“Chick Lit Author Roundtable”). Another chick lit author, Marian Keyes, argues the following about chick lit protagonists: “They’re almost always urban, the main character is usually a post-feminist character – she has a career and it’s important to her, but she is also interested in a relationship and eventually children” (“Roundtable”). Postfeminists, having grown up in a society in which many feminist initiatives have borne fruit (they can pursue and enjoy professional careers), blame feminism for the areas in which the society – or men – have fallen short (relationships remain troubled, childcare options remain poor). It is a media-driven understanding of feminism and its discontents, yet it does acknowledge and then address contemporary women’s fears and complaints. What is most interesting about the postfeminism of the Shopaholic books within the chick lit genre is the particular compensatory quality of the relationship they offer (see Jameson; Radway 211): a validation of shopping as pleasurable activity when other elements of contemporary women’s lives, including heterosexual relationships and mandates about the female body, remain problematic. Arguably, what makes these books pleasing for readers is the way they negotiate the romantic, the compensatory, and the resistant elements of contemporary women’s lives and relationships – in regard to men and to the offerings of capitalism.

Arguably, what readers enjoy about the chick lit genre is not so much an escape from feminism’s dictates but rather the humorous ways in which women negotiate what it is to be female in an allegedly postfeminist, insufficiently feminist world. Stephanie Lehmann, who teaches a course on writing chick lit through the online magazine salon.com, explains that chick lit helps women navigate multiple demands. Chick lit works are, she argues, “the popular novels with candy-colored covers that aren’t romance and aren’t literary, but something in between… and a little of both…. In today’s world, where we’re expected to be smart and ambitious yet wear 6-inch heels, these books are like friends – easy to relate to, intimate, funny, sarcastic and definitely not preachy.” The Shopaholic books, somewhat paradoxically, given their focus on shopping, provide readers with a humorous break from the demands of being smart and sexy all at once, all the time. Unlike women’s magazines, unlike film, unlike television, all of which focus on the visual, the Shopaholic books minimize the visual and, more so than many of the other books in the chick lit genre, give little attention to the intricacies of the measured and manipulated body. In an online interview, author Kinsella is asked why she fails to give a physical description of Becky Bloomwood in any of the books in the series. This, she answers, was a deliberate decision, “I really like the fact that it’s not specified. I think it means anyone can identify with her. I want my readers to feel they are inside Becky’s head, seeing the world through her eyes, not looking at her from the outside” (“Meet Sophie Kinsella”).

Shopaholic readers may relish the escape from the visuals of, say, women’s magazines, which provide seemingly endless images of bodily perfection along with directives about how to achieve the body and win the man. Dawn Currie’s research on adolescent magazines and their readers found that girls responded most favorably to magazines that acknowledge that real bodies fall short of the manipulated images. Her respondents repeatedly used the word “real” to describe why they preferred one magazine to another. “It just seems more realistic,” one writes about Teen, while another asserts that the arguably feminist, short-lived Sassy “seems to pride itself on being more realistic than the other magazines” (Currie 245). While many chick lit novels help women negotiate, as Red Dress Ink puts it, “life’s little curves,” the Shopaholic books assume that Becky’s bodily curves are of lesser importance than other elements of her life. The Shopaholic series, in fact, suggests shopping is an utterly enjoyable, even passionate experience for any body and every female body. Wedding planning offers opportunities for obsessions about the body, but in Becky’s world they are short-lived:

As I hover at the entrance (to the wedding cake studio), a skinny girl in jeans and strappy high heels is being led out by her mother, and they’re in the middle of a row. “You only had to taste it, the mother is saying furiously. “How many calories could that be?” “I don’t care,” retorts the girl tearfully. “I’m going to be a size two on my wedding day if it kills me.” Size two! Anxiously I glance at my thighs. Should I be aiming for size two as well? Is that the size brides are supposed to be?” (Shopaholic Ties the Knot 139)

Becky’s brief mention of weight is expressed as a puzzle, as a question, not as an expression of solidarity with such an obsession. Moments later, inside the cake studio, Becky voraciously tastes cake samples and allows her indulgences to apply to her appetite as well as to her wardrobe.

For Becky Bloomwood, participation in consumer culture, rather than staying attractive for a man, provides a way to remain exciting and young, regardless of marital status or other life changes. It’s a curious postfeminist existence, one in which there are always new consumer markets to exploit, new consumer choices to explore. It must be said, though, that although chick lit in general, and the Shopaholic formula within that genre, may challenge traditional romance, and may liberate women from the visual demands of television or magazine images, they hardly liberate women from the dictates of contemporary heteronormativity. What Currie argues about adolescent magazines for girls certainly rings true for the world of chick lit: “the text determines the range of possible readings because it contains implicit assumptions about womanhood and therefore defines what kind of life can be taken for granted and what is open for struggle and renegotiation” (243-44). In the case of the Shopaholic books, and to date most of the literature in this genre, although heterosexual relationships may be open for struggle and negotiation, and in the Shopaholic books they may play second fiddle to shopping, the protagonists’ heterosexuality is a given. In this case at least, a postfeminist desire not to police sexuality the way second wave feminists did arguably fails (see Read, Karlyn).

Connecting with Shopaholic Fans: Methodology


This analysis of the Shopaholic book series, and the chick lit genre within which it falls, begs for responses from real readers. What is it that readers like about the series, identify with in the series, feel about the protagonist and her consumer escapades? To determine these answers, the project moved outside the text to readers, soliciting responses from self-declared fans of Sophie Kinsella, Becky Bloomwood, and the Shopaholic brand. The next section of this article, then, describes the methodological approach as well as what readers have to say about the Shopaholic books and shopaholism.

The original intention with the project was to employ oral history methodology, inviting women readers to talk about these books and their roles in the women’s reading and lived lives. I hoped to create, in what theorists of oral history Gluck and Patai call “a setting that both overlaps and transcends the usual private sphere” (5n), an interactive space for real researchers and real readers. An invitation posted in bookstores, cafes, and stores, and included in a local independently-owned bookstore newsletter, however, yielded an insufficient number of participants. During the waiting period, I realized the potential of connecting with a far larger web-based Shopaholic fan community, and the current project was born. Fans who gave the books a four- or five-star (highest) ranking on amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com, and included with their review an email address, or those who identified themselves as fans on one of five fansites, were invited to link to and fill out a questionnaire, which was designed initially for oral responses and then modified for the web-based project. Over one thousand fans received an invitation to fill out the questionnaire. Within twelve days, 100 fans from in and outside the United States had responded, and I took the questionnaire offline. The online approach rather than the oral narrative invitation may have proven more productive in this case in part because Shopaholic readers tend to be young, and young women find the internet more user-friendly than do older women. While fifty percent of the general population has used the internet, eighty-six percent of college students have done so (Halligan 11). The youthful demographic of the Shopaholic readers (over 85% under 35) might well be expected both to express themselves and connect with others online. And, of course, these self-selected fans had already declared their internet usage by writing an online review or by joining a fanlist, both of which require email access and, arguably, aptitude.

Although reader questionnaires, rather than oral history practice, became the methodological approach used here, oral history theory nevertheless informed the approach to respondents. Susan Armitage argues, “Oral history is the best method I know for understanding women’s consciousness and their coping strategies,” as it provides “access to huge populations of women from whom we would not otherwise hear” (81). Although these Shopaholic readers are not a huge population of heretofore voiceless women, as they had made themselves known by declaring their fan status online, the questionnaires nonetheless provide a great deal of additional information about the nature of their relationships to the books. While the research did not result in oral histories of the readers and their reading and shopping histories, it did provide the kind of intriguing preliminary information that, interesting on its own, may form the basis for further research, including oral history work, in the future. Nevertheless, in this case at least, the demographic profile of the chick lit reader and the female internet user coincided in direct and profitable ways, providing a database from which to examine reader/fan attitudes, relationships, and behaviors.

Fan Voices

From Minnesota to Manila, from Canada to Chile, the Shopaholic series has a wide following. One quarter of the survey respondents live outside the United States, in Europe, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. The majority of respondents are single, childless, and under thirty years of age. Most read every day and between three and eight books a month. Their reading preferences vary, although over one third identify chick lit as their preferred type of book. When asked what they find most appealing about the Shopaholic books, almost all of the fans speak about the humor in the books; the books are “fun,” “funny,” amusing,” humorous,” “silly,” and hilarious.” Like Currie’s respondents about adolescent girls magazines, many also cite the “real-ness” of the series: “The humor and the realness of Becky. She has embarrassing things happen to her and she has a lot of problems and a lot of people can relate to that,” states one fan, while another asserts, “I love that the main character is so REAL.” Yet another states, “What I find most appealing about the shopaholic books is that it really could happen. I know it’s fiction, but I find myself in the same financial mess. It’s good to know sometimes things get better.” Readers of the Shopaholic series, like Currie’s adolescent magazine readers, find refuge in the escape from the visualized perfect body. We never learn Becky’s dress size, shoe size, or weight. “I like it because for once the media is not talking about how [women] should be getting married or how they look,” writes one fan. “They’re not simplifying on how a woman’s body SHOULD look. It talks about how she loves to shop.” Another states that Becky’s “craze for shopping is easier to achieve than having a perfect body, perfect hair, perfect nose, and perfect man.”

In much romance fiction, the reader identifies with the protagonist in terms of her romantic difficulties, ability or inability to help Mr. Right act like Mr. Right, the essential qualities that make her female and heroic. In the case of the Shopaholic books, however, few readers identify Becky’s boyfriend Luke as significant at all. “I LOVE LUKE,” one writes, but overall he garners few mentions. Almost every reader, however, identifies with Becky’s love for shopping. “I am not obsessed with finding the perfect man,” writes one respondent, “but along with Becky I LOVE shopping.” The Shopaholic series provides its fans with a space in which to acknowledge, confess, or celebrate the role of shopping in their own lives. As one puts it, “Everything is secondary to shopping.” Another writes, “Like Becky, I think more about shopping than men!” One argues that Luke must be measured against shopping: “Shopping was her one ‘true love’ up to the point that she met Luke, and she can’t bring herself to abandon it just because she met a man.” Yet another reader argues that Becky helps other women move in this direction: “It gives a little bit of confidence to women who still think that their lives should revolve around pleasing the opposite sex.” Shopping, rather than romance, may fulfill women’s needs: “Shopping,” one fan argues, “is the ultimate high.”

Reader identification with Becky is strong, and again it is most often linked to her habits of consumption. “What I find most appealing about Sophie Kinsella’s books is that I can relate them to my everyday life. Rebecca Bloomfield thinks and acts very similar to me,” states one fan in what is a common refrain. Over ninety percent of the respondents see some of Becky in themselves, although they express it in different ways:

“The character is, essentially, me.”
“Becky is just like me; we both LOVE to shop.”
“Becky and I were separated at birth.”
“I tell you it’s like a mirror image.”
“Becky is so similar to me, except that I can’t afford Prada at all!”
“The character was similar to myself. I am addicted to shopping.”
“Every woman can read it and say ‘I am Becky Bloomwood.’”
“When I read the first page of the first book I thought it had been written about me.”

Importantly, then, almost every respondent reports identifying with Becky not because of her romantic exploits, career changes, or dreams and ambitions, which are considerable, but rather because of her shopping habits. Becky Bloomwood shops compulsively but also shops, for the most part, not to compete with another woman, or to look a certain way to attract a man, but rather to please herself. Her fans acknowledge and celebrate this. “Shopping is a form of self-fulfillment,” writes one fan. “When you shop, you let go, you feel like you’ve earned what you’ve bought because you bought it using the money you have made.” This fan and others may conveniently ignore the degree to which Becky’s spending habits ultimately benefit from the fact that her boyfriend/husband is a millionaire, but certainly the impression one gets is that Becky retains her independence and shops as one measure of that independent identity. Fans indicate that this particular focus, shopping, hits a nerve with women tired of endless directives about the importance of romance. Readers suggest that shopping provides a compensatory exchange for the pressures of contemporary life:

It’s annoying to constantly read books where a woman’s only ambition is to find a man. The focus on shopping – and also finances, career, and friendship make for a more interesting reading experience, and also make Becky a more relatable person. A lot of women want to find a husband, but most have other priorities as well.

The absurdly pressuring push from society and books alike, to get involved in a socially acceptable relationship and to be accepted by friends and family, is just so overplayed and has been portrayed much [too] much already. This series has the most minute [element] of this which simply makes it a refuge from normality.

I may not be able to find the perfect man, but I can find the perfect clothes.

Because everything is secondary to shopping.

It makes Becky more modern, more independent. She’s looking for a new pair of shoes not a husband – though she ends [up] finding that along the way as well.

Several respondents reduce the romance, ultimately, to shopping, and do so with pleasure. “Shopping is what romances her,” one fan writes admiringly. “There are so many amazing descriptives about all the shops she goes into and everything is so detailed and you would think she is with some amazing man but she is actually just shopping.”

In fact, as Becky deftly realizes, and her fans explain in their own words, shopping provides Becky with a unique form of cultural capital (see Bourdieu). For a contemporary woman, identity may come less from the man whose arm she drapes than from the designer whose shoes she dons. As consumer culture scholar Sharon Zukin writes, “[O]nce we have developed a fine eye for differences among the goods, we can make distinctions among the people who use them” (41). What marks Becky and her readers as postfeminist, perhaps, is that they transfer their primary interest from a lover to the fruits of their engagement with capitalism. “I can remember times where eating Ramen noodles for the rest of the week was a great sacrifice to be able to buy a fabulous pair of shoes, purse, etc,” writes one respondent. Arguably, feminism has not failed the modern woman, but romance continues to do so, and in exchange for a postfeminist reality, in exchange for the relationship with the still inattentive or out of touch male love interest, Becky and her fans gets the goods, literally. “Me and my friends drool more over purses and shoes than guys,” writes one fan, while another explains, “Becky is not consumed with finding and marrying the perfect man, but only with locating the perfect Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo shoe sale.” Again, these books and their readers, through Becky and her shopping adventures, negotiate the romantic, the compensatory, and the resistant: shopping is seductive, it meets women’s needs in ways traditional romance does not, and it provides something of an alternative to cultural expectations of womanhood.

Interestingly, too, in a postfeminist world in which gender boundaries are allegedly more permeable, shopping reinforces essentialist differences between women and men. On a trip to New York, Luke suggests that Becky visit some museums, unless of course she has shopping she wants to “get out of the way.” Readers share Becky’s incredulity that anyone would want to get shopping out of the way, and they also share her sense that shopping is a female practice: “When my boyfriend and I go shopping,” one writes, “he sits on the benches and I get to work.” Another argues that “men view shopping as a chore, women often view it as a necessity,” while another states simply, “I think it’s an evolutionary trait.” Whether respondents equate shopping with female heterosexuality or not is unclear; however, several argue that heterosexual men dislike shopping while gay men enjoy it.

Conclusion

When Walter Benjamin wrote about the arcades of nineteenth century Paris, he saw them as the ancestors of today’s shopping malls, sites in which consumers become mesmerized into participation in consumerist social control (see Buck-Morss). Popular culture representations of shoppers and shopping since then have largely mirrored Benjamin’s thesis. In Sophie Kinsella’s engaging series of Shopaholic novels, however, shopping symbolizes far more than social control. It is true that Becky repeatedly proves unable to resist the dictates of consumer culture, but her forays into the shops, and her readers’ enormously enthusiastic responses to her addiction, illustrate the complexity of women’s relationships with men, with popular culture, and with consumer capitalism.

When Becky Bloomwood obsesses about a two thousand euro Angel bag, and then actually purchases it, it is easy to see her as a victim of consumer hypnosis, as someone on the edge. Her shopaholism feels financially and personally pathological, certainly more akin to alcoholism, say, than chocoholism. Its resistance potential is limited, too, if the shift from an emotional dependency on men to an emotional dependency on goods further and further defines women’s lives in contemporary life. Readers recognize the dangers inherent in this form of self satisfaction and selfishness, this form of what Susan Douglas calls “narcissism as liberation,” yet for many it feels liberating as well. “For me,” writes one fan, “Becky is that selfish part of me that doesn’t care about responsibilities, but finds happiness in losing reality for a brief moment.” When other elements of daily life, including career and relationships, fail us, reading about shopping can provide a romantic and compensatory at least, if not convincingly resistant, experience.

 

Special thanks to Alana Wooley, whose research and technical support
made all the difference on this project.

 

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