Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch
cbertsch

Visions of Sugarplums

In sorting through my extremely large stack of things I want to scan today, I came across the Anthropologie holiday catalogue. The chain is a spin-off of Urban Outfitters, making it a "red state" enterprise, since the company's big-wigs donated primarily to the Republican cause. As it turns out, those donations were tiny -- less than $5000 total, according to the chart I read -- making the label seem overblown, especially compared to other "red state" concerns like Wal-Mart and Dell. This discovery doesn't change my feelings about Anthropologie, though. The company still disturbs me deeply.

The people going and out of Anthropologie retail outlets are bad enough. But it's the company's mail-order catalogue that really makes my skin crawl. It contains page after page of images designed to conjure up nostalgia for a past that never really existed, fleshed out with details worthy of soft-core pornography. Indeed, you could easily argue that Anthropologie markets nostalgia as pornography.

I suppose you could also make an argument for the store's catalogues on this basis. There's something intriguing about an image in which a woman's clothing and the furniture surrounding her generate a degree of salaciousness that is typically found only when private parts on display. Every time I look through one I think of John Berger's Ways of Seeing. What's naked in Anthropolgie catalogues are not the sultrily sullen women who grace their pages but the nexus of sex and property itself. "Buy this outfit," a typical spread says, "and you can have the body inside it."

As distressing as the regular Anthropologie catalogues are, though, the holiday one I'd set aside to scan is unparalleled in its creepiness. In addition to the usual tight-lipped women, it features children arrayed with the same coldness as pillows and drapes. Many of the "family" images in the catalogue also have festive captions. Take this one, for example:

That's right, this cheery picture is accompanied by the phrase, "visions of sugarplums." The mind reels.

Who, precisely, is having these visions? The woman, who holds the boy with the same affection she extends to the various machines she uses at her gym? The man, whose gaze comes from above the frame with the full weight of patriarchy? The boy, who looks as happy as the latest victim of extraordinary rendition? Or is it the target market for the Anthropologie catalogue that is given the gift of sugary sight, masking the bitterness of the tableau with simulacral nostalgia?

To be fair, I must admit that, for all the fury that images like this one provoke in me, they have a curious power. Maybe the answer is to regard them the same way one would a Douglas Sirk melodrama, where the pleasures of plot are subtended by a menace that cannot be contained by any narrative cage. Although it is unlikely that the photographer intended this photo to function as a critique of the catalogue, that possibility is worth exploring. And, even if the photographer didn't have any such intention, the photographs seem to have an agency of their own. Someone or something is hard at work deconstructing the upper-middle-class American dream.
Tags: cultural studies, gender, ranting, sex
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