The Ladies’ Paradise
Last year I began reading Émile Zola’s novel, The Ladies’ Paradise, because of the back cover, not the front cover (above). These quotes caught my eye.
‘Mouret’s sole passion was the conquest of Woman. He wanted her to be queen in his shop, he had built this temple for her in order to hold her at his mercy.’ (from the novel)
Octave Mouret, the store’s owner-manager, masterfully exploits the desires of his female customers. In his private life too he is the great seducer. But when he falls in love with the innocent Denise Baudu, he discovers she is the only one of the salesgirls who refuses to be commodified. (from the back cover summary)
New translation published by Oxford University Press 1995; first published as a novel in 1883
Commodified women. Until I saw the blurbs above, I hadn’t thought much about commodified women–except in the context of human trafficking, especially sex trafficking. In particular, I hadn’t thought about it with reference to women as consumers not necessarily at risk of being trafficked.
Undoubtedly, greed plays a role in the creation of products for women. Consumer research studies us to figure out what we’ll buy, even though we don’t need it.
Yet I hadn’t realized that many retailers consider ME a commodity for purchase, along with commodities on the counter. I’ve been manipulated by salespeople. Yet I didn’t realize that I, too, am a commodity that can be purchased — often by way of flattery and seduction.
Perhaps I’m looking for happiness. Or I want to feel beautiful, wanted, adored. Up-to-date. Well-dressed. Or anything else that makes me vulnerable, susceptible to being ‘purchased’ for my loyalty, not simply my money. Keep coming back! Don’t be a stranger! I get hooked on them; they get hooked on me and my money. The perfect match.
I haven’t finished the novel. I have, however, watched two PBS series that feature this revolution in Western women’s shopping habits. The first, The Paradise, is loosely based on Zola’s novel. The second, Mr Selfridge, is based on a store still in business. They’re set in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Here’s what I notice in both series. At first, merchandise is fairly standard, and female customer profiles are clear. The very rich don’t come to department stores like this; they have their own high-priced dressmaker, shoe and accessory shops. With time, however, and lust for fame, fortune and women’s money, business practices evolve.
The interiors of the stores change–whatever it takes to capture customers. This includes the layout and range of products, ease of finding your way through the store, what the store smells like, what the departments are and where they’re located, what’s hanging from the ceiling, and what’s displayed in the windows or just inside or outside the front doors.
Oh. And the customers. We want wealthy women to stop turning their noses up at us. We want them and all their devoted followers to drop their money here. Not in those tired little independent shops. Whatever it takes, we’ll do it!
As for the not-so-wealthy women, we need them, too! We’ll offer things that make them feel wealthy and wanted. Special. Even sexy. Rewarded for the hard work they do every day. We’ll design outfits and lingerie that suggest wealth and a lot more.
For all women, we’ll offer new cosmetics and perfumes, and suggest that being sexy is for every woman—not necessarily a sign that they’re one of ‘those’ women in places of ill repute. We’ll train our salespeople to use flattery and seduction to persuade hesitant customers.
Granted, these are TV series, and Zola’s novel has an agenda. Nonetheless, I find much to ponder about myself. What am I trying to buy? Am I trying to soothe myself? Reward myself? Who wins when I buy things I don’t need? How did I get this way? What would contentment look like?
Bottom line: Where are the women and men who know what contentment looks like and how to get from here to there?
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 February 2015