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Theory: Women Shop for Love, Not for Fun

When you consider that shopping is the essential act upon which the whole idea (now somewhat discredited) of our consumer economy depends (or depended, if you’ve given up on the idea), it’s odd how little it’s been studied, at least in a disinterested way. There are reams of studies of shopping, like those of Paco Underhill, meant to unlock the secrets of shopping motivation and mechanics so as to allow merchants to display their wares in ways that promote purchase.

But pure, disinterested attention paid to shopping, just to see how it works and what it’s about and who does it and why, is rare — maybe because we tend to think we understand it perfectly well already.

When anthropologist Daniel Miller was working on A Theory of Shopping, a book about the ethnography of grocery shopping in a North London neighborhood in the mid-1990s, people he’d just met would sometimes ask him what he did. He’d tell them, often to their evident amusement. “Ah,” they’d say, “take my wife — she has a Ph.D. in shopping!”

Despite the fact that the economies of the developed world would fall apart without it — despite the possibility that some of them may at this moment be in the process of coming apart because people aren’t doing enough of it — shopping gets less respect than Rodney Dangerfield ever did. People who speak of debentures and sinking funds, of deficits and exchange rates, of sovereign debt and personal indebtedness with gravity and deep reverence, feel free to denigrate shopping, to make fun of it, to dismiss it as a frivolous waste of time.

But the kind of shopping they typically denigrate and dismiss and make fun of, Miller noticed, the kind of shopping they speak of as if it were the only kind worth noticing — the truest, commonest, most typical type of shopping — turns out to be pretty exceptional. It’s the splurge. The purely recreational shopping trip. The search for the perfect $12,000 handbag. The purchase on sudden impulse of a fast car with only two seats and room for no more than a lunchbox in the trunk. The trek through an outlet mall in pursuit of an iconic designer garment at 90 percent off.

This stereotype of shopping as splurge — as a foolish, frivolous, selfish, hedonistic, wasteful pursuit embraced mostly by shallow, greedy, extravagant women — has been around for a while. When I was a small child reading the funnies, I remember being slightly puzzled by a recurring theme — or meme? — that involved a woman mooning over a hat in the window of a hat shop. Usually, because comics require economy, the hat was the only thing in the window. (Otherwise, the cartoonist would have to draw a dotted line with an arrow at the end from the woman’s eye to the hat to denote her gaze.)

The scene could figure in various plot lines. The woman could be about to buy the hat to punish an unfeeling husband after an argument. Or she could be plotting to buy it and pass it off on her gullible, cruelly unobservant husband as one she’d had for years — “Oh, this old thing?” Or she could be longing to buy it, but lacking the wherewithal. Or she could be daydreaming about the way her life, her very self, might be transformed if she possessed it. (The beginning of the movie Mrs. Miniver finds Greer Garson playing out a similar scenario: She at first resists, then succumbs to the temptation posed by a delicious hat.)

I didn’t exactly get what was going on in these comic strips at the time, maybe because it was inevitably a cartoon hat, a few inked lines inscribing an upended flowerpot with a dopey flower sprouting from it. Why would anybody think a stupid hat could cure whatever ailed the little everywoman in the frame — make things right after an argument, lift her flagging spirits, magically transform her into a creature of beauty and sophistication?

It was a joke, of course, and the joke was on her, and it continued to turn up from time to time in the 1960s and 1970s. Even after actual women had pretty much quit buying or wearing hats because they couldn’t get them on over their bouffant hairdos, you’d still run into the little woman in the comics who thought buying a new hat could fix anything. (More likely, it was a cartoon by a man who thought women thought a new hat could fix anything.)

Now, finally, thanks to Miller, I get it.

In fact, the truest, commonest, most typical form of shopping is the kind Miller calls “provisioning.” It was the focus of his ethnographic study, limited to a single street in North London: the weekly, sometimes even daily trek though supermarkets, green grocers, butcher shops, fish mongers, bakeries, etc., to acquire the food (also beverages, health and beauty products, OTC drugs and sundries like trash bags, paper towels, laundry detergent, cat treats, light bulbs, sacks of mulch, decorative pumpkins, etc.) required to keep the shopper’s family members fed, washed, moisturized, laundered, illuminated, headache-free, and so on.

Turned out that these North Londoners — and I have to say they sound very much like most of the Americans I know — divided shopping tasks by gender as strictly as the people of any “primitive” culture where only men can hunt and only women can gather fruits and berries. Miller noticed almost immediately that most of this necessary, quotidian, non-recreational, largely splurgeless shopping tended to be done by women. And for these women, as he learned by following them on their shopping trips and interviewing them at length, this kind of shopping was not just another task, but an active practice of love for their families and devotion to their welfare. They shopped to nourish, please and uplift each family member, balancing their sense of what each liked best to eat against their ideas of which food choices might be best for that person — at the same time always striving to honor the virtue of thrift.

That’s a lot to juggle, and it meant that, for these women, shopping was both fraught with peril — they didn’t want to disappoint their families, but they also didn’t want to risk overdosing them with junk food — and rich in opportunity to do good for those they loved.

Meanwhile, curiously enough, Miller found that men, when they shopped — and they usually preferred not to — felt more comfortable making purely utilitarian purchases with no noticeable emotional content.

And that only begins to scratch the surface.

Write to Patricia McLaughlin c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106 or