The American Way: Growing Up and Getting “Malled” by Consumerism

It seems as though fewer things are more quintessential to the growing-up experience of the American youngster than going to The Mall. Indeed, it is where we are socialized into the world of mass consumption and taught that, in order to have style, you simply peruse the racks of your favorite shops and come away with the latest and greatest trends that, in the end all look the same, fall apart and are dated by the next year.

While my minimal experience abroad has taught me that other countries have institutions that somewhat mimic the American Mall, they are not quite the same. In Canada, the malls are very Canadian, in Mexico, you can smoke (even if you are serving gelato), and in England the only malls I could find reminded me of being in some weird underground tunnel. In every experience, going to a foreign mall was, for me, very unsettling as there is something about the American mall that is strangely comforting.

Much like the Target coma I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, my relationship with the mall has become significantly more strained as I have learned more about sweat-shop production, corporate practices, consumerism, marketing and the decidedly un-American policies these rambling sectors of capitalism implement that include impeding on free speech and not allowing photography. These massive structures also replace our once cherished public spaces that functioned to encourage discussion and action amongst the people (and therefore democracy). So they say.

So here we have a conundrum between the anti-American and pro-American function of the mall. This is a conflict I invite you to ponder, but will for now table for my larger discussion surrounding the mall and nostalgia.

As I previously mentioned, there is something alarmingly comforting about the mall to me. Perhaps it is due to the rumored calm-inducing/buying-increasing air they pump into them, but something in me starts going a little nuts when I haven’t been to the mall in a while. Over the years, this time between mall visits has lengthened, but even now, when I have no need for clothing and always leave flabbergasted at how expensive such cheap crap can be, I find myself hopping on the lightrail every few months to get my mall fix.

Doesn't this just bring tears to your eyes?

Of course, we aren’t just talking any mall here. We are talking the M.O.A. That’s right folks, I don’t get to just take the public transit to any willy nilly mall—I get to go to the mother of all malls, the Mall of America.

I mean, look at all the fun stuff they have going on at the M.O.A.

You can go on a ride at Nickelodeon Universe (formerly Camp Snoopy, which actually made sense since Charles Schulz was from Minnesota).  You could also get involved with a furry, if you are into that sort of thing.

Zac's power over the masses, as seen in photographic form.

You can see Zac Efron.

True story: One time I was in line at a Red Box in McDonalds and a guy behind me asked me if they had "Mall Cop." He had mayonnaise all over his face. It was gross.

You can see filming of an upcoming episode of Mall Cops: Mall of America (which they warn you about via photocopied signs upon arrival. For real. As though you wouldn’t want to be part of something with such artistic merit!).

This has nothing to do with that, but ohmygod is it creepy.

You can go see a special screening of Twilight: Eclipse at the VIP theater, like I did.

Without a doubt, the second I walk into a mall, I want breath deeply and remark on how “I love the smell of commerce in the morning” as Brodie did in Mallrats.* Sometimes I do, which my mother thinks is really funny.

Oh Jeremy London, I loved you in Mallrats. But not as much as I loved your brother in Out Cold.

Even though there are so many things about the mall experience that I detest, I find it rather mindboggling how, once in the mall, I feel like I am being reacquainted with my former youngster self, circa 1996-2001. Not that I can pretend that the now defunct Port Plaza Mall, or the Bay Park Square mall of my youth can even be considered in the same realm as the M.O.A., but happily, there are aspects of the M.O.A. that remind me even of these lesser beacons of mass capitalism.

Things that haven’t changed since my first wildly years roaming freely on the tiled walkways of the mall:

Can you picture a more idyllic working environment?

The Gap. No matter what sort of salt of the earth creative types dreaming up your products in dingy lofts you feature in your third person narrative marketing, or if you paint the walls of your store black (daring!), you are still the Gap and I still won’t pay $30 (on sale) for a poly blouse.

It is like Bob Seger says..."still the same."

The scruffy “all American” prepster looks of American Eagle and Abercrombie and Fitch. I have to admit that I got into this look in late high school/early college. I can only claim temporary insanity that resulted from having disposable income and a car.

Auntie Anne’s. Even if I don’t buy a single item of clothing at the mall, I love to “treat myself” to an Auntie Anne’s pretzel, which I maintain is by far the best mall food. I no longer even need a dipping sauce with my pretzel, which I see as a sign of maturity.

Very punk of you.

Teen Jewelry. Though this phenomenon actually came to my attention while at the State Fair, “teen jewelry” has remained relatively consistent in style since I was in middle school. That means that the ying yangs, peace signs, pot leaves, and various fairy stylings all molded into fake silver metals are still popular. And contrary to what my mother screamed at me when I got one, eyebrow piercings are still totally in, even though I use this fun fact about myself to delight and shock others.

Seriously? What is this shit? What do you think you are, Justice?

Speaking of teen jewelry, did you know that Claire’s still exists? Of course, in my teen years, Claire’s had a much more simplistic, ’90s black logo, which was sooooo much more aspirationally mature and appealing to my little preteen self when I went there to get my ears pierced than it does now.

Other stores that I can’t believe still exist:

Enter at your own risk!

Hot Topic. Closely related to teen jewelry, this shop is fascinating in that it still manages to capitalize on the pseudo mall punk style that was popular back when I was a teenager and teetering dangerously on the edge of being goth. It warms my heart, however, to know that the dorky kids still have somewhere to get their oversized band tees.

The Limited. I had this friend, Danielle, who had the coolest clothes when we were kids. This was because her mom always took her shopping in Appleton, where they had the bigger mall, and would buy her stuff from the Limited. I can’t believe this store still exists, especially since my tastes have matured (see my paragraph on Auntie Anne’s above), but evidentially, the Limited’s have not.

Like this, but less classy.

Wet Seal. When I was a teen, we never actually had a Wet Seal. We had a Contempo Casuals, which was like the best thing ever when I was fifteen, and apparently that became Wet Seal. I bought so many one-shoulder dresses there in high school that my wardrobe would have easily outfitted Sookie Stackhouse in the True Blood novels (more on this later).

And finally, stores that are total bullshit, that didn’t exist when I was a kid (at least in Green Bay):

Would ya just look at how racially diverse shopping at Pottery Barn Kids makes your family?

Child-specific stores. Especially things like Pottery Barn Kids. What a dick move creating a store like that, all with the intention to create little yuppie children. Don’t get all excited mom, because in 18 years, you are going to have to keep feeding and clothing that little precious tyke while he lives in your basement.

Did we learn anything from Amy Poehler Mean Girls character?

The store Hot Mama.** Are you fucking kidding me!? I wish I could do a fancy neurosciency-sort of scan on the brains of women who shop at a store like this, because there has to be some link to that and compulsive narcissism, disassociation from reality and an unwillingness to deal with the fact that aging is part of life.

A brief peek at their “look book” confirms my suspicion that this is the sort of store that mothers who look like their daughters (and vice versa) go to shop. Don’t get me wrong—I in no way, shape or form believe that once a woman is a mother she no longer possesses any sort of sexuality, but it confuses and frightens me how, instead of embracing womanhood and a more mature, strong look, women are eating up looks that are nothing more than copies of the same sort of styles marketed towards teenage girls.

She looks like she shops at Hot Mama. Or maybe her mother does.

And closely related…maternity shops. Pregnancy lasts 9 months. Why don’t you use it as an excuse to just wear gigantic Garfield t-shirts? That is what I would do.

*Fun fact: They filmed Mallrats at the Eden Prairie Mall, which resides in Eden Prairie, MN, a suburb of the Twin Cities and birthplace to my fiancé.

Fun Fact #2: The “Mall of America” that they go to pick out outfits for “the dance number” in Drop Dead Gorgeous is also actually the Eden Prairie Mall. That mall must have had a really good publicist.

**It should be noted that Hot Mama and the aforementioned Pottery Barn Kids do not exist at the M.O.A. Instead, they reside in places like The Galleria, where rich people who don’t want to deal with the common people go to shop.

About hollyhilgenberg

A freelance writer specializing in vintage, thrifted and resale fashion and critical media studies. Professional whim chaser and self-proclaimed Gemini. I blog over at Operation Sparkle (www.operationsparkle.com) and run the creative women zine C.L.A.P. (Creative Ladies are Powerful).

7 comments

  1. yes! it’s so hard to explain to non-Minnesotans the fine line between ironic and sincere enjoyment the MOA can bring even the most jaded uptown hipster. about every six months my roommate and I take the lightrail to the mall, walk across the street for obscenely huge $6 novelty margaritas at Chevy’s (hahaha), then eat all the free samples at the cheese store and try on prom dresses at Glitz. it’s all fun and games until you accidentally go on a Saturday afternoon in December.

  2. hollyhilgenberg

    I shudder to think of what the experience of the M.O.A. on a December weekend would be like. But I am digging the idea of grabbing $6 margaritas at Chevy’s…next time….

  3. I T.A.ed for one of those “malls destroy public space and democracy” classes in grad school and learned all sorts of interesting and scary mall facts. Did you know that it’s always 72 degrees, in every mall, all the time?

  4. hollyhilgenberg

    72 degrees must be the exact temp the coma air needs to be! Malls are so creepy!

  5. Michael von Braithwaite

    72 degrees is the temperature that cools your body at the same rate it generates heat, keeping it in perfect balance. i.e. you never experience temperature-related physical discomfort in a mall…or a casino…or an Ikea… or a……………….TARGET!

  6. Brilliant! Thank you, Michael, for brining up the casino. I’ve said to friends before how malls and casinos are so alike. Both have no clocks and a maze-like patterns so that you don’t realize just how long you’re in there overspending on cheap “thrills”. I’m sure casinos are also set at 72 degrees.

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