The shopping season
If you're interested in the world where political culture meets shopping and marketing (as I am), the Christmas season presents plenty to ponder. All one needs to do is witness the mass public engagement in Boxing Day sales at the malls and big-box stores, compare it to the public engagement in elections, and you can see where we're tilting in the consumer-citizenship equation. Is it any wonder that the NDP put out a "Boxing Day sale" message to drum up contributions this week? Wouldn't any political party want to appeal to citizens on the terrain where they seem most comfortable? As shoppers?
Through this lens, it's fascinating to watch some of the old Christmas-standard movies, particularly two from immediately after the Second World War, when the "consumers' republic" was just starting to burst forth in the United States and beyond.
I'm thinking about these movies in particular: Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and all the subtle and not-so-subtle political messages they carry about shopping, consumerism, identity and citizenship. Some of those messages linger in our political culture today; some seem hopelessly anachronistic. These are just some top-of-mind musings:
* In both films, buying a house in the suburbs is the height of good citizenship. In a Wonderful Life, George Bailey devotes his life to the Building and Loan Society, helping people buy their first homes, and he turns out to be a bigger hero than his war-medal-toting, wealthy brother. In Miracle on 34th Street, Santa's biggest gift is the suburban home that little Susan has requested. I wonder, in light of the 2008 economic collapse, and all those over-mortgaged homes sitting deserted in the U.S. real-estate market, whether anyone would organize a fairy tale around home ownership today.
* Selling things, or making money just for the sake of money, are seen in both movies as dark arts. Which is kind of strange, given how those dark arts survive to this day, more than half a century later. Consumers in 1940s New York -- as depicted in Miracle on 34th St -- were already suspicious enough of salesmen that they were stunned when Santa started sending them to find their items at competitors' stores. In Wonderful Life, Mr. Potter is a bad guy whose evil arsenal against George includes a high salary and large interest rates. Mr. Potter, in modern-day parlance, would be the 1 per cent, I assume. Ditto for the store owners in Miracle on 34th Street.
* Maybe not an entirely political observation, but a cultural one: Both movies also preach against women remaining single. It's the horrible fate that awaits Mary in a Wonderful Life, when George gets to see how the world would have unfolded without him. (And let's not even discuss the perpetually single Violet.) In Miracle, divorce has turned Doris into a bitter, cynical woman who can only be made happy and optimistic again with a man and a house in the suburbs (see above.)
* Facts, education and evidence, which some say are also under siege in current politics, take a bit of a beating in both movies (perhaps not surprisingly, since they include an angel and Santa in the cast.) In Miracle, Doris is portrayed as an inferior Mom to young Susan because she encourages her to be realistic and base her world view on facts, not romance. In Wonderful Life, George is seen as far better off for not having gone away to college or to see the world. When his war-hero brother gets off the train in Bedford, accompanied by his soon-to-be wife, we learn that he's going to take a job in Buffalo and not return to his home town. How might we put that today in Canada? "He didn't come back for you, George."
* Speaking of evidence, though, it's hard to imagine that the postal service or a bank would be seen as a supreme authority today, as they are presented in these movies. If you'll remember, in the trial of Santa in Miracle on 34th Street, it's the U.S. Postal Service that ultimately gives Santa his legitimacy. No argument with the Post Office there; if it says so, it must be true -- even if it's just a couple of workers trying to unload dead letters. And what about the bank auditor in Wonderful Life? He too seems to be invested with massive, unchallenged authority against the average citizen -- apparently he could just throw George in jail on Christmas Eve for some missing money, regardless of circumstances or explanation.
Finally, it's been said that the mass-consumer society couldn't have arisen without the simultaneous emergence of Freud and psychoanalysis. Don't take my word for that -- if you have time this holiday season, take a look at this amazing BBC documentary from a few years ago, called Century of the Self. (I've recommended this movie before, including to former Liberal MP Glen Pearson, who did some blog posts on it a few months back.)
It's noteworthy how much of these 1940s-era fantasy movies seem to be a wistful reaction against the Century-of-the-Self-world that was emerging when the films were made. The extreme hostility to psychological "science," as seen when Santa clobbers the company's human-resources guy in Miracle on 34th Street, could almost be viewed as a pop-culture rebellion to the ideas in Century of the Self.
More than 50 years later, the movies have endured (at least at Christmas), but what of the culture they were trying to protect or promote? Not surprisingly, some of it looks outdated, some notions seem still with us today and some ideas, especially romanticism about the "simplicity" of the suburbs and the post-war world, seem to be enjoying a resurgence.