The Spread of Consumerism: Good Buy Community

by Lee Evans, from Sinister Wisdom 37 (Spring 1989)

Many years ago I lived in a Feminist Collective based upon, among other things, a shared value of resistance to Consumerism. Roughly, our analysis was that we live in a culture that promotes conspicuous consumption of goods, services, environment, and so forth. The attitude that everything can be bought or used is an example of a value (which I will call consumerism) which defines our relationship to the world. Consumer values do not allow for stable or long-lived relationships with either people or the environment. In our early analysis we hoped to replace those values with more humanistic ones. Since that time I have come to realize that “humanism” holds no promise for Lesbians, and have subsequently put it aside as I have other dead-ended ideologies.

In the past several years my focus has changed to building lesbian connections, hence strong Lesbian Community. Even though I have devoted myself to creating connections with other Dykes, I find that the ability to describe those connections still escapes me. I sense that they are based upon a core of desire to connect on a Lesbian plane. I believe that our passion for each other is what fuels our connections. I know that our connections are not yet institutionalized. I believe that in making Lesbian connections we have the ability to create and transform ourselves and our world.

I also know that we struggle with the boys’ values insinuating I themselves into our interactions. There has been much education done by Lesbians about the effects of oppressions on our communities. Besides being cruel, arrogant and harmful, racism, antisemitism and other oppressions directly affect our Lesbian communities by narrowing the scope of what is or who is acceptable. These oppressions are men’s tools for enforcing sameness and anti-diversity.

Coming from a small, rural, white town in Pennsylvania, I thought that diversity was how many breeds of cows you owned. Coming out as a Lesbian, and now as a Separatist, I have had to work hard to sensitize myself to and rout out the boys’ tools of division. This has helped me to perceive the world differently and form deeper, more substantial bonds with other Dykes. Struggling to be aware of how oppressions work, and what part I play in them, has made me stretch in a way that I hadn’t felt since I first came out as a Lesbian.

Yet, through this process I have become increasingly aware of how I approach events and community. I know that my interactions often take on the tourist-y flavor of a consumer. Consumerism is a way of “be-ing” in the world, and it undermines our connections and sense of community. Consumer values are intertwined throughout industrial culture, and therefore probably have a pretty firm hold in many of our belief systems.

In writing this paper I am not so much concerned with what we buy, but with what male values are used to form our perception of ourselves as consumers of our communities rather than co-creators of our communities. It is my intent to blend my old analysis of consumer values with my current Dyke Separatist perspective in order to sensitize myself and other Dykes to the effects of consumer values on our Lesbian communities and Women-only space.

We live in a culture that is built, among other things, upon a system based upon consuming. In order to convince us that we have to buy, own, use, (consume), it is necessary to create a context in which conspicuous consumption looks normal. One way to develop that context is to create “needs” and then to objectify living things, processes and interactions into “products” to fill these “man-made needs.” These are the gears that run a consumer society.

The society’s members function in relationships of producers-consumers or buyer-seller to one another. The world, previously seen as an organic interconnected system, is now able to be “seen” as parts.(1) Those parts are able to be objectified in order to be bought and sold, used and discarded, acquired and hoarded or used as a means of trade to obtain other objects. As in other systems of reality, if one views the world in this way, it then spills over to include how we view people, animals, the environment and our relationship to them.

What does it mean when we adopt a value that allows such mass-scale objectification? First of all, objects have no inherent meaning. We imbue objects with meaning. For instance, an automobile has different meanings related to which culture, class and economic group you belong. The owning of an automobile, besides providing transportation and the opportunity for repair bills, often serves to foster identity. We buy a particular car because it is symbolic of how we see ourselves, or how we want to be. For example, I once found a Dyke party when I wasn’t quite sure of the location by driving up and down streets until I found the street with the “usual” Dyke vehicles common in my community: small foreign-made cars with a smattering of pick-up trucks.

Buying an object in order to foster identity becomes a never-ending cycle. The new pick-up truck itself does not the adventuresome Dyke make, so we are once again encouraged to enter the market place to start the cycle over. In other words, we buy an object to establish status and identity. Because objects have no intrinsic value, the status and identity do not become firmly established, so we have to continue to “consume” other objects to shore up our identity, and so the consumer cycle goes on ad infinitum.

This process works to help create a consumer atmosphere because it is an escalation-based model. It sets up the value that having new, improved, bigger, better and more is not only acceptable, it is expected of us. (For many sales jobs, employers require that you not only have good transportation, but that your car must “look” new, thus fostering the notion that employees must become believers and participants in the american dream.) This model creates the habit of escalation.

Pornography is an example of an escalation-based model that has increased dramatically over the last 20 years. This escalation occurs in terms of what is openly available in book stores. Pornography begins with showing naked females, moves to the objectification of body parts, then to the abusing and mutilating of women, and finally to the torture and murder of women and children for men’s satisfaction. The escalation-based model increases the violence and cruelty inflicted.

What does it mean for Dykes when we carry this “habit of escalation” into our communities? The “habit of escalation” creates a context in which we willingly participate in or at least accept increasingly destructive behaviors without questioning them. I once asked a sadomasochistic Dyke if she kept reworking her fantasies in order to become aroused. She replied that, in fact, it was necessary for her to keep increasing the violence in her fantasies and practices in order to increase sensations (pain) for her and her partner. This objectifying of people and experiences soon leads to being jaded. Being jaded creates a sense of numbness and the more we objectify the more numbness spreads throughout our interactions. We soon need more and more stimulation in order to respond at all.

Numbness leads to a focus on newness so that we might find that extra stimulation. To focus on newness is to focus on packaging, not on content. Newness suggests that which exists for the first time. Since newness becomes more and more difficult to create, then things must be packaged to provide the illusion of newness. Marketers and advertisers do not want us comparing products in terms of how they are similar, but rather in terms of how their product is newer and different than the others. Newness is fetishized in this country. New cars, new detergents, new pop-psychologies and new religions are often far more similar to the old ones than we want to believe. Again, the value lies in the newness of the products.

The ramifications for Dyke culture are that in order to regain our attention, the boys will slap a “new, improved” label on or repackage their therapy, religion, politics and so forth. As Anna Lee points out in her paper “New Age Spirituality Is the Invention of the Heteropatriarchy,”(2) what many Lesbians are now espousing as their means to a new improved personal sense of empowerment is the same religion the boys were marketing to us before. We looked at the differences that they assured us were there, and ignored the now more obvious similarities between new age spirituality and heteropatriarchal religions.

Because the search for newness is based upon how things differ rather than how things are similar or connected to one another, the search for newness stems from and fosters alienation and disconnectedness. The search for newness is the search for those things that allegedly stand out from, are apart from that which is. The ability to perceive how things, events, people and power are connected and relate to each other is at the very core of our political skills. When we participate in the focus on newness, we lose the ability to develop and use political skills because we are focused on the differences that are used as proof of newness. We are no longer able to focus on our connections with each other. Without recognizing our connections to each other, Lesbians are not able to disconnect from heteropatriarchy.

For Dyke communities the search for newness and the resulting alienation has meant that the commitment to analyze our lives, our behaviors and problems in political terms is no longer promoted or supported. In the seventies we had a commitment to analyzing our lives from a political perspective, and we joined Consciousness Raising groups to that end. By the eighties, many Dykes had retreated to therapies and various twelve-step groups, none of which are noted for any political analyses, but are heavily invested in viewing the world from a psychological base. Psychology complements consumerism nicely, in that it views humans as units that can be adjusted to the norm. All we have to do to get healthy is to work our program better, try a different therapy, or subject ourselves to an endless list of cures because we are never quite healthy enough. This also is an example of an escalation-based model.

The undermining of our political skills further endangers us in that the boys are able to divert our focus to their concerns and tasks, at the same time convincing us that they are our concerns and interests. Much theory and discussion has centered around motherhood. Many Lesbians understood motherhood to be fundamentally oppressive to women and Lesbians, and understood that the boys benefited from us producing children to turn over to the heteropatriarchy. While there have been Lesbians who have been honest in wanting children so that they more closely resemble heterosexuals, it is only recently that Lesbians have advocated motherhood as a strategy for changing the world. In “The Tired Old Question of Male Children,” Anna Lee suggests our mothers didn’t set out to raise their sons to be rapists, woman-haters, and prone to violence.(3) But Lesbians who choose motherhood focus once again on how this form of parenting is going to be different and not on how it is similar. Perhaps some communities are just now beginning to realize that the children raised by Lesbians are not significantly different than the children raised by heterosexual parents. The fact remains that children of Lesbians are claimed at the same level by the heteropatriarchy as the children of heterosexual parents.

Another example of focus on the new is the encroachment by men on Women-only space. A purported Lesbian musician at a major women’s music event in California, while introducing the boys in her band, was reported to have said “how nice it was to be able to have boys back on stage with us again.” Men have “been on the stage” with us for 5,000 years. Nothing much about their behavior has changed in the last 15 years, but now they market themselves to us as “new, improved feminist” men. Because they are “new” boys, some are willing to perceive them as different from the “old” boys. Many of us have not noticed boys doing anything differently, while at the same time noticing that they are intent on invading Women-only space. Ten years ago boys would not have been permitted on stage without a lot of discussion of the political implications of male invasion of Women-only space. Ten years ago the personal was political. In 1988 we have reduced the political to the personal.(4) It is very difficult to explore political choices with Lesbians who champion certain behaviors as personal preferences which therefore cannot be questioned.

Personal preference, which is an underpinning of psychological perspective, discourages us from examining the connections with each other and the organic world. If we attend to ways in which events, people and things connect, it would be very difficult for the boys to package our lives and sell them back to us. It is the breaking of the world into parts and even the objectifying of the world itself which feeds the vicious cycle of buy and sell. The boys cannot sell that which they cannot objectify. It is the forging and recognizing of our connections which shield and protect us from the boys’ objectification of us.

When we perceive everything as an object, even people become consumable. It is no surprise that people have indeed been bought and sold, used and discarded, acquired and hoarded, and used as objects of barter. This is evidenced in the slave trade and prostitution, among other things. While we would all like to believe that only strange people could objectify humans to that extent, it is not difficult to notice the “normalcy” of the male belief that children, wives and employees can be owned. Once people are objectified into objects, we move easily to the consuming of interactions and experiences.

The consuming of experiences is best described as being present at an event or experience and yet being a voyeur to that interaction. We disconnect from the experience – we allow it to flow over us and not affect us much, if at all. Heteropatriarchy promotes voyeurism as the path of least resistance. When we are bombarded from all sides by the boys’ often meaningless stimuli, it becomes very difficult to maintain our focus. What makes it even harder to remain focused is that the intensity of the stimuli often does not coincide with the importance of the content. For example, on a given day in Cleveland all of the rapes, woman-bashings, battering and killing of women are relegated to the inside pages of the newspaper, yet the headlines scream out that the Cleveland Browns may make it to the Superbowl. It becomes almost impossible to correlate intensity of stimuli with importance of the content, and even more difficult to trust one’s perceptions and judgments. So most of the time I am a voyeur to boys’ culture, I step back and let it roll off my back. I am curiously removed.

Unfortunately, it is one thing to be a “tourist” in Boysland, and another thing to be a tourist to our own culture. As communities struggle with trying to keep ourselves alive and accessible to all Dykes, we have developed the “more if you can, less if you can’t” policy for many events. This is predicated upon the assumption that the community and its events are important to all of us, and that we are all responsible in “making things happen.” Yet I have observed well-to-do Dykes come in and pay the low end of the scale because they left their money in the car, or Dykes who pay less because they want to save money for a boy’s event the next night. This is treating our community events as consumable objects.

In fact, the institutionalizing of our culture, primarily our musical culture, has turned our celebrations into mass consumer events. At the recent Olivia Anniversary Gala, everything was for sale: the reception (but only if you had $25); articles of clothing from the “stars” as a fundraiser; and package deals in certain cities, with the best seats going to the Dykes who could dish out the most money. (Ironically, there were Dykes in Cleveland who wouldn’t have been able to afford the concert, except for the fact that they produced it.) Besides being a blatant example of abysmal lack of and commitment to class consciousness, this is an example of buying and selling of Dyke community. Happily, Dyke love and energy survive under even adverse circumstances, but the fact remains that the consumerism existing in some events dictates a producer-consumer relationship.

Because boys’ culture has existed for so long, it is firmly entrenched in the objectification of living things resulting in stagnation which is also a death focus. Boys’ culture is in no way diminished by our consumption of that culture; in fact, our consumption of their culture contributes to its continuation. The point of Lesbian community is to separate from the status quo and base our connections on a different set of values. When we participate in a Lesbian event, we are not just purchasing entertainment, we are fostering our connections with each other. Our Lesbian cultural heritage has been that music, art and theory have been used as the means by which we created, expressed and explored our connections with each other. It is because this heritage of celebrating our connections has meant so much to me as a Dyke that I have become angry and disappointed that our events have taken on a consumer flair and return us to the malestream. Because our connections are continually being created, we cannot assume the role of consumers of our culture unless our intent is to diminish and consume our connections as a product. If our commitment is to building Lesbian community, then we must participate in the ongoing creation of that community, not the objectification and consumption of Lesbian community. The turning of our connections and communities into marketable products is going to have a devastating effect on us. As consumers our relationship to products is on two levels: on one hand we identify with the product, and on the other hand we distance ourselves from it. The identification with the product I have already discussed. The distancing from the product allows us not to be affected by it, not to be responsible for it and often as a voyeur of it. As consumers, our only responsibility is to our own satisfaction.

In the seventies I lived in a community that valued Women-only space, Radical Dyke Activity, manual laborers, development of theory, other working class jobs and anti-patriarchal work. I question the inverse correlation between the rise of cultural Lesbianism and the return to the malestream and resulting decline in respect for the Radical Lesbian activities. Once we institutionalize our culture, the rules of the marketplace take over. We have many examples, from making our Lesbian-created rape crisis centers and battered women’s shelters more palatable to funders by firing the Dykes, to the selling of Lesbian Nuns to Forum by Naiad Press, to the Dyke musicians who play at Michigan for Women-only audiences until they make it big and will no longer play before Women-only audiences. Hence our relationships to each other have shifted from co-creating to the producing and consuming of our Lesbian community. When we create Lesbian community, we are enacting values that enhance and prioritize our Dyke connections. When we enact consumer values, our Lesbian connections are not the priority. Our consumer-producer connections are the priority.

When we established a producer-consumer relationship to each other, boys stepped in as the producers of our culture and marketed it back to us. The boys will be involved as long as they can turn a tidy profit and even if some boy producer in a large Eastern city decided to “return” some of the money to Lesbian community, it is as an insurance that he be allowed to continue to market our community. When boys quit making money from us, they will stop being concert producers and purveyors of women’s books and records. They are not co-creators of our culture. They are the people who come in to make profit from our having institutionalized to the point that money was able to be made. They are the people who sell our experiences and connections. Once we give them the right to market our lives to us, they also have the right to determine what our lives will be. Boys twist who we are and market it back to us in their own image.

Consumerism has been an effective tool for undermining our communities. We have consumed our own communities, thereby diminishing them. Boys have appropriated our communities, thereby distorting them. Boys begin to sell it back to us, thereby molding it in their own image. And sadly, many Dykes are no longer participating as co-creators of our culture, thereby conceding it to the forces of consumerism.

Consumerism is a system that fails to acknowledge what is important to us. I have interacted with my community as a consumer at times and admit that I thought I felt alive in the process. Or maybe I just felt motion and mistook it for life. But motion is not proof of life. After all, the boys are good at making machines move. That back and forth motion of consumerism is not motion on a profound level. Rather it is predictable, has a certain weariness, and holds no promise for change or creation. It is motion between two points of the patriarchy and fails to propel us away from the gravitational pull of boys’ values.

Earlier in this paper, I spoke of my inability to describe our connections. I still wonder why that is when those connections are so often intense. Amidst the glare of the market place it appears those connections are also very subtle.

Yet it is at the level of our connections that we begin to build our communities. A fundamental difference between Lesbian culture and heteropatriarchal culture is that unlike the boys, what moves and sustains us are our desires and passion. Our passion for our friends, our lovers, our politics, our lives and our creations defines our connections. Passion and desire cannot live in the market place any more than we can joyously thrive in the heteropatriarchal world. Consumerism is about the objectifying of all living things and passion has its own life. Passion cannot be packaged and marketed to us; instead it is created by and among us. I believe our passion has integrity and rather than allow itself to be distorted by consumerist interactions, it will quietly leave.

When consumerism forces passion to leave our interactions, we no longer have a basis for Lesbian connections. It is this interweaving of passion and desire throughout our values, our lives and our connections that will be the foundation of our Dyke communities.

—–

This is a revised version of the paper presented at the Lesbian Theory panel, June 1988, at the National Women’s Studies Association conference. I want to thank Sarah Hoagland for asking me to participate in the Lesbian Theory panel of NWSA. The panel was the impetus for me finally setting my thoughts down on paper. I want to thank Julia Penelope for the creation of the word heteropatriarchy and Anna Lee for the word malestream. I want to thank Anna Lee, Bette Tallen, Ellen Catlin and Laura Sanders for their help in clarifying my ideas and rewriting the paper. I am also indebted to long hours of conversations with many of the Separatists who attended the Midwest Lesbian Separatist Conference, June 1988.

1. Starhawk. Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics. Beacon Press, 1982. Starhawk discusses how the norms of the world shifted in the sixteenth century from an organic system to that of isolated nonliving parts.

2. Lee, Anna. “New Age Spirituality Is the Invention of the Heteropatriarchy;’ Sinister Wisdom #37, Spring 1989. Paper read at the panel on Lesbian Theory at the 1988 National Women’s Studies Association Conference.

3. Lee, Anna. “The Tired Old Question of Male Children,” Lesbian Ethics, Vol. 1, #2, pgs. 106-108. While Anna Lee is specifically referring to black women in her paper, I believe that the point still stands that the fact that whether black nor white women raise their sons to grow up to be abusers isn’t enough to stop the boys from enacting those behaviors.

4. A point made by Bette Tallen in a conversation concerning the lack of political analysis in our communities.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusmail