Reading selected chapters from Loeb’s Consuming Women sent my mind reeling. It seemed to me that Loeb wanted to use the growing trend towards luxury-oriented advertising to show that women benefited from a culture of conspicuous consumption that encouraged them to fulfill their desires. But I had trouble following her logic–why should we assume that women benefit from an advertising culture that defines the feminine ideal in terms of a hedonistic household goddesses surrounded by material abundance? Aren’t these images also serving an oppressive function, by implying that a woman have no valued as such unless they succeed in acquiring and arranging every last accoutrement of leisured life?
As far as I can tell, Loeb’s argument centers around the assumption that, in an increasingly market-oriented society, it was empowering for women to be able to manage household consumption. But social (and commercial) expectations determined what the household should look like. So, even when orchestrating household consumption, the woman was not truly enacting agency, but only serving to project the image that her family desired. This may have been especially oppressive endeavor for middle-class women, who were wedded to these dominant ideals of gender and class, but who did not have the economic resources and “extensive retinue of servants” available to the classes that they sought to emulate (29). The burden placed on women to demonstrate their family’s affluence though appropriate consumption probably made conspicuous display of luxury into a chore.
Remembering of a scene from the The Buckaneers (the adaption of Wharton’s novel) made me think that, while middle-class women finally had access to elaborate “confections…silver…greenhouses…and exotic flowers,” they also inherited from their aristocratic idols a unique burden.
In this scene, a young American bride arrives at her husband’s household, where her mother-in-law instructs her in the work of luxury.