Yesterday I did the unforgivable. I shopped on Black Friday. To be fair– I was not up at 5 am, or 7 am, or even 8 am. I didn’t leave the house until 11:10. And furthermore, I had already decided what I was going to buy– and it was only one, relatively inexpensive item. I had been shopping for dress shoes for about 2 weeks, and had decided on one pair in particular. It should be noted here that my taste in dress shoes is a bit eclectic, and while I’m generally picky, I’m even more picky about my shoes. I drove to the mall, went to the shoe section of the department store, and asked about the shoes I had already tried on. I picked up a pair in my size (at a 65% discount), and went on my merry way.
Perhaps I can explain further. For about 10 years now, I have essentially espoused the position that Black Friday is a day on which one should hang out at home all day long. Which I have done, faithfully during that time period. And I still espouse the position that Black Friday is generally terrible and that it is not an event worth participating in, as a general rule. But I had a thought today.
Having studied some anthropology in school, I began to wonder how a cultural anthropologist would explain Black Friday as a… familial phenomenon. The stampedes of Black Friday, the wanton materialism are atrocious. The products purchased largely originate in places where working conditions, governments, and life in general are all pretty terrible for those involved of the production of our phones, shoes, t-shirts, toys, etc.
But some of this is a product of circumstances and infrastructure over which most of us have little direct control. And some of it is such clearly awful behavior on the part of the shoppers, that no one in their right mind would condone it, myself included. However, I began to wonder where Black Friday has come from. I’m sure there are many contributors, but among them are one that I’ve seen among my female relatives. My wife doesn’t shop for fun the way some do, but she really enjoys shopping with her mother and sisters. Women bond over shopping– I don’t know how that works, to my knowledge I’ve never experienced anything like it.
Women bond over cooking, too. And sometimes they bond over other things, like running/aerobics/yoga, or even particle physics, right? But, they like to do things together, and in some sense, Thanksgiving AND Black Friday share this thing– a common activity and purpose. In some sense, shopping on Friday is an extension of the family gathering that began the day before. This can be low-key and fun, or high-intensity and stressful, or half a dozen other things. My point is that it doesn’t have to be this awful, terrible thing. And it doesn’t have to be all about the deals and doorbusters. A friend of mine and anthropology student says that we should “Consider Black Friday to be not just a ritualized tradition, but a liturgical tradition.” It marks the passage of time, and the coming of the Christmas season– and shopping, for whatever reason, is something long associated with the Christmas tradition (even before the advent of our current version of Consumer Capitalism).
Here’s what I think anthropology might say: Traditions have a measure of stability that lend them both authority and a ritualization that grants them similar respectability. Cooking your turkey a specific way, or having certain games, or having Thanksgiving in a particular location– all these can have similar weight, emotionally speaking. But Black Friday has a couple of complications it adds to the Thanksgiving weekend.
First, it is changing and expanding rapidly. In this sense, I think I can say that it’s clear that Thanksgiving and Black Friday have yet to come to a position of balance. Because of this, some people are working on Thanksgiving that didn’t used to– retailers, mostly. (Combined with the recent economic crunch, and the rapid winnowing of the economic mobility of the poor, lower, and middle class in the U.S., this is particularly irksome, understandably, and I think that retailers and larger corporations would be wise to listen to their employees on these matters– I don’t really have a solution to that problem, but I think there are systemic solutions out there, mostly because I believe in creativity and innovation.)
Second, enter the context of American Consumer Capitalism, which, in a general sense, pervades our modes of life in the U.S. This is not to say that there are many that resist this force, but they have not been successful in creating many pockets where it does not reach. So, the social activities of Black Friday are intensely driven by modes of the thinking that pit us against one another– in ways that could be theoretically (physically) harmless, but that are in practice the cause of many injuries, and it appears, even deaths, in the mad race for the newest, shiniest thing at the supermarket. Black Friday is not unique in that it is shaped by consumer capitalism, but it is still unique somehow as a liturgical moment in the American cultural landscape. This may be partially because unlike many other holidays, Black Friday is a modern invention not tied to the state (unlike say, Memorial day), and it’s connection to Christmas is tenuous at best, and virtually non-existent in some cases. It is a day whose sole purpose seems to be surrounded by, driven by, and immersed in the need to buy– to consume, to acquire– yet this doesn’t quite encapsulate it either. As my friend noted to me, “It’s not just a big sale. We have those all the time.”
He sums it up well. “Black Friday is camping out in the cold so you can save 50% off on a game system — with other people. Black Friday is about pushing past bodies of other people in order to get what you want. Black Friday is about swearing at other people who can’t drive or drive recklessly. It’s about the insane, frenetic interaction with other people that makes it Black Friday.”
Somehow, Black Friday is both communal and competitive. It is a communal experience in that it has, with some pushing and shoving, made its way into the American liturgy, and therefore affects virtually all Americans (except perhaps expats). If one could hope for something truly positive to come out of Black Friday, I don’t see that it will be an economic benefit– at least not one across the board. Nor does it bode well for our cultural development. Americans are made up of such diverse groups, that this shopping frenzy is notably appealing across cultural divides. And yet it does nothing to truly unite us.