Amy Waldman on Home Shopping

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In 1995 the Internet had yet to revolutionize the way people bought and sold merchandise, Amazon.com was a quixotic-seeming startup, and the concept of home shopping belonged to a handful of lo-fi TV channels like QVC and the Home Shopping Network. Writing in the Washington Monthly that year, editor Amy Waldman took the channels to task for preying on elderly viewers, who were increasingly lonely and adrift in the late twentieth century.

After a man died several months ago at the Virginian Retirement Community in Fairfax, his family went to collect his worldly goods. They found more than they bargained for: his home was crammed, floor to ceiling, with possessions they never knew he had. There were kitchen gadgets, costume jewelry, bed linens, and cleansers, all by the dozens.

He had bought it all from the world’s most accessible stores: the home shopping networks that came through his television into his living room twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. This man, whose name the retirement home withheld for privacy, ordered a package from QVC or Home Shopping Network (HSN), the two leading home shopping channels, almost every day. Some of what came he gave away. Most of it simply piled up, unused.

What had brought him to line his walls with the fruits of home shopping? In a word, companionship. Home shopping hosts didn’t just sell to him—they spoke to him. An employee at the Virginian recalls that the man spent a lot of time by himself. He did not make friends easily and he spoke of being lonely. But when he bought, he said he could keep operators chatting to him for half an hour. He had found a way to fill his days and sleepless nights.

He was not alone in his discovery. As the hours cycle past on home shopping channels, the disembodied voices of buyers, calling in to offer “testimonials” on their purchases, float above the sparkling descriptions of cubic zirconium jewelry. Most are female—Dorothy from Daytona, Betty from Fresno, Helen from Mexico City, Indiana. Many of the voices are beginning to crack with age. And their extraordinary enthusiasm for the products—and the hosts, and the show itself—masks something else: a deep, abiding need for human contact. “I live alone,” says a woman named Erma who calls in on a Monday morning. “All I’ve got to do is watch QVC.”

***

In their possession of an audience’s hopes and fears, home shopping hosts are like no one so much as the fictional advice columnist in Nathaniel West’s 1933 novella Miss Lonelyhearts. A young reporter takes the job as a joke, but then realizes that the letters to him are genuine expressions of suffering. Even worse, their writers take him seriously. “Dear Miss Lonelyhearts …” begin the letters from “Desperate,” “Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband,” “Sick-of-it-All.” The pain in his correspondents’ lives, and his own powerlessness to help them, eats away at Miss Lonelyhearts. Finally, unable to bear the pathos of human existence, he is driven to self-destruction.

Today, the lonely and desperate turn to home shopping hosts who seem to have no such interest in acknowledging the limits of their powers. They appear perfectly comfortable marketing miracles. One host reads a written testimonial from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The letter begins like any to Miss Lonelyhearts could: “I was really at a low point. I needed something.” But then comes a distinctly un-Westian salvation: “Then someone turned me onto Destiny Perfume. It smells so good that it has really given me strength to go on for me and my family.”

When real pain and loneliness do seep through, the home shopping solution is to studiously ignore it. Alan and Wendi are plugging a diamond ring. Edna from Ohio calls in. “If you think your life is going pretty good right now, wait until you buy this ring,” says Alan.

“Well actually,” Edna responds. “It’s going pretty bad.” Her words vanish, unacknowledged, beneath the chatter of the hosts.

Sally from Chicago has bought some perfume, and she calls in to talk about it: “I’m lying in bed, this is my day off, I’m being a princess.” Her voice is raspy with age and cigarettes. She works in a store, and says men tell her how good she smells. “That’s wonderful,” the host says, and then asks, suggestively, “Did you put some on before you went to bed last night?”

“No,” says Sally. “I’m a widow.”

When women describe their bouts with cancer or their hospital stays, as many do, the testimonials become farcical struggles between hosts trying to truncate the calls or push them toward the product-driven point, and callers hanging on for dear life, trying to prolong the conversation.

The question is why anyone would turn for comfort to talking heads out to make a sale. The answer lies partly in the same post–World War II social transformation that gave more Americans spending power. With increased income, Americans moved into dispersed suburbs. As women moved into the workforce, neighborhood networks and social clubs shrunk, isolating the women left behind. Driven to spend more, men and women worked more. Families broke more easily, and even those that held together felt the pressures of work and mobility. And television pulled us off streets and front porches and into living rooms.

In its evocation of Tupperware parties, the kaffeeklatsch, Mary Kay cosmetics saleswomen stopping by your home—all traditions that have fallen, or are falling, by the wayside—home shopping hearkens back to the past in another way: it speaks to women as they were before women’s liberation. Callers are “honey” and “dear.” “That executive look” is just another fashion statement. Women lunch, they shop, they entertain, they go on cruises, they have craft parties. Femininity sells. Dolls, cooed over by hosts as if they were children, are very popular.

If the success of home shopping portends the future, marketing will turn to ever more sophisticated attempts to play on our nostalgia for what we’ve lost, to peddle connections to other people via commerce. Home shopping foreshadows what’s so insidious about that prospect: even as QVC and HSN try to mimic the feeling of community, they draw us, as television always has, even further away from the real thing.

***

At six a.m., a woman named Doris phones HSN to purchase a portable copier for $229. “How are you?” the host asks. “Fair,” Doris replies, her voice shaking slightly. She explains that she orders things from home shopping and mail-order catalogues, forgets what she orders, and then orders them again. She wants the copier to keep track of her purchases.

“Good idea,” the host says, smothering her pathos with his enthusiasm. “And running down to the corner copier is so inconvenient.”

Doris will have her copier. And she will be yoked even more tightly to an isolation that only her television—and another purchase—can penetrate.

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From “Lonely Hearts, Classy Dreams, Empty Wallets,” June 1995. Amy Waldman is now a contributing editor at the Atlantic, and is at work on her first novel.

 
 
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