The absurdity that is the Thursday Styles section of the New York Times is not exactly news to us. Still, we were tickled to see The New Republic spend 4,000 words on the matter in its typically wonky pages.
Michelle Cottle writes about the strange paradox of the Times, the paper which “ran an eleven-part series on class in America, in which it described economic mobility as ‘the promise that lies at the heart of the American dream’ and exhaustively pondered its apparent decline,” but is also one of the highest-profile purveyors of what she terms “luxury porn.”
And what exactly is this abominable genre? Here’s Cottle’s thumbnail description of the section: “Chock-full of product round-ups (complete with price and ordering info), online shopping tips, blurbs about store openings, and other features meant to be read with platinum card in hand, ‘Thursday Styles’ is firmly dedicated to serving — and fueling — readers’ urge to splurge. Need a new treadmill? ‘Thursday Styles’ can help you decide whether to go with the $5,899 True Z5.5 Limited or the $4,499 Life Fitness T7-0. Wristwatch busted? Come explore the relative merits of the $28,500 Cartier Tortue versus the $10,900 Panerai Radiomir chronograph.”
Cottle comes to the conclusion that the section actually serves quite an important social function. For the nouveau “nouveau riche,” the ambivalently wealthy “Bourgeois Bohemians” (or “Bobos” in David Brooks’s telling) the pleasure of rampant consumerism must be somehow guilty for it to be acceptable. “Indulging our desire to buy — or even simply to fantasize about buying — obscenely expensive trinkets,” Cottle writes, has to be balanced with “maintaining our intellectual integrity.” The tone of Thursday Styles is a way to perfectly soothe this bizarre modern conundrum.
Cottle’s Exhibit A is Alex Kuczynski’s “Critical Shopper” column, a “creation of Frankensteinian genius,” in her estimation, which succeeds because it achieves “precisely this simultaneous mocking of, and wallowing in, our luxe-life obsession.” Kuczynski is assuring us that “it’s fine to spend absurd amounts of time and money acquiring absurd stuff … so long as you recognize the absurdity. Because the real vulgarity isn’t greed, but rather a lack of self-awareness.”
But we don’t need to turn to Thursday Styles to see what bizarre marketing schemes look like. Just take a glance at Newsweek, which this week looks at the ascension of Katie Couric and demands: “So the question isn’t so much whether a woman can succeed as a network news anchor, but can the girl next door?”
Unless you’re Alex Kuczynski and living at 740 Park Place (the subject of a new book entitled 740 Park: The Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building), this girl, who makes about $15 million a year, isn’t living next door. And yet, the article seriously ponders whether “our Katie” is going to abandon her down-home roots when she takes over the evening news, as if Couric was now working at some little TV station in Kalamazoo.
“Couric will certainly change network news, but will it change her?” Newsweek wants to know. “Will she ration her trademark smile? Will she ditch the tangerine lip gloss and killer shoes? In short, will she remodel herself for the more conservative evening-news audience? She seemed like her old self last week, starting with the teary, gracious announcement that she was — gasp — taking the new job.”
You have to hand it to Couric for being able to maintain the persona that has apparently endeared her to so many Americans as just one of them. Never underestimate the power of self-delusion; heck, if you’re Alex Kuczynski you can even justify buying yourself a $5,000 chinchilla fur coat for your birthday and still stand in front of a $4,700 Dolce and Gabbana ensemble and have this thought: “I paused. Swooned. Perspective time. The top fifth of earners in Manhattan now make 52 times what the lowest fifth make: $365,826 compared with $7,047. Or, for every dollar made by wealthy households, poor households make about 2 cents. So if rich New Yorkers are paying $4,700 for a dress and jacket, the poorest would need divine intervention to help pay for the same bargain.”
Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.
Perspective time, indeed.