Friday, December 05, 2008

criticizing other women's pleasures

Beyond the valley of the doilies: Salon’s Joy Press did an interview with Jessica Helfand, a design critic/graphic designer who teaches at Yale, about her book on scrapbooking. In the interview, Helfand says a lot of interesting things about gender, pleasure, and creativity, three things that are rarely recognized as being bound together. Helfand is a firm believer in a certain kind of elite standard—“It's at once horrifying and fascinating to witness the degree to which design is being discussed online by people whose concept of innovation is measured by novel ways to tie bows,” she wrote—but she also found herself more sympathetic to scrapbookers than she expected.

The interviewer describes scrapbooks as often “cheesy and sentimental and generic,” but also “hands-on design as practiced by regular people rather than artists -- an attempt to represent everyday experience through visual culture.” Why are professional writers always so shocked to find out that many, many people want to recognize the creative potentials in their own lives? Of course most of the results are bad; that’s just Sturgeon’s law. But we sing to our kids even though we’re not good at it (I know I’m not); being good isn’t the point.

Anyway, Helfand calls scrapbooks “the original open-source technology, a unique form of self-expression that celebrated visual sampling, culture mixing, and the appropriation and redistribution of existing media.” Apparently the Gutenberg parenthesis had some parenthetical interventions of its own.

I’m interested in scrapbooks because of the way they employ copying, or physical appropriation, in the service of self-production: scrapbookers define themselves by what they take from the rest of the world. As, in the end, we all do, but the scrapbook foregrounds the materiality and creativity of the project of self-construction from found objects.

Helfand discussed the pleasure that people—mainly women—find in scrapbooking, and her discomfort with the $2.6 billion industry that, she argues, talks down to them: “Why are women targeted in this treat-them-like-13-year-olds way? I went to one of these scrapbooking retreats, and it's all these women in their pajamas with snacks -- Hostess Twinkies everywhere! There's something about junk food being part of this. It's like, no husbands, I'm going to let myself go and look at pictures of my family and eat Twinkies.” She references a study called “Making Me Time,” “about the creative crisis of the stay-at-home mom who needs to feel she's doing something with her day. The physicality of putting pen to paper and grease pencil to word fetti is making them feel they're doing something.” I’m reminded of Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance: one thing a romance-reading hobby does is give a busy woman an excuse to turn away from her family and spend some time on self-care. Should the fact that Harlequin profits from this disturb us? Or are some kinds of profit more acceptable than others?

The answer, at least for scrapbooking, might lie in how much the premade materials enable creativity and how much they constrain it. Helfand likes messy scrapbooks, not stereotyped ones. Though I should admit that this too is a design preference with a particular cultural and class background: she points out in the interview that many scrapbookers like premade stickers because they don’t trust their own handwriting and spelling; maybe the ultimate solution is to convince them that their writing is worthwhile anyway, but that’s going to be a hard sell—it really will make the scrapbooks harder to show other people. It’s hard to condemn someone who wants her scrapbook to be a better version of herself.

At the same time, there’s something of value lost in that we now seem to be performing ourselves even in the most intimate aspects of our lives. As Helfand says, “I have a theory that contemporary scrapbooking is a little bit of a reflection of reality TV. … People want to gussy themselves up. … So you take this scrapbooker, and she's thinking, I'm overweight and I don't want a picture of myself in the scrapbook, but I do want to show off my cute kids and pretty pink ribbons. It's this externalizing idea of, I want this to look good for everyone else so if I ever get famous my scrapbooks will show that I'm perfect. But the whole purpose [of scrapbooks originally] was to celebrate the everyday.” Being famous to fifteen people, as opposed to being friends with fifteen people, changes our relationships to them and to ourselves. Abercrombie and Longhurst’s Audiences: A Sociological Theory of Performance and Imagination gets into this (as does Veronica Mars, in a different way).


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the fascinating post. Do you agree with Helfand's statement that "the whole purpose [of scrapbooks originally] was to celebrate the everyday”?

I don't know anything about scrapbooks. But I wouldn't be surprised if the modern scrapbook fits relatively easily into a framework of other creative practices devoted to preserving family history. And that these creative practices detailing family history may serve some biological end.

RT said...

I don't know enough to be sure about scrapbooking's origins, though I ordered Helfand's book. And she herself disclaims sociological expertise. But she does discuss scrapbooks from the past that seem messier, more like MySpace than Facebook pages. What we don't know is what the differences are in her samples: whether the percentage of carefully self-editing scrapbookers has changed; what the class etc. differences are; and so on. My sense, reinforced by Abercrombie and Longhurst, is that our techniques of self-presentation through creative work have changed a lot over the past century, with major positives and major negatives. It's easy to feel nostalgia for what's been lost. I'm a fan of celebrating ordinary creativity, and that ends up requiring some fancy footwork to reconcile with my sense that yeah, maybe scrapbookers would be better off rejecting preprinted stickers and so on. They have their reasons for picking the preprinted stuff, after all, or it wouldn't sell; but the fact that it's being promoted to them as a way of making nicer scrapbooks helps change their preferences, so as usual it's a big mess.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting on this. I noticed the enormous boom in prepackaged scrapbook supplies about eight years ago; I guess it's a burgeoning industry. I think people appreciate a boost to get started; kind of like using templates to build your web page, you know?

In part people who do this want to gussy themselves up, but also, it's a very real impulse toward hands on creativity in an ethereal world.... almost taking the place letters used to occupy before they became phone calls, I think.

I see a link to the mass mailed Christmas letter, too.

People don't sew as much as they used to, either, but this is definitely creative even if it uses some prepackaged stuff. And definitely overwhelmingly pursued by women.

Thanks again for the food for thought.


RT said...

Dana: I think the comparison to webpages is a great one. On the other hand, scrapbooks seem to foreground visual design more than many webpages do. Scrapbooking seems more associated with memorializing, while most webpages are about change. But that doesn't necessarily require an emphasis on design, which is what Helfand sees. I guess one issue is whether prefab designs are taking the place of homecooked designs when the design itself is a big part of the process. Helfand seems to think that current scrapbooking industry encourages women, essentially, to make really pretty Jello molds, when she'd like to see them cooking from scratch. And I see both sides of that. Who doesn't like a boost to get started, especially when you're busy?

I also like the link to the mass mailed holiday letter--it's very similar.