Alice Jones: Shopaholics anonymous

A new film portrays female shoppers as ditzy airheads. Shame. Why can’t Hollywood give us a little credit?

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Two weeks ago I had a minor meltdown on Oxford Street. I was intending to do a little light shopping. But it was a week until pay day and last month’s skiing had wiped out all of my funds. I dug out my credit card – declined. Confused, I called my bank. There had been a clerical error (something to do with the snow, apparently) which had blocked my card but now it was unblocked. Great. I went on to the next shop – declined again. I called the bank again and heard myself saying, with a hint of hysteria: “You can’t just block my credit card on a SATURDAY AFTERNOON. It’s absurd!”

My name is Alice Jones and I am, quite possibly, a shopaholic. Well, maybe. These things happen and I’m not sure one little panic attack marks me out as an irredeemable plastic addict. In any case – weirdly – despite being a twenty-something female, who enjoys frequent trips to the shops, owns far more pairs of shoes than I could ever possibly need and runs up the occasional heart-stopping credit-card bill, I have never, ever confused the word “fiscal” with “fish”. I have never thought that the mannequins in a shop window were talking – y’know, like, actually talking – to me. And I have definitely never fainted at the sight of a pair of red Gucci knee-high boots and then punched a woman when she tried to snatch them from me.

But if I were in a Hollywood film, specifically Confessions of a Shopaholic, I’d be doing all of these things – and worse, apparently. On the big screen, it seems, it’s not possible to like shoes and to be able spell long words. Shame. While most feminists and male critics might write off a chick flick at 100 paces, I don’t have a knee-jerk aversion to them. They’re escapist pieces of fluff and anyone who believes that they’re an accurate portrayal of womanhood must think James Bond is an average guy next door. There’s no reason why romance, fashion and shopping should automatically mark out a film as one-star, trivial, woman-hating rubbish. Indeed, there have been triumphant attempts at putting shopping on screen – the timeless teen movie Clueless, The Devil Wears Prada, Ugly Betty, Sex and the City – all homages to consumerism but also fine, witty and well-acted comedies and dramas that women – and men – can enjoy. Confessions…, sadly, is not one of those films.

Its star is the likeable Isla Fisher, playing a struggling journalist, Rebecca Bloomwood, whose meagre salary is entirely at odds with her voracious appetite for gaudy designer goods. It’s not just her, either. The cast uniformly suffers from product placement Tourette’s and there isn’t a woman in the film who isn’t obsessed with shopping of some description: Becky’s thrift-store-obsessed mother (Joan Cusack), screaming harpies in the sales queue and the gimlet-eyed editor of the fashion magazine, Alette, played, unbelievably, by Kristin Scott Thomas, undoing all the good work of her Bafta-winning French turn in I Loved You So Long with a camp French accent straight out of ’Allo ’Allo (“When I leave zis ’ome, the hopportunitey leaves wiz me”…).

Not only is the film fatally out of step with our crunched times – at one point, Rebecca’s father comforts her with the thought, “If the American economy can be billions of dollars in debt and still survive – so can you!” – it’s also deeply misogynist. Rebecca’s journalistic big break comes when she lands – through no skill of her own – an interview at a Condé Nast-style magazine company. Seeing it as a stepping stone to her dream job at its flagship publication, Alette, she pitches up to the offices of Successful Saving – a little late, of course, thanks to a last-minute accessory-buying spree. When she’s asked for her CV, she bends over, sticks her minidress-clad behind in the editor’s face (and wiggles it around a bit); in one of her answers, she confuses fish with fiscal and, on the way out, she walks into a glass door. Naturally, she gets the job.

On her first day, she turns up to morning conference (Late! Again!) with her pink pencil and comical pink pencil sharpener, copies her first article out of Money for Dummies, asks a CEO “How much do you burn?” instead of “How much do you earn?” (women, eh?!) and misses her first deadline because there’s a totally awesome sample sale at 2pm. At an important conference, she greets the Finnish CEO of Nokia with an Eskimo nose kiss and tells the director of a major bank that he should, like, cheer up his branches’ window displays with “pretty pink umbrellas or something”. Naturally, they all love her.

You see, Rebecca’s “genius” – as spotted by the ever so clever male editor – is that she can explain personal finance to people in an easy-to-grasp way. She’s an accounting idiot savant (emphasis on the idiot) blessed with a financial acumen that allows her to compare cashmere coats to credit cards. To top it all off, Rebecca takes her editor shopping and promptly falls in love with him. Just the kind of story the notoriously sexist media needs, then.

But the real problem with Confessions… is that it has a vacuum at its heart as yawning as that in Becky’s brain. Our airhead heroine dreams of frittering away her parents’ nest egg and sells the bridesmaid dress she’s to wear at her best friend’s wedding in pursuit of YSL. As with the execrable Bride Wars which saw two “best friends” clawing one another’s veils off, there’s not even a redeeming strand of sisterhood, so when the climactic showdown between Becky and her debt collector arrives, our sympathy is already spent. The film slavishly pushes the rom-com buttons, but as redemption unrolls in the final scenes, the realisation dawns that we are being manipulated to feel emotion about a scarf. “But it is,” we are told, “a desperately important scarf.” It’s a closing line which, I think, tells you everything you need to know about this film. Real shopaholics, just say no – and wait for another, funnier, film to spend your cash on. Or, better still, head to Oxford Street.

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