09 September 2012

i am my own librarian

I got into a brief but very interesting Twitter conversation with John Wiswell and Helen Howell the other night. John started it by mentioning the conflict of liking a specific book which may belong to a genre one generally dislikes (here's what he actually tweeted). It got me thinking though: hence this blog post.

Underneath the kitchen sink in my small apartment is a blue plastic recycling bin that is, by some counts, not a recycling bin at all. It's a stackable box I picked up for about $5 in the IKEA children's section. I just got it because I needed a recycling bin that fit under my sink, and it's the right colour and shape so visitors can tell what it's for.

Has this particular type of bin ever been marketed for recycling in small apartments? No.

Has this particular type of bin ever been advertised as being something adults may find useful even if they don't have any children? No.

But it's my recycling bin now, and it's been that for fifteen years. It works great.

That's okay at IKEA, because they even hack their own stuff, never mind having customers do their own hacks. But then there's the time that I bought a large-faced, longer-strapped Swatch watch. As a tall, big woman, it made sense to buy a watch more in proportion, with, well, me.

After I'd paid, the saleslady said, "Um, you do realise that's a man's watch, right?"

"It's mine now," I said, and that was that. I wore that watch for ten years, and the saleslady was the very last person ever to comment on its supposedly inherent masculinity.

And so it goes for a lot of things. On the director's commentary of the Star Trek DVD, J.J. Abrams said he included the Kirk birth scene at the beginning to draw women into the story, yet female Trek fans are famous as their own SF subculture. Why attempt to "draw" women to something they're already predisposed to like? Oh right, because marketers say that women don't like action films or SF films on their own — they have to be dragged to them by their boyfriends/husbands.

Robert J. Sawyer wrote a brilliant trilogy about a parallel universe where Neanderthals are the surviving hominid species, and had at its heart a wonderful romance plot. Audrey Niffenegger wrote a brilliant time travel novel about a married couple. Somehow, at least in the bookshops I've been to in person and on-line, Sawyer's work gets put in Science Fiction & Fantasy, while Niffenegger's is put in Romance. Yet they're both science fiction works that effectively use a romance between two major characters to move the plot. Having read both the entire Hominids trilogy and the Niffenegger novel, and having loved both about equally, all I can think is that it comes down to marketing. I suppose one could argue that the initiating action on Sawyer's work is from an invention, whereas the initiating action in Niffenegger's is a biological reaction, but that's a bit of hair-splitting. Substitute in The Chrysalids for the Hominids trilogy if it really bothers you.

The point is, it seems we are expected to swallow the marketing, the spin on something, as much as the something that the marketing is supposed to persuade us to buy. And it gets ugly, very quickly. "That toy's for girls." "Those are men's socks." "Harry Potter is for kids, not adults who read real literature." "Americans like that much sugar in their soda."

It's bizarre, because if the product was pushed ahead of the demographic, they might sell more of the things. I remember that my best friend in high school wanted to have a McDonald's birthday party for her eighteenth birthday as a sort of "farewell to childhood" gag event. All of her friends were into it, and she successfully organised the event with the local McDonald's — until we showed up for the party. The restaurant manager was furious with us, even when we offered to forego some of the extra service usually offered because the attendees were typically small children. How dare we buy something outside of our demographic?

If we can legally buy it, what the hell would anyone care if they're selling it? They're still making money from us.

As consumers, we're warned that businesses will try to make money from us any way they can. The demographic segmentation of products and services — including products and services which are nominally interchangeable before the marketing labels get slapped on them — makes me suspect otherwise.

I don't think there's an actual conspiracy going on. I just think certain people don't like having their apple carts upset by people making their own choices.


  1. Such an interesting post! Yep marketing has a lot to answer for. I think we should be allowed to wear, read eat what we like, after all here I am a woman of 61 who loves to read mid grade fantasy fiction ^_^ don't anyone dare to tell me I'm too old to be reading that!!!

    Nice post!

    1. I think it was Neil Gaiman who said that any age levels put on books should always have "and up" appended to them. As someone who has never quite got the knack of reading things according to age level, it makes perfect sense to me.

      Thank you for reading!

  2. If you're curious, the YA novel I cited was Tolkien's The Hobbit. I don't view YA as a genre, though. YA Fantasy is a genre; YA is an umbrella under which many genres fit, like Speculative Fiction. Both genres and umbrellas fit a lot of what you're discussing here, and the works that fall under them can have many utilities. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn is great because it can operate in multiple ways. I'm also very hard on Time Travel fiction, almost to degrees of self-parody at this point, as I'm always amending the list. "I hate time travel except for Back to the Future, and Steins;Gate, and Futurama, and..."

    I think I'm in line with you, particularly about more explicit re-purposing (a dust-pan can make a sink work miracles). And while I have loathed most of the YA I've read, I don't mind other adults enjoying it. I recognized a lot of the things others get out of it, and you've got to read what you love. If anything, it's other adults hating it that I can't stand. When an adult bitches about fiction meant for kids, they should be forced to pick up a book written for them.

    You make some conclusions I'm less confident about. Rhetorically you asked, "If we can legally buy it, what the hell would anyone care if they're selling it?" - but many products that ought not to be legal to buy only become illegal through protest. We're still in just those kinds of struggles in the U.S. over models of rifles.

    1. I was wondering, yeah. The Hobbit is an interesting example becauae it doesn't fit easily for a lot of things. For one thing, it was written for children, not YA, but a lot of people would be nervous about giving it to children because of the violence and thenes.

      Protesting that something ought to be illegal to buy and buying it while it is still legal are two different things. Cigarettes are behind-the-counter, not-on-display items at any convenience store in Canada, but they're there, and if anyone over 18 asks for a pack, they can buy it. I hate smoking and would love to see the smoking laws tightened up further, but I would be furious if I found out a 34 year old in charge of their own life was refused because the shop owner didn't like their haircut.

  3. Very interesting post and I agree with the sentiment here especially about wearing any damn watch you fancy! However I think many businesses create a market, effectively brainwashing people to think they need stuff or should buy it. Kind of the opposite of what you were saying: "This is for - therefore I should buy it."

    1. Of course businesses want to create a market for their wares. I just think it ought to be a two-way street, where businesses look to create markets and consumers look to get something that fits the bill. If it goes too much in a one-way direction, that's when things get ugly, I think.


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