Anne T. Donahue is the author of Nobody Cares
I don’t remember the first Black Friday I worked during my 10 years in retail, but I remember at one point fighting the urge to drop to my knees like Willem Dafoe in Platoon, and screaming into a pile of polos.
This was shocking because I love the mall. I love going to the mall now, and I loved working at the mall until it was time to leave my job and start writing full-time. I grew up going to the mall with my grandparents, and thanks to Nana’s gift for bartering and the comfort I took in knowing Grandpa would meet his friends at Mmmuffins every week, I learned that the mall was a good place. A space full of snacks and bargains and fountains to sit in front of. Which is probably why I don’t even hate Boxing Day.
But Black Friday is different. The late-November day is my nemesis. It morphs all of us into panicked consumers, obsessed with trying to make each Christmas perfect by accumulating the latest and greatest things.
Which isn’t the customers’ fault. How can it be, when holiday commercials begin airing in October, and Black Friday is trumpeted as the only chance to acquire enough stuff to make your friends and family happy? As temperatures drop, the pressure gets higher to make this year the Best One Ever (TM), so by the time Black Friday arrives, the tension is palpable and the mission is clear: Buy everything now or reconcile with being the worst. And I hate that because it’s grossly unfair.
It takes money to buy Christmas presents, and it takes even more money to buy the kind of gifts we’re told everybody’s supposed to have. I, like most people I know (and most people on the planet), didn’t grow up with the kind of money needed to make those kinds of Christmas dreams come true. And even as a kid, I understood that: My parents were trying their best, and that was enough. Also, if I complained about not getting as much as another kid in my class, my parents were quick to remind me that maybe I didn’t need any Christmas gifts at all. (So I shut up immediately.)
But by the time I started working at a big-box electronics store, Black Friday fever had begun to descend on us all. And as such, retailers marketed the holidays more and more as the sole contest through which to prove how good a loved one you were. As if good Christmases (or relationships) were based on the acquisition of a TV or DVD box set or logo hoodie. As if any of us are worth merely the sum of our expenses.
And worse yet, it pits everyone against each other. Where Boxing Day always felt like an adventure in spending gift cards and Christmas money with friends after days of family-only extravaganzas (and still does, let me have this), Black Friday became the capitalist Hunger Games. By courting long lines to amplify the demand for extremely limited deals, stores pit customers against each other. And then, to highlight the frenzy the day ends up breeding (see footage of people running into Walmarts or Best Buys), those same customers are often videotaped and laughed at, as though trying to buy something at an affordable price is a punchline. As if the working class responding to the one day they’ve been given to buy what they’ve been told their worth hinges on is hilarious. As if the pressure we put on everyone to create the perfect holiday via rabid consumerism isn’t the result of a system that sets up the majority to fail.
Of course, as a teen and early twentysomething trying to fold hoodies at the mall amidst waves of Black Friday shoppers, I didn’t understand that. Instead, I understood that no matter how many times I folded a table, it would never be clean and I would dream of discounted fleece until I was dead. And I understood that everyone seemed angry and irritable and disproportionately annoyed that we’d run out of medium Henleys. But then, I’d go shopping after my shift and do the same. Because I had a day to pick up as many pieces as possible to prove to my friends and family how much I loved them. Which was exhausting.
And is still exhausting today. It takes work to unlearn that we’re more than what we can afford for Christmas, and it’s difficult to sift through our feelings to determine whether we’re shopping because we want to or because we’ve been told to. Because, for the record, I still love to shop. And I still love the mall. And I like finding things for my friends and family that I think will mean something or make them happy. And to that end, there are obviously people reading this who thrive among Black Friday sales and live for the thrill of the purchase. Which is fine – if it’s their choice.
But that’s the thing: Black Friday as it stands doesn’t offer much in the way of choice. Instead, it’s a one-day bid to make the working class scramble and flail while brands and chains have their egos stroked. It’s another testament to the fact that if you don’t have money, you lose. And, if you can’t hack it in the 24-hour-or-so window reserved for lower prices, you don’t deserve to have a happy holiday. And that isn’t true. We all deserve to have the best holiday regardless of income. It’s just a shame so many chains are trying to sell us the opposite.