Women and Shoplifting in Fiction

1960s Christmas shopping

Watch enough TV and you’ll likely draw the conclusion that women, especially housewives with significant personal problems commonly relieve psychological pain by shoplifting. It’s rare to find men shoplifting for the buzz. Also in fiction, teenage girls shoplift as a hazing ritual, and to own prized items (mostly body adornment items) they couldn’t otherwise afford.

How does this compare to real life stats on shoplifters? Shoplifting is not gendered in the way of fictional tropes. There’s a strong link between shoplifting, anxiety and addiction. When it comes to kleptomania, two thirds are women. For a similar buzz, men are more likely to turn to gambling than shoplifting. Both gambling and shoplifting are impulse control disorders.

Nor is shoplifting a crime of young people. However, most adults who shoplift probably started in their teens.

gilmore girls humour
from Gilmore girls

Shopping itself is a heavily gendered activity. Men spend just as much money as women do in shops, but because the job of shopping (groceries, clothing etc.) is the job of the person running the household, it is mostly women we associate with shopping. Men are doing less shopping work, but when they do shop, they buy big, expensive items (computers, cars etc.)

Real life examples of shopping and shoplifting aside, I’ll take a closer look at how women shoplifting is used in popular storytelling to advance the plot, or to convey something to the audience about character. In all three examples below, the women and girls are shoplifting body adornment items. Shoplifting scenes in which characters steal necessary items in order to survive are a different thing entirely. That kind of shoplifting exists at a different spot on the morality spectrum.

The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960) genuine reductions
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960). Would this cartoon work if the characters were masculo-coded?

CASE STUDY ONE: MARIE IN BREAKING BAD

In the clip below, we learn that Hank’s wife Marie is a shoplifter. She impulse steals a pair of sparkly purple shoes. (Marie is strongly associated with the colour purple throughout the show.)

Later, Marie will shoplift a princess crown for Skyler’s new baby, and also a spoon from an open home. Marie is very clearly trying out a new identity.

One problem experienced by the writers of Breaking Bad: An astonishingly small cast of characters. Take almost any other series running the same number of seasons and you’ll find the writers have many more characters whose arcs they can explore. I feel that Marie’s strange shoplifting arc was a strange and unnecessary addition, when the writers already faced a woman problem.

That said, Marie’s shoplifting subplot does mirror the ‘other self’ of Walter White. Both Walt and Marie are objectively good at being a spouse. They both feel confined by the house (or their spouse). Hank is a cranky husband who requires Marie to walk on egg-shells around him. This slightly menacing aspect of Hank is emphasised during Marie’s shoplifting scene, in which Marie calls Hank as Hank barks instructions at some men he and his partner have just arrested.

Marie’s anxiety about Walt Junior’s smoking of pot comes across as busy-body interference, and juxtaposes against Hank’s drug bust for its snigger-inducing inconsequence. “What, you want me to tell him about marijuana overdoses?” Hank says dismissively before pacifying his wife.

It is fitting that Marie shoplifts impractical but beautiful high heels, leaving behind her flat, sensible work shoes. The adornments of women are commonly positioned as frivolous (at best) and actively deceptive (at worst).

CASE STUDY TWO: RUTH IN SIX FEET UNDER

In “The Eye Inside” episode of Six Feet Under (Season Three, 2013) Ruth Fisher meets Bettina, who is helping Ruth’s hippie sister Sarah to detox from a Vicodin addiction. Suddenly free from the strictures of ladyfriend and mother, Ruth is now in a world entirely different from her usual one. She even tells Bettina she has never been brave enough to sit in a hammock before.

While the sister remains tied up in bed to scream and detox in “peace” (a moment of dark humour), Bettina accompanies Ruth shopping and tries to persuade Ruth to update her wardrobe. Ruth is initially shocked to witness Bettina yank the price off a branded scarf and tuck it discreetly into her handbag.

Bettina explains to Ruth that the wonderful advantage of turning into a middle aged (white) woman is that you are now completely invisible, including invisible to law enforcement. This follows on from the juxtaposition of Sarah explaining in pathetically unfeminist terms that she got hooked on Vicodin because of the tragedy of losing her youth and beauty. Bettina has decided to embrace the advantages of invisibility.

Initially shocked, by the end of the shopping expedition, Bettina has successfully persuaded Ruth to join her in crime. Together, Bettina and Ruth steal Ruth a red lipstick.

From Woman Magazine, 19 March 1956
From Woman Magazine, 19 March 1956

The lipstick is called ‘Flirtation’ and, very similar to the purple, sparkly shoes stolen by Marie in Breaking Bad, is a symbol of youthful feminine sexuality. These middle aged women are symbolically ‘stealing’ back some of their youthful vibrance. They steal because they are invisible, but they steal the very items which, we deduce, aim to make them visible again.

In Six Feet Under, the death at the beginning of each episode will link to the character growth in one or more of the Fishers (and their extended families). In “The Eye Inside”, Ruth’s shoplifting arc opens with the death of Callie Renee Morimer, who flees a group of jeering young men calling to her as she walks alone in the dark. The young men turn out to be a group of joking friends, but Callie is struck down by a speeding vehicle. In their eulogy, the young men reveal they have never considered before that a friend, so brave in other ways, could also be so scared of men in the dark. This 2003 episode preceded the #metoo movement. This would have been a revelation to much of the audience, conveying a feminist message akin to Bettina’s.

The dead girl of this episode was unpleasantly invisible in the darkness, and also completely invisible; her invisibility led directly to her death. As Bettina successfully convinces Ruth, invisibility is useful, but also a kind of death.

Meanwhile, in a thematically mirrored plot involving David and Keith, David worries about seeming too visibly gay in front of straight couples. 

CASE STUDY THREE: THIRTEEN

In the film Thirteen (2003),Tracy Freeland becomes first a thief, then a shoplifter. This is a classic shoplifting scene involving young teenage girls. There is a hazing aspect to it. Tracy is literally buying popular and beautiful new friends, impressing them with her daring.

As in the two examples above, Tracy, Evie Zamora and Evie’s other friends are most interested in shoplifting items which will adorn their bodies and transform them into the sexy older women they aspire to be.

Teenage girls stealing clothes and fashion items in TV shows is standard fare. I’m sure this is partly why I was followed around stores as a teenage girl myself. Back in the 90s, shop assistants regularly barged in on you while you were trying on clothes in cubicles. (The Glassons at Riccarton Mall in Christchurch was terrible for that.) At least that particular awful rite of passage seems to have come to an end.

The character of Hanna in Pretty Little Liars is presented as a cool, calm, confident trickster when she shoplifts this pair of sunglasses, accomplished partly by charming a boy with less beauty privilege at the sunglasses counter.
This scene from Stranger Things is not dissimilar. Eleven literally has supernatural powers on her side. (Hanna has beauty and white privilege.)
Buffy and Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Want, take have”, says Faith, a line very similar to one in a children’s picture book: Wolf Comes To Town. This scene overturns the cliche of girls stealing clothes and makeup, but is a Riot Girl form of feminism in which girls just take what they want, macho style.
This might as well be a contemporary update of Eve daring Adam to steal the apple.
Home » Six Feet Under

The Split Attraction Model in Stories

Vintage Al Parker ( b.1906) illustration 1950s

What does it mean to string someone along? In conversation with her friend Jill Stark, Australian feminist activist Clementine Ford is pretty clear. Clementine refers to a tentpole article (“an oldie but a goodie”) by Tracie Egan Morrissey at Jezebel: Dudes Today: The Emotional Conquistador Is The New Sexual Conquistador.

Maybe. I’m fortunate not to have met dudes like that. Or maybe not.

Nothing about this take accounts for The Split Attraction Model of human relationships — a concept which wasn’t much talked about ten years ago, and which remains little known outside queer circles and philosophy.

There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they had not heard there was such a thing.

Francois La Rochefoucauld

The Split Attraction Model of Philosophy

American MIT philosopher Irving Singer (1925 – 2015) divided sex into three aspects:

  1. Eros: The aesthetic joy we take in others. ‘The affective glue that binds us to other persons, things or ideals and to ourselves’. Humans are visual creatures but it’s not necessarily about the visual. In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes at length about all the different forms of eros. We can be attracted to someone’s intelligence. The eros aspect of sex best equates to the ‘head’. As philosopher Damon Young says in his book Getting Off, “Eros need not be libidinal”. Referring to Shulamith Firestone’s book The Dialectic of Sex, Young writes “we can respond erotically to various and varied others — from lovers to friends. It is not just a genital swelling, but a ‘spark’, as she puts it, which fires over ‘the spectrum of our lives’. Because of this, we can have a broadly erotic response to objects other than human beings.”
  2. Romance: The ‘heart’. Romance is notoriously difficult to describe as it differs across time and across culture, but
  3. Libido: ‘a somewhat automatic trigger for generating behavioral and physiological processes related to reproduction’. This is about biological urges (though is rarely about making babies, in fact). Libido is to humans as rutting is to animals. This is all about instinct and equates to ‘gut’.
Continue reading “The Split Attraction Model in Stories”

The Snail Under The Leaf Setting

apparent utopia

In many folktales, visitors to fairyland see magnificent palaces and comely people until they accidentally rub the fairy ointment on their eyes. Then fairyland is revealed as a charnel-house, grey and grim, with the fairies as the grinning dead.

Diane Purkiss, Troublesome Things
Beatrix Potter 'A Snail and its Young' 1898 ink, watercolour snail
Beatrix Potter ‘A Snail and its Young’ 1898 ink, watercolour snail
Leo Lionni Illustration for The Biggest House in the World, 1968 snail
Leo Lionni Illustration for The Biggest House in the World, 1968 snail

The Utopian World is prevalent in contemporary children’s literature. Move into young adult literature, and the top end of middle grade, and settings which looked benign now look not so great. Something is wrong underneath. TV Tropes calls the snail under a leaf setting a False Utopia.

Joakim Frederik Skovgaard (Danish,1856 - 1933) Still life of a water glass and fresh herbs
Joakim Frederik Skovgaard (Danish,1856 – 1933) Still life of a water glass and fresh herbs

The ‘snail under the leaf’ describes a setting which:

  • emphasises the evil of the universe
  • and the basic cruelty of life, as a part of the general make-up of humanity.
  • ‘The snail underneath the leaf’ setting is also about people’s delusion — we may think everything is hunky dory, but only because we’re not looking under the rotten surface layer.

Snails are widely connected with unpleasantness. Katherine Mansfield scholars have called this kind of setting ‘the snail underneath the leaf’. Generally the themes of these narratives focus on corruption of the world, or betrayal of others, whether directly or indirectly. (Katherine Mansfield’s short stories often feature actual snails.) In Mansfield’s later stories the handling of theme grows darker and more despairing.

  • In “The Little Governess” the waiter at the hotel destroys the character’s chances of getting the job.
  • In “Bliss” Miss Fulton betrays Bertha’s love and the boy and the girl in the park ridicule Miss Brill’s illusion.
I this illustration German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961) inverts the experience of unexpectedly finding a snail under a leaf. This time, a snail finds something unexpected instead.
I this illustration German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961) inverts the experience of unexpectedly finding a snail under a leaf. This time, a snail finds something unexpected instead.
German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961)
German artist Martin Wiegand (1867-1961)
Polish illustrator  Zdzisław Witwicki, (1921-2019) snail
Polish illustrator Zdzisław Witwicki, (1921-2019)

What other kinds of stories feature a snail under the leaf setting?

As depicted so clearly in the opening scene to the Netflix series Riverdale, the snail under the leaf setting looks beautiful to the tourist or to the casual observer but awful things are happening just beneath the surface. The voice over which accompanies the opening scene of Riverdale is a perfect description of the utopia which is no such thing.

Blue Velvet (1986) is famous for the utopian opening punctured by death, foreshadowed initially by the gun on the TV screen. Note the white picket fences, the rows of colourful flowers, the manicured lawns. Also the symbolic dream houses. Interestingly, after the man’s death, the camera gives us a macro shot of that perfectly manicured lawn to reveal the wriggling insect life underneath. Insects, snails… it seems life in the undergrowth is symbolically connected to snail under the leaf settings.

Below is a description of Pines, which came through in a BookBub email. The copy describes your classic snail under the leaf setting:

Pines
By Blake Crouch

The Wall Street Journal bestselling mystery that became a hit TV show! Ethan is sent to a small town to locate two missing federal agents — but something terrible is lurking behind its picturesque veneer… “A thrill and surprise on every page” (Hugh Howey)

A SHORT HISTORY OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS

The snail under the leaf setting is a descendent of The Fall plot, which is as old as language itself:

There was once a time when there was no disease. Life spans were longer than those we enjoy today, there was no suffering, and people possessed magical powers. They could fly, go to heaven at will, and understood the language of animals.

This is the myth of the golden age, found in cultures the world over. The oldest stories predate Eden: Sumerian cuneiform tablets speak of Dilmun, ‘a place where sickness, violence and ageing are unknown.’ When the sun-god Utu and Enki, lord of soil and earth, brought water, Dilmun flowered and became a beautiful garden. Another pre-Edenic tale is the ancient Persian story of Yima, the first human. During his time, ‘there was neither heat nor cold, neither old age nor death, nor disease.’ Yima built a beautiful garden, the most widespread image for paradise. This is no coincidence, as Richard Heinberg noted: ‘The word paradise itself comes from the Avestan (Old Iranian) word Pairidaeza, meaning a walled or enclosed garden.’

But then disaster struck. Myths of the fall are as widespread as those of the golden age. In Eden, the Serpent tempted Eve to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Persia one of the few stories not to attribute the loss of paradise to the actions of a woman the Fall was brought about when Yima refused to do the bidding of Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god. Divine displeasure resulted in shorter life spans, pain, toil, conflict, and disease. We have been living in this world ever since.

A Short History of Disease: Plagues, poxes and civilisations by Sean Martin

The difference between Fall mythologies and the modern snail under the leaf setting is that it is often revealed that the setting was never utopian in the first place it simply seemed so. In certain genres (like horror) we’ve been primed to expect a happy scene to at some point turn into a terrifying scene. This is why singing in cars while driving along highways scares me.

Sunday Morning ( spider on the wall ) Michael Sowa , 1945. The snail under the leaf setting might just as easily be called the spider on the wall setting.

THE SUBURBS AS APPARENT UTOPIA

Aside from small towns next to lakes and forests, suburbia is a common choice for the snail under the leaf setting.

“They taught us at Barnard about that word, ‘utopia’. The Greeks had two meaning for it: ‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”

Rachel Menken, Mad Men, season one, episode 6, “Babylon.”

Mad Men, of course, is a snail under the leaf setting itself, making Rachel’s lines somewhat meta. Mad Men is set partly in Manhattan, partly in the suburbs where Don Draper has bought a big family home, hoping to keep his family safe. Matthew Weiner was influenced by John Cheever when he wrote Mad Men; many of Cheever’s short stories are a story under the leaf stories, set in mid-century American suburbs.

FURTHER EXAMPLES OF APPARENT UTOPIAS

  • American Beauty, the movie, and also Six Feet Under, in a way. A family unit lives upstairs from a literal morgue. The snail under the leaf setting symbolism is exploited most when the house has plumbing issues, spewing forth all sorts of vile liquid back into the family home.
  • Broadchurch, the British TV series, and pretty much any crime drama set in a picturesque small town, especially if it’s a holiday destination.
  • Tales From Outer Suburbia, the picture/coffee table book by Shaun Tan is an example often presented to children. (I think Shaun Tan’s picture books have a dual audience.)
  • Courage The Cowardly Dog, a horror/comedy TV cartoon series, which has fun with a ridiculously isolated prairie setting.
  • Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume is another example for young readers. In children’s stories, the snail under the leaf setting is often pretty utopian, except for interpersonal issues, extending to bullying.
  • Pretty Little Liars, based on a series of YA books, marketed as Desperate Housewives For Teens. Interestingly, when adapted for TV, Pretty Little Liars makes use of many of the same landmarks as Gilmore girls, because they are both filmed in California at the same place.
  • The Ice House, film from the 1990s based on the Rick Moody novel. Suburban snail under the leaf settings often feature houses made mainly of glass.

So if a story opens with a happy suburban setting, know there’s an ugly, slimy little snail hiding right under the surface.

Like Margaret Simon, I was an only child suspicious of suburban idyll. I consumed the book, as I would go on, in my 20s, to consume anything by Richard Yates or John Cheever, seeking assurances that a lawn was a poor means of generating certain existential satisfactions. The novel [Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret] begins with its heroine forced to leave Manhattan, with all of its enrichments, when her parents decide to move to the suburbs (for all of the reasons parents have always decided to move to the suburbs). “Please help me God,” Margaret implores. “Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible.”

Ginia Bellafante, NYT

an advertisement for Metropolitan Life Insurance from 1958
an advertisement for Metropolitan Life Insurance from 1958. The greyscale with red palette makes it seem creepy even when it doesn’t mean to be.

INVERSIONS OF SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTINGS

The small town which seems picturesque but is actually terrible is so common in story that it’s pretty much expected by the audience. For this very reason, storytellers can subvert that expectation by giving the newcomer a pleasant experience in a new place, even though that character expected the worst.

Suburgatory is a sitcom in which a teenage NYC girl with a superiority complex is forced to move to a nearby suburbs with her dad. She expects the worst and so do we because this is a brightly-coloured, well-manicured suburb. The main character does encounter conflict, but not because there is death and destruction lurking under the surface because the very utopia these people created has magnified their small problems until now they seem very large.

This same gag is used in much of the Gilmore girls humour, which revolves around parish pump politics. Refer to Taylor and his town meetings. The inevitable message: Humans can never be happy. Where there is no Minotaur opposition to unify a community, the community will invent conflict, turning against each other. (Of course, there’s no story without conflict.)

Schitt’s Creek is a different example of a subverted snail under the leaf setting because the town is not presented as a utopia at all the set designers went to a lot of trouble to make the town where it’s filmed look a lot worse than it is. Although this small town looks dilapidated on screen, it is revealed to the audience that the people of Schitt’s Creek are warm and friendly. This town looks like it will be full of illiberal bigots, but they embrace sexual diversity. The creators were sure of one thing from the start they didn’t want any bigotry in this feel good show.

In defence of snails, not everyone finds them unpleasant. The artist below incorporates their beautiful structure into a highly detailed ornamental design.

Anton Seder - The plant in art and commercial - Naturalistic part, Pl. 158-1887-via Heinrich Hein Universitat Dusseldorf
Anton Seder – The plant in art and commercial – Naturalistic part, Pl. 158-1887-via Heinrich Hein Universitat Dusseldorf
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost Art by E. Unger 1886
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost Art by E. Unger 1886

RELATED TO THE SNAIL UNDER THE LEAF SETTING

RELATED TO SNAILS

If our sympathy for Ripley has deepened over time, so, perhaps, has our ambivalence about his author [Patricia Highsmith], though her literary star has, quite rightly, only risen in the decades since her death. One of the stranger details in Highsmith’s biography is the fact that she went through a phase in which she carried her pet snails with her to dinner parties in a large handbag (her 1957 novel, “Deep Water,” soon to be a film starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, features a scene in which snails crawl over the murderer’s hands, stately and sinister). 

How ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ Foretold Our Era of Grifting, NYT