Confessions of a Consumerist
Like every New York City college girl, I babysit. A few times, I babysat for the Mallachis, a lovely family in the Upper West Side. They live in the type of building that has two elevators—one for the guests and one for the Chinese takeout—and two different doormen to make sure that no door goes unopened. It’s an elegantly appointed, patchouli-scented apartment and has what look like Ming vases on window sills facing Riverside Park. They probably aren’t Ming vases, but it’s the kind of apartment where they totally could be. If the Mallachis told me that what I thought were their child’s framed scribblings were actually Picasso’s early sketches, I would kind of shrug and think, Makes sense.
Their daughter, Margaret, though sweet and friendly most of the time, is spoiled to an almost cliché degree. The first time I was there, she carefully showed me which 70 of a set of 100 LOL dolls she had. She then took me through each corner of her room and identified all her belongings shelf by shelf. When it was time for bed, she showed me the six varieties of toothpaste she had, smiling brightly and chirping, “And I have this floss with the butterfly on the box, and also this green floss, and this toothbrush with Hello Kitty, and also this purple toothbrush. And this toothbrush is also mine.”
Before getting the full tour of her bathroom cabinet, we spent almost three hours watching YouTube videos of other children and sometimes a 35-year-old woman with a strangely high-pitched voice unwrapping toys. Margaret would watch them unwrap one surprise toy, hit next, and next again. Each time she’d turn to me and ask, “Wasn’t that one cool?”
“Why yes,” I said, “How surprising when that mini barrel of sticky sand revealed a small plastic coin instead of a small plastic jewel. I am aghast. Amazed.”
I fought the urge to tear her iPad away and scream, “You’re going to make a friendship bracelet and you’re going to like it!”
Instead, I reminded myself that her parents paid $20 per hour plus fare for a cab back to school, that her mom didn’t care how much YouTube she watched, that they were my friend’s primary babysitting gig and for her sake I couldn’t piss them off. And so I kept watching a six-year-old who had more toys than most people have skin cells watch other people unwrap cheap gifts. She had the glazed eyes of an addict numbed by her latest fix.
Around 2010, unboxing videos burst onto the YouTube scene and took off. The unboxing world has its own celebrities: some are adults, and others are children—like a little boy named Ryan, who started off as an adorable three-year-old and has over the past few years grown increasingly disillusioned and bored with opening toys in front of the camera, yet he continues to rack up millions of views. And there are hundreds more like Ryan. From Sephora subscription boxes to Kinder eggs, an entire cottage industry has developed out of filming and sharing people opening packages.
DisneyCollector is clearly the alpha of the perpetually-unboxing pack. With colorful, floral nails and an uncomfortable level of perkiness, the former porn star unboxes Peppa the Pig– and Paw Patrol–themed toys. Her face is never seen. Instead, the camera is positioned near her face so that the viewer can feel like they, too, are living the high life with Winnie the Pooh stacking cups. DisneyCollector’s most popular video, “Play Doh Sparkle Princess Ariel Elsa Anna Disney Frozen MagiClip Glitter Glider Dolls,” combines a phenomenal number of babysitters’ nightmares: glitter, play doh, and Frozen. It has 590 million views.
In children, the pattern of anticipation and reward provided by the videos activates mimetic desire. Mimetic desire, a concept developed by the philosopher René Girard, is desire for something desired by someone else. Human desire is imitative. Rather than a direct subject-to-object relationship, the pattern is subject-to-model-to-object. The value of an object, Girard argues, is that it is valued by another. Margaret to LOL doll is more accurately Margaret (to the YouTuber who waxes poetic about her LOL doll) to LOL doll.
The human brain is designed to imitate. Our brains are full of mirror neurons, “a type of brain cell that respond equally when we perform an action and when we witness someone else perform the same action.” Mirror neurons are linked to empathy and language development. They’re also linked to consumerism.
We want things not because we want them, but because we watch somebody else want it. When we see them get it, our mind lights up in the exact same way as if we got it ourselves. When Margaret spends hours watching strangers unwrapping plastic bits and bobs, she’s getting the same dopamine rush as if she opened it herself. And she’s getting that rush again and again and again from an endless stream of YouTube videos. Each time she craves that intense feeling, she watches another video.
The burgeoning old person in me wants to rage about how the internet is ruining children’s minds, how in the good-ol’ days children only bragged about their possessions in person—how you didn’t bring that consumerism right into the house. “In my day,” I think, “I left my worst consumerism in the coat closet, only putting it back on again when I left the house. But at home I played games and read books like a normal kid. And yes, I did in fact walk uphill to school both ways.”
The Gen Z in me, though, wants to rage against the way adults always say the internet is ruining everything—to place that iPad in her hands and say, “Be a globalist! Watch kids in other countries open toys! This interconnectedness is the miracle of the modern age! Revel in the interwebs!”
But most of me just wants to be six. I want to dream about Christmas and the craft sets I’ll get and use to make the ugliest bracelets known to man. I want to remember what it’s like to find joy in a cool toothbrush, and I want to pretend I don’t feel that exact same joy when I get a new pair of jeans. I sit there shaking my head at how spoiled Margaret was as if I too don’t constantly crave things. The things themselves have changed, of course: I mostly crave books and brightly colored faux fur instead of crayons and dolls. But am I supposed to look at a polyester leopard print coat and not want it? Is that what adulthood is?
I want to pretend that I love Marie Kondo and that I feel her “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Over the past few weeks, the best-selling author and tidy guru’s Netflix show, in which she helps people clean their messy spaces by getting rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy, has been watched and talked about non-stop. Thrift stores have been swamped with donations as Americans across the country have been inspired to shed their belongings and—with them, they hope—their woes.
If only I could throw away everything that didn’t give me joy. But the catch is, like Margaret, I find joy in all of it. I look though my overstuffed closet, I finger a thrift-store sweater (or a concert t-shirt, or one of the myriad cheap and ratty things I’ve accumulated in a lifetime of quantity over quality), and I feel ecstasy.
I imagine the ways I could wear it, the outfits that will never see the light of day but would be a look. I keep an old fluorescent-green cowboy hat on the off chance that, someday, I get invited to a cowboy-themed party. I don’t even know if those happen in real life. But what if, for some reason, I need to look like a neon cowboy? And I don’t have a cowboy hat? And then I can’t go? What if, because I don’t have that lime-green cowboy hat, I miss out on that opportunity for joy?
What Marie Kondo doesn’t get in her intensely organized white boxes, is that it’s not about whether or not each item sparks joy in the moment I’m shaking and sniffing it. It’s about whether—in some parallel universe, in some contortion of time and space—it could lead to joy.
My dorm room is so stuffed with junk that my RA threatened to do a Wellness Check on me (apparently when you can’t see the floor because of mess it hints at an emotional problem? I cannot fathom how I’m in any way associated with a college student on the verge of a breakdown. “Not me,” I say to my therapist, laughing with an edge of hysteria). But in all the mess, I just see possibility.
I want to judge Margaret (in the way that all assholes want to judge six-year-olds), but when she’s says, “Look at this awesome pencil with a bobblehead on the top!” I think, “Dude, that’s got nothing on the Muji pen that I just spent some of this babysitting money on and the sleek way it swirls on the page!”
I took a gap year before I started college and spent several months of that year living out of a backpack, crashing on family member’s couches and farming in Europe. I wore the same three shirts and underneath them the same two bras, and I used one scarf to lie on while sleeping on train-station floors. I thought it was going to be some sort of breakthrough. I would come home after months of minimalism and reject my American obsession with going-out-of-business sales and bargains—my desire to score by getting six of anything for the price of one. I would say “I don’t need that” and walk on, hips swaying, like Isla Fisher at the end of Confessions of a Shopaholic when she realizes she doesn’t need an unlimited credit card to be happy.
I came back from backpacking and put those shirts under my bed where I would never see them again. I changed my outfit four times in that first day back. For the first week, I had a breakfast look, a lunch look, and a pre-dinner look, overwhelmed by the freedom of choice. I was so happy to be back with my stuff. “You’re mine, and you’re mine, and you’re mine,” I said to my things. Or maybe that was Margaret. Or maybe that was both of us.
Soon, the world will heat up and shrivel, and the apocalypse will come in a crescendo of nuclear bombs and climate change. The bald punk dudes from Mad Max will find me in an abandoned Goodwill, in a world I helped destroy. I’ll just be sitting there, asking each radioactive Hawaiian shirt, “Will you bring me joy? Will you bring me joy? WILL YOU BRING ME JOY?”