Superficial and materialistic are usually considered bad things to be or unpleasant characteristics. They used to be attributes that were socially shunned or dismissed, as the people housing these qualities tended not to offer much to society and seemed to lack substance. This is still the case in today’s modern, western societies, but something seems a little… different. Being shallow, superficial or materialistic is still regarded as a negative thing to be by some people, but the people who loudly flaunt these characteristics seem to be tolerated a lot more than they used to. I’d go so far as to say they are even celebrated by some people. Obvious examples would be people like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian.
Over the last decade or so, media outlets have been flooded with depictions of shallow people who the audience will later warm to and even root for. The most obnoxious example (in my opinion) is the Sex and the City franchise. The entire franchise is overrun with examples of superficial and materialistic women who the audience are supposed to openly side with and empathise with and most disturbingly, relate to. These ‘relatable’ characters are the types of women who will happily hand over the monthly rent money for a pair of designer shoes (that are only seen once in the whole series) after admitting to both themselves and often another person, that this is the wrong and irresponsible decision to make. A genuine need (paying rent) is overshadowed by fake need of materialism (shoes, or whatever ridiculously priced fashion item that is supposed to be coveted).
Sex and the City isn’t alone though; there are plenty of other examples in films and TV that show a superficial/materialistic person (often a woman) who is supposed to be liked by the audience for their pretty obvious character flaws. A short list comprises of (but is not limited to): House Bunny, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and Legally Blonde. To these films’ credit though, their characters are often shown going through a transformation of realising that possessions aren’t everything. However, the point is that the audience still likes and relates to these characters for their flaws, which are supposed to be negative.
As I was growing up and starting to really notice the world around me, I was aware of superficiality, materialism, marketing, advertising and all the false promises it makes. I, like a lot of other people, made a decision to either follow it or ignore it. I chose to ignore it; I decided that my time, effort and money were better spent on other things. But I also accepted the fact that there is a lot of money to be made off of people’s insecurity and their desire to feel included or even the alpha. I was fully aware that these pitfalls and strategies were out there, and that slowly, bit by bit, the ‘Culture of More’ was becoming increasingly prevalent.
My favourite example of this is in an episode of South Park called ‘Margaritavile’, from season 13. This whole episode is a satire of the global recession that was happening at that time, giving social commentary on the idea that the economy is seen as a religion and the margaritavile machine featured in the episode is a metaphor for American consumerism – although this could easily be transferred to many countries in the western world.
Early on in the episode, Stan asks his dad (Randy) why there’s suddenly “no money”. Randy then replies in the form of a rant: “I’ll tell you what happened son. See there’s a bunch of idiots out there who weren’t happy with what they had. They wanted a bigger house and materialistic things that they didn’t even need. People with no money who got loans to buy frivolous things they had no business buying”. At this point, Randy gets up and walks over to a machine that makes Margaritas and begins to place the ingredients into the machine as he continues his speech. “These assholes just blindly started buying any stupid thing that looked appealing because they thought money was endless.” He then turns on the machine that blocks out most of the rest of his speech. When the machine turns off we can hear him again. “Meaning less money coming in and the idiots couldn’t see that by doing all this frivolous spending they were mocking the economy. And they made the economy very angry. We’re all feeling the economy’s vengeance because of materialistic heathens who did stupid things with their money. Do you understand son?” As he asks this, Randy removes the decorative umbrella from his margarita and takes a sip. Stan looks at him with a shocked expression and replies in a mocking tone. “Yeah I think I get it.” This very simple scene shows, quite accurately, the stranglehold that materialism seems to have on the average person, even if that person seems to understand what is going on.
Perhaps a more relatable example of this is the Christmas period. Last year, Government-backed studies found that approximately 1.2 million people in the UK were considering going to payday loan companies to fund their Christmas spending and that 32% of people planned to get further into credit card debt to cover their holiday spending. The reason for needing so much money to cover the cost came down to materialism. The biggest reported reason from a poll of 2,000 people was people feeling the pressure to please others as well as their own loved ones. The expectations for expensive, flashy and materialistic gifts or the lack of self-restraint not to spend extra money just because something is on offer to fuel a superficial, highly stylised and carefully constructed lifestyle is so normal and commonplace that people are digging their own financial graves. I’m sure that the figures for this year will be even higher.
Times like Christmas tend to remind me of Fight Club, parts of which seems so much more relevant now than when it was written in 1996, or made into a film in 1999. It seems so far ahead of its time and that’s a bit depressing. Here’s some examples: “The things you own end up owning you”, “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need” and “What kind of dining set defines me as a person?”. Fight Club is not the first of its kind to point out the superficial situation of modern society and how constructed it all is either. There are plenty of films out there that point this out, yet their message seems to fall on deaf ears.
The truly upsetting this is that the whole idea of materialism is known to be fake, constructed and marketed for one purpose – to make money. It’s not like the advertising companies have anything else in mind, they don’t mean it when they say “buy this and it’ll make you a better person” – it’s just a lie that they sell that people still believe and buy into. Whilst the beauty and fashion industries are easy to label as superficial and materialistic, it’s not just them, it’s everything – technology, interior design, cars and even what food you eat and where you buy it from are part of it. The satire in all of this is that studies show that buying these items can lead to a worse life, not a better one.
The pursuit of materialistic things and a superficial lifestyle takes away from what is important in life – being a good person and it replaces intellect and individual thought with superficial cravings disguised as needs and quells free-thought with a monotonous drone of ‘more’. The problem with personal debt is rising. The solution is to learn that possessions don’t lead to happiness and that anything that tells you otherwise doesn’t care about you as a person, it only cares about your money.
I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t enjoy possessions, or that they shouldn’t splash out occasionally on someone special or for a special occasion. I’m also not saying that people shouldn’t treat themselves every now and then, but I am suggesting that people should think carefully about how and what they spend their money on if they expect things to get better. I’m also suggesting that they should think about why they are spending their money and that if it’s due to any form of negative pressure (advertising, peer pressure or pushy sales people) then they should think twice.
There are much more important things in life than possessions. Love, family, friends, intelligence, and experiences are just a few. It seems silly to prioritise mere things over these other aspects of life that I’m sure most people would agree, when all is said and done, are infinitely more important. In today’s overly-saturated world, sometimes it just takes a small prompt to remember what’s really important.