Department Store Movies: A $ign of Our Times

Whether in the news, online, or around the water cooler, more attention was paid to Black Friday than to Thanksgiving this year. What used to be an unacknowledged tradition for mainstream America—women shopping the day after Thanksgiving while men watched football—has now become a barometer of the American economy. Retailers and their corporate masters outdid themselves in the sheer volume of advertising for Black Friday in the hopes of whipping up the masses into a shopping frenzy. Early bird sales turned into midnight sales, and shoppers revealed the ugly side to this new “holiday” in the stampedes, fights, and pepper-spray incidents that marked Black Friday 2011.

I remember when shopping in the big department stores was festive and fun. Each year, I was able to tap into the Christmas Spirit in the big department stores, which were always decked out in colorful holiday decorations, as I took my time pondering over my gift purchases. Undoubtedly, I was seeing the experience through the haze of memories of Hollywood movies, which have mythologized the department store as an important American social institution. Somewhere along the way, holiday shopping ceased to be festive and fun, but I continue to expect that my shopping experiences will be like those in Miracle on 34th Street or A Christmas Story. The ugly stories of Black Friday mayhem and madness inspired me to poke around the history of department stores and their depiction in the movies, not only in Christmas films but in all genres.

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