Cultural critics generally place themselves at a distance from material culture. They may critique the world, but they don’t seem to inhabit it.

But why shouldn’t those of us who parse culture also celebrate it — acknowledge that we make choices all the time about the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the furniture we put in our homes? Why shouldn’t we, in other words, make recommendations regarding products and services that we think are unique, useful, or otherwise commendable?

“We’re IN society, aren’t we, and that’s our horizon?” as Henry James put it. In a consumer society, we want reliable recommendations regarding products that can improve our lives. At the same time, we tend to be suspect of product endorsements. We are aware that advertisers will use whatever means they can to sell — from testimonials by famous people to ingenious product placements to the incorporation of skepticism itself into their messages (i.e. couturiers who stitch “waist of money” into their garments). But if someone like myself, who has experience deconstructing culture, sets out to explain the value of a product, shouldn’t that carry weight? I realize, of course, that this could be seen as a more sophisticated advertising ploy, but that’s the mise en abyme of salesmanship and a risk you have to take.
More… “This Product Will Change Your Life”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
Makeup department, that is.

I was strolling through a department store recently, killing time before meeting a friend, when I became lost in the maze of cosmetic counters. I was not literally lost, of course. I could make my way past the makeup into the shoe department blindfolded. The problem is when I’m not blindfolded. That’s when my head gets turned. Although I know, intellectually, that the makeup sold in this labyrinthine space is the same as what I can buy in the drugstore for a fraction of the price, I am unable to resist the fancy packaging and the placards advertising free gifts and special enzyme action. I am seduced into believing that these products will make me, in the immortal words of Oprah, “as cute as I can be.”


So there I was, loitering among the age-defying moisturizers, when a young woman… More…

An occasion-specific outfit. How quaint.

One of the reasons many of us watch the AMC series Mad Men is “for the clothes.” This isn’t as superficial a reason as one might think. Clothes say a lot not just about a person but about a period. It’s true that fashion trends are often resurrected, and we are now seeing the narrower tie, the thinner lapel, and the angora sweater — the latter, with the concurrent popularity of breast enlargement, making for a lot of Joan look-alikes walking around. But though we may bring back the clothes, and even the breasts, that doesn’t mean we aren’t saying something entirely different with them.  I know this because I was the age of Sally, Don Draper’s daughter, in 1963. I looked up at that world, literally speaking, carrying around the tray of pigs-in-a-blanket at my parents’ parties.



Not bad for a copy...

In my previous column I ruminated on logo-ed merchandise and confessed that I coveted a Louis Vuitton handbag (Artsy GM — $1,630, as advertised on the Louis Vuitton site). I realized that the thing was made of laminated canvas, stamped with muddy LV monograms, and had the unprepossessing shape of a beach tote. I understood that it was an expression of what Marx would call “exchange value” — its worth purely imaginary, with no connection to its usefulness. Yet I desired it, and desire, as any good Third-Wave feminist will tell you, ought not to be dismissed out of hand.


The issue becomes clearer — or perhaps more foggy — if one moves from consumer goods to fine art. Here, the idea of authenticity suddenly seems more elevated and inspires more reverence. The difference, one might argue, is… More…

But look at that size differential!


I just bought a Kindle. I am surprised at myself for doing so. Despite its cute retro name, the Kindle is mostly bought by people who are techno-centric, which I am not. It’s true that I now live with a large flat-screen television — but that wasn’t my idea. I also happen to have five computers in my home — but search me as to how they got there (for all I know, one of them procreated with the printer to produce the other four).

Of course, the Kindle was designed to fool people like me. The name Kindle suggests a homely frontier staple (re: spindle) with a spiritual patina (“let us now bow our heads as we kindle the Sabbath lights”). It’s clear the marketers were interested in attracting the Whole Foods crowd and a good… More…

Why can't I find this in Vogue?


It’s that time of year when you see the racks of oddly configured swaths of cloth hanging in the front of stores. Bathing suits: absurd, wrong-headed garments. I continue to be mystified by how people continue to buy and wear them.

It’s a given that women of a certain age don’t like the way they look in bathing suits. The comic strip Cathy has made this a seasonal riff. But the cartoon misses the point in linking problems with bathing suits to female vanity. It’s not about vanity; it’s about modesty. Not about looking fat but about being naked.

Even as a child, I understood this. As I ran under the sprinkler in my electric orange two-piece, I knew that it was one thing for me, with my hairless legs and flat chest, to wear such a scanty,… More…


I’m just back from Paris where the architecture is dazzling and the food scrumptious. In the matter of fashion, however — that third prong in the Parisian esthetic — I was disappointed. It’s just not what it used to be. French women are still thin (their secret, presumably, is small portions — I say it’s smoking). They are also enviably ass-less, which helps enormously in the draping of clothes. But the clothes themselves, once so original, have become pedestrian. What is it with blue jeans? How do they manage to replace all the pencil skirts and twill trousers? Jeans are American hegemony run amok; they are to fashion what Disney World is to architecture, McDonald’s to food. But where the French have fiercely opposed the latter two incursions, they have left themselves open on the fashion flank. The… More…

Replacing rabbit ears with 50 inches.


One day, out of the blue, my husband decided that we needed a new television. We had until then been a minimalist TV family. We had one small set on the third floor of the house that had an indistinct static-y picture from which the color capriciously came and went. It was the kind of set on which the opening ceremonies of the Olympics looked a lot like Mardi Gras.

But things were about to change, big time. First, my husband went off to Circuit City and didn’t return for several hours. When he finally arrived home, he had a “television consultant” in tow. Said consultant, provided courtesy of Circuit City, looked to be around 15 years old. He went with us up to the third floor, looked around, and announced that “it could work.”

“What could work?”… More…

Even if the wait is forever.


So there we are en route, it’s closing in on 1 p.m., and we’re hungry.

“Let’s eat at the next rest stop,” says my husband. “I could really go for a Nathan’s hot dog or an Arby’s roast beef sandwich or maybe a Whopper with Cheese.”

His reference to these items reflects his familiarity with the culinary landscape of the New Jersey Turnpike. Depending on the rest stop, a traveler can choose from among one of two unholy trinities: Nathan’s, Burger King, and Sbarro pizza, or KFC, McDonald’s, and Arby’s. These franchises have, I presume, engaged in some high level fast food negotiation so as to divide the Turnpike turf between them. My husband’s palate happens to have a chameleon-like versatility. If we were in Paris, he would go for moules frites or sole meuniere, but given that… More…