What I Meant To Say
A Collective Critique of the Controversial Book

by the Wondering Women

Gucci, Dior, and Gender Differences
Why Accepting the Heterogeneity of Identities, Voices, and Perspectives Amongst Gender is a Good Deal

When I first read the article “Shop like a Girl” by Philip Preville, I was taken in by the relative simplicity and wittiness of the article. The subject itself is fairly straightforward and it has some very funny moments. The article exposes the discomfort Preville feels when he goes shopping with his fiancée. He also explores the marketing tactics aimed at men based on market research regarding male shopping habits. The article ends with Preville successfully acquiring clothing by adopting his wife’s approach to shopping. So, I thought, what is so bad about writing about this subject? I would not venture to deny that there are differences in the way in which women and men approach shopping in general. It is misleading, I believe, to make the statement that there are, categorically, no differences between men and women when it comes to shopping. Whether socially constructed or not, men and women in general exhibit different patterns of behavior in certain (but, of course, not all) circumstances. What’s more, by the end of the article, Preville has learned to understand his wife’s approach to shopping. Isn’t that what all women want – to have their partners see things from their perspective?

However, upon closer inspection and introspection, I realized the flaws within my initial reaction to the article. The problem with taking for granted the notion that gender differences exist is that, when this logic is extended to suggest that gender differences are incontrovertible, it is no longer logical. Quite simply, it is a fallacy to turn a generalization (in this case, the suggestion that men and women shop differently) into a rule without exceptions. Many women would much rather spend a day reading a book or playing soccer than walking around a mall and, furthermore, many women are equally as bewildered in shopping malls as their male counterparts. My mother, for example, refuses to remain in a shopping mall for more than twenty minutes and would much rather spend her time going for a run. Additionally, it is only natural that some men (both heterosexual and homosexual) have a great eye for clothing. My father has an excellent fashion sense. What’s more, he does not feel that this ability (some would call it a talent) threatens, in any way, his sense of self.

In his article, Preville makes no efforts to recognize that some men are not like him when it comes to shopping. In fact, the author reinforces a rigid gender dichotomy when it comes to shopping when he says, “I was mortified to discover that, far from being the complicated man I imagine myself to be, I am completely and utterly predictable in any retail environment (207).” By expressing his surprise upon finding out he was such a predictable male shopper, Preville implies that if he could conform so closely to male patterns of shopping, then so could any other man. Moreover, when citing the findings of Paco Underhill, a “retail anthropologist,” on the topic of male shopping patterns, Preville lists Underhills findings by saying “men don’t…” or “men panic…” or “nothing drives men to fury… (207).” This writing tactic implies that all men conform to Underhill’s findings. Moreover, Preville takes it for granted that all women approach shopping in the same way, namely, by entering The Zone. The Zone, according to Preville and the “anthropologist” Underhill, involves entering a kind of shopping reverie.  Rest assured, my mother has never entered The Zone, nor do I imagine she ever will. Preville would sooner realize the logical fallacy in his conclusions about gender divisions than would my mother enter The Zone.

The problem with Preville’s illogical assumption about gender divisions – besides its illogicality, of course - is that it serves to eliminate agency and heterogeneity from the male and female population. Women, according to Preville, have always been and will always remain effective shoppers. Conversely, according to the author, men will always cower in terror when they pass a make-up stand, never mind enter a male clothing store. What is also equally disturbing about the notion of unchallengeable gender differences is that Preville justifies this notion using what seems to be sound anthropological research. The author uses the proverbial hunter-gatherer theory to explain the different shopping habits between genders. Apparently, men’s ability to shop only when necessary and to find and purchase a pair of slacks in mere minutes has been passed down by his ancestors who used the same focused and efficient method to hunt down mammoths, kill them swiftly and skillfully, haul them back to camp and make the meat last as long as possible (209). This is one of the moments in the text that I find particularly hilarious. The logic behind the theory is more than a little flimsy. Moreover, Preville is certainly the only person I have ever heard liken the “art” of shopping for slacks to killing animals for survival. Additionally, the use of the hunter-gatherer theory to justify rigid gender differences when it comes to shopping infers that nothing has changed since prehistoric times in terms of male and female roles. It suggests that men and women are inherently different and must therefore adopt different social roles. These roles, significantly, allow men power and prestige while denying women much agency. I would like to think that my father, who is a good shopper, could also hunt down a mammoth if he so chose. Moreover, I welcome the idea that my mother, my sister, my boyfriend, myself and anyone else (male or female) who decided that their idea of a good time was to hunt animals for food would be capable of doing so.

There is, however, an arguably more disturbing problem with the author’s efforts to dichotomize gender differences. What I was most disturbed about after meditating on the article was the author’s attempts to assert his masculinity by depending on gender differences. What is most significant about this attempt is that the author relies on the notion that there are incontrovertible traits that men embody and that women do not. We are not just talking about shopping habits anymore. What came through in the article was the author’s almost neurotic desire to assert his worth as a strong and dominant man. This was particularly disturbing to me because, by attempting to prove his so-called masculine value by using gender differences, the author relegates women to a position of relative unimportance and excludes them from the realm of male power. I use the word ‘unimportant’ rather than ‘inferior’ because I believe the former is a stronger word. To suggest a woman is inferior to men is by no means a positive adjective to describe females. However, to relegate a woman to a position where she lacks importance and, by extension, power and worth, is much worse.

Now, how does the author manage to deny women’s value and power? It is, I assure you, in a very subtle way. I missed it the first time around. Preville uses humor and inserts sly comments throughout the text to refer to his uniquely masculine characteristics. Early on in the article, Preville states, “I don’t like anyone to know anything about me that I don’t know myself. After all, I’m a man (206).” Preville is saying that all men make efforts to appear confident and infallible in public. This, in itself, is an assertion of power. Moreover, it is an assertion of male power that excludes women by suggesting this trait is a distinctly masculine trait.
What is perhaps equally disquieting about Preville’s efforts to dichotomize gender difference is that, later in the article, the author extends his exploration of his so-called emasculating transparency when it comes to shopping. In reference to reading Underhill’s study on the traits that most men exhibit when shopping, Preville states, “my sense of self-worth plummeted as I read, as each observation about how men shop was revealed to me. I routinely exhibited all of these behaviors…what’s more, I’d been observed while shopping (207 emphasis in original).” The author adds, “If I’m going to be secretly observed, I’d rather it happen while I’m fucking than shopping (208).” Although these comments seem funny and glib, there are actually a number of fairly disturbing sentiments lying under the surface. First and foremost, let me take a moment to remind the reader what this article is chiefly about: women’s shopping habits.

Preville has observed his wife’s ability to enter The Zone while shopping and has determined that all women enter The Zone while shopping. He sees no problems in performing these observations and coming up with these conclusions. However, when the same thing is done to him, Preville turns into an emotional wreck. This suggests that Preville completely negates a woman’s sense of self and worth throughout the article and, thus, strips her of any intrinsic value. Moreover, Preville’s assertion that he would rather be secretly observed having sex implies that only men need to assert their value by exposing their sexual prowess. Once again, this idea excludes women from the realm of power and, instead, relegates them to a position of sheer unimportance. 

Preville’s article is found in a book called What I Meant to Say. The title of this book, I feel, is very fitting. If it is true that this article reveals what men really mean to say, then women face a sorry state of affairs. What Preville really means to say in his article is that all men believe, illogically, that there are irrefutable differences between the genders. Moreover, Preville’s article seems to suggest that if men articulated their true thoughts, they would reveal ideas that strip women of value and power. Luckily, I do not believe the title of the book is entirely true, nor do I accept that Preville’s views speak for all men. Unlike the author of this article, I believe in the heterogeneity of identities, opinions and voices amongst both male and female populations.

by Estee Fresco