University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Freshman Seminars Letterhead

Women's Studies

Gender & Class in American Consumer Culture

Casey O'Brien Gerhart

Course: Wmns 192 SEM 001
Class Number: 43586
Credits: 3 HU
Time: MW 3:30 – 4:45 PM
Place: PHY 142

Course Description:

From shopping online to cooking for the family, from the glitz of Hollywood to the politics of knitting circles, we will examine women’s engagement in myriad commercial and social practices that give shape and substance to modern consumer culture. This course will consider the historical articulation between consumer and citizen in the U.S. as one that is socially constructed and gendered. We will investigate a number of theoretical and methodological approaches to understanding the role that conspicuous female consumerism has played in the U.S. from the late nineteenth century to today, with a primary focus on the role media have played in creating and sustaining a consumer culture that positions women as “chief purchasing agents” (Peiss, 1998). The readings will focus on how different forms of consumer culture emerged at distinct historical moments among different populations of women.

By exploring forms of consumer culture in America, students will develop a more complicated understanding of the complex role of the consumer and how consumer culture is shaped by dominant ideologies of gender, which affects and influences their own lives. Additionally, students will improve their critical reading, writing, and thinking skills through close readings of and class discussions about required texts, in-class presentations, and written assignments.

Work Involved:

This seminar seeks to introduce students to the concepts, terminology, and analytical practices that will be useful in their examination of cultural events and texts that shape women’s lives. We will examine scholarly books and essays published on the topic, as well as primary texts such as advertisements, films, television programs, commercials, and consumer goods that will help us analyze the targeted gender, class, race, and sexuality of the consumer.

Grading Rubric

  • Participation & Attendance (25%)
  • Class Presentation of a Commodity (10%)
  • Midterm Critical Engagement Essay (20%)
  • Class Assignments (20%)
  • Final Project (25%)

Sample Reading:

  • Cohen, Lizbeth. A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Communication in Postwar America.
  • Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century NY.
  • Scanlon, Jennifer. The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader.
  • The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
  • “Sex and the City” episodes (HBO, 1998-2004)
  • “Target Women” episodes (Current TV, 2009-10)
  • Course Pack (including excerpts from such texts as Richard Ohmann’s Selling Culture, Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, and Jackson Lears’ Fables of Abundance)

About the Instructor:

Casey O’Brien Gerhart is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and a lecturer for Women’s Studies. She has been teaching at UWM since 2003, offering courses on Autobiography & Memoir; American Fiction; Rhetoric, Writing & Culture; College Composition; Feminist Research Writing Methods; and Introduction to Women’s Studies. With an undergraduate degree in literature and Russian, Casey received her M.A. at UWM in English (Modern Studies) in 2004. Her current publication about her teaching practices is featured in the interdisciplinary journal, Writing on the Edge. When not on campus, she enjoys strumming on her guitar, cooking complicated meals, and walking her silly dog, Kepler, in and around Milwaukee’s beautiful parks.