Extreme Couponing: A Critique
I’ve finally got it.
I have placed my finger on what annoys me about that “Extreme Couponing” show on TLC.
It’s not the way it encourages shopping for shopping’s sake It’s not the way it glorifies sacrificing a part-time job’s worth of time a week to couponing assembly lines. It’s not the way at once praises and gawks at people who seem to have some sort of hoarding thing going on. It’s not even the way it nearly never shows people donating their hauls to charity, or the way each episode is the exact same thing.
Ok, it’s all those things. But, there’s something disturbing about it that I haven’t been able to place until tonight. It praises people who game the system. The participants – provided they are not all actors – gleefully stick it to Big Toothpaste and buy pallets worth of things. They stock up for their kids (many are mothers of multiples), but they are shown stocking up on “sports drinks” and chips, anything that will keep. Junk, largely. Given my family’s history, I should be cheering these people on for saving tremendous amounts of money and keeping food on their kids’ plates.
But it upsets me, and this is why. Anyone who has ever been on a food stamp program (that’s SNAP nowadays) knows the common habit others have of inspecting your cart. Should your purchases seem too luxurious, the stares will come. And heaven help you if you’re not pretty and white, or don’t look destitute enough (or look a little too shabby). Those looks will burn into your back, or your face if the judgmental ass is bold. If they happen to be feeling really peppy, they’ll offer unwelcome critiques of your order to anyone that’ll listen. Because you’re “taking” money from them. You’re not as responsible as they are. You’re gaming the system.
The participants on “Extreme Couponing” are largely white, often female. Once in a while there’s a family of color, or a man shopping (who knows what wonders await in season 2!) Most have at least 2 kids at home. The average couponer showcased on this program is also a stay at home mom. She will be about 20-40, she will be conventionally attractive.
She will have some horror story of depending solely on her husband’s income until something happened. So she will have turned to couponing to supplement the family’s income. Even though she’s bringing in more deodorant and cake mix than money, she is bringing in goods. And those goods will be in unholy amounts. She will often display her “stockpile” proudly – brand names abound. And she is invariably a mathematical and logistical genius.
These demographic cues matter a great deal. Altogether, and not counting the odd couponer out, this average participant will be the most sympathetic possible casualty of the declining American economy. Safely married and mothering, she’s the “safest” saver. Noone is ever shown giving her four carts the stinkeye. Noone ever questions if she wants to treat her kids to candy. She’s doing the right thing. She’s using some strange marriage of capitalism and hyper-Calvinist productivity to procure her goods without confronting the uncomfortable reality of too few dollars this month.
Little or no dirty money changes hands on the show. Coupons are the currency, the fruits of virtuous labor, the clipping, sorting, arranging, and doubling. There’s some lip service to budget woes as the register inevitably locks up (guess that tested well later on in the season – it’s de rigueur) but she never has to whip out that card or leave the store with the bare minimum, or nothing.
Given my background, I should be cheering this on. But I don’t think it’s much of a solution to these families’ problems. Take the problem of feeding kids, for instance. The type of food often tagged with coupons is processed, preservative-laden food. The same food, interestingly enough, that garners criticism when a welfare recipient, trying to stretch her SNAP dollars, buys for her family.
The problem with this is the negative space looming large over the pat drama of overfull carts and beeping registers. The problem is that it is far cheaper to feed yourself and family on empty calories than nutritious fresh food. That should not be. Nothing wrong with a quick treat now and again, but when anyone at any tax bracket is living off this stuff, there’s something wrong. And this show cheers it on.
I just cannot find it in myself to praise this show, or this idea of couponing-as-lifestyle. I get the idea of mild couponing, or shopping on sale, or any number of little tricks we all do to save some money. But this show is constructed to gleefully overlook a shopping list of ills within contemporary American culture.