Be yourself, phone Mom … and shop


Many years ago, I decided to shop more often at Hyde Park Corner. Yes, there were historical associations, because I went to Hyde Park High School and we used to bunk and slip out of the school grounds, scamper the short way to the then-new shopping centre and watch movies. Despite those nostalgic feelings, however, my reason for shopping more at Hyde Park was the shopping centre’s great slogan, which was: “Be yourself.”

It seemed, at the time, to be a very good idea to go and be myself by shopping at a particular place. How easy is that? And it worked for a time, because, well, banking at Nedbank is being myself, shopping at either Pick n Pay or Woolworths is, equally, being myself, and so on. Exclusive Books used to be a very important part of being myself through shopping, but books are so expensive now that I’ve had to reduce that part of my identity.

After some years, it dawned on me that this slogan was useless. Wherever I shopped, I had no option but to be myself. The correct reply to the exhortation to “Be yourself” is, in fact, not to shop but to ask a question: “As opposed to whom?”

I realised, somewhat sadly, that I was just as much myself if I shopped at Sandton City. Or Killarney. Or China City. I saw that I had no alternative to being myself, and I wouldn’t turn into a different person by shopping elsewhere. Even at Checkers.

So I learned this important lesson in identity politics, but today I still struggle a bit with the exhortations delivered by street posters.

I have been seeing a new, long series of such posters encouraging one to get the children in order, marshall the uncles and other hangers-on, sort out the pizzas, and so on. I puzzled over these posters, which were advertising something called Netflix.

Then I realised: the posters are not addressed to me. They’re addressed to a fraught materfamilias who needs a newfangled kind of TV channel to keep her extended family entertained. It’s just that she has a lot of stuff to do to get them all to sit down on the sofa and be attentive to the television, hence the posters.

I pity that poor woman: we all know that women, particularly black women, bear the brunt of most of the shit that has to happen to keep life going. And I hope that Netflix will solve her problems. But why are they telling me?

It would be useful, I conclude, if the posters on our lampposts were to indicate whom they are addressing. People shouldn’t have to waste time trying to follow the posters’ advice when, in fact, it doesn’t apply to them at all.

There’s another new set of posters I’m seeing: “Smile more, complain less,” they say in capital letters. And “Phone your Mom.” Or they advise: “Tell someone they look good.”

These posters are a bit like the ones that, during elections, say “Vote ANC” or whatever. Not aimed at people who don’t like being told what to do, obviously. So I’m not paying attention any more. They’re clearly not addressed to me.

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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