Working at the Cold Stone Creamery in Miami’s posh Coral Gables neighborhood, I’m always amused by the packs of fashionable girls who buy $4 ice cream with an American Express Platinum. Popular American culture—young and old, wealthy and middle class—has become beholden to image-obsessed consumerism. This vanity percolates from the elite New York intelligentsia of HBO’s Sex and the City on down to Disney tykes infatuated with all things Hilary Duff; start them off early with Lizzie McGuire plush dolls and move them onto Dolce & Gabbana. It’s not simply that people like buying stuff. This celebrity culture is one of exclusivity, in which the shiniest handbag reigns supreme. Hollywood replaces human connection with peacock-like pageantry.
Case in point: Duff’s latest offering to her rabid fanbase, Material Girls. (You might remember it from May when it starred Lindsay Lohan and was called Just My Luck.) Duff inherits Madonna’s epithet but, unsurprisingly, none of her idol’s irony. Madonna always had her eyes on the sweet guy in the pickup, whereas Duff seems transfixed on signposts of wealth. Her and sister Haylie Duff star as L.A.‘s hottest siblings Tanzie and Ava, heirs to a cosmetics company fortune. When their dad dies and the business goes under, the Duffs have to deal with a more humble lifestyle (the tagline tell us, “It’s A Short Trip From The Penthouse To The Poorhouse”).
A curt message in the film teaches integrity over riches, but this denouement does more damage than it heals. The sisters return to their position of comfortable superiority, continuing to condescend to the Latino immigrant maid who lives off of their hand-me-downs and converting their rough-hewn boyfriends into male pinup dolls. Target audiences eat it up because it makes them feel important, even charitable, as it emboldens their most soulless impulses. Finally at the controls of the company, Ava helps the maid immigrate her foreign-born children. Now look more carefully: In the dubious final shot, these newly American kids fall asleep as a billboard ad featuring the sisters watches protectively over them—a safe buffer between the ruling and the working class. The ad exclaims, “Affordable!” suggesting social equality between them and the immigrants, when in fact it only means Tanzie and Ava will control more pocketbooks. The Duffs’ mantra: steal from the rich, steal from the poor. Give it to yourself.