Kaarin Vembar is obsessed with the luxury and apparel markets. She also has a sassy mouth so her managing editor decided to give her a column in an attempt to harness insight for readers. Kaarin can be reached at [email protected]
The mall used to be the center of the universe.
Or, at least the place where your social life intersected with your errands and you could justify getting a Cinnabon.
This year has been disastrous for malls, with the pandemic pushing the fragile ecosystem of that shopping experience to the brink of relevancy. Once illustrious department stores, which were anchors, are in trouble. Lord & Taylor, J.C. Penney, and Neiman Marcus all filed for bankruptcy. Specialty retailers, which make up a large portion of mall retailers, are also dropping.
Ascena (parent company of Ann Taylor, Loft, Catherine's and Justice, among other brands), Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, Aldo and Lucky Brand also have filed Chapter 11. Mall REIT CBL is expected to file by October and stalwart Nordstrom has closed stores and recently had a disastrous second quarter. Even the Mall of America is barely holding it together, as it scrambles to avoid foreclosure.
The downfall of the shopping center has a long tail. It didn't start this year, but rather its importance slowly shifted over the past few decades. Malls — which used to be synonymous with a safe meeting place to hang, get a job, flaunt popularity or move up the social ladder — have slowly fallen away to become, in some cases, graveyards that mark what retail used to be.
And we can see this slow shift through pop culture. Here are seven ways media has portrayed shopping over the last several decades, and how they track the diminishing importance of the mall as a cultural touchpoint.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
The central importance of the mall is immediately established in the opening credits of Fast Times. It starts with an establishing shot of the Ridgemont Mall, and within the first two minutes of the film we are introduced to all of the main characters and get context around who they are. Mike watches a girl bend over, Brad walks by, oblivious to two girls who are giggling about him, all while groups of boys and girls flirt with each other. An entire world of teen culture reveals itself while the Go-Go's sing that they've got the beat.
A very important aspect of these character's lives is underscored in this scene: these teens have jobs and the mall is one of the main places where they can be employed. Stacy and Linda are working at Perry's Pizza and Mark is seen taking tickets at the movie theater. Even slimy Mike is scalping concert tickets right in front of a Hallmark store because the mall is where his clientele hangs out.
The mall serves as a place that is known, that is safe and where young people can have part-time work as a component of their larger identities, in addition to school and a social life.
A Christmas Story (1983)
All Ralphie wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun. But, the haters in his life continually try to thwart his singular dream with the refrain of "you'll shoot your eye out." So Ralphie needs to get to Santa to put in his request.
In this '80s movie about the '40s, the department store Higbee's lingers in the background, a quiet character that serves as a way that Ralphie may achieve his dream. In the opening credits carolers sing with the store's giant logo in the background. "Higbee's corner window was traditionally a high watermark of the pre-Christmas season," a voice-over explains, as kids look at the display of "mechanized, electronic joy" and press themselves against the glass of the department store.
The store is decorated and cheerful, and the excitement builds as Ralphie and his brother Randy wait to see the mall Santa. But even Santa ultimately betrays Ralphie with the refrain of "you'll shoot your eye out, kid" and then pushes him down a slide with his boot. Which is ultimately what the holiday season is really all about, anyway: a big buildup that leaves you emotionally sprawled out in a bunch of fake snow at the bottom of a slide.
More importantly, though, in this story retail depicts the potential magic of the holiday shopping experience. The department store's role was centered on stoking imagination for the community, while driving foot traffic so people could take part in its grandeur.
The theme of shopping runs throughout Clueless — from Cher browsing her endless closet, to her explaining to her confused dad that she is wearing Calvin Klein, to her getting robbed while wearing Alaia.
But, a dramatic movie moment takes place at the mall when Tai almost gets sent over the second story railing by some guys who later claimed to only be joking around. (Cher even name checks Foot Locker as the scene plays out.) Christian comes to Tai's rescue in a plot point that parallels Jane Austin's classic story Emma, which I could go into depth about if I had paid more attention in British lit.
The point is, the mall is logically a place for this encounter to occur because it explains how people in different social circles (and social classes) could naturally be in the same place. In the '90s, the mall was still a viable, convincing setting where teens could be found outside of school.
What was needed for the progression of the story was a natural third place — a location that wasn't school and wasn't Cher's home, but felt natural for a rescue scene to occur in a public arena. And, although a Jane Austen character may be found at a ball or going on a long walk, (or whatever people in the 19th century used to do in stories to move a plot along) the mall was the modern day equivalent. Or, at least it was in the '90s.
Roger Ebert hated this film. The mid-90s Kevin Smith movie follows friends T.S. and Brodie as they hang out at the mall after getting dumped by their girlfriends on the same day. In his review, Ebert said of the film that its "fatal flaw" was "that we don't care," and capped off the entire thing by giving it only one and a half stars.
But, the existential nothingness of two guys goofing off while being bawdy is kind of the entire point and helped make it a cult classic. The mall becomes a refuge as the friends bounce from scene to scene, building to an entirely forgettable climax of a dating game show.
What is memorable, though, is the dialog-heavy scenes and the feeling that you knew these guys. You went to school with them. You recognized them on screen because they were in your life, or you recognized yourself.
It also captured the zeitgeist of the time. As T.S. and Brodie stand in the middle of the symbol of American consumer culture, comic books run as a theme throughout the film. It may not seem like a big deal to a modern audience that has been drenched in comic movies for the past two decades, but in the mid-90s, it wasn't expected that a mass audience would get the references to those characters or fully understand Brodie's passion for the medium.
The juxtaposition of what was mass market and what was niche foreshadows a changing consumer culture. Our pop culture references were soon to be inundated with comic references, while the mall would slowly start to recede in the background.
Mean Girls (2004)
It's impossible to do this list without including the movie that gave us the quote "get in loser, we're going shopping." Mean Girls is a fish out of water story where Cady Heron becomes frenemies with popular girl Regina George, who is the head of the clique The Plastics.
While a majority of the movie takes place at a high school, the film gives us a memorable scene that describes malls through Cady's eyes. Cady, who recently moved to the U.S. from Africa, compares the shopping center's central fountain to a watering hole and the teens that surround it as being in heat.
Similarly to Clueless, the mall provides a natural backdrop for exposition. But it also gives the audience background information for the characters, including some indication of the economic realities they face. Janis works at a store, explaining that "moderately priced soaps are my calling" while Ms. Norbury, who teaches at the school, reveals that she bartends a few nights a week at P.J. Calamities.
Mean Girls came out a few years before the financial collapse of 2008, but the introduction of a teacher needing more than one job is a small thread of authenticity that takes the fanciful polish off what a mall represents. It's not just for shopping or entertainment, it's a practical means to potentially gain some financial stability.
How I Met Your Mother - "Slap Bet" (2006)
How I Met Your Mother ran from 2005 through 2014, detailing how Charlie-Brown-in-human-form Ted Mosby tells his children the story behind his romantic life. Many things about the series have not aged well (i.e. the entire character of Barney Stinson), but one of the most memorable juggernauts of the show took place on an episode entitled "Slap Bet." In it, character Robin Scherbatsky has a secret and the gang is determined to discover why she is aggressively against visiting the mall. Was she previously married at a mall? Was she once in adult entertainment?
Oh, no. When Robin was younger she was a Canadian pop star who became famous for a song entitled "Let's Go to the Mall," which she performed under the stage name Robin Sparkles.
The joy of the episode is the recognition of the common experience of hanging out with friends at the mall through the vehicle of a fun song. But, even in the mid-aughts the episode isn't built around a shopping center. It's built around the nostalgia of what that place once was. It was a throwback to another decade, and a sly reference to the career of Tiffany, a teen pop-star in the '80s that became famous in part due to a tour where she sang in malls across the U.S.
Harley Quinn - "Being Harley Quinn" (2019)
"A supervillain's lair is a reflection of who they are," a real estate agent says to Harley on episode five of the 2019 animated series Harley Quinn. But, even though Harley needs a lair, she is indecisive. She doesn't understand or trust herself well enough to decide where her gang should reside.
She sets out to find one with BFF Poison Ivy and decides that a volcano, a series of mole tunnels or Mr. Freeze's old castle aren't quite what she's looking for. But, by the end of the episode she finds the perfect place: Gotham Mall.
Gotham Mall is abandoned and falling apart. There are old banners outside of the main entrance that say "Mall Closing Clearance Sale." Harley makes a deal to rent the entire building for the affordable price of $1 a month.
The reason Gotham Mall works as a lair in this series is because we, the audience, recognize it. An abandoned mall isn't something unusual or far-fetched or fanciful. Rather, it is recognizable as a structure in our current reality. We have all seen shopping centers begin to wither, or have driven by a mall that we have memories of as the main place that we shopped.
So, while the existence of characters like Clayface and King Shark demand that we suspend belief in order to understand Harley Quinn's world, there are specific touchpoints that ground the series. Harley's emotional journey to find who she is outside of a relationship (i.e. with The Joker) is very human. Another thing that is completely believable is a dilapidated building that once was a bustling shopping center. We know it because we have seen it before. And we are bracing ourselves to see more of it in the future.
In a few short decades, the mall went from a place of imagination, to a natural backdrop for characters to drive forward plot, to being something that evokes nostalgia, to simply being a husk of its former self. While the mall isn't dead yet, these examples illustrate that its position in pop culture as a contextual shortcut is waning.
That nosedive into irrelevance is cautionary, but also may serve as a jumping off point into a different type of shopping experience that isn't completely dependent on the mall for survival.