On particularly bad Saturdays during my time as a shopgirl, I used to wish everyone was forced to work retail. I thought this would make the experience more pleasant. Surely no one would be so rude or cruel if they knew what it was like on the other side of the counter.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more retail salespeople in America than workers in any other job. Retail employees make up about 4 percent of the entire US labor force. There are more than four million people on the floors of malls, department stores, and boutiques; as part-time, temporary, or full-time staff; as workers or managers. Lots of people, it seems, do work retail in some form, at least according to the statistics. And somehow I was still alone; somehow Ruth, the protagonist of Kate Zambreno’s Green Girl, is still alone. Retail work is a citizenship not to be confused with a community.
Green Girl is a novel about “the agony of becoming,” as our unnamed and unidentified narrator tells us on the very first page. Originally published by Emergency Press in 2011, Green Girl was re-released by Harper Perennial in June, updated with new cover art by Marilyn Minter, some slight editorial changes, and some additional notes and formerly cut chapters from Zambreno herself. The book, though, still feels the same. It is one of the only works of art I’ve encountered that describes what I thought and felt as a retail shopgirl: cynical, empty, and exhausted. I always found that working retail demands its own kind of performance, one that requires an alluring availability, a mind that can go blank while waiting out the hourly shifts, and above all, a willingness to perform under the close examination of closed-circuit television monitors, demanding customers, and never-satisfied managers, all in the service of minimum wage.
When we first meet Ruth in Green Girl, she is a temporary worker at a fancy British department store she refers to as “Horrids,” a riff on Harrods, the largest department store in Europe and one of the most famous department stores in the world. For Ruth, trying to be clever about her employer is a way of avoiding thoughts that won’t leave her alone. She has fled her Chicago home, fled the memory of her dead mother, fled “HIM”—a man she had a brief sexual relationship with, someone she alternatively hates and desires as she tries to repress her memories of him—and is working at a perfume counter, pressing shoppers to try the perfume she’s been assigned to sell. Ruth has been working at Horrids for an indeterminate amount of time, not long enough to feel settled or secure, but long enough to grow weary of the environment of the store and the politics between staff. Her few friendships with the other shopgirls are emotionally draining, requiring a forced emotional connection. Ruth, perhaps, doesn’t play well with others, and she is even worse at sublimating her emotions in service to corporate culture. She lives in a boarding house and forms a tentative, competitive friendship with another girl her age, Agnes, a barista at a local coffee shop. Ruth also dates some nice men and fucks some terrible men with a careful lack of interest in both.
Sometimes Ruth goes out to bars with Agnes, or wanders the streets of London, but mostly she watches her favorite films over and over again—French New Wave—and reads American magazines, experimenting with makeup and fashion as a mask and armor. She cuts her hair to look like Jean Seberg, Mia Farrow, Joan of Arc. As she watches a movie on her roommate’s laptop, Ruth thinks about how they “are in the film of their lives. They are playing themselves . . . a camera always following them and eyes oh eyes always watching.” Ruth wants to be “polished, a seamless image, a film still,” and so she gravitates towards the images of beautiful sad girls beloved by male directors (or by God, in the case of Joan of Arc) to orient herself in the world, to learn how a woman should look and be. By learning to model herself on other women, Ruth is training herself to model for men and also for customers.
This kind of doubling—modeling a convincing woman outside of work, modeling a convincing (sales)woman at work—is an unwieldy burden for Ruth to bear; she is a difficult woman and a bad shopgirl. As she half-heartedly peddles a perfume called “Desire,” she invites customers to look at her and resents them when they do. “To be beautiful, fresh, young,” the narrative voice observes, “is a horrible fate if one feels empty inside. When Ruth is feeling her emptiest, the empty compliments keep on pouring in. She craves the attention but grows nauseous.” Frustrated by Ruth’s incompetence, her manager snatches the bottle from her and shows her that, with the right amounts of persistence and flattery, it is easy to sell unnecessary things to reticent shoppers. “See? Look how easy it is,” he glares at Ruth, while her “lips stay sealed, and curve into a quick smile. When someone antagonizes Ruth, her face only registers a moment of surprise, as if slapped, but then quickly smoothes over.” “Be. Better,” he says, something Ruth is already trying her hardest to be.
The reason there are so few stories about shopgirls is because we often frame what shopgirls sell—women’s efforts at self-creation—as indulgent and narcissistic, not as work, and so many people presume that there is not a lot of narrative drama in that experience. But what Zambreno knows, and writes so well, are the key elements that define the tense dynamics of every shopgirl’s experience: sedation, seduction, and surveillance.
Retail often feels like a physical, rather than a mental, employment. The employer needs shopgirls to talk and smile and interact with other people, which of course requires thought, but they are mostly paid to be present. Shopgirls are there in case people want to buy something; their day is entirely dependent on what happens in the hours they are on the sales floor.
The sedation sets in after a shift of little to no human interactions, in the hours between busy shopping periods, when their bodies are all that their employers require of them. Those are the hours when the small talk with coworkers, the careful avoidance of thinking about the pain in their legs, the two-fingered spacing between the wooden hangers, slow the body down and paralyze it. “To last throughout her shift she escapes outside of her body and lets it do all the work,” Ruth thinks. “Sometimes she is struck by the sense that she is someone else’s character, that she is saying someone else’s lines . . . by the end of her day her throat is dry from her constant spiel.”
But once a customer arrives, the shopgirl’s seduction begins. The shopgirl plays up her feminine wiles—she flirts, she giggles—in order to make a sale. “The best salesgirl is a liar,” Ruth informs us. “The best salesgirl talks a fast game and isn’t afraid to switch tactics when it isn’t working. The best salesgirl sizes up the customer and feeds their ego.” Though manufacturing necessity is impossible, manufacturing lust, for a shopgirl who knows the right buttons to push, is easy. This doesn’t mean that shopgirls are immune to their own rhetoric; they also believe they can buy themselves better, an expensive philosophy offset by the requisite discount, offered by employers to suggest that staff should wear, from head-to-toe, the same merchandise sold to customers. One of Green Girl’s best chapters details Ruth’s visit to another department store on her day off. She allows herself to be soothed by the same language she uses on her customers, to be flattered and seduced. She ignores the falseness of the shopgirl’s smiles and compliments and instead enjoys the power of being a customer, someone a retail employee has to be subservient to. Even the most cynical understanding of sales doesn’t make the shopgirl immune to its magical promise: if you own this, you’ll be worthy of being looked at.
It is this complicated desire to be looked at that Zambreno describes best. Ruth inhabits a world where she always feels like she is on display, a sentiment that is hard to shake after 38 hours a week underneath security cameras and middle managers, not to mention a lifetime of being followed down the street at night and avoiding men’s stares on the train. Surveillance sedates shopgirls, turns them into props, just another thing owned by the store, watched to ensure they don’t indulge in time theft and to ensure that they are selling—flirting?—as hard as they can, earning their minimum wage by being a living point-of-sale system, a hybrid of corporate values and aspirational appearance, a friend, co-conspirator, and therapist urging a treat, a reward, but above all, a sale. Since they are paid to be present, their only value is in being seen and watched. The surveillance in retail environments is meant to provide security—no one will get away with stolen merchandise, at least not for long—but it turns everything under its gaze into property that could become lost, misguided, uninterested, in need of a stern talking-to from a manager, easily lured away by a different job, a different identity.
Ruth’s suffocation under this surveillance reveals the shape of the ideological space that shopgirls must navigate. The shopgirl works in a boutique or department store, one of the few spaces outside the home where a pretty white woman has always been welcome to work because she reminds the pretty white female customers of themselves. The ideal shopgirl relays her sales pitch with the ease that comes from years of practice, since her sales tactics are the tactics of femininity: ego flattery, deference, and charm. The familiarity of this exchange, though, covers over the central tension in retail work: the shopgirl herself cannot be bought. She sells herself only in order to sell a product. This commingling of the physical embodiment of desire, where the shopgirl exists directly between the customer and the product, offers the shopgirl a very limited sense of self characterized by self-doubt, self-loathing, and mania. Ruth’s inability to sell Desire not only flags her failure as a shopgirl, but also suggests her failure as a woman.
Ruth internalizes this kind of surveillance; she learns to monitor herself. Her lack of action and her passivity throughout the novel could read as a lack of emotion, but it’s really that her anger—at her coworkers, at herself—has no productive outlet, and so manifests as paralysis. She lies in bed for the majority of her days off, allows herself to be drawn into threesomes or be adopted by older men looking for a malleable girlfriend to educate, leaves one bad job only to accept another retail position that is, at best, a lateral move. “She senses this world infected with godlessness and emptiness and hollowness,” the narrator says. “She senses the despair. She would like to run down the street naked and screaming, but she can’t. It would be terribly impolite and improper. So she swallows it all. She swallows it all deep inside.” Even if Ruth is the only one who sees or feels the surveillance that is still too many eyes for her. After all, who would Ruth be seducing by showing her real feelings? Who would still want to look at her if she showed what was inside?
Zambreno is attuned to this dynamic and traces Ruth’s efforts to rationalize, or at least to cope with, the psychological effects of her job. Throughout the novel, Ruth speaks and thinks in short, clipped, definitive terms, forever categorizing. “Being a girl is like always being a tourist,” Ruth thinks as she walks around downtown London, “always conscious of yourself, always seeing yourself as if from the outside.” “A woman out in public is not paranoid,” she thinks while walking home from a late night shift, “she’s observant.” Ruth’s thoughts are often brief, situational, and skittish like this, presented simply but not as simple. She siphons her feelings into overly broad declarations, meditations that she turns into mantras, the kind of thoughts that quickly spiral deeper and deeper until she has successfully convinced herself of whatever she needs to get through the day—that the other employees like her, or hate her, that a boy wants her, or despises her. This, too, is where Zambreno shines: her depiction of Ruth’s interior world through these mantras crystallizes the shopgirl’s desperation to overcome the psychological fallout from her terrible job, to locate some sense of stability and self-worth in the face of managerial abuse, customer complaints, and forced smiles.
I have experienced interactions similar to Ruth’s with her boss and with her customers in every retail job I’ve ever had—the power play between the employee and the boss, the brief and strangely, intensely, intimate interactions between employee and customer. It makes no difference if the store is big or small, the boss the manager or owner. There are always days filled with the kinds of daily aggressions meant to remind shopgirls that their jobs are disposable, that they are disposable. As the face of everything their boss is hoping to sell, they may have their own kind of power, but in the end they are only another asset that could become a liability.
The people who succeed in retail are the people who succeed at mirroring the desires and demands of their customers and their bosses simultaneously. Ruth is not that employee. Unable to leave her self unattended for even a moment, she cannot put aside her own thoughts and feelings in deference to her employers’ bottom line. “Who cares?” became my motto as a shopgirl—who cares if the pay is terrible, the work humiliating, the bosses cruel or inept, the customers demanding?—as long as the position was temporary, transitional, infused with the kind of power that only comes when you’ve decided your contributions are totally superfluous. I think at that time I felt entitled to a few mindless years; all sex, drugs and minimum wage, but I don’t know how rhetorical the question ever was. I don’t know if I ever succeeded in truly not caring. Ruth’s flat affect is never written as a lack of care, and asking who cares was less a way to signal my lack of interest or emotional involvement than a plea I wanted —want—answered. Who does care about retail workers? Green Girl has one answer: Zambreno cares. We, the reader, are supposed to care. And Ruth cares. Green Girl is a clear-eyed view into the world of a woman working to see herself.