Walmart and its “People”

Culture & Identity | Fellowships

Race, Class, and Spectacle in the Digital Age

by VFH Fellow Lisa Woolfork

Peopleofwalmart.com is a user-generated repository of photographs of Walmart shoppers in various stages of undress, underdress, or inappropriate dress. In addition to fashion faux pas and outdated hairstyles, the site also includes images of people who are overweight, of color, homeless, disabled, overtly or ambiguously gendered, or otherwise outside a narrowly structured definition of white heteronormativity.

People of Walmart was launched in August of 2009, inspired by a grocery trip three young men (brothers Andrew and Adam Kipple and their friend Mark Wherry) made to a South Carolina Walmart.  Andrew told Yahoo News that “We turned a corner to see a stripper – at least, I think she was a stripper – with a shirt that read ‘Go F— Yourself,’ and she had a two-year-old kid in one of those child harnesses that looked like a dog leash.” That sight rendered the three young men incredulous. “We were all looking at each other with a look that said ‘Did you see that?’ But at the same time we couldn’t believe what we were seeing.” The sight of that woman (who in some accounts is referred to as overweight or wearing attire classified as “stripper wear”) and a harnessed two-year-old prompted the men to frame that moment, to share it with their friends who would be similarly shocked by the spectacle.

It is worth considering why the encounter of three young men witnessing a “stripper” in an aggressive t-shirt with a toddler is so remarkable. On the immediate visual level, there is a good deal of positional, juxtaposed humor. The men were grocery shopping, acquiring goods to fulfill a basic need. In that setting (perhaps especially), it is unexpected that a person wearing a “Go F- Yourself” t-shirt would be walking with a two-year-old. The sexualized profanity is inappropriate. The sentiment, directed at anyone who happens to glance at the shirt, is offensive.

Beyond this immediate surface analysis, however, lie the principles of what would become the raison d’etre for peopleofwalmart.com. I suggest that the situation, though rife with juxtapositions, was also one that exposes the power dynamics — including the notion of social control that becomes euphemized as “appropriate” — at work.  I approach the question this way: Under what conditions do three young men usually see a stripper? How are they encouraged to view her? In this frame, how is she supposed to respond to their inspection?  I pose these questions to access the ways in which the male gaze was very much frustrated by the object on which it cast its framing power. Rather than seeing her as a woman to which they could have visual access (who they cast as a stripper—they “think” she was a stripper) and thus ogle or admire at their leisure, the object of their attention aggressively threw that gaze back at them. Instead of behaving like a passive recipient of male attention, the woman’s shirt both rebuffed and refracted that sexualized gaze. The men were told that she was off limits and instead they could “go F-” themselves, not her. It is significant that this image was the one that fueled the desire for the three men to craft a website. To them, this scene—offensive t-shirt + “stripper” + leashed toddler — was the perfect index for what one would expect to find at the world’s largest retailer. I am paying attention here to the need to frame that moment, the desire to transform that brief anonymous encounter into part of a permanent and archived repository of images. To those who would say that it was inappropriate for the woman to wear that shirt while walking with a child, I would say that most two-year-olds can’t read. Rather, the message resonated with those to whom it was most likely directed: the three men who classified a woman as a stripper, but then were shocked and amazed that said stripper would talk back. I suggest that the desire to take that whole moment and commemorate it was a way to locate or place this woman, not just in a Walmart, not just as an inappropriate parent, not even only as a possible stripper, but for all those reasons and more to put her in a place, a permanent one where she could be claimed as their property, labeled, and accessed.

People of Walmart describes itself as a humor and parody site. Comments that the site is mean-spirited are rebutted with replies that the site is just for fun. I take the parody claim seriously and explore the ways in which the site acts as a parody of the narrative Walmart tells about itself. Initially it seems that the site is using the term “parody” loosely. Rather than fully conforming to either the primary definition of parody as a comic imitation of a literary or musical work or even the secondary definition as a feeble or ridiculous imitation, it is still useful to consider what “work” is being imitated. On the People of Walmart website, the ubiquitous Walmart smiley face (that once bounced in Walmart television ads to animate songs and lower prices) is parodied. The website inverts the Wal-Mart smiley face turning the smile into a frown and closing the left eye in a downward arc as if in anger or sadness. In addition to this graphics change, the site overall can be seen as a comic imitation of the narrative Walmart tells about itself. By deploying negative surveillance imagery of customers for humorous purposes and inviting open mockery of them, the site imitates Walmart’s vision of itself as a location where consumers can “Save money. Live better.”  The pictures are designed to show that Walmart customers may be saving money, but they are not living “better.” The images of “creatures” that are, for instance, overweight, under-dressed, overexposed, posed in awkward positions or a combination thereof, are intended to shame the people in the photos. In addition, the images, taken collectively, serve to transform Walmart from a retailer with bargains into a retailer that is cheap (as in tawdry).

Images from People of Walmart

Lisa Woolfork is associate professor of English at the University of Virginia and Resident Fellow at the Virginia Foundation For the Humanities. Her current project is Racial Parity Parody: Post Soul Visions of Blackness.