Opulent Servitude: Shoplifting in a Culture of Material Excess and Systemic Racism

by Evangeline Holtz Schramek & Carolyn L. Kane


Using a broad historical view, we analyze the act of shoplifting in two forms of cultural media, both set in Paris. The first is Émile Zola’s novel The Ladies’ Paradise (1883), based on Paris’s first department store, Le Bon Marché. Due to Zola’s commitment to verisimilitude, we argue, his work offers the strongest corroboration of the ways in which new forms of visual display and a new class of psychologically-entitled females worked together to generate astounding accounts of theft. Our analysis then turns to a work of cinema produced nearly a century and a half later, Céline Sciamma’s 2014 Girlhood. Sciamma portrays a group of young French African girls who navigate their paths into adulthood from the vantage of Bagnolet, a lower income immigrant suburb over four kilometers from Paris’s city centre. The girls experience racial profiling and demonstrate varying forms of resistance, one of them shoplifting. While shoplifting then appears to be an enduring weapon of the weak and strategy of resistance by the dispossessed, leading to, not surprisingly, tacitly permissibility for white middle class women and harsher consequences for women of colour, we conclude that the activity is leveraged to perpetuate pre-existent forms of gendered social control and cultural stereotyping.

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