On materialism and Snowpiercer

Today, I met a close friend who reminded me that I’ve been neglecting this blog, and I really have! Sorry to the readers who are out there (?). (I put a question mark, but I know a few people regularly visit my blog cos WordPress has a Site Stats portion and yes I check my Site Stats!) But yes, a post is due, but also, a topic has been recurring recently in my discussions with friends, and I guess in general in my stage of life as I transit into being a gainfully employed adult, and it’s something that I really wanna talk about.

Just a few days ago, a few of my friends and I were talking about realising how materialism is such a huge part of our lives, and how easy it is to fall into this endless cycle, especially in today’s world. When people around you are consistently talking about the latest bag, how gorgeous that luxury watch is, or which brand their dream car is, it really can become such an invisible yet ubiquitous part of our consciousness. Instead of discussing ideas or people or life events, the topic of discussion can so easily revolve around products. We define ourselves by which brand is the most ‘us’.

And who can blame us, really? Every corner we turn, we are told we should want this thing, and that we are incomplete without that other thing. Even ideals like liberation or equality come with a price. Even education!! What kind of world is it where schools (especially universities) see themselves as a business first, and an educational institution second?

It’s really terrifying, and Singapore is particularly susceptible to this way of life. I have definitely fallen into it myself, and I think it takes a constant and consistent guard that you need to put up to fight the way materialism has seeped into our daily lives. The most important thing is to critically examine parts of your life and really think about why and how certain things have come to just be.

For example, a friend was telling me about how she had encountered a person who wasn’t too impressed with her engagement ring because it didn’t cost 3 months of the guy’s salary. This whole the diamond is supposed to cost 3 months of your pay thing is truly weird! It has become a norm that goes unquestioned in Singaporean society, but, really, why and how did this figure come about? 3 months? Why not 2 or 4 months? Why not 1 year? Who came up with this? Why?

If you really examine it, doesn’t it seem a tad bit arbitrary? In fact, who even decided the purchase of diamonds had to be involved in an engagement – a commitment to another person to spend the rest of your lives together? Let me tell you who: the diamond industry. Once upon a time, a marketing person at De Beers thought to associate diamonds with the concept of eternity – of being a mark of forever. Something that is so common in popular culture, and so ingrained in our daily lives – we often ask our girlfriends to show us the ring after she is proposed to – began as a marketing campaign, as most things are nowadays.

Of course, if you want a diamond ring, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a gorgeous piece of jewellery, and even I can appreciate its beauty and its significance. Symbols that are popular in a society can still personally mean something to you, and it’s not my place or anyone else’s to tell you what should or should not mean something to you. But I guess what I’m getting at is: we should all think for ourselves when we make a (purchase) decision, whether or not this thing really means something to us, and if we are merely subscribing to a norm for no reason at all other than ‘that’s the way things are done.’ Because we all need to think about who’s telling us how to do things, and why. And who ultimately benefits.

Perhaps when we really get right down to it, we have no reason for believing in the idea that a diamond ring needs to be equated to 3 months of your boyfriend’s salary. In fact, doesn’t that put a monetary worth on the person? Are we transferring the price of the diamond to our partner? Are we commodifying the relationship? Are we?

I don’t think it’s wrong to want things. The people who say that money doesn’t buy happiness are usually the people who already have the money. In fact, buying the entire 10-season DVD series of Friends would make me extremely happy. Stocking up my wardrobe over the last week also pleased me. I think what is important however is that we need to question why we want certain things, and learn to prioritise the most important elements of our lives.

When I was doing my Media and Representation class a few semesters ago, I remember I had one of those *mindblown* moments when my lecturer (I miss you Dr. Ingrid!) was talking about the role of women in society. We talked about how the notion of a woman being a housewife and taking care of domestic matters being a socially constructed one – which is a central tenet of the critique on patriarchy. This, we all know, or at least I did. But then she questioned – what about the notion of a career woman? I had always assumed that being a career woman was just a natural consequence of women moving out of their homes and forging new paths for themselves. But Ingrid reminded us that the imperative to be productive – to go out into the world to work – is actually something that capitalism has instilled in us. And women were called upon to go into the factories and eventually into offices to work, to be productive, because this would help capitalism. In Singapore, especially, both men and women are urged to work, because of our small labour force. Because we don’t have Malaysia as our hinterland.

But capitalism is merely one way of life. We are so used to it that sometimes we cannot imagine another framework of living. There are many models of reality, and we need to constantly remind ourselves of that, even as we are stuck in a society run on money.

Over the weekend, I watched Snowpiercer starring my beloved Chris Evans, which was a pretty obvious dystopian take on the class system and how we let it destroy us, even as we are the last of humanity. Really great casting choices and racial representation aside, the show was amazing in how it critiqued the capitalist system. The story is basically this: to combat global warming, scientists released a synthetic molecule supposed to cool the world down, but it freezes the world over. The earth becomes too cold for life, and the last of humanity is cramped together on a train that runs on an eternal engine. The train is divided into distinct classes, from the hedonistic upper classes eating steaks and partying all day to the tail end of the train where hundreds of people share one car eating protein blocks. Chris Evans is Curtis who leads a revolution as the people from the tail end strive to get to the engine room and end this insane hierarchy.

(Spoiler alert from here on!!) But as he eventually reaches the engine room, it is revealed that the revolution and Curtis’ goals are all an essential part of the system. It’s population control. Even as Curtis reaches the top of the class system, he cannot defeat it. Any attempts at moving forward are feeding the system, reaffirming an oppressive structure. Therefore, to end this reality once and for all, we cannot think in linear terms – moving forward or looking backward. The only way out is to think laterally – to consider the world outside the train, and to therefore break the hold of this system and way of thinking.

Everyone should watch this film!!!!! And after you’re done with that, you should watch this review below as it captures what I’ve been saying and examines how the director Bong Joon-ho illustrates these ideas in his artistic direction.

At the end of the day, I think we should all remind ourselves from time to time thatĀ life isn’t an eternal train ride, and it’s not about who gets to be in front. Perhaps it is about how we enjoy the view outside, or perhaps it’s about how we choose to spend our days with the people in the same car. Many films repeat the same message, and many other blog entries or The Guardian articles convey similar ideas, but the need to dismantle materialism is perhaps a notion that bears repeating.


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