Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Real America with Abe Sauer: A Visit to New York City's JC Penney

jcp-nyc-outsideIn August, Cintra Wilson wrote a Critical Shopper column for the New York Times. The subject was JC Penney's Manhattan store. There was a stir. While recently in New York, I dropped by the JC Penney in question with a copy of her column to do a big, fat fact-check.

The Manhattan Mall JC Penney, at 32nd and 6th, is located on two floors. An expansive, Penney-red branded wall invites shoppers down the escalators into the well. In this, it is a little like the anchor restaurant in some large Vegas hotel. One floor down, two Penney's security/concierge dudes greet me. They are maybe the most sincerely nice retail greeting types I have ever met in my (amateur) shopping experience. jcp-escalator

Wilson wrote of this store:

This niche [of hugely-sized clothing] has been almost wholly neglected on our snobby, self-obsessed little island.

This is only true if your definition of "little island" refers solely to the shopping found on the stretch of Madison Avenue north of 57th Street.

Wilson often reminds readers that she is not among the behemoths sinking the nation below its waterline, but are petites who struggle to find small enough clothes. In her recent review of Ann Taylor, she wrote:

The chirpy saleswomen seem to have a genuine liking for the clothes and offer supportive, girl-friendly advice. 'This skirt is great if you're looking to mask a few pounds,' one of them responded to a customer's request. 'But…,' she added, breaking retail character, 'you do realize, you're tiny.' (Emphasis, hers.)

When looking at Mr. Mizrahi's work, she asked:

Was he making an effort to use models with a little more meat on them?

The author visited Amalga:

I selected… a modified 1940s black silk dress from Share Spirit. It had a detachable satin collar, tuxedo pin-tucks up one side and a satin rifle patch on one shoulder ($838)-heaven, but too big.

And in the JC Penny piece, she complained:

It took me a long time to find a size 2 among the racks.

I found one right away, in the I ♥ Ronson section, about 25 feet from the escalator. A pair of pants. Size 2.

After mentioning the difficulty in finding a size 2, Wilson wrote:

There are, however, abundant size 10's, 12's and 16's.

Later, on my way out of the Mall, I dropped by the Express store that neighbors Penneys. The first table after entering is full of Express' "Editor" pants in various colors, several size 2s, and abundant 10s, 12s and 14s. This issue of clothing size is perhaps not just germane to Penneys.

Wilson wrote:

The petites section features a bounty of items for women nearly as wide as they are tall.

It also features plenty of items, especially in the St. John's Bay petite section, for petite women who are… petite. Wilson doesn't mention this.

Throughout the Penneys location, I found plenty of size 4s and 6s.


Later, Wilson tells a story about her male friend trying on a medium size shirt that was "five times larger than any large T-shirt either of us had ever seen." As a male who wears a large, I can testify that Penney's sizes for men may be larger than, say, Armani, but are comparable to any other retailer's, from The Gap to Macy's to J Crew.

But the most egregious claim Wilson makes about Penneys with regard to fatness is "[JC Penney] has the most obese mannequins I have ever seen." The "I have ever seen" clause in that statement is the one thing that prevents me from declaring this outright slander. In my time at Penneys, I never saw a mannequin that looked appreciably different from any other mannequin that I have ever seen. They were all rather tall and skinny-you know, like mannequins are.

From Salon to the Huffington Post, Wilson often uses the word fat.

· There's a teenage Shakespeare company here. They do stuff on the lawn. Fat kids with glasses jovially asking each other, "How now, M'Lord?'"

· Cool, we thought, even though all the fat tourista people waddling around us were thoroughly Caucasian."

· "If America sells out its freedom to Christian religious extremists… America will be as hopeless as a fat, poor, pregnant teen…"

· "…would have been all over that boner like a fat girl bachelorette party at Chippendale's."

· "'Don't mock God, Mr. Clinton,' said the signs carried by the unsmiling fat white women with parkas and bad perms…")

Even in her book Colors Insulting to Nature, Wilson employs "fat" in the same manner. It reads as an amplification of the detestableness of a character: "a fat, mean pervert," "a fat, scab-covered ex-con," "a fat, blonde detective."

Fat jokes can be funny in their place, though mostly only about those in the public eye. But Wilson's throwaway slights are something else. A habit of making tired jokes about something as banal as people being fat puts Wilson in the rarefied company of comic titans like Tucker Max, Carlos Mencia and every middling sitcom writer in the history of ever. They betray Wilson's inability to move past simple character assassination, something she has said is the easy way out: "I could churn out one-paragraph character descriptions all day long. It's making the characters do anything meaningful once you've described them that's difficult."


Back in JC Penney, not much time is needed to debunk Wilson's next claim: "A good 96 percent of the Penney's inventory is made of polyester." It is simply not true. While Penneys stocks a good deal of polyester, I found entire lines that were largely 100-percent or 90-percent cotton, including St. John's Bay, Liz & Co., American Living, and I ♥ Ronson. Wilson's claim that "The few clothing items that are made of cotton make a sincere point of being cotton and tell you earnestly about their 100-percent cottonness with faux-hand-scribbled labels so obviously on the Green bandwagon they practically spit pine cones" is also obviously parody-and preposterous.

Speaking of things I did not see. Wilson:

The strategy, and a good one, is to mark nearly every item on every rack 30 to 60 percent off, and announce this with signs shouting "Doorbuster!"

While a great deal of Penney's merchandise was marked down in this target range, it was far from "nearly every item." I would estimate maybe-maybe!-50%. Rather like most of the stores in Manhattan, apart from Tom Ford. And there were no cartoonish "Doorbuster!" signs.

It is understandable that Wilson's Times column is fundamentally about mocking things. (Although the column has a thin skin: editors recently removed fellow Critical Shopper writer Mike Albo from the paper for his unrelated attendance at a junket.) How else do you make a column about shopping entertaining? But this is a complicated thing to do in a newspaper environment. A statement in the New York Times that 96% of everything at JC Penney is made of polyester is not an exaggeration for literary benefit, but a cold hard fact.

And then there is her Salon piece about the second Clinton inauguration, in which events occur that are hard to believe.

"At that point, another bartender, an older Uzbekistanian, cut through and grabbed me sharply by the arm. "These is the chippest event I ever been a part of my whole life!" he screamed, his eyes spinning in fury, beginning to tear. "Nobody can dreenk the hwine!" he bawled, pointing a shaking hand at one of the boxes of Fine Chablis. "They pay for these garbage, spit out, so deezgahsting. Hwomen in dress so fancy carrying the bag of Cheeto. Ees terribol." This was a man whose lifelong dream was to escape to this country and wear a small American flag pin on his lapel and be in the same room with the president, the embodiment of Democracy. For him, the cheapness of the inaugural ball exposed our country in a horrible, heartbreaking way, like seeing Santa Claus being hauled away for a violation of Megan's Law."

Funny? Sure. And while life is strange and unbelievable, it is hard to believe that an Uzbek immigrant working the bar at such a tony event ever accosted a guest with that tirade.

Beyond the parody and even the exaggeration, there are the clichés. Wilson's stereotyping (Penney's fictional obese mannequins are "like a headless wax museum devoted entirely to the cast of 'Roseanne'") isn't limited to middle America or the fat. In reviewing Oscar de la Renta, she writes of women so wealthy "that they can wear white satin on the soles of their shoes since their daily walk involves only the floor mats of bulletproof limousines, Hereke silk carpets and the soft, clean heads of the middle class."

To her, things are "Hemingway types" and "pure Scarface: something Suge Knight might wear." When she writes of "despots" she only sees an unimaginative amalgamation of our worst stereotypes of Africa, all straight out of Hollywood: "all my wardrobe really needs is a gold-plated Kalashnikov, an entourage of boy soldiers and a necklace of human teeth." Writing about her family? It shares all the plot stylings of a Ben Affleck film from his Jennifer Lopez era: "We all come together for Christmas under our one unifying conviction that Christmas is less a religious holiday than the one day a year we all start drinking before noon."

Wilson's slamming of JC Penney was merely the use of her usual tactics at an extremely loud volume. Contempt for even the most modestly utilitarian values-for icons popularized in "real" American locales where people are not concerned with updating their wardrobes more than once a decade-is itself a terrible cliché. I doubt this bothers her, as she adopts for herself a special kind of clichéd creature exclusive to our nation's factories of pretension: the unapologetic, mean-spirited, spoiled big-city kid. In mundane, feel-good movies for the masses, such people travel a character arc that results in them seeing their behavior for what it is. In real life that rarely happens; instead they carp themselves into old age, their act finally becoming the actual.

After the JC Penney column appeared, Wilson was accused by most of being mean. So what? Lots of people are mean. Karl Rove. Michael Kors. Perez Hilton. Most 8th graders. Being mean sells and is often funny and makes some people feel better about themselves. Even the New York Times is cottoning on. And no one is begrudging Wilson the right to take her well-thumbed TMZ thesaurus to the foibles of fashion. The point of Wilson's contributions is supposed to be right there in the title, "Critical Shopper." For clarity, it should really be "Critical. Shopper." She loses the "Shopper" entirely though when she veers off the intended target, blows up the marketplace on trumped-up charges and concludes by unnecessarily shooting the bystanders.

60 Comments / Post A Comment

andj (#1,074)

I don't know what else to say about Cintra Wilson, except that she's boring and has been for awhile. I read A Massive Swelling and her novel (bought it in hardcover!), and then I completely forgot that she existed until this JC Penney… thing. She's become a boring dieter.

Ronit (#1,557)

Brutal. Well done, Abe. I enjoyed this thoroughly.

spanish bombs (#562)

This would have been incredibly more effective if it was not so mean-spirited. Remember the Slate thing about Rick Reilly and teeth? That's how you make a writer look silly.

Also, I thought Real America was a column not about whining about how a writer is not a real journalist?

Abe Sauer (#148)

You want more jokes about fat pregnant women but less meany-meany for Cintra Wilson? Logical.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Congratulations Abe Sauer on the finest piece I have seen in this rag yet (and there have been some awesome ones.) Terrific work.

You rest your case. Great last sentence.

NicFit (#616)

Oh, lighten up.

Tuna Surprise (#573)

He can't. It's glandular.

And he has big bones.

SuedeDwayne (#1,879)

Hooray for Abe Sauer! Abe Sauer is the best!

mathnet (#27)


slinkimalinki (#182)


THANK YOU. I don't know why, but I've been insanely curious about the mannequin thing, to the point where I was googling JC Penneys around LA for a potential field trip.

Glendale Galleria

And I am tempted to make a field trip myself.

shorty (#885)

Yes, I was also insanely curious about the "obese" mannequins. Thanks for the pictures. So, no obese mannequins just hyperbolic writers.

HiredGoons (#603)

I will say ONE thing: those black stretch pants are TERrible.

Bittersweet (#765)

Ook, yes. I had a similar pair back in 1987.

KarenUhOh (#19)

"I wouldn't say you're hyperbolic. Just a little fatheaded."

Br. Seamus (#217)

Size 2? What a cow.

Sablesma (#1,244)

heaven, fits just right.

kpants (#719)

Excellent rebuttal and take down, Abe.

Peteykins (#1,916)

Thanks for all the corrections to Ms. Wilson's write-up of Penney's. Now, better informed, I'll shop there all the time.

Haw, no I won't.

HiredGoons (#603)

Oh, you!

Abe Sauer (#148)

May I just say you have the best get-a-little-drunk-and-go-down-the-rabbit-hole site of any Awl commentor.

Peteykins (#1,916)


gregorg (#30)

no kidding. Whorses!

numbersix (#85)


hman (#53)

With its Hunt Club label, JCPenney made me feel just a little bit less out of place amidst a sea of Polos in junior high. I'll never say anything bad about 'em.

garge (#736)

I definitely sported Arizona jeans for a decade, and surreptitiously bought my first bra there in the 5th grade when I wanted to have the creases in my turtlenecks like everyone else, even though I was 90 lbs, still fit into kids shoes, and was clearly flat as a board. The saleslady didn't bat an eye and made me feel like a proper lady. I sha'n't ever disrespect.

BoHan (#29)

Agreed. K-Mart was every Sunday afternoon, coming home with Canned string fries. Penney's was August school clothes shopping in a fancy mall. If you diss Penney's, you don't even respect the lower middle class that the NYT hilariously pretends to care about.

toadvine (#1,698)

Oh yeah. It was always Marshalls and Target for everything but back-to-school gear. And Penney's was an honest to god department store selling first-run stuff. I always thought it was bad-ass the one time a year we went, what with the different brands and areas, just like I thought any clothes bought at a department store were better than those bought anywhere else.

Tuna Surprise (#573)

Does the Manhattan store have a home department? Their towels are fabulous. They sell the huge bathsheets (big enough to wrap around middle-America's fat asses, natch) and I haven't had any luck finding anything similar in the city.

garge (#736)

Martha Stewart Collection @ Macy's!

I would like to see Abe and Mary HK co-write a weekly shopping column for The Awl.

shostakobitch (#1,692)

I'm holding my breath until one of these ever-so-cultured titans of erudition writes a screed about the Savers off Oddie Boulevard in Sparks, Nevada. That place is a fucking treasure trove of themes that could be extrapolated and applied to the nation as a whole.

No guarantees but I would bet good cash money the ensuing clamor would reach a fevered pitch and a few counterarguments would be triumphant like Hannibal right after he crossed those Alps with the elephantiasis but before he told Jodi Foster her shoes are a joke. O perchance to dream about the dizzying polemics of being poor and buying shirts…

Bittersweet (#765)

Thanks, Abe. Great piece, as always.

cherrispryte (#444)

Abe, this was delightful. You are officially forgiven for the "Fatties Shouldn't Breed" column.

toadvine (#1,698)

This was the equivalent of a Dick Bavetta phantom travelling call after a soft foul call at the other end. Make-ups can be sweet.

hockeymom (#143)

Loved this.
I admired Wilson's writing at first, then after a while it got old…a little too clever by half.
I think her byline should be Cintra Wilson, Professional Underminer.

lempha (#581)

Just wondering: why this now?

gregorg (#30)

Abe recently rode the PATH train?

This was awesome. RT @abesauer: "I just ousted @cintra as the mayor of JCPenneys on @foursquare!"

Abe Sauer (#148)

Awl's correspondent travel funding only reimburses for "bicycle."

Mindpowered (#948)

Very carbon neutral.

Abe Sauer (#148)

The question shouldn't be "why this now" but "why not this then?" How many of the blogs that covered the Wilson column (and outrage) at time of publication are published mostly out of NY? (The Awl is.) All anyone had to do was saunter on down (up?) to 32nd and 6th and within a couple hours would have been able to call bullshit on all the "facts" in her column and have an exclusive bit or original reporting.

But Abe!!! Had anyone done so at the time, their conclusion *could* very well have supported Wilson's findings, in that they would have been looking at the same models/merchandise. You haven't debunked a single thing she wrote in visiting so long afterward, when the mannequins were probably removed– and really, it's silly to think JCP wouldn't do so–and the stock replenished/priced (Eight weeks– and I'm undercounting to be generous– is a long time in retail.) My point, made gently, below: absent a fact-check of Wilson's statements with JCP, which is the only option to you at this late date, your own piece, while quite thought-provoking, cannot be considered any more more factual than hers.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Yeah. And there WERE weapons of mass destruction ready to go in Iraq and they were just spirited away by the time our military got there.

Clare (#516)

Is this your way of apologizing for the "fatties shouldn't breed" column, Abe?

Abe Sauer (#148)


toadvine (#1,698)

Not even a little bit?

Horror Chick (#1,677)

The only reason it's impossible to find a size 2 at a store in Manhattan is because everyone in Manhattan is a size 2. We're all too busy perfecting our irony and polishing our snark to consume actual food. Plus who can afford to eat these days.

Neopythia (#353)

Great piece as always, Abe. As a midwestern ex-pat myself, I appreciate your efforts to fight back against the misconceptions so prevelant in the east coast media. In my mind's eye, I picture you wandering around Pennys, with your beard and fur-lined cap, taking pictures of mannequins, and it greatly amuses me.

Abe Sauer (#148)

The security people started shadowing me because I was taking pictures of mannequins in underwear. awwwwkkkkkkwaaarrdddd.

garge (#736)

I was wondering about this!

bb (#295)

I feel like there is something that CW totally missed (and which I wouldn't expect Abe to know, not being a woman or a NYer) – which is how many women in NY shop at places like this and figure out how to look pretty good. The edges of Midtown (Herald Sq over to MSG) are crammed with little cheapo places like Daffy's, Strawberrys, and the more boring Bolton's. Tons of women who work mid-to-low-level office jobs pick and choose among this polyester-blend, one-season-lifespan dreck to put together decent looks. I see women in office-land looking pretty fine on their own terms all the time. And of course there's a whole other universe in the Fulton Mall and Harlem too… not that these would make particularly stunning NY Times articles (actually, *shudder*) but this is where I see JCP fitting in to NY's shopping scene.

bananaballs (#2,151)

EXACTLY. Do people really think every cute lady in NY can afford to shop at Barney's or has the time or inclination to scavenge vintage shops (which are overpriced anyway)? Absolutely not. Most women have a few expensive things they shell out the dough for and spend the rest of their money at H&M/Zara/Gap/Macy*s/Target/etc. and THEY LOOK AMAZING. Most of the shit out there is similar and if you put it together properly no one but the experts can tell the difference. Conversely, there are women who are complete fashion victims who are obsessed with labels and look like complete shit. I am sort of relieved that there is a Penney's in the city, where my boyfriend can get Levi's that cost 20% more everywhere else and where I can look for some basic stuff that looks the same whether I paid $20 or $120 for it. THAT is the beauty of Penney's. You mix it with your trendier pieces and then have money left over to do other shit with your life besides shop for clothes.

Abe, this was interesting in that I had not ever read Wilson's work outside of the NYT Styles section. There are clearly some underlying issues here that make me regard the Penney review in a different light. A few questions — highly abbreviated, thanks to the damn auto-refresh that devoured the first and second go-rounds–for you, though:

–Mannequins are brought on and off the floors regularly. Did you check with Penney to see if they made any changes since her article was published– by coincidence or design– before deciding they were "fictional"?

–Comparing store inventory in separate visits spanning a period of at least two months means you are looking at different stock. What she saw and what you saw? It's impossible to say if one missed what the other noticed. As for sales, they may have been discounting more at the time of her August visit in order to clear the floors for Fall; you may have visited in full-on Fall, before the massive Thanksgiving/Xmas markdowns. Did you enquire?

–The I ♥ Ronson line is for the yoof, not CW or her demographic, I don't think. Also: "I found one (a size two) right away… a pair of pants." For serious?

–Good for you/the Editors for anticipating/addressing the elephant in the room, the Chris Christie posts. But are you sure of the way you've justified it? Because if you are totally behind ridding the world of fattism, you can't really think it's ok to mock only the public figures? This doesn't make sense.

I'm glad you are finally willing to acknowledge that CW came off as hard on the rich in this piece as she did anyone else. Personally, I prefer when when she goes after rude sales staff (who ignore or trail her due to her own shabby appearance)– a group wholly deserving of her ridicule. You want to see mean? I'm thinking of a tiny boutique with the initials KZ. I think we'd all enjoy seeing her sink those fangs into those ladies. But also? She can wax rhapsodic over stores, and it's at those times, when she makes clear that she is not someone who can afford to buy as she'd like, that she comes across as human. Most Americans can certainly relate to that.

Abe Sauer (#148)

I did check w/ Penney's re: mannequins and they did not respond. But I did not see any. And even if the retailer had employed one or two somewhere before removing them, it was certainly not all of them. Wilson makes it seem like they are everywhere.

Of course we may have seen somewhat different inventory. But I'm sure it was not so wildly different as to make up the difference between her claims and what was there a couple months later. And if such a wild change in stock IS so possible, what's the point of her review existing at all?

There were more size 2s. Not a lot. That was just where I found one. And it wasn;t a child's (yoof's) size 2. HEART Ronson, as much as it might be ghastly to admit, is also for adults.

I am not at all looking to rid the world of fattism. In fact, I think you;d find many readers think I'm anti-fat person. My point about obesity w/r/t Wilson is that A) it looks like she exaggerates (if not lies) in the New York Times no less, about fattness and B) she has a long record of using "fat" as a needless throwaway slight where it adds no humor at all to the work but instead is just mean for mean's sake.

There is writer's license to exaggerate (see her most recent piece's opening about El Sombraro "Hat" on the Lower east Side of which she writes was “An oasis of counterculture… beyond the strangling grip of the mainstream.?” Anyone who knows the place knows that is hardly true outside of those who see Urban Outfitters as "punk." But that's fine because, you know, WRITING!. But when she throws around things like "96% is polyester" in a newspaper that already has credibility problems, well…why even go to the store?

Finally, the whole thing was disingenuous and a hatchet job from the beginning. Like sending Frank Rich to Hardee's.

Bren (#2,153)

People who are thin, brag about it and see the rest of the world as fat are just hungry. Sounds to me like she needs a sandwich.

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