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I listened to what women said about money and watched what they spent it on. What I observed was startling

Wealth is no longer considered obscene. We have come to accept money as universal sign and signifier of value, which means there is less and less choice to live a life not driven by it

In 1929, a group of young women smoked cigarettes while participating in the Easter Parade in New York. They were marching for gender equality which, despite the 19th Amendment to the American Constitution in 1920 giving women the right to vote, was still a long way from being achieved.

The image of the women smoking was picked up by newspapers, who described their cigarettes as “torches of freedom”. But there was a glitch. They had been paid to march in the parade by PR man Edward Bernays who, influenced by the work of his uncle, Sigmund Freud, believed that if he could link cigarettes to notions of freedom and rebellion, then more women would be encouraged to smoke. And he was right. Smoking by women lost its taboo and became normalised in America. By aiming his arrow at unconscious female desire for freedom and rebellion, Bernays hit the bull’s eye, and the link between what happened in the world and marketing was cemented.

Fast forward to 2024 and the notion of aiming ads at unconscious female desire is old news. Now we have femvertising – advertising that deliberately sets out, in its messages and images, to empower women. Which sounds great, but eliminating gender stereotypes is obviously not as simple as adding a hashtag to everything from soap to electricity bills. We know that all advertising will cynically co-opt social issues if corporations believe that they can convince consumers to buy things they don’t need. From feminism to the environment to Black Lives Matter, there is nothing that cannot be exploited for money.

So the real message of capitalism remains relatively unchanged since 1929: whatever you desire – to be successful, environmentally conscious, politically aware, sexy, beautiful and/or more efficient – there is something to buy for that. Only two things are genuinely new here. One is how much this has accelerated in recent years. The other is the fact that, in our age of hyper consumerism, female desire is no longer so unconscious. In fact, women are encouraged to display their desires as a showcase of their individual choices. What I choose (to buy) is who I am, we tell ourselves. But the very real danger is that everything, not just products such as cars or clothes, but also food and books and music, from where you go on your holidays to what your relationships with others are, will be reduced to mere identity signifiers.


In the years leading up to publishing my debut novel, Breakdown, I was thinking a lot about money, listening to what women were saying about it, in retail outlets and supermarket queues and service stations, and watching what they were spending it on. What I observed was quite startling. The novel is about a middle-class, middle-aged woman who gets up one morning and instead of going to work, drives in the opposite direction on the motorway and never comes back.

The road trip she embarks on leads to a profound personal reckoning – about marriage, parenting, motherhood, friendships, love, sex and the links between choice and money. Probably her most profound insight is into just how much adherence to societal norms has shaped her choices and how money is such a big part of that. At one point the narrator remarks that “Money is the great antidote to shame”. Writing Breakdown, it seemed to me that in some ways this was the story not just of a woman, but of a society, where, in just three generations, many families have swapped subsistence living for the respectability and security that comes with money. But at what cost?

There was a time in Ireland when having no interest in accumulating money was an acceptable position, respected by many. Not anymore. Now we have the inverse, and how quickly the changeover has happened. Wealth is no longer considered obscene; now it is thought of as something to revere. It is more than Edward Bernays could have dreamed of, that money itself would be reified as ‘good’. Yet that is exactly what has happened.

Money has also been intractably linked to success in recent times. A ‘good’ job is a job that is well paid. Yet many people – carers, artists, retail workers – struggle to make a living from their work. Most writers, for instance – even moderately successful ones – get by only with the aid of additional income from teaching, grants and festival appearances.

Consumerism has invaded all aspects of our life and is so pervasive that we no longer interrogate just how much of our self-worth is tied up with our financial worth

We know that using money alone as a measure for valuing work is absurd and yet we do it. In fact, we have come to accept money as the universal sign and signifier of value, which means that there is less and less choice to live a life not driven by it, to rent cheaply and to access basic services. We hold on to a picture of Ireland as a country with a rich culture, but there is actually very little room for alternative lifestyles. Which is why more and more of our writers, our artists and others are emigrating, some by choice, more from necessity.

Another thing that would have amazed Bernays is the fact that the very act of choosing is now linked with concepts of “freedom” and “rebellion”. But what if all the choices are all the same, selected by advertising companies, marketing strategists and paid influencers and then delivered to us in an incessant stream via social media, telling us how we should look, what we should wear, how we should act?

Treating choice as commensurate with desire is dangerous. We narrow ourselves, transform exploration into accumulation and ultimately run the risk of sublimating a desire for living into a desire for things. Acquisitive purpose denies the possibilities of a wide-open future. But maybe that is exactly its intention, since desire – no matter how much we prefer to think otherwise – is always to some degree unknowable and untameable.

Breakdown: Cathy Sweeney

Listen | 53:35

And what happens when choice starts to feel more like pressure than freedom, inducing stress and anxiety rather than pleasure and fulfilment, when it finally becomes apparent that choice is not dependent on freedom or rebellion, or even on desire, but on income?

Most women do not earn enough to achieve all the “choices” they are encouraged to make.

Instead of joy at receiving a wedding invitation in the post, for instance, there is a weight in the stomach. How will I afford it? And the nail-biting balancing of the books when too many celebrations land in the same month, from baby showers to roundy birthdays. But social isolation is frightening, and so we scrimp and save and smile, we somehow balance the books, and we say nothing to each other. And then we do the same again when our kids bring home another birthday invitation, another school tour brochure, another request for extra-curricular fees. Because, unless you’re very rich, every single social engagement involves a number as well as a choice. How much will it cost?

Even our appearance is big money these days. Somewhere along the way, female beauty has become harnessed to youth and to the quest to remain eternally young which, despite being impossible, also costs a great deal of money. It is not just older women who visit expensive “aesthetic clinics” for “maintenance” or “grooming” or to stay “fresh”. Younger women too are parted from a lot of money in the name of “tweakments”, never mind the upkeep of nails, tan, hair extensions, eyebrow threading.

Consumerism has invaded all aspects of our life and is so pervasive that we no longer interrogate just how much of our self-worth is tied up with our financial worth. Even our health is monetised. And while social prescribing – the prescribing by healthcare practitioners of activities such as gardening, sports, volunteering and arts activities as part of patient support – is a positive development, the wellness industry can be accused of pushing the message that when something goes wrong there is something you can buy to fix it – therapy, a gym membership, a sex toy, a meditation app.

But it seems to me that this framing of dysfunction as an individual’s problem, rather than as a societal issue experienced by many, many others, this privatisation of stress, is a way of neutralising discontent, of stopping it spreading and being seen as a social issue. And I have a question. If the current “choice-based” culture is working so well, why is there so much exhaustion, not only among middle-aged mothers like the narrator of Breakdown, but among younger women as well, among men of all ages, among children and teenagers? So much exhaustion. So much addiction. So much depression. It seems to me that there is an invisible violence in peddling the myth that happiness is something you can buy.

Not talking seriously, factually – and honestly – about money has a hidden cost. It creates a fabular world that favours the rich. A world in which, in order to be included in it, people feel obliged to perform having money when they are in fact under financial strain, while those who have very little money – by choice or otherwise – are excluded. Money – the earning of it, the spending of it, the reification of it as ‘good’ – is not just about personal desire; it is a deeply political issue.

Breakdown by Cathy Sweeney, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is available now in all bookshops, €13.99. Read the Irish Times review here

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