Ode to the mall: On youth, human connection and the art of rebellion



In this melancholic ode to the mall, Los Angeles writer photographer Jenna Putnam revisits scenes from her youth. 

I park inside the cool, shaded parking structure, away from the bleached light of day. It is more crowded than usual for a Thursday. Perhaps people feel an urge to buy things out of comfort to escape the mundanity of their workday. Or perhaps there are more unemployed Angelinos than I realize, myself among them.

I cut across the patch of blinding daylight into Sephora, which is inside of a J.C. Penny. Floral bursts of perfume and hair product transform the stale air into a delicate haze. The shop girls smile and talk to one another. One of them is helping an older woman find her true skin tone in the form of overpriced foundation. I am at the Glendale Galleria of all places, and I’m hell bent on returning a ribbed blue tank top that is a size too small for me. I of course can do this from the comfort of my own home…fold the clothing into a neat little square, tuck it back into it’s biodegradable plastic bag and leave it for the mailperson to collect. But I am craving human connection. I want to see the longing in people’s eyes when they see something that makes them feel like a truer version of themselves.

"It is a sensory overload: escalators, games blaring, cardboard cutouts of Billie Eilish, teens in midriffs reminding me that youth implicitly runs America."

As I emerge from Sephora, I’m immersed in a glossy world I haven’t entered since I was in my late teens, otherwise known as the era of MTV and MySpace. We’d film ourselves on VHS camcorders dancing in our front yards to Britney Spears, the innocence later to be demolished by rock concerts, where Blink 182 would light the word “FUCK” on fire in huge letters as our mothers drank pinot grigio. The mall in Glendale is not so different from the one I’d frequent in San Diego during these years. It is a sensory overload: escalators, games blaring, cardboard cutouts of Billie Eilish, teens in midriffs reminding me that youth implicitly runs America. Nobody seems to have a particular destination in mind.

As I meander through the concourse, I notice that although the mall is adorned with familiar things, there is a sense of desolation, like an empty roller coaster soaring endlessly along the tracks. Vacant expressions, people staring into their phones; shopping as a chore, not a as a sport. I realize that aside from there being a global pandemic at hand, perhaps the mall isn’t considered cool anymore. Upon later research, I find out that the amount of times teens visit the mall per year has dropped thirty percent since 2007. Kids don’t want to hang out and loiter beneath the shop lights, link arms, skip around, or get into trouble anymore. Social media satiates their thirst for commingling. And that is a goddamn tragedy.

A scene from "Clueless" (1995)
"In reality, spending time at the mall was not at all about shopping. It was about freedom, rebellion, identity, and it was frequently reflected back to us in pop culture."

For my generation, the mall was a place to hang with friends without being under the scrutinous eye of parental supervision. The sweet doughy scent of fast food and fast fashion instantly brings me back to getting ear piercings at Claire’s, buying leather chokers at Hot Topic; of spiked hair tinted blue, and of bubbly fountain soda dancing on my tongue. I’m thrown into a flashback of attempting to fight my rapper boyfriend’s ex, who was a foot taller than me, and her subsequently chickening out. I am reminded of water bras and powder blue eyeliner, velcro rhinestones that jewelled our silky hair; cornrows, sneakers, cargo pants. We would blast Bone Thugs and sip hits of weed in my friend’s 1976 Camaro as speed limit signs blurred into laughable suggestions. At Nordstrom, we would layer tank tops under our baggy sweatshirts and purchase one item under twenty dollars in an attempt to feel less guilty about stealing the rest. In reality, spending time at the mall was not at all about shopping. It was about freedom, rebellion, identity, and it was frequently reflected back to us in pop culture.

There was, of course, the famous scene in Clueless where Ty has a “brush with death” by flirting with two guys who playfully dangle her over a railing as she kicks her heels into the air, her shrill scream penetrating the walls of Westfield Fashion Square. Because of this pivotal moment, Ty becomes the most popular girl in school, overshadowing Cher and causing her to re-evaluate her life. There was Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, the infamous scene where Jay and Silent Bob are lurking in front of a pet store, hitting on women and moonwalking while fuzzy kittens and gerbils tumble around in the shop window behind them. In Tupac’s 1996 music video for “To Live and Die In L.A.”, he uses the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza as a backdrop after getting picked up by a corvette full of beautiful women. He and his friends dance and sing joyfully as different parts of the city flash across the screen, eventually ending in a vignette of the sun descending into a glittering blue ocean. In Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” video, she rolls up on a skateboard to two of her spiky haired pop-punk comrades. One of them asks what they should do for the day, to which Avril with her pin-straight hair and kohl-lined eyes replies: “Dude, wanna crash the mall?”

In Joan Didion’s 1975 essay “On The Mall,” she recounts her time spent writing for Vogue while she was simultaneously enrolled in an extension course through the University of California on mall theory. She daydreamed about having a mall of her own, where there would be “monkeys, and Chinese restaurants, and Mylar kites and bands of small girls playing tambourine.” Later, she would frequently stay at The Royal Hawaiian, a five-star hotel in the heart of Honolulu, which is a little over a mile from the Ala Moana shopping center. “The last time I went to Ala Moana it was to buy The New York Times. Because The New York Times was not in, I sat on the mall for a while and ate caramel corn. In the end I bought not The New York Times at all but two straw hats at Liberty House, four bottles of nail enamel at Woolworth’s, and a toaster, on sale at Sears. In the literature of shopping centres these would be described as impulse purchases, but the impulse here was obscure. I do not wear hats, nor do I like caramel corn. I do not use nail enamel. Yet flying back across the Pacific I regretted only the toaster.”

I think back to my own impulse buys and how extravagantly pointless they were. I’d walk past display windows and wonder why my figure looked nothing like the mannequins, slender and taught and expressionless. I was a curvy thing, five-foot-six-inches with burgeoning breasts and athletic legs… nothing like the elongated stems of these inanimate objects draped in desirable clothing. I also remember in a state of boredom and rebellion getting the bottom of my belly button pierced in the back of a car by a young man called Doug. Somehow the effacement of my body felt liberating. I often look back and wonder… were we even having fun? Did we learn anything of value? We certainly killed some time.

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