I’ve been sifting through narratives that influenced my understanding of work in the home. A few weeks ago, I brushed up against the story surrounding the late 90s Beanie Baby Bubble. I picked it up, examined it, was shocked and then….I tried to put it down. Who wants to write an impassioned essay on the sexism of a market bubble based on stuffies? But I couldn’t let it go. It was just too illustrative of so many of the things full-time caretakers are dealing with today.
So I wrote an essay. It details how the prevailing narrative around the Beanie Baby market was shot through with sexism, classism and a belief that people laboring in the home shouldn’t make money.
It’s snarky and sad, one of my favorite up/down combinations. You can read it here, My Mother Risked It All on the Beanie Baby Boom.
I know about the people who drove the Beanie Baby Boom because I was raised by one of them. Here’s a quick excerpt explaining why investing in stuffed animals made some irrational rational sense to her,
My mom is what we now call a “creative.” Her DIY home projects would have net her 500,000 followers in today’s influencer market. She refinished found objects for our house. She made an old chicken crate into our coffee table. As a kid, I slept in a cast iron bed she found half-buried in a hill in New Mexico. She brought it back to California where she powdercoated it before setting it up in my room. In my memories of my childhood, my mom is in our front yard sanding something on a tarp. Mom was always producing something in our home, but the production wasn’t profitable. She was a young mom decades before Instagram. She had no accessible way to monetize her domesticity.
When the Beanie Baby Bubble began to form in 1996, my mom sensed an opportunity. It was a market she could understand. She was good at finding things and she had access to just enough capital to hop into the fray. The Beanie Baby market was run by women like her. The women were approachable. They didn’t talk down to her because she was a mother. Many of them were mothers too. When she found a Beanie Baby on eBay, the seller was often a mom trying to make a living from home. They’d message back and forth about their babies, the ones they gave birth to along with the stuffed ones. When she bought the Beanie Babies at sticker price, the interaction was bonding. Ty Warner only sold Beanies to independently owned shops, little corner toy stores, and strip mall stationery shops. As often as not, there was a woman who owned the store behind the counter. They’d connect over sold-out Beanie shipments. There was no jargon my mom had to learn, no obvious proof she was an outsider and so an easy mark. It all seemed so legible. She just had to buy and sell.
I want you to read this bonkers piece on Beanie Babies because I think we need to grapple with how unpaid labor in the home forced some caretakers to resort to investing in purple bear stuffies. Like! What a world!
But it’s not just that.
I need us to see that we are in a market-based economy but they’re mostly markets made for and by men. Our problem with the Beanie Baby market wasn’t that it was an irrational secondary market. We like irrational secondary markets! Much of our country’s wealth has been built in them. Our problem with the market was that it was driven by women.
When Redditors decided to meme stock GameStop, they were irrational heroes. When moms decided to meme stock Beanie Babies, they were irrational idiots.
What were those women doing making a market? They should have been making a home!
The homesphere is a disempowered place in America. Productive labor in the home remains unpaid. The marketsphere devalues work in the homesphere to the point that full-time caretakers cannot get job interviews. There is no way for a woman to care full-time for even a year or two without it impacting her entire career. The “gap” in their resume undoes all their previous market-based work. When full-time caretakers try to create new markets - like the influencing market - they are accused of “gross over-commercialization” of domesticity, just as the women were when investing in stuffies. Silly women, you’re not supposed to make money in that kitchen, you’re supposed to cook in it for free.
There were problems with the Beanie Bubble just as there are problems with the current influencing market. The Beanie Bubble lacked what investors call “fundamentals”, it was driven by hype instead of a solid financial foundation. The influencing market has fundamentals but too many of them are incredibly harmful. The market is shot through with narratives that embrace classism, racism and the idea that homes must be centered around women, that women must be centered in the home. The influencer market bears examination and requires correction. But the common criticism of the influencer market - that it’s gross that women make money in their homes from typically unpaid labor - is just sexist codswallop.
The homesphere is a place of economic production, but it has no economic power. People in the homesphere cannot enter the marketsphere. People in the marketsphere are punished for centering the homesphere, even temporarily. Female driven secondary markets that work around and within the larger market are considered illegitimate.
Can we see how all of these things and the care of caretakers cannot exist together?
I’d prefer a society where selfies and stuffies were not the only paths to economic empowerment for caretakers. That society is one we could make. We could just erase the arbitrary line that separates the value of homesphere work from the value of marketsphere work. We could figure out how to pay for all the unpaid labor that supports our economy. We could make it easier for caretakers to move in and out of work outside the home. We could decide the concept of two spheres is pretty asinine since we all live in a whole world together.
Or, we can just keep leaning into the dominance of the marketsphere. We can just continue mocking the way caretakers try to to find ways to move within it.
It’s our choice, I guess. I’m afraid we’ll make the irrational one.
Fun note? My mom read this essay today and called me, jumping up and down. “It’s SO GOOD, MEGGI! THIS WAS EXACTLY IT!” So, she’d be so pleased if you read this too. She’s nearly 60 now and it’s a nice change of pace for her to be seen.
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