Requiem for the Mall, the Teen Girl’s Last Safe Space

As a teen, the mall gave Anne T. Donahue a place where she could escape the realities of growing up. The women harassed by U.S. politician Roy Moore didn’t have that same freedom

A still of Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz in Clueless, holding shopping backs-feature image

(Image: Everett Collection)

I basically grew up in a mall. During school breaks and holidays, my Nana would take me along as she went store to store, teaching me to refuse to surrender to full price.

But as I got older, shopping became more and more social. I still went with my Nana, but I also began hitting the mall with friends as we’d test our 11- and 12-year-old limits, separating from our parents for longer and longer until they finally agreed to just drop us off for a couple of hours, as we were insufferable.

So for me, the mall was safe. It was bright, it was clean, it was supervised by sales associates who weren’t about to let me or anyone I was with do something bad. And it signalled my independence: as the first public space (outside the library) my Mom and Dad trusted me to roam around in. The mall was where I learned about money, where I learned that I needed to earn it, and where I learned that sometimes the boys you like would miraculously be at the mall at the same time as you. Even today, the mall is still one of the places I feel happiest in. Both because of how much fun it was to be there as a kid and a teen, and because while the world may be shit, I can still lose myself in Second Cup and shoe sales.

But this week, we learned that Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore was once banned from the mall. Specifically because as an adult man in the 1980s, he regular harassed teen girls—at jewelry counters and record stores; even a teenage Santa’s helper—making their safe, public space feel anything but.

Of course, I’m not an idiot. As a grown-ass woman, I know the mall is hardly the utopia I’ve come to romanticize. In my 20s I worked for four years at a suburban shopping centre where I learned exactly how un-magical mall life can be and also how often adults tend to scream at cashiers. Even locals of Moore’s old haunt knew their mall had a capacity for “being rough.” But there’s a difference between fights (they happen), shoplifting (so much), and adult men taking advantage of teen girls. For a predator to prey where so many teens are given their first steps into independence, it’s a fast track to the worst possible outcome: reality.

If you’re lucky (and I mean very, very lucky) you can spend a few weeks or months of your pre-teen and teen life unaware of what life is really like. You can still lose yourself in lip gloss, find true joy in filling out a Leonardo DiCaprio fan book (guilty), and revel in the magic of eating fries and gravy from the food court for lunch. But eventually, the magic ends. You grow into harassment, into catcalls, into propositions. You suddenly become very aware of what type of lip gloss garners which reactions and who is looking at you and for how long. You begin, ultimately, to navigate the mall the way you end up navigating the world: aware of the gazes locked on you, and learning to try and dodge them without a deluge of shit being thrown your way.

For me, the mall was one of the last places I realized that feeling different—to feel watched, to be pursued in a way I didn’t like, to be commented on—was actually the norm. Like an extended adolescence, the mall gave me a place I could escape the realities of growing up and hunker down with my best friend and worry only about the availability of bargain discount tank tops. It was static, it assured consistency. It was always there, open when it said it would be, and in reasonable order. I found comfort in the familiarity in the same tiles, same (well, some) stores, same available parking spots next to hardly-used entrances. Even the most revamped malls feel like relics, serving as reminders that once upon a time, I was a kid and I was there, and I wasn’t always so aware of how bad everything can be.

Which is why I love the mall. Why, even when I was getting screamed at in retail, when shirtless dudes roamed around my store, when that one guy threw boxers at us when we wouldn’t return his worn jeans, I still liked and appreciated what it was. While I’d gone on to see the worst sides of humanity through retail and being a living woman, the kids and teens I saw come through had yet to; they were still just shopping, just meeting their mums, just spending their babysitting money, just buying new slippers.

So I will fight on behalf of the sanctity of mall to the death. First, because it’s a public space where everybody is free to simply exist. And second, because without it, I wouldn’t have some of my favourite memories which I still cling to when I need to pretend reality isn’t as harsh as I now know it is.

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