Tag Archives: class stereotypes

Advertising Work

I’m always interested in popular images of working-class life, but like most people, I barely see TV commercials anymore, so it took me a while to notice a recent trio of ads that use work as a marketing theme.  Advertisers use images to sell things, of course, and that’s part of what makes these ads so problematic – and so interesting.

The first ad, promoting Cadillac’s electric car, features actor Neal McDonough talking about how people in other countries think Americans are crazy for working so hard.  He begins outside an upscale home, standing hear a very nice pool, asking “Why do we work so hard?  For what? For this? For stuff?” People in other countries “stop by the café” as they “stroll home. They take August off.”  “We,” on the other hand – presumably not only white wealthy folks like the narrator but most of us – are “crazy, driven, hard-workin’ believers.”  That’s what made it possible for us to go to the moon, and that’s why “we’re the only ones going back there.”  Americans are better, the ad suggests, because of the American dream: “It’s pretty simple: you work hard, you create your own luck, and you’ve gotta believe anything is possible.”

While Cadillac rehearses the old myth that anyone can succeed, economists are reporting that few Americans actually live that Horatio Alger storyline.  Upward mobility hasn’t declined, a recent paper showed; it’s been low for decades.  But as the ad makes clear, the myth of the self-made man still has resonance, both for those who might think the ad describes them but even more, I fear, for those who desperately want to believe that “anything is possible.”  If anyone can create their own luck, then the only reason anyone might struggle is that they didn’t try hard enough.  To promote this narrative while economic inequality is growing is cynical, arrogant, and mean-spirited.

The Cadillac ad is easy to criticize, since its message is so clearly problematic.  Two other ads offer more positive images of work and workers, which make them at once appealing and appalling.  Chrysler’s latest “Made in Detroit” Super Bowl ad features yet another white male pop culture icon: Bob Dylan.  In this year’s ad, Dylan touts American creativity and pride, and he encourages us to let Germany make beer, Switzerland make watches, and Asia make cell phones. “We will build your car,” he says, leaning down over a barroom pool table.  The ad features images of cowboys, cheerleaders, James Dean, Rosie the Riveter, old-style diners, and the American highway system, as well as images of auto plants and of Detroit today.  Here, the call to creativity isn’t illustrated by technical innovators but by someone getting a tattoo, by graffiti on a stone bridge, and by Dylan, turning a guitar in his hand, a move that is echoed in a clip from an old industrial film, showing a turning piece of machinery.  Like Cadillac, Chrysler is appealing to American arrogance, but with a more working-class approach.

The last ad appeals even more directly to working-class viewers, in part by focusing on  deindustrialization and manufacturing jobs.   It opens with images of an abandoned factory, as TV host Mike Rowe intones in a voice over, “At one time, I made things, and I took pride in the things I made.”  Then, “the gears stopped turning.”  But, the voice continues, “I’m still here” (ironically, this echoes a song by Si Kahn, “We’re Still Here,” written for a 1983 documentary about Youngstown steelworkers’ efforts to buy and run the mills that corporations had recently shut down – a connection the ad’s authors almost certainly didn’t know about).  As the images shift to someone sweeping an empty factory floor and then to laughing groups of workers, the narrator predicts that “we will rise again, and we will build things, and build families, and build dreams.  It’s time to get back to what America does best. Because work is a beautiful thing.”   It’s an appealing message, one that reflects some core values of working-class studies.  We believe in the power of work, we know what was lost in deindustrialization, and we want to see a return of good jobs that they offer a decent paycheck and a chance to feel proud of one’s work.

Then we see the closing title, showing that the ad is for Wal-Mart, promising to invest in new manufacturing jobs in the U.S.  This is just one of several ads Wal-Mart has put out that at least indirectly respond to widespread critiques of its poor treatment of workers.  In others, Wal-Mart workers talk about getting promoted, health insurance, and support for education, leaving out other “benefits,” like advice on signing up for public assistance.  Critics of the Wal-Mart business model and advocates for low-wage workers have viewed these ads with skepticism, but this latest one elicited an even stronger response, probably because Rowe is known for talking about jobs that are dirty, unusual, and traditionally working-class.  He has also formed a foundation to encourage people to pursue skilled trades rather than higher education.  Without talking about class directly, Rowe’s website suggests that working-class jobs can be good jobs, and that’s an important message, especially at a time when so many working-class jobs are so bad.  You can see how some might have expected Rowe to refuse to speak for the company most strongly identified with bad working-class jobs.

In response to the ad, Jobs with Justice (JwJ), a non-profit that aims to make the bad working-class jobs a little better, targeted Rowe in a letter-writing campaign. Thousands of people have written to encourage him to meet with Wal-Mart workers and challenging him to rescind what they see as his endorsement of the company. Rowe has posted a series of responses on his facebook page, accusing JwJ of misunderstanding his role – he insists he’s not a spokesman for Wal-Mart – and criticizing JwJ’s tactics.  If you care so much about workers, he asks at one point, why disrupt my Foundation’s efforts to help young working-class people find good jobs – jobs that are, he points out, significantly better than the ones held by the workers JwJ advocates for? Rowe also challenges JwJ: “But even if Wal-Mart falls short, don’t discount the power of a positive message in the mainstream media. We need more good messages around American manufacturing and hard work. . . . Why not encourage more messages around a topic that can actually help your mission and the people you represent?”

Good question. The message that we need more manufacturing jobs is, indeed, a good one – even though today’s manufacturing jobs don’t offer anything like the pay and benefits of the ones people lost when those factories originally shut down.  And yes, we do need more messages that make clear how good jobs improve people’s lives. We also want those images to be used in ways that really do promote workers’ interests.  The problem with the Wal-Mart ad isn’t the way it represents work and workers.  It’s that it uses those images to promote a company that we know contributes to the problems workers face.

Advertising works in part by creating illusions and by manipulating viewers, so we shouldn’t be surprised that advertisers are responding to economic inequality by capitalizing on the longing many Americans feel for economic hope. They know we’re nostalgic for a time when American made things and when hard work seemed to ensure a better life.  They know that we want to believe what the guy in the Cadillac promises – “anything is possible” if only we work hard enough. And they know what we would like to forget: that ads like this work.

Sherry Linkon

From Syria to Salford: How We See the Working Class

On the BBC a couple for weekends ago, I heard an expert on the Middle East describing how the civil war in Syria was worsening by the day. He said something like “Some of the opposition are not nice middle class liberals you know.” The clear implication was that working-class rebels were the really bad ones, the ‘other,’ that ‘we’ had to fear.

I thought about that quite depressing vision of the working class the next day, when I visited a fantastic and soon to close exhibition at London’s Tate Britain art gallery of the work of twentieth century artist L.S. Lowry (1887-1976).  Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life has been an unexpected blockbuster with rave reviews. Importantly, most of those reviews have made specific reference to the working-class focus of both this curation and Lowry’s work more generally. Walking through the six large rooms of this powerful retrospective, an observer can’t ignore class, nor the places where the English working class lived and toiled. Lowry was a painter of industry and labor, and the notes to the exhibition quote his explanation of his work:  “I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I wanted to get a certain effect on the canvas. I couldn’t describe it, but I knew it when I got it.”

Lowry painted ordinary life on the streets of his native Lancashire, including Salford in the North West of England where a fantastic gallery bears his name and highlights his work. Ordinary life for Lowry had industry as its backdrop – factories and mills that his trademark matchstick men and women tumble into or out of as their shifts changed. Even his paintings of working-class leisure, depicting football matches and street entertainment, are dominated by the prospect of work and the smoke-belching chimneys that defined northern England at that time. Lowry does not shy away from the grimness of working-class life.  His painting reflects street brawls, house repossessions and those crippled by industrial accident and disease, as this video shows.

Where the exhibition is especially powerful in its juxtaposition of Lowry’s art with a series of quotes from commentators, some directly addressing the artist’s craft and others offering more general insights into the working-class world he painted. These included poignant extracts from books like Robert Robert’s The Classic Slum, George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy as well as quotes from a John Berger essay. I was reminded just how good the prose in many books about working-class life in the middle years of the twentieth century was. The writing was thoughtful and reflective but pointed. But above all, it was attentive to the working-class experience, a lived experience rooted often in poverty or the fear of it. Consider, for example, this quote from Hoggart’s book, embossed on the wall of the gallery, reflecting simple points about the use of working-class language:  “Today if I hear someone using words like ‘sorrow’ and ‘misery’ freely, they usually sound slightly archaic. To my grandmother they were regular words, together with ‘care’ and ‘hardship.’ When she spoke of someone ‘taking the bread from her mouth’ she was not being dramatic or merely figurative.”

These excerpts give the exhibit visitor pause, as they were designed to do, of course. Lowry’s art and the contemporary writing from and about the working class contextualize each other.  Each art form mirrors the other’s subject matter, the one leveraging understanding of the other. As a working sociologist, I was brought up short by both the paintings and the writing. In just these four writers – and there were others – we see a focus on working-class subjects from Orwell in the 1930s, Hoggart in the 1950s, Berger in the 1960s, and finally Robert’s writing from the 1970s. A four decades span in which working-class life and prospects improved immeasurably even as more popular attention was paid to the lived experience of class and the vision of further improvement. These were writers whose books sold widely in paperback or whose essays were read and helped to form a shared understanding of class matters and a common sense of citizenship. It was perhaps no accident that British sociology and cultural studies expanded in these decades following the Second World War and, early on at least, class was central to its calling.

The exhibition begged many questions about our own age. Lowry’s canvasses recorded a bleak world that few if any would long to return to. If Lowry represented the poverty of working-class life and the heavy price industry demanded of the people and places where it was based in its heyday, then these same paintings in turn raise questions about these inner cities in Northern England now. But above all the exhibition for me prompted consideration of the presence of the working class in popular art and writing now. Lowry’s art has always been popular.  What must have been a cheap reproduction hung in a corridor of my primary school, for instance. But his art also often graced the covers of books about the working class in the decades after the Second World War when serious attention was being paid to them by the likes of Berger and Hoggart. For sure, the working class was often presented as an object of fascination; as ‘different’ from the middle class who researched or wrote about them.  There was, though, a care in that attention and an expression of humanity and recognition in the encounter between classes.

So while there has always been a distance between classes, at times in our history this gap has been narrowed. The geographic distance between Syria and Salford is a long one, but perhaps the void in class understanding may be greater still.

Tim Strangleman

Of Bankers, Pundits, and Hillbillies

Up on Banker’s Hill the party’s going strong

Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.

                     –Bruce Springsteen

What does Rolling Stone’s bad-boy investigative reporter Matt Taibbi have in common with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly?

That might sound like the lead-in to an off-color joke, but I’m serious. Despite their different forums and ostensibly different political orientations, both men reflexively invoke images of poor people—desperately poor people from Appalachia in particular—as cautionary tales, supposedly vivid representatives of what is wrong with our country. For good measure, both toss in “war on drugs” rhetoric to seal the scary deal that “hillbillies”—Taibbi’s word, not mine—are not only economically bankrupt but morally bankrupt as well.

Poverty in Appalachia has been harrowing for well over a century. Moreover, that poverty was planned. At the end of the Civil War, both black and white Appalachians were trapped in the subsistence practice of sharecropping, a struggle to wrest the barest of livings from someone else’s land that shared much with the economic system of slavery. The speedy industrialization and subsequent regional over-production that followed—most famously coal mining, but also timber, textiles, and chemical production—not only bequeathed the exploitation and unsafe working conditions depicted in John Sayles’s movie Matewan, but also had a lasting and deeply detrimental effect on the region’s economic health. The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Appalachia hard by the 1920s, when Southern politicians managed to prevent domestic and agricultural workers from qualifying for Social Security benefits so as to keep them from moving even incrementally closer to economic independence. In the 1960s, when the Johnson administration pushed Appalachian poverty into the national line of vision, one in three Appalachians lived in poverty. More recently, mountaintop removal mining has had a devastating effect on the region. 2008 census figures showed that Appalachia was home to 13.3 million people living in poverty. In some areas, as many as 16.8% of homes are classified as substandard, which means that the house has more people than it has rooms and lacks indoor plumbing. Rates of poverty among children in Appalachia range from 17% in some counties to 56.4% in others. 13.6 million Appalachians have no health insurance (which renders the “hillbilly teeth” sold on Halloween considerably less funny). Last month hundreds of miners gathered in St. Louis to protest both the economic and mining practices that contribute to poverty in Appalachia (stealing retirees’ pensions and stripmining) on the part of Arch Coal, the second largest coal company in the U.S.

When O’Reilly, in a 2009 interview with Diane Sawyer, discussed these economic realities, he disparaged Appalachians as ignorant drunks willfully keeping themselves stuck in a “culture of poverty,” calling the region’s children “hopeless” because of their parents’ innate lack of ambition. As might be expected, the interview generated a great deal of furious response, both from people within the region personally hurt by this application of stereotype and from others outside who were repulsed by this latest articulation of Fox News’s contempt for the poor. With all this in mind, it’s both galling and bewildering that Matt Taibbi, groping in an otherwise instructive piece about the chicanery involved in the bailout of Wall Streets moneyed interests for an analogy to communicate how seemingly ad hoc crisis measures have been institutionalized, writes, “We thought we were just letting a friend crash at the house for a few days; we ended up with a family of hillbillies who moved in forever, sleeping nine to a bed and building a meth lab on the front lawn.”

At best, Taibbi is being lazy here, reaching for a slur that is near to hand to squeeze shock value out of a hateful stereotype: Appalachians are poor because they deserve to be. At worst, he is rearticulating the Reagan’s disgusting image of the “welfare queen” who takes and takes but is unwilling to contribute to society. In doing so, Taibbi knocks at the door of a ringing defense of 21st century capitalism, wherein the poorest people endanger a healthy economy, and the better-off are at risk of contagion from them. It’s particularly frightening in the context of American history to put forth, as Taibbi does, an image hinging on how dangerous it is when the wrong people get into your neighborhood.

Taibbi’s starkly punishing “war on drugs” language deploys this vocabulary of invasion to identify a group of people who supposedly cook meth because they’re rotten at their core (and sleep nine to a bed because they’re tacky). This demonization of addicts is all too familiar to me. Having watched heroin ravage the neighborhood I grew up in—at least four dead, including my brother, on my old block alone—I am accustomed to encountering language that blames people who just don’t want to better themselves and get off drugs, darn it. Sometimes the language is coded, but sometimes it’s not: the meth Taibbi invokes is frequently referred to as “hillbilly crack.”

The concrete relationship between meth and the rural economic wastelands of the United States is depicted in a moving way in the 2010 movie Winter’s Bone, in which even the landscape is empty and bleak. There’s no work to be had, so people cook meth. They are resigned to the fact that sometimes they will die doing it. “When it’s either the mine or the Kentucky National Guard,” sing Old Crow Medicine Show in their 2008 song “Methamphetamine,” “I’d rather sell him a line than be dying in the coal yard.”

But the most important word in Taibbi’s cruel put-down might be one of the shortest and most common: “we.” In my teaching life, I often wish for a rubber stamp to print certain comments I find myself writing over and over. “Who is this ‘we’ you’re writing about?” is one stamp I’d order up to simplify my job. Obviously, Taibbi’s “we” is not simply “Americans,” because some people are being pointedly excluded. “Decent” Americans? Suburban Americans? Educated Americans? The mental exercise of filling in that blank—who is “we” to Taibbi and O’Reilly, and who are the outside invaders trashing up their well-manicured front yards—is painful.

It’s a shame, really, because Taibbi has shown the potential to make Rolling Stone halfway relevant again. If he could learn to set aside his class bias, a lot of what he writes is insightful and deep. “Taibbi’s too smart and wickedly funny to opt for the hillbilly default button,” historian Jeff Biggers, author of The United States of Appalachia, among other books, told me. “When it comes to banking machinations, he should turn off ‘Buckwild’ and take a cue from Anne Royall, the hillbilly muckraker–the original American muckraker that carved out Taibbi’s literary niche nearly two centuries ago–who single-handedly took on the corruption of the Bank of the United States.”

Ultimately, I mourn the way Taibbi has surrendered the rhetorical battle. The wonderful radical Appalachian poet Don West pointed out more than half a century ago the great American sleight-of-hand to which Taibbi contributes: somehow convincing a broad swath of Americans that it is the poor who are to blame, not those who have made millions after bloody millions from institutionalized racism, from environmentally reckless industrial policies, from mass incarceration and the drug laws that facilitate it. Taibbi owes Appalachians an apology, to be sure. And his readers need to refuse to be part of Taibbi’s “we,” and instead join the community on the lawn—they’re not cooking meth, they’re Occupying.

Rachel Rubin

Rachel Rubin is a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of Immigration and American Popular Culture (with Jeffrey Melnick).

Stereotyping the White Working Class

As I’ve pointed out in previous blogs here, here, and here, Democratic politicians led by President Obama have consistently claimed that they are resolutely for a catch-all “middle class,” even as Democratic political strategists, operatives, and pundits publicly worry about losing too many votes among a “white working class” that has no place in the politicians’ messaging.

They worry because, within a simplified racial + class breakdown of the electorate, the white working class (typically defined as white folks without bachelor’s degrees) is both the largest group of voters (about 2 of 5 in 2008) and the one that votes the most lopsidedly Republican.

Democrats typically win people of color by huge margins (about 80/20, or by 60 percentage points in 2008), while losing the much larger group of whites by smaller margins (about 12 points in 2008).  Among white voters, Dems have recently been coming close to breaking even among whites with bachelor’s degrees (Obama lost by only 4 points in 2008 among this “white middle class”), while continuing to lose the “white working class” by much larger margins (18 points in 2008).  If the President does too much worse than that among working-class whites (say, getting only 35% of their votes vs. 40% in 2008), Mitt Romney will be our president.

This three-part breakdown of the American electorate is much too simple, of course, and it is disheartening for those of us who dream of (and have worked for) the kind of working-class solidarity that could change basic economic and political power relations in this country.  But simplified conceptual schemas are inevitable and necessary in organizing the overwhelming complexity of social reality, and this crude combo of race and class is better than the schemas that preceded it, which grossly overestimated the size and suburban character of the “educated middle class.”  It at least recognizes that there is a working class and that not all whites are middle class or affluent.  It is also practically wise for Democrats to be concerned about winning a larger slice of this part of the electorate.

But there’s the rub.  Democrats cannot do better among working-class whites if they envision them as a uniform group that thinks and feels the same way everywhere, as the political pros quite often do.  That is, an overwhelmingly middle-class and upper-class set of politicians, operatives, and pundits appear to have so little direct experience of working-class people of any color that they consistently fall into stereotyping that clouds their vision and often insults the voters they are trying to persuade. At a San Francisco fundraiser in 2008, President Obama articulated the stereotype with unusual clarity (and nuance if you listen to the whole speech) when he expressed some empathy for those who “cling to their guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment.”

There are white workers who cling to their guns or religion or their racism and nativism – I could give you some names and addresses!  But there are many others who do not.  It seems as if sophisticated, very well-educated people whose vocation involves electoral politics should recognize that within a demographic category including nearly 50 million voters, not everybody thinks and feels the same way.   Start with the 40% nationally who vote pretty consistently Democratic in presidential elections.  Why do they do that?  How are they different from those who vote consistently Republican or the group that goes back and forth?

These are the questions Andrew Levison recently addressed in an article posted on the Democratic Strategist blog, “The White Working Class is a Decisive Voting Group in 2012 – and Most of What You Read About Their Political Attitudes Will Be Completely Wrong.”  Using the 2011 Pew Political Typology survey that asked voters to choose between “liberal/progressive” and “conservative” policy statements, Levison found that about 26% of white working-class voters were “progressive true believers” and 27.5% were “conservative true believers.”  The largest group, at about 46%, however, is what Levison calls “ambivalent/open-minded.”  These may be congenital “moderates” or “low-information voters,” but Levison focuses on something he has directly observed among white workers – a willingness to acknowledge truth in both of two contradictory positions.  These are people, he says, “who do think quite seriously about issues, but do so in a fundamentally different way than do ideologically committed people.”  He calls them “on the one hand, but on the other hand” thinkers (emphasis added).

The answers in the Pew survey are interesting and insightful in themselves, but Levison’s willingness to wade into the complexity of white working-class political thinking and to come out with a clarifying (if necessarily simplifying) analysis is especially rewarding.  There is rarely a clear majority of those who “strongly agree” with either of the two statements presented by Pew, but there are some.  For example, 53% strongly agree that “Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and healthcare,” while another 53% strongly agree that “Business corporations make too much profit” and 70% that “Too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large corporations.”  Levison finds that the largest group of working-class whites are “cultural traditionalists,” but that “The genuinely consistent white working class conservatives – the Fox News/Talk Radio” hard-line ideologues – represent only about one fourth of the white working class total.”

Stereotyping is always based on taking a part to be a whole.  It is often said that there is “an element of truth in stereotypes.”  There is not.  Rather there is a subgroup within the stereotyped group that fulfills the stereotype.  It may be large, even a majority, or it may be small, but it is always a mistake to think that any part is the same as the whole.  Once committed to a stereotype, observers tend to see only those parts that confirm the stereotype and to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit the expectation. That’s why Levison’s analysis is so valuable.  It confirms that a large part of the white working class fulfills the “culturally conservative/economically populist” stereotype popular among political pundits, while never losing sight of the part that is progressive both culturally and economically and the part that is consistently conservative on both fronts.

The one thing I would add to Levison’s analysis: these different political types are not equally distributed across the country, as any national survey and reasoning about it tend to suggest.  The size and character of the white working-class vote varies greatly from state to state.

Nobody cares, for example, that whites without bachelor’s degrees gave John McCain 6- and 10-point majorities in California and New York in 2008 – first, because they are a relatively small group in those states (27% and 29% respectively vs. 39% nationally), and second, because these states are safely Democratic based on strong majorities among large groups of voters of color and whites with bachelor’s degrees.   Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the part of Virginia where many national media workers live are similar.  My guess is that the national media tends to mistake these parts for the whole.  They don’t mistake Alabama’s average-sized white working class, which gave Obama only 9% of its vote in 2008, for the whole.  But they do tend to project their parts of the country onto many other parts where it does not fit.

Most importantly, in the Midwest battleground states – Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin – whites without bachelor’s degrees were the majority of voters in 2008.  Democrats cannot win in those states with Alabama-type margins going to the GOP, and they will struggle with California/New York-type margins (as they did in Missouri and Ohio in 2008, losing the first and winning the second by narrow margins).  Fortunately, working-class whites in Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin not only do not fulfill the racial + class stereotype, in 2008 they reversed it.  In all three states, President Obama won majorities among this group, as he did in 11 other states, including important “leaners” like Oregon and Washington.

I’m hoping Levison’s analysis, placed as it is in an important source of independent Democratic strategizing, may pull Democratic politicians and operatives away from their stereotypes of working-class whites.  Levison urges Dems to focus on the “on the one hand, but on the other hand” thinkers and to make their case fully and frankly, and I would add, in some detail.  This rather than bobbing and weaving so as not to offend a “typical conservative white worker” who is but part (though admittedly often a loud part) of a much larger and more complicated whole.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

 

 

Beyond Stereotypes: What Makes a Good Representation of the Working Class?

The working class is everywhere these days – in the dozens of reality TV shows about work, in media analysis of the Republican race for the presidential nomination, and in recent reports on economic inequality.  While the Occupy movement isn’t necessarily about the working class, and there are real divides within the 99%, the movement has helped change the meaning of the term “class warfare,” making it harder for conservatives to use it to denigrate any effort to talk about economic justice.  Given recent history, the presence of the working class in public discourse shouldn’t surprise us.

The increase in attention is real and significant.  A check of three news databases – Lexis/Nexis, Newspaper Source, and Newsbank – suggests that the number of stories that include the phrase “working class” has more than tripled over the last two decades.  A Newsbank search of articles in news magazines, for example, found 212 articles mentioning the working class in 1991 and 1992, but a search for 2010 and 2011 listed 778.  Newspaper Source, which searches newspapers, news wires, transcripts, and magazines, tracked an increase from 117 items in 1991-92 to 5774 in 2010-2011.  These numbers may not provide an exact count of what’s happened. Earlier articles may not have been entered into these online databases, which were just getting started in 1991, and the number of news outlets has grown with digital media.  But even given those issues, it seems as if the American media are talking about the working class much more now than they were 20 years ago.

Is it merely coincidence that the first working-class studies conference was held here at Youngstown State 20 years ago?  Several colleagues have suggested that new working-class studies has helped draw attention to the working class. Within this field, scholars, artists, and activists who share a concern about the working class have often noted that American media tend to either ignore or stereotype the working class.  Well, they’re certainly not ignoring the working class these days, so we seem to have made progress.  But have we gotten beyond the stereotypes?

Of course not.  If nothing else, reality TV shows like Hillbilly Handfishin’ and Moonshiners suggest that at least one old-style working-class stereotype – the redneck, white country boy – is alive and well.  So, too, is the idea of the white blue-collar factory worker, a down-to-earth guy who’s proud of the work he does and enjoys a cold one at the end of the day. And then there are all the reporters and commentators analyzing whether Mitt Romney can attract enough white working-class voters to win the Republican nomination over the supposedly more working-class Rick Santorum, a discussion that explains Santorum’s appeal by noting his coal miner grandfather, his traditional values, and his ordinary guy persona.

On the other hand, some recent public discourse about the working class suggests that some of the ideas that we’ve been discussing at working-class studies conferences for the past two decades are being heard beyond academic walls.  Consider, for example, Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  No doubt, Murray’s argument that the white working class is in decline because it lacks morality and self-discipline is troubling, and a number of critics have already pointed out the problems with this analysis, especially his habit of assigning to culture social changes that are rooted in economics.  Yet we can’t accuse him of mere stereotyping.  Two recent reports by one of the best reporters on working-class issues, Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times, corroborate two of Murray’s main claims:  that the working-class lags far behind the middle and upper class on educational attainment and that single motherhood is increasingly common for women without college degrees.  Part of what makes Tavernise’s reports so good is that, unlike Murray, she identifies economic reasons for these cultural patterns, rather than suggesting that they reflect moral or intellectual weaknesses.

And yet, Murray’s approach suggests that he understands a key idea of working-class studies: like Barbara Jensen, Jack Metzgar, and others, he views class not solely in terms of economic position but also as a matter of culture.  I wish he’d paid more attention to the idea that working-class culture has some real strengths, such as the strong family and community ties that Jensen identifies, but I’m still pleased that his book has gotten people thinking about class in more cultural terms.  Murray also defines the working class not by income but by a combination of education and occupation, an approach that at least in part reflects the complex understanding of class in new working-class studies.

The working-class value of fostering communal ties rather than focusing on individual achievement was a core theme of Chrysler’s much-discussed “Halftime in America” ad.  Clint Eastwood’s gravelly voice speaks in terms of “we” and “us,” and he reminds us that because the people of Detroit “all pulled together,” the auto industry there has recovered.

Both that ad and another GE ad also challenge the whiteness of so much of public discourse about the working class.  Chrysler shows images of white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and other American people, some looking gravely at the camera, others working, dropping kids off at school, driving a car.  GE shows workers at a Kentucky appliance factory, men and women, white and black, talking about why their jobs matter.

Of course, these ads still draw on a fairly narrow, traditional definition of the working class — the industrial worker.  I’d like to see the media develop better strategies to show us the majority of today’s working class – the janitors, retail clerks, home health care workers, and so on.  For too many people, “working class” still brings to mind a factory worker, not a cashier, and that contributes to continued misunderstanding not only of who the working class is but of what issues matter to the working class.  But then I’m reminded of the question someone once asked after I introduced myself as the co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies:  do we still have a working class in America?  What she meant, I think, is that all the blue-collar jobs had disappeared.  But while most working-class jobs these days are in the service sector, there’s some value to remembering that factory jobs still exist and still matter.

We’ve spent so much time talking about how the media gets it wrong.  Maybe we also need to talk about what it means to get it right. Clearly, we’ve made gains in the quantity of media attention to the working class. But how are we doing on quality? What do you think makes a good representation of the working class?

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Icons of the Rich and Famous

Most agree that Newt Gingrich’s win over Mitt Romney in South Carolina had to do with what the pundits are calling “unforced errors” on Romney’s part—a series of gaffs, blunders, and obfuscations relating to Romney’s wealth, his unreleased tax returns, the fortune he amassed at Bain Capital (as well as how he amassed it), and his offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. While in 2008 comedians compared Romney to the Muppet Guy Smiley, in 2012 Romney is looking more like a cartoon cut out of the corporate stereotype—the top-hatted villain in countless American political cartoons of the last 100 years.

While Gingrich is more of a hard scrabble upstart when it comes to his family story, he certainly belongs to the inner circle of the super rich today. And if you have been following Rachel Maddow’s coverage of Gingrich, you know that she has successfully argued that he is little better than a scam artist, using his run for president to sell books written by himself and his wife Calista and using his consulting firms as tax write-offs, for example. But whatever Gingrich’s millions or his ethical problems,  he has been able to paint Romney—with Romney’s considerable assistance—as the only nervous, goofy, out-of-touch super rich guy in the race.

As the Republican primary continues on its strange course, I am convinced that Occupy Wall Street deserves a great deal of credit for our ability to see Romney as a purveyor of “vulture capitalism.” While the idea of the 1% wasn’t even on the radar during the Iowa Straw Poll in August, since then the Occupy movement has shifted the conversation, and the blame for our current economic crisis, to the wealthy.  Even now that the Occupy movement has been forced into hibernation for the winter, it has resurrected the grammar of the iconic rich dude in all of his manifestations—a visual grammar with a rich and complicated history.  That image of the 1% has been applied most effectively in this campaign season to Romney. We’ve seen this hundreds of times, in articles and blog posts, and perhaps most iconically in this disturbing photo taken when Romney was the head of Bain Capital.

Given the pervasive use of the super rich caricature, I thought it might be useful to take a look at its cultural history. One of the oldest negative 20th century stereotypes of the rich is the fat cat. The term in its current usage, as an insult for wealthy businessmen, was first coined by Frank Kent writing for H.L. Menken in The American Mercury. By the 1930s the term was used to insult specifically those wealthy businessmen who bankrolled politicians. The fat cat in political cartoons is usually represented as an obscenely fat orange tabby cat standing on two legs. He is always masculine, humanoid, and he towers over everyone else in the image—all the while wearing a dark suit, a cigar, and a sneer. In recent years the fat cat has been used by political cartoonists and activists in the US and around the world. Wisconsin-based cartoonist Mike Konopacki has a nice fat cat, and here’s a larger-than-life inflatable fat cat strangling a worker at a protest in front the World Bank. The fat cat is not to be confused with the black cat, an image used by Progressive Era IWW cartoonists to symbolize worker sabotage and resistance which has been making a comeback by way of Occupy Wall Street.

The robber baron is a close cousin of the fat cat. He is always male, top-hatted, holding a cigar, usually fat, and often very tall in scale compared to other figures in the image. The modern day iconography dates back to the 1870s era cartoons of Thomas Nast, poking fun at Andrew Carnegie and Jay Rockefeller, but the term is much older. According to Wikipedia the term dates back to Germany in the Middle Ages, when powerful Catholic bishops were allowed to collect tolls from passing ships on the Rhine river, sometimes stringing iron chains across the river. At times they overstepped their boundaries, and were perceived as “robbing” more than their fair share of tolls.

The Monopoly Man got his start as “Milburn Pennybags,” the capitalist icon of the best selling Parker Brothers Monopoly game in the 1930s. Mr. Pennybags is in considerably better shape than his fat cat/robber baron brethren. He is trim, agile, and more benignly comic. Like them, he does wear a top hat and a tux coat, but he usually holds a cane and has a monocle. In recent years Milburn Pennybags has become a counter-revolutionary icon, especially in the hands of LA street artist “Alec.” The New Yorker seemed to be channeling a rioting horde of Milburn Pennybag-types with its cover mocking the 1% last Fall. According to internet rumors, Mitt Romney always chooses to be the top hat when he plays Monopoly.

When it comes to animated comic images of the super rich, we have many figures to choose from, including Scrooge McDuck, Mr. Magoo, and Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. But one of more unusual icons is that of the child millionaire Richie Rich. He was born out of the comic series “Little Dot” in 1953, and, according to Wikipedia, he was Harvey Comic’s most popular character for much of the 1960s and 1970s. Richie Rich is usually dressed in blue short pants, an Eton collar, and a large red bow. Unlike his adult counterparts Richie Rich likes to give away his millions. He was turned into an animated television cartoon in the 1980s, and a live action film starring McCauly Caulkin in 1994. In 2011 Ape Entertainment re-licensed Richie Rich, making him into a globe-trotting do-gooder.

There are almost no animated icons of the super rich in feminine form, except perhaps Cruella De Vil. She was created in 1956 by British novelists Dodie Smith (the daughter of a bank manager) whose novel about Dalmations was adapted by Disney in 1961. In the original story Cruella was a London heiress with a 6 million pound fortune (or 1 billion dollars today, according to Forbes Magazine). As a school girl she was expelled for drinking ink. It has been argued that some of De Vil’s extravagances were based on those of the actress Tallulah Bankhead. In the original story, she is married to a furrier who comes off as a hen-pecked husband, but in the Disney version she is definitely a single lady. Her name can be easily parsed. Cruella stands for “cruel,” and “De Vil” is “devil.” She is something of a fashion icon, copied recently by Lady Gaga, and for some inexplicable reason there is a facebook page called “people who think that Nancy Pelosi looks like Cruella De Vil.”

There are many more icons of the rich, of course, and some personal favorites include Thurston Howell, III from Gilligan’s Island, Bruce Wayne (Batman), Willy Wonka and Jed Clampett. But I was surprised to see that the idea of the filthy rich fictional character has become so embedded in our culture that for the last ten years Forbes Magazine has been tracking the fortunes of the 15 wealthiest rich icons. Daddy Warbucks, Santa Claus, Laura Croft, and Jabba the Hut have all appeared on this tongue-in-cheek list.

All this leaves me with more questions than answers. On the one hand I believe that attention must be paid to these burlesques of the super rich, if only to acknowledge that Americans have a penchant for ridiculing both the higher and lower orders in our comedic traditions. It is not just the blue collar bus driver (Ralph Kramden), or the nuclear plant worker (Homer Simpson) that is the butt of the joke in American culture. But for all the laughs we might have at the expense of the super rich, how is that they still have so much power? Is the comedic icon a mere distraction, like everything else in our culture, drawing our attention away from the streets and the voting booth? Or can the representation of the banker as ogre have genuine political impact on the American electorate? If Newt Gingrich becomes the nominee, will his status as a secret member of the “Van Dough” family finally be revealed?

What is your favorite icon of the rich and famous? And what do you think it means?

Kathy M. Newman

In Defense of the Mullet

The banning of mullet hairstyles in Iran as “decadent” has spawned a surprisingly fast-moving discussion about the hairstyle in the United States. Across the country, people have been busily, and often colorfully, reflecting upon not just Iran’s cultural politics but the short-in-the-front, long-in-the-back hairstyle itself in every from of media you can think of.  Americans have been talking mullet in newspapers and blogs, on television and radio, via twitter and discussion boards.

It’s always true that our perceptions of style and fashion, and the ways in which we choose to talk about them, serve as expressions of our feelings about the group of people for whom that style matters, from the zoot suit on Mexican Americans in the 1940s to long hair on hippies in the 1960s to baggy jeans on African American youth in the present. The current mullet frenzy is no exception. As filmmaker Jennifer Arnold has shown in her excellent 2001 documentary American Mullet, the three groups of people who wear mullets in large numbers are working-class Southern men, lesbians, and Mexican Americans.

Conveniently—and, I would argue, dangerously— concealing the mullet’s class associations underneath its role as “just fashion,” commentators have used this piece of international news as permission to take part in the all-too-familiar stigmatizing of the U.S. working class (with more than a dash of homophobia and/or racism thrown in for good measure in some cases)— in this case through the also all-too-familiar marshaling of that slippery and pernicious category called “taste.” The result is an unspoken argument that, in the words of journalist Annalee Newitz, “class becomes a choice—just like a haircut.”

Here in New England, the mullet fantasy involves the symbolic denigration of poor U.S. Southerners. The local newspaper, the Boston Globe, has jumped on this bandwagon with both feet, running an editorial opining that the hairstyle “deserves to be banned” (“Iran: Ahmadinejad’s Fashion Police”) and a snarky feature article called, “Why Do We Loathe the Mullet?”

The derisive and elitist tone of these articles (and the numerous others like them) makes it clear that presenting the mullet as somehow humorous is operating here as permission to engage in out-and-out class-based mockery and dehumanization of the poor. For instance, “Why Do We Loathe the Mullet?” approvingly quotes an “expert,” Professor Tom Connolly of Suffolk University (a private university in downtown Boston). Connolly makes this banal but disgusting regionalism and elitism unusually explicit, “gleefully” imagining a mullet-wearer crawling out from under his trailer home in order to “grin at you through gray teeth.”

Connolly efficiently hits on two of the most iconic images of the supposed degeneracy of working-class and poor people: bad teeth and a trailer home. (Plastic versions of these “bad teeth” are sold every Halloween under names such as “hillbilly teeth,” and the term “trailer trash” is so significant as a term of class-based ridicule that it has its own wikipedia page, turns up millions of google hits, and a supports whole genus of supposed humor, from greeting cards to stand-up routines to facebook applications.) We’d all do well to remember that if you make fun of someone for having bad teeth—especially someone living in a trailer—what you are really saying is, “Isn’t it hilarious—that person doesn’t have access to health care! And I do!” As an experiment, I would like to suggest to Professor Connolly that the next time he wishes to make a contemptuous comment about people living in trailers, he stick the word “FEMA” in front of the word “trailer” and see if he still wants to utter the sentence. I’m afraid he still would, though: the suffering in New Orleans after Katrina has only served to amplify class-based mockery of its residents from some quarters; Connolly, here—and by extension the Globe—has placed himself on the far end of this particular spectrum of ridicule by imagining his mullet-wearer crawling out from under his trailer—what the hell would he be doing under there?—which casts him as something inhuman, like a lizard.

The article’s glib use of “we” in the title—in which it is far from alone—is revelatory as well. When my students use that word, I always ask them if they can tell me exactly who “we” is—and who is the implied “they.” “We” cannot hate the mullet unless “they” are wearing it. This establishing of the working class as permanent and inferior “other” has practical implications, the most important of which is, of course, how much easier it becomes to justify their continued economic exploitation.

The class-based ridicule of mullet-wearers has regional particularity that is further divisive. In Boston, the focus may be on working-class Southerners, but in California, a number of satirical blogs and columns have men of Mexican ancestry in their sights. For instance, the author of the blog “Weird Fresno” writes:

Apparently they are banning several hairstyles and one of those is the ever-popular mullet. Now normally I’m for freedom of expression…but the fact that they are banning the mullet is probably the best thing that country has done in a long, long while… Maybe others will take note and follow the example that Iran had started. Imagine if Chowchilla banned the mullet?

Since Chowchilla is a city in the San Joaquin valley, one of California’s most important centers of Mexican and Mexican American life since World War II, when Mexican workers were brought to the region to provide cheap farm labor through the government’s bracero program, it is plain here how “mullet” is operating as a code—if barely.

I should disclose my personal stake in this. My brother in Raleigh sometimes wears a mullet. He hasn’t really had one since 2006, though, when he cut off his long-in-the-back hair so he could join his pre-teen daughter in donating to Locks of Love. He’s like that. In his honor, I invite readers to take the small but emphatic step of singing this petition to call the Boston Globe, at least, to account.

Rachel Rubin

Rachel Rubin is a professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the author of Immigration and American Popular Culture (with Jeffrey Melnick).