Conspicuous Consumer "Culture"
The fun thing about White Trash, the thing that gives me minutes of amusement on an almost daily basis, is that White Trash doesn’t have to be white.
Anybody can be White Trash – black people, Asians, it doesn’t matter what race or ethnicity you are. You, too, can be White Trash by doing one thing: adopt and subvert any behavior, material possession, or fashion of a perceived upper or ruling class, take that element out of its original context, and then use it as a sign to the rest of the world that YOU HAVE MADE IT!! You’re successful...you’re wealthy...you’re cultured...
White Trashery comes in many forms, but it was not invented in the 20th or 21st century. Nope, this sort of unsophisticated co-opting has been going on for millennia. By now, enough of you have gone on these trips with me. The same rules apply: keep your head and arms inside at all times, take your finger out of there, and quit picking at that. So, let’s travel through time and have a look – right up to today – at great White Trash moments in history.
Hang on – ’twill definitely be a bumpy ride! [Insert cheesy time-travel special effect here…]
When in Rome
The sainted ancient Chinese who pretty much gave the world everything from gunpowder to paper to pasta also had their classic White Trash moments as well. A couple that spring to mind relate to makeup and high heels. Both resulted directly from the practice of footbinding among wealthy Chinese.
The footbinding practice lasted for a few centuries and in effect crippled its subject by breaking and remodeling her foot into a tiny boot. This was not only painful to walk on, but for most women walking became a dainty, mincing act of taking teeny-tiny, gingerly excruciating steps. The Chinese Guidos of the day thought this wobbly walk was sexy – they, in fact, developed a whole fetish culture surrounding the bound foot, its tiny shoes, and the women attached to these deformed appendages. High-heeled shoes later came into vogue to emulate the swaying stagger of the footbound woman.
These women didn’t get out much, which meant their skin was not exposed to sunlight very often. As a result they were very pale. The Chinese peasant woman, however, working out in the fields was very dark from sun exposure, but she wanted people to think she was rich, too. In a glorious Chinese White Trash moment, face powder was invented. This gave the non-rich the look of wealth without being wealthy. This paler-than-thou look caught on and found its way to Elizabethan England and spread through Europe as well. The message was the same: “I have money, I don’t have to be outdoors working like a peasant; therefore, I am very pale, forsooth!”
This fools no one of course, and trends in skin tones with their subtext have changed over the decades. For a time, having a tan was considered de rigueur. It meant one was a person of leisure (i.e., “wealth”) who could afford to play outdoors and, as a result, have a “healthy” tan. Pale folk had to work at jobs.
Fads and trends didn’t always trickle down unto the unwashed masses, however. Prostitutes have contributed much in the way of “beauty” that was adopted by the upper crust (this reverse flow in White Trashery is rare but it does happen). In the Middle East during the time of Jesus, prostitutes (invariably dark-haired – hey, they were Jews!!) often hennaed their hair as a form of walking advertisement. Imagine in a sea of brunettes you find the one ginger girl sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb: Bingo! There’s yer hooker!
In ancient Rome the same held sway, only the Roman prostitutes were required to wear blond hair (whether dyed with vegetable dyes or from artificial wigs of horsehair). This was so they could be easily identified. The Roman noblewomen thought this was deliciously subversive and risqué and naughty, and began wearing their hair (either bleached or bewigged) in the blond color. How outré! How rebellious!! How titillating and bawdy to equate your wife with common street hookers! See? As I said, anybody can be White Trash, even swarthy Mediterranean olive-pickers.
White Trash Cadillac
Although there have been some trends adopted by the wealthy from the lower elements, mostly it flows the other way: I give you, ladies and germs, the stereotypical White Trash Cadillac. In today’s world the vehicle in question doesn’t necessarily have to be a Cadillac; it just has to be a car well out of the “owner’s” price range. It will usually be more expensive and in better condition than his house, his clothes, his wife, or his child’s educational future. Here’s where the Caddy as a symbol of status came about. And, yes, this time you can blame the Jews, but they didn’t do it on purpose.
The great social commentator/comedian Lenny Bruce (who was Jewish) once riffed that New York City is truly a Jewish city. “Everybody in New York is Jewish. Even the black people are Jewish!” Lenny was right.
Jewish people of an entrepreneurial bent had actually been outlawed over the centuries from holding certain occupations. Thus, they gravitated toward the service industry, and more specifically toward operations such as pawn shops, clothiers, etc. In New York City in the early part of the 20th century many Jewish immigrants, because they were not welcomed among Whitey (sometimes also known as “Mister Charlie” to blacks or the “goy” to Jews), settled in areas where African-Americans lived.
Neither group seemed to mind the other so much; a symbiosis developed economically in such neighborhoods. The Jewish people opened groceries, jewelry stores, and pawn shops next to, and in, Harlem and the other concentrated black areas of New York. Over a few decades these businesses thrived, and the Jewish proprietors became wealthy (some would argue by economically preying on disenfranchised African-Americans but that’s a talk for another time). Regardless, these successful Jews started driving the best car money could buy on the mass market. That was the Cadillac.
In the mid 1940s with World War II ending, and the country moving into an economic boom that would last for the next 20 years, the black people who saw Jews driving around in the big fancy Caddies looked at the car as an end unto itself: “If you have the car, you must be rich. Everyone who drives a Caddy is rich; therefore, if I drive a Cadillac, people will think I’m rich”.
Sadly, African-Americans came to covet the Cadillac. The part of the Cadillac picture these early conspicuous consumers missed was that the Cadillac (as a symbol of “making it” for the Jews who drove them) was the end of the status line, not the beginning. They built their businesses first, often living in crummy quarters over the store front. They saved. Finally, they moved to nicer apartments or bought a house. They sent their kids to college. The Cadillac was the icing on the cake – they had plenty of cake to go underneath it, though. The average black denizen of Harlem didn’t get this, however. It was typical “cart-before-the-horse” thinking. Buy the car, look good, be admired. Never mind you live in a vermin infested tenement and have a meaningless job (if any). Get that car!!
Once the Cadillac was firmly entrenched as a status symbol among African-Americans, however, the Jewish people abandoned it. It had lost its cachet. Anything once rare, when it becomes common, no longer has the social value it once had and can actually become anathema. In perhaps the greatest of all ironies, the wealthy Jewish community moved on to two other more costly and symbolically greater signs of wealth: the German-made BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
But White Trash across the social spectrum loves its pricey cars. As a private investigator I was forced to go places, creepy places, places that I would not have gone voluntarily. I was on a strip of two-lane is southwestern West Virginia, and the misplaced priorities among these people were amazing to behold. Almost every house in this backwoods section was ramshackle, with sway-backed roofs and front porches caving in, complete with the requisite broken major appliances either on the porch or in the lifeless dirt yard. But no matter how many of these places I saw, it never ceased to astound me: each one had a satellite dish the size of Rhode Island in the front yard and a spit-shined Camaro in the dirt driveway. [And before you get all “stereotype-y” on me, the whole state of West Virginia does not look like this. I’ve traveled throughout it, and it is quite beautiful. This particular example of White Trashery just happened to stick out in my head as I was writing this. I have seen countless others scattered across this great land of ours: White Trash is nationwide!!].
Nouveau Riche White Trash
These are the funniest kinds of White Trash. These are the ones who get a little cash and have no clue how to spend it There are two wonderfully comical examples that are merely entertaining; I’ll then move on to the type that is truly harmful.
The classic Steve Martin comedy, The Jerk, skewers the nouveau White Trash “culture” (or lack thereof) better than any movie in history. The behaviors exemplified by Martin’s Navin R. Johnson after he hits it big with his invention of the Opti-Grab for eyeglasses are still hysterical over 30 years later. The back yard water-coolers filled with wines (red in one, white in the other), the paper umbrellas to add to the glass of water-cooler wine, the kitschy and tasteless home decor – this is riotous stuff. My favorite scene is when Steve and the supremely sexy Bernadette Peters are eating in a four-star restaurant. After ordering escargots, Steve makes a scene because there are snails on Bernadette’s plate!! He also beefs about the age of the wine: “Bring me some new stuff, no more of this old junk.”
The real life “Jerk”, though, had to be Elvis. That’s right, I said it: Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll, was the epitome of White Trash. Look at his lifestyle objectively. He had dozens of cars each more expensive than the other (one of which famously had a record player in it, a useless feature unless the car were completely motionless). There was the “showplace” mansion Graceland (and for anyone who’s ever been there it’s a shrine to what White Trash thinks is good taste. The Jungle Room alone earns Elvis his spot as truly great White Trash). Regardless, though, Elvis probably had an excuse – he grew up dirt stinkin’ poor, and he really didn’t know any better. Classier culture was not so readily accessed by media exposure as it is today.
The most visible of today’s nouveau riche White Trash, though, are the hip-hop artists, producers, and hangers-on (whatever it is they do). Take Elvis’ inability to understand class and art and multiply that by 10,000, and you have hip-hop’s gauche, overt mass-consumption of certain items, not because they are good or the best, but because they are expensive.
The hip-hop community’s embracing Moët et Chandon is painful to watch. Cristal has been adopted, gold UV cello wrap and all. Why? Not because Eminem and Jay-Z are connoisseurs of fine champagnes or are oenophiles, but because these vintners make an expensive product, and it has become a symbol of success in the hip-hop community. Just like the Caddy – if you can buy it you must be a person of taste and substance. But just like in Steve Martin’s The Jerk, you can’t buy class or good taste.
The most hysterical abuse of ostentatious consumption I’ve ever seen was while watching one of those dippy shows where a camera walks you through some famous rapper’s house. This rapper guy proudly opened his refrigerator door, and on the door itself, lined up like so many ketchup bottles or mayo jars, were bottles of Cristal. The door was full of several grand worth of the stuff. This man was proud of his Cristal. Never mind that the temperature of an average refrigerator is not ideal for storage of fine champagne. Never mind these bottles belong in a traditional wine cellar, and probably don’t need continued jarring from opening and closing a refrigerator. None of that matters, because that guy and his buddies will only swill it straight from the bottle anyway, so what do they care about bouquet or vintage? [And I have seen this happen: no champagne glass, just straight from the bottle as if it were a Big Gulp. I’m surprised they just don’t break down and use Kray-zee Straws, too.]
What is hurtful about such shenanigans is that ordinary African-Americans, who, as a middle class are working toward what Jewish people did 70 years ago, are the fastest growing, and nearly invisible, segment of the African-American population. While every other group is losing its “middle” class, the African-American one has grown in the last 30 years. These are the people who are making it, unsung and quietly going on about their business. But they are not as visible because they are not culture clowns or conspicuous consumers. Rather, the media just dishes out the imagery of the hip-hop artist swigging from the neck of a $500 bottle of Dom Perignon.
And just as Jewish business owners did with the Cadillac, the previous patrons of Moët et Chandon and Cristal (established in 1743 and 1867 respectively) will abandon them as common.
Counter-Culture White Trash
Some skeezer comes up with a fashion trend and the rest of the world adopts it. Beatniks, once counter-culture-y, had their silly Berets, their black clothes, and their goatees. These items turned into armbands for the masses. Similarly the hippie-scum bowel movement of the 1960s left us for a couple of decades with the worst fashions in all of humanity’s long history. Finally, the “grunge” thing with its flannel, shabby jeans, and hiking boots was perhaps the most recent thing subverted by your grandfather as “cool” and “hip” and “with it”. Any time the masses pick up on hipster gear, it’s all over. Time to move on.
Some cruddy things linger however, and an entire culture can base its identity on that thing. The best White Trash television show ever was My Name is Earl. This show nailed every facet of White Trash living: the trailer park, the bad food, feeding babies Mountain Dew in bottles. Everything was there, including the waterbed. And I am of course talking about the White Trash love affair with this bag of fluid that continues to this day.
The waterbed concept dates back to the early 19th century. Such water filled bags were routinely used for therapeutic purposes. Then came the hippie parade. In the 1960s the groovy folk couldn’t bother sleeping on a traditional mattress. Nope, not for the ultra-cool; it just wasn’t revolutionary. Many slept on that big bladder filled with water, re-invented in San Francisco, and used casually until patented in 1971.
This is one of the rare occasions where the upper crust adopted something from the lower classes. The waterbed was tweaked and refined and became an expensive status symbol. It also came to epitomize some imaginary sexual prowess of guys who owned them. “Sex on a waterbed” became a fixation for many people. But, just like having sex with two women at the same time, sex on a waterbed is also not what it’s cracked up to be. The wave action, the sloshing – it’s a joke. But for those without the sophistication or the imagination to consider anything more exotic than that the waterbed reigned supreme for decades.
Even the waterbed’s paraphernalia devolved into White Trash symbols. Satin is made of silk, and it is a style of weaving, not a material. The finish of the material based on this weaving pattern is what makes satin what it is. And it is silk. White Trash loves the concept of silk sheets. For anyone who’s ever slept on silk sheets, they suck. So, combine the slippery, slithery-silky satin slope with a sloshing mal-de-mer inducing ride on a waterbed, and you’ve got yerself a recipe for really bad sex. But if you’ve never done it, as with all things, sex on a waterbed seems adventurous.
But wait, it gets better!
“But how can that be, Vic Dillinger?” you may ask. Well, I’ll tell ya – the “satin” sheet White Trash refers to so often with their waterbeds is not satin at all, but sateen, a similar process with a similar finish but made of rayon or cotton and not silk. So, third generation White Trash has sateen that they call “satin” which is really no great shakes to sleep on (And I know some people remember that Country song, “Satin sheets to lay on / Satin sheets to play on…”).
The wealthy, though, abandoned its waterbeds and satin sheets, leaving only the deluded White Trash of all colors and backgrounds to continue believing in its magical powers. Most former waterbed owners (and sales and ownerships of this hideous piece of furniture has declined rapidly in recent years) have replaced them with traditional, classy bedsteads or with memory-foam mattresses (which offer better support than water; you can also have sex on them without getting thrown off!).
The BIG SCREAM TeeVee!!
Electronic gadgetry is so pervasive that one easily finds a virtually destitute person, with shabby clothes, no job, and no food, but magically possessing the latest iPhone. It is amazing how this can be.
But more amusing than the small gadgets White Trash consumes to make themselves feel better about their place in the world are the big ones. And I mean the really BIG ONES! Back when projection televisions, with their room-consuming dimensions, were the rage, everybody aspired to own one. I recall clearly walking into a home in about 1992 where some guy had this aircraft carrier of a television set up in a room so small he had to give up his couch and use folding lawn chairs for seating. The resolution was terrible, too – the room was so small you watched from a distance of about five feet, not far enough to form a clean image. But by Gad, he had the Big Screen TeeVee – he had arrived!
The updated version of this, of course, is the wide-screen plasma television. I’m not so in love with television that I’m willing to spend three or four grand on something just to watch Bones with greater clarity and larger chesticles (on second thought…). It’s just not that critical. Nor is it that important to the people who buy them, either. Just like the Caddy and Smart Phones, these televisions (which really are awesome) are now status symbols in addition to merely being an entertainment dispenser.
Walk into many White Trash homes and you will find one. These people may not have a running vehicle, but they’ll have that 372” diagonal wide-screen plasma TV set up in their living room. Invariably, it is always on as well, so you can bask in its warm glow and enjoy all of its plasma-y goodness non-stop. As with the houses I’d seen in the late 1980s in West Virginia, the home in which the big screen TV sits may very well be falling apart. But rather than invest a few thousand bucks on upgrading the living space, White Trash knows how to spend its money. Buy something you don’t need and can’t afford, but which makes you look like a king – at least to other White Trash. The rest of us know better.