Tuesday, July 25, 2006

I am Sous Rature's Class Rage

People who know me might not be surprised that I saw The Devil Wears Prada the other day, as I had a gap in my schedule of about three hours, and none of the films that I was actually anticipating this summer had been released yet. I was prepared for a fair-to-middling “chick flick”; what I was not prepared for, however, was for a barely containable class rage to rear up in my consciousness even as I sat in the movie theater.

A little background is necessary here. First off, my family is basically lower middle class as far back as I can trace. I often joke with friends that my forebears probably carried the luggage off the Mayflower. At the same time, I come from a long line of educators, artists, and lovers of reading. It was no surprise to anyone in my family that I studied literature when I went to college; I had said as much when I was in the seventh grade, and I have an aunt who went the same way. Most of the men in my family, though, are tradesmen of one kind or another—printers, mechanics, truck drivers, technicians. All through my childhood, I witnessed adults struggling to support their families; my stepfather mowed lawns in the day and worked as the night janitor at a high school while he went to welding school. What this meant for me was that whatever I was going to do, it had to be, foremost, a trade that could support me.

Teaching English seemed like a reasonable way to go, and there are ways in which my time as a literature student (twelve years) was incredibly important, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything; however, there were a few difficulties. First, literature is not typically a discipline for the masses, and I continuously felt out of place among my peers. I was surrounded by people who immediately clarified the meaning of the word dilettante. These were people who had opinions about wine and could use the word lover in a conversation without it seeming entirely ridiculous. My tastes are a bit different, and if my love for popular culture generally and television specifically made me a little bit the odd John, my scientific leaning were tantamount to declaring myself the enemy. For many of them, I was the Morlock in the garden of the Eloi.

What made this worse is that I love art and literature and much of what is put in the “high culture” box. This stuff meant a lot to me, and I was often the wide-eyed innocent; to me, they often felt like the couple in Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” or extras in The Great Gatsby. It often felt to me that all of what we were doing mattered more to me than it did to them, even as they were “to the manor born.” It took me a long time to figure out why Jude the Obscure got me so angry, but years later, I realized that it hit a little too close to home. I was smart enough to get into the party, but once I was there, there was no reward other than the discomfort of literally and figuratively not knowing what fork to eat with.

Going to England for a year served to further define things. England is an openly class-driven society, and I could clearly see where my allegiances lay. Further, I am not particularly an Anglophile, but my enthusiasm often overshadowed that of other exchange students (particularly those from New York), who seemed more interested in not appearing interested. What it really seemed like was that these people were (1) practicing not being impressed, and (2) setting up contacts for future shopping expeditions later in their lives. I had a great time in England, and I think my experience was probably richer and more personally meaningful than it was for many of these people; at the same time, it was my first (and so far only) trip out of the country, and it proved nearly ruinous financially. I loved Europe, and I always grind my teeth a bit when I hear people talk so casually about popping over the Atlantic when it is just a couple steps shy of a lunar landing for me.

My moviegoing experience of a few weeks back shouldn’t have been a shock for me, but it was. I have some dimensions of my personality that I wish I could change, but, barring that, at least I can be honest about them. Seeing this film about the transformation of a basically down-to-earth character into a fashionista brought up my bile in a way that I hadn’t seen in myself since that time I accidentally watched Paris Hilton abuse Burger King employees on The Simple Life. I can only call it class rage, and it is one of the only instances where my thoughts actually take a violent turn. I can understand the spirit of the French Revolution when Barbara Bush talks so callously about the displaced poor, when well-heeled people don’t get what’s going on at intermission of Ibsen’s A Doll House. Whether I like it or not, I feel like I have more right to the great things of our culture because they actually mean something to me, because they were not my birthright, because I pursued them, because they weren’t a given for me.

This is a self-esteem issue too, though. Every now and again, I get the sensation that I am a barely restrained Liza Doolittle at the garden party, and my discourse on art, philosophy, and culture is only shades different from KoKo’s attachment to a kitten. I’d like to get over it, but I’m not sure I ever will.


  1. I could have written this, except that I haven't seen the Prada movie, BECAUSE I know how much it would piss me off. I went to undergrad at a commuter college, so I was more or less "among my people," but when I went to grad school, I found myself on another, elitist, planet. I'm not sure there's any cure for it: if you grow up needing and working, you are going to be a different sort of animal from one who grows up in satiation and leisure. The sad thing is, they have no concept of how horrible they're being, and probably never will.

  2. Thanks for the sympathy, Amy. The Walrus feels the same way, but we live in a pocket universe, so it's good to see that these feelings are more widespread.

  3. You're definitely not alone. It's an odd feeling to get looks of amazement from your grad school colleagues simply because you know how to change your own oil or recaulk a window or unclog a drain. One person gushed that I was so "capable." But by the same token, my mother still hasn't figured out what I'm doing now.

  4. Anonymous2:43 PM

    Well coming from your almost exact background, I do understand where you’re coming from, but I am a bit surprised that someone so logical cannot see that all societies have a bit of a class struggle. Even in your lauded hunter gather situation the people actually hunting and/or gathering are going to be at the top of the social structure (in most cases) and everyone else not bringing in the source of food is at the lower tier, granted this may be a two to four class society (depending on your perspective) which is far better than what we have now, but none the less you can't escape class warfare and remain human.

    I do find amusing that for all indications you are seen more of a woman in the family (really not a bad thing in our family situation) and I am the amusing man-thing that found a way to semi-normality. You have chosen an accepted path, education, while I am more of a deviant, not working a trade and yet not an educator. You may feel like KoKo with the kitten in polite society, try feeling like that in your own family.