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Tag Archives: middle class

Stuck In The Middle With You*

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We don’t like to discuss social class, period. Perhaps it’s a relic from our British independence. When Americans talk about class what we’re really talking about is money. We believe that if you have a place to live and that place is not a castle, you are middle-class. Everyone is middle-class; it’s like being above average. For some the designation is a badge of honor, for others it’s a disingenuous humility. Periodically an elected official or government agency will declare what the economic threshold is for middle-class. Sometimes they even include the ceiling on the perimeter. It really doesn’t matter as everyone wants to call themselves middle-class.

What we deign to call ourselves is hardly significant. Clearly it’s important to us, but doubtful that it’s important to anyone else. Introduce yourself at parties as a stay-at-home actress/scrapbooker/snackatarian and note how quickly the interviewer resumes talking about themselves. When classifications matter is when they’re used to make larger points or policy. By viewing economic class as an ideal rather than a reality we risk working against our own best interests. Recently we’ve begun to embrace discussing the economic upper-class; we now call them the 1%. But we still shy from identifying or discussing the working-class. During the most recent presidential election we used terms such as “working families” which is close, but mostly just conjures child labor. We also have started using the term “working-poor” which has more to do with a livable wage and full-time employment opportunities than an economic class. There are wage, tax, healthcare and many other public policies that potentially affect the working class more than any other group.

It’s not that surprising that we’ve evolved to this point. There was a time when we discussed class irrespective of income. People came from a working-class background, or they were middle or upper-class. However, we used the terms with hushed voices and a bit of self-consciousness. We are a culture obsessed with the outcomes of these delineations but hesitate to discuss the cause. We spend a great deal of time trying to make our country abide by social middle-class values but don’t label them as such. (Ironically the United Kingdom, the mother ship of the class system, views middle-class values as something to be avoided.) It’s interesting that in a society that enjoys talking about the melting pot, diversity and inclusion, we feel rather strongly that everyone should really embrace the same values. It’s why we all identify as middle-class. Americans are averse to the social class system (but we do obsess about the Royal family. It’s all so confusing this relationship we have with the homeland.) We see class not as static, as do our friends across the pond, but as something we transcend. We are a pull yourself up by the bootstrap kinda country. Where you’re born in not where you are to stay (unless it’s at the top.) Therefore when we talk about class we tinge it with aspiration. It’s like calling someone a “bride-to-be” or “rising senior.” It’s about where you’re going not where you are.

But what you call yourself and how you see yourself are two different things. How you identify, at a party or elsewhere, is immaterial, but it matters a great deal politically. Too many of us support candidates and parties who are most definitely working against our best interest because we want to identify with them. Some candidates intentionally make themselves very relatable to the working-class but are no friend to the policies that (disproportionally) affect the group. There is an old adage that you should dress for the job you want (not the one you have.) When it comes to voting; you should vote for where you are, not where you hope to be.

*Stealers Wheel (1972)

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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The Epitome Of Class

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The BBC has taken it upon themselves to redefine class. ‘Well of course’ you say ‘and we do love Downton Abby, Call The Midwife and Mr. Selfridge.’ Yes, those decadent and indulgent shows are lavish examples of the British class system in play. But I refer instead to the questionnaire the BBC posted online that over 160,000 completed. Ignoring for a moment the completely unscientific method of this ‘survey’ and also putting aside the very stark reality of who completes online surveys, let us instead consider this tricky terrain.

The British have always been quite transparent about their views and demarcations of class. What (and where) one is born into is often where one stays. There are examples of upward mobility in British society (beyond that of Eliza Doolittle.) But for the most part, where you started is where you’ll stay. If for no other reason than the British are wonderfully observant of clues. (Hello? Sherlock, Miss Marple, Inspector Lewis, anyone?) The slightest hint of a flat ‘a’ or the improper wearing of wellies, and they’ve got you pegged. They have graciously exported this gift to previously colonized locales. You could probably travel the globe and identify where the United Kingdom has ruled simply by observing the (seemingly) arbitrary ‘you’re in’ you’re out’ class systems.

Americans have always prided themselves in eschewing this structure. We still like to fancy ourselves the little rebels who fled from the tyranny of such structure. The truth is that what we do is less honest and more destructive. We pretend that social class doesn’t exist. Oh, we’re happy to discuss real dollars and sense. We take great comfort (or distress) in determining if we economically fall into the middle-class. Politicians love to talk about the middle class. We don’t talk of the lower class or even working class anymore however. No, we call it ‘working families.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s just one person in that ‘family’ or twenty. It’s funny how liberal we can be discussing families in terms of poverty levels but not in terms of legal union.

Taking pains to never associate class with anything but money creates problems. To discuss class in terms of values and cultural proclivities is anathema to Americans. We discuss education and achievement in terms of poverty which is often a thin guise for race. We discuss poverty and race as if they have anything whatsoever to do with achievement, which of course they don’t. There is nothing about any race that impacts learning. There is nothing about how much money a household has which impacts learning. Underfunded and improperly staffed schools impact learning, as do households in which learning is not a priority. We avoid discussing public health and lifestyle behaviors in terms of class. We think nothing of imposing middle values on lower class people, but we’ll never admit that’s what we’re doing. Our entire social and child services structure is built on that very premise.

It’s important to Americans to ignore the real differences of class. But yet we’re wedded to creating a very us vs. them culture. We’re much more comfortable attributing our opposing outlooks and proclivities to religious or political ideals. Sociologists (versus online questionnaires) often explore the gravitation of like-peoples. (Think: lunchroom table configuration studies.) Much more often than not the ‘like-people’ means people of our own religious and ethnic group. But outside of laboratories and research studies what you’re most likely to find in the real world, is that people gravitate towards those of their own class. Being of the same racial/ethnic/religious group is less of an indicator of our shared values than that of class. Would the Rothschilds understand the seder at Sadie’s on Orchard Street? Of course, but after the seder (at 2:00 AM) what in the world would they talk about? If you take a look around at the people with whom you feel most connected they are those with similar values and cultural proclivities. They don’t have identical incomes, they don’t worship in the same way, and their complexions vary in hue. But you all share a similar outlook and a view of the world. That’s class.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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Kramer vs Kramer vs Consumerism

There are films that never lose their emotional wallop, despite how many times you’ve seen them. Steel Magnolias, The Color Purple, Stella Dallas and An Affair To Remember come to mind. There is no element of surprise in the viewing; in fact the memorized dialogue and outcome are part of the pleasure. But the way in which the stories are crafted pull the viewer in for the punch. Of course there are reasons to revisit a dramatic film besides an opportunity to use tissues and visine. Films can tell us an awful lot about how we lived or thought. A film is fantasy of course, but it is a reflection of a director, screenwriter or producer’s viewpoint. Attitudes portrayed about gender, race, sexuality and religion are often an accurate reflection of the time. A film shot in the early 1970s will not only look very early 1970s but sound it too. Women might be referred to as “girls” or “honey,” bottoms might be patted. Generally, if non-white actors appear it’s to make a point. The storyline probably has nothing to do with any of these details, but the details are telling nonetheless.

You might remember the film; Kramer vs Kramer. (For those who don’t; it was a cutting-edge tale of divorce and custody starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, set in New York City.) The emotional wallop of the film doesn’t diminish with time. Much of what will rip you to shreds is the incredible performance of (8 year-old) Justin Henry. You’d have to be made of stone to not crumble at the raw hurt and anger on his face. Meryl Streep’s eyes do most of her talking. She has perhaps twenty lines and expresses pages and pages of dialogue with her eyes. The viewer understands everything about these people and their anguish. But there is also (now) a story on the periphery of that story. The year is 1979 and times were decidedly different. The family is middle class (daddy works in advertising.) They are educated people living in a two-bedroom high-rise apartment uptown. The child attends a neighborhood school and they frequent Central Park. Sounds rather timeless, no? It’s what you don’t see that is so telling. The family (before they weren’t one) is living comfortably on one salary. There is no car, there is no private school and there is no luxury. The child’s bedroom has been hand-painted with clouds by the creatively frustrated mother. (In 1979 this was considered somewhat decadent.) However, there is no Pottery Barn kid’s furniture or matching bedding and window treatment. There are some books, some toys, and later a framed photo of mommy. The chaos that ensues with mommy’s departure is linked to the time period. There are no babysitters or nannies on call or even in existence. (Nannies were still for the posh or the British.) Daddy must master grocery shopping and food preparation as take-away was not ubiquitous and children did not dine out. Luckily for daddy there are no play-dates (there is only play) and there are no enrichment programs or team sports for a first-grader.

Now no one would suggest that the late 1970s were halcyon times. The demise of the marriage in question hinged on the fact that the wife felt marginalized. She left her husband and child to “find herself” (aka get some analysis and a job.) But had the marriage worked, and had she felt able to go out and get a job, their lifestyle wouldn’t be that much different. There’d be an after-school babysitter no doubt. But the minimalistic consumption wouldn’t alter. Sure, she might need some work clothes, but shopping wasn’t a legitimate hobby in the 1970s. New appliances would’ve only been purchased if every attempt at repair had been exhausted. There were no strollers being sold for the same price as a moped. In short, they would have had more money and more time (not running from expenditure to expenditure) than they would today. Something to contemplate while watching the film and choking back the tears

 

 

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The Boobie Tube

More than half of American babies watch television for about two hours a day.  One third of babies have televisions in their bedrooms.  Babies.  Those under two years of age.  What little I know of human development, I’m guessing they are not using the remote.  This suggests that an adult is turning on the television for the baby.  I have so many questions I hardly know where to start.

I think I understand the concept of putting a baby down in front of a television.  It has to do with giving the adult a reprieve, yes?  May I suggest a moratorium on the demonization of the playpen.  You remember the playpen?  It is a box filled with toys, books, and cuddly things that kept tykes safe.  It was how we controlled their environment, versus gating and locking our environment.  Babies could happily entertain themselves while floors got cleaned or adults took showers.  Now, if my presumption is accurate, that television is being used in lieu of a playpen, I have to ask; what show is being watched?  Does it matter?  Is it just the sound that is pacifying the babe?  If so, how about music and a busybox?  Forget the quality of television for a moment.  Can anything be gained, developmentally, from staring at a screen?  (That is not a rhetorical question.)

The nursery television leaves me a bit more confused.  What in the world is going on there?  Is the baby being left alone with the television on?  To what end?

Before you think I am anti-media or (gasp) anti-television, let me assure you I am most certainly not.  At 14, I ecstatically received a hulking 35 inch wood-framed black and white television set.  Painted yellow.  That only got channel 7, which was fine as this was during ABC’s heyday.  For my 16th birthday my wishes were granted with my very own portable television, which received all seven channels!  I brought it with me to college.  I love t.v.  It’s one of my best friends.

What I don’t love is blanket social inequities.  According to the Kaiser Foundation, in families with incomes under $30,000, 64% of children younger than 8 had televisions in their rooms.  In families with incomes above $75,000. the number drops to 20%.  I doubt 100% of the blame shouldn’t be placed upon the importing of cheap electronic goods.  It certainly doesn’t help that a television is no longer a luxury item.  But perhaps something larger is at play.  Even back when televisions were far too dear for the middle-class, Muffy and Biff were not squired away in their nursery watching television.

While I shy from being an alarmist, I truly suspect that there is something a tad sinister in play.  “Progress” has brought us inexpensive food-like substitutes, flavored “drink” and access to electronic noise.  There is a school of thought that maintains that the plethora of liquor stores, cigarette ads and cheap goods in low-income neighborhoods is part of a scheme to quell the underclass.  Television is a very effective pacifier.

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2011 in Childhood, Media/Marketing

 

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