May 18, 2007
I always find something provocative in Beverly Skeggs’ books and many articles on social class and gender. This week, I read a piece in which she argues that attention to “excessive, unhealthy, publicly immoral white working-class woman” proliferates when there are other social tensions around morality, propriety, and self-responsibility.
She suggests that as TV programs like Sex in the City or The L Word have broken long-standing social boundaries regarding femininity, sexuality, and propriety, the culture has experienced “ambivalence, a dislodging of certainty” about what is acceptable and appropriate.
At such times, she argues, particular social groups (for example, women who wear plastic stilettos, rather than Monolo Blahniks) are designated in the media as unambiguously disgusting; unambiguously loud alarms are then sounded about the threat of such people to an orderly society. In times of moral uncertainty, then, consensus can at least be reached around this: Whatever their own shifting morals, middle class women are at least better than those loud and and vulgar women tottering around on their cheap shoes.
Skeggs writes of recent media “obsession” with “hen parties” in England, but I think also of Gwen Foster’s work on the huge popularity of reality shows in the U.S. that “fix” working-class people. From Wife Swap, to the Nanny shows, to the deliberately humiliating “outing” of badly dressed working-class women by the hosts of “How Not to Dress”, we have multiple opportunities to see middle-class people responding to the “fixees” with justifiable measures of revulsion. Viewers are quite obviously meant to learn their own lessons of redemption as the “fixed” weep grateful tears at the end of each episode.
Attributing negative value to the working class is a mechanism for attributing value to the middle-class self (such as making oneself tasteful through judging others to be tasteless). So, it is not just a matter of using some aspects of the culture of the working class to enhance one’s value, but also maintaining the position of judgment to attribute value, which assigns the other as immoral, repellent, abject, worthless, disgusting, even disposable.
What then? How might working-class people respond to such judgment?
Skeggs suggests three possibilities:
- Contest it via managing one’s public presntation of self within norms of respectability.
- Critique the pretensions of the potential judge.
- Ignore it, and thereby steadfastly refuse to recognize the authority of those judging. Skeggs notes that this might be the “Jerry Springer” response.
I’m not clear that we could teach any of these forms of contestation and resistance within school, even as schools are places where more privileged children quite freely express their disgust with less privileged peers.
What, instead, would challenge the very positions of judgment that weigh morality at least in part against the cost of one’s footwear?
Skeggs, B. (2005). The making of class and gender through visualizing moral subject formation. Sociology, 39, 965-982.
Foster, G.A. (2005). Class Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.