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The C-Word We Avoid — Class

In behavior, business, culture, entertainment, Money, movies on December 29, 2010 at 2:14 pm
Working Class Hero

Image by christian.greller via Flickr

Finally!

Even if it’s only in the entertainment pages, we’re talking out loud in the U.S. — land of the mythical meritocracy — about social class and who’s rising, who’s (much more likely now) falling, and who’s most terrified of sliding from “middle” (defined as…?) to lower or working class, words used more easily in nations whose central identity doesn’t rely as heavily on the idea of equality and assured social mobility.

In a recent New York Times piece by film critic A.O. Scott:

The idea of the universal middle class is a pervasive expression of American egalitarianism — and perhaps the only one left. In politics the middle has all but swallowed up the ends. Tax cuts aimed at the wealthy and social programs that largely benefit the poor must always be presented as, above all, good for the middle class, a group that thus seems to include nearly everyone. It is also a group that is, at least judging from the political rhetoric of the last 20 years, perennially in trouble: shrinking, forgotten, frustrated, afraid of falling down and scrambling to keep up.

In the movies, which exist partly to smooth over the rough patches in our collective life, the same basic picture takes on a more benign coloration. Middle-classness is a norm, an ideal and a default setting. For a long time most commercial entertainments not set in the distant past or in some science-fiction superhero fantasyland have taken place in a realm of generic ease and relative affluence. Everyone seems to have a cool job, a fabulous kitchen, great clothes and a nice car. Nothing too fancy or showy, of course, and also nothing too clearly marked with real-world signs of status or its absence.

Last year I viciously mocked “It’s Complicated” in this blog for the absurd affluence of a divorced woman character, played by Meryl Streep, who lives in a $5 m home, runs her own bakery business and wears impossibly lush clothing and jewelry. Most women divorcees fall far and fast from their married affluence, if they had any, drained from the start by legal fees.

It’s a mug’s game to try and pinpoint “middle class” in New York, where I live in a a suburban town, when a 1,000 square foot shoebox of a 60-year-old house on a postage stamp lot runs $400,000 with $12,000 a year in taxes — barely affordable on an income of $100,000 to 150,000 a year.

In New York, you can make six figures and not have someone snort in derision for calling yourself “middle class.”

Fact is, anyone paying $30-50 per trip by (subsidized) commuter train into the city to work or look for a job, struggles hard here on an income of less than $50,000 for one, let alone $40,000 or less trying to raise a family.

Only now are we seeing films address how we really feel about money and what we really feel about who has it, who doesn’t and what we’re willing to do to get and keep some.

In the New York Post, critic Kyle Smith writes:

Without ever saying so, “Blue Valentine” is centrally about class, and class, in America, anyway, is centrally about much more than income — it’s about tastes and values, as we see when Dean’s idea of a healing getaway means a cheesy lovers’ motel. It seems obvious that if Dean had arranged such a trip with cool irony instead of urgent eagerness, Cindy would have accepted it in a larky spirit. And if Dean painted canvases instead of houses, his lack of accomplishment wouldn’t be an issue.

American filmmakers largely avoid class, which is fine because virtually all of them were well-born and tend to portray their inferiors as piteous, comical or (especially when they’re minorities) as sprites whose magical simplicity can be used to cure the angst of therapy-needing professionals.

As someone whose own income plummeted by 75 percent after losing my last full-time job in 2006, this is no idle fantasy. When I went to work as a sales associate for $11 an hour, no commission, at a mall, I began to understand the extraordinary income inequality that is increasingly defining life in the United States.
Our mall attracted the hedge fund guys and their size 0 wives tending their 10,000 square foot Greenwich mansions.
Such attitude! Such entitlement! People who think nothing of snapping their fingers in the faces of the growing servant class.
You and me, babe!
From the Huffington Post:

Income inequality in the United States is at an all-time high, surpassing even levels seen during the Great Depression, according to a recently updated paper by University of California, Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez. The paper, which covers data through 2007, points to a staggering, unprecedented disparity in American incomes. On his blog, Nobel prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called the numbers “truly amazing.”

Though income inequality has been growing for some time, the paper paints a stark, disturbing portrait of wealth distribution in America. Saez calculates that in 2007 the top .01 percent of American earners took home 6 percent of total U.S. wages, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000.

As of 2007, the top decile of American earners, Saez writes, pulled in 49.7 percent of total wages, a level that’s “higher than any other year since 1917 and even surpasses 1928, the peak of stock market bubble in the ‘roaring” 1920s.'”

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  1. Very interesting. I’ve thought about this quite a bit, my father just retired and so he lives on a half-salary income and my mum teaches Classical history at university. But they now live in rural Virginia where my father’s half-salary pension is far, far more than their neighbors see in a year. We were upper middle class, what are we now? Our income bracket has changed and to some degree our lifestyle, but not exactly our point of view.

    Also, growing up in the military/diplomatic corps, my mum raised us with a very old-fashioned notion. She called noblesse oblige to be funny. We kids enjoyed a very good life, lots of travel and opportunity, a solid education, etc. But we were absolutely aware that none of it came from anything WE had done, it was all due to my parents hard work and success. And if ever we made the mistake of thinking or acting like we were superior than anyone else, mum or dad corrected that. With finality.

  2. Thanks for your story. I find this really interesting, as much as we don’t talk about it…without it getting political and embattled.

    I grew up in what people describe as privilege — private school for a few years, summer camp, foreign travel. But used cars (always) and some leaner years as my family all worked freelance. Now, at midlife freelance in a dying industry….not pretty. I have chosen to live on less, for now, rather than chase smaller and smaller paychecks for increasing aggravation. But, no, my tastes have not changed much!

    I think much of what’s happening now is the plummeting financially into…? If you grew up eating well and drinking wine and wearing wool or cashmere or silk, will you happily buy only from Walmart? I choose to haunt vintage and consignment shops instead where I buy less and can still buy the very best quality I can afford. I’ll use the library more than buy new books.

    It is, I think a question of what you value (for me, travel every single time over tech toys or more stuff or designer labels) and how that plays out in your choices if or when your income drops, and by a fair bit.

    I could live much better on a low income simply by moving north about 2 hours to a rural county — lower taxes, housing,etc. But this is the price I pay, literally, for wanting quick access to NYC and its pleasures (and work in my field.) I tried rural life once and it was not a happy fit.

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