June 21, 2005,
That New York Times series on class in America got me thinking about other signs of rank besides the obvious ones, such as income, education, and whether you eat “dinner” or “supper” and say “pardon?” or “what?” (Note to the perplexed: “What?” is classier. For a more detailed explanation about “U and non-U” usage, see Nancy Mitford’s Noblesse Oblige and John Betjeman’s “How To Get On In Society”.) By “upper” and “lower” of course I mean upper middle and lower middle, since in America polite people pretend that basically everyone is middle class.
But class divisions, like the poor, will always be with us, at least until the Sweeneys lie down with the Stuyvesants. In the new movie version of Bewitched, for instance, class conflict has replaced the pre-feminist conflict of the ‘60s TV series. The controlling sexual rage of the old TV Darrin, constantly scolding Samantha whenever she used her “powers” (i.e., twitching her witchy nose to clean up the kitchen), has vanished. Now, Nicole Kidman is a witch who just wants to lead a normal middle-class American life living in a blandly attractive suburban house, hashing out her problems at the Coffee Bean.
So she gives up witchcraft albeit in the fudging sort of way that Paris Hilton gives up money and privilege in The Simple Life. Both Bewitched the movie and the DVD of Bewitched the TV show’s first season are released this week, and watching them you realize how easily magical powers can serve as a metaphor for fame and fortune. What makes the new Bewitched as delightfully retro as the old series is the message that fame and fortune are as much a barrier to normal middle-class American happiness as magical powers; Will Ferrell, playing a spoiled and egomaniacal actor, only gets the girl once he gives up Hollywood perks like his own on-set cappuccino machine.
Much more contemporary is the raw avarice displayed in addictive reality shows such as NBC’s The Apprentice and its latest knock-off, I Want To Be a Hilton, which premieres tonight and follows the adventures of 14 blue-collar types vying for the favor of Kathy Hilton (Paris’s mom) in the Donald Trump role. The winner gets a $200,000 “trust fund” and, I assume, at least something more than a daypass to Kathy Hilton’s classy, classy world in which everyone knows to hold wineglasses by the stems at dinner parties, daughters star in their own homemade porn videos, and charity ball hostesses can speak about the importance of “giving back” without cracking up. You’d need a strong stomach for vulgarity to be able to stand all this for more than a few minutes; I, of course, was hooked by the second episode, even though reality-show fakery seemed a little more pronounced in I Want To Be A Hilton than usual.
When Kathy Hilton asks contestant Ann, a former Miss Tampa, for a “final thought” after her team loses and Ann bursts inexplicably into that that song from American Idol (“Some people wait a lifetime, for a moment like this...”), shouldn’t that get her eliminated immediately? Isn’t a show-offy reality-show contestant whose frame of reference seems to consist mostly of other reality shows hopelessly déclassé?
I suspect the producers wanted to keep Ann on for her freak-show value, but...possibly not. The show is, after all, set in what the press release describes as “glamorous Manhattan.” Maybe Ann could develop into one of those high-society characters described in a song from the old Liza Minelli vehicle The Act: “Then Jennifer kicked the chauffer, with Oliver’s Gucci loafer, and don’t you just love New York?” Or maybe, as Henry Higgins observed about Eliza Doolittle, it’s just that Ann’s “so deliciously low.”
So far I’m rooting for Jabe, a Texas ranch hand (specific duties: installing septic tanks) who seems to be one of nature’s gentlemen. Unlike a rival contestant, who scrunches up his face and refuses to even try the escargots at a fancy dinner party, Jabe forges gamely ahead. “You must have these in Texas?” inquires one of Kathy Hilton’s friends. “Yes, sir,” says Jabe, “we just don’t eat ‘em.” Jabe’s a good loser, too. “Well, hard as it is,” he remarks philosophically after one defeat, “it beats shoveling pig crap.”
I Want To Be a Hilton doesn’t get into any of the subtler class distinctions. But here are some hints for the contestants about how they might improve their chances:
Aspiring uppers should display a sense of noblesse oblige about children, dogs, and servants. If children are taken to the library, dogs for walks, and babysitters given decent bonuses for Christmas, that's upper. If children are hauled off for “family” vacations in Las Vegas, dogs kept cooped up in the yard (“they can run around there!”), and sitters told to wash the car while the baby naps, that's lower. Neurotic cosseting of small dogs can cause confusion, in which case observe body type of pet owner: Shaped like Paris Hilton? Upper. Shaped like Roseanne? Lower. Dog tied up in yard? Trash.
Smoking is almost always lower class unless smoker is European, which can jam social signals in other ways too.
Bridezilla weddings are also generally lower, even if the happy couple has money, and especially if they've gone into hock to pay for the thing. Available cash does not equal class. The more removed the wedding trappings are from the bride and groom's normal life, the lower the class; that is, if you normally travel by limo, a string of stretch limos transporting the bridal party to the picture-taking session won't necessarily signal to observers that they've entered Tobacco Road territory. In most cases, though... Another lower giveaway is the touching innocence so many bridal couples have about the rules against black tie and daylight. (The Oscars are an exception, not permission.)
The greater the disparity between expensive electronic equipment and income, the sharper the class cue. A plasma TV in a $3 million house just means rich person, but a plasma TV in a crappy apartment especially being watched in the company of a toddler or two drinking Coke from a bottle is so low we've basically reached the bottom of the Grand Canyon, where the mules have to rest overnight before climbing back up again. On the other hand, a ten-year-old TV in a mansion probably means old money, and therefore Upper with a capital U. P.S.: Notice I said “$3 million house.” When used to describe real estate, “home” is lower. Sorry.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.