Rich People Who Pretend to Be Poor Are Obnoxious
May 10 2013
Beans today, beans tomorrow. via.
In university I had a roommate who would eat cans of brown beans between pay cheques. Her bank account was kept full by her affluent dad, who drove a BMW, but she’d never buy proper groceries. She wanted people to think she was a poor university student, so she ate cans of beans and drank PBR.
That roommate, still a friend, now works in an office building and is saving up to buy a condo. She no longer eats canned beans because she no longer wants to trick people into thinking she has less money than she does. She knows now that appearing hip doesn’t require pretending to be poor. She realizes that, when you've got money, aligning oneself with a demographic that's actually struggling is a pretty gross thing to do.
My friend was in her early 20s when she stopped equating coolness with being broke, but there are a lot of grown ass adults out there deluding themselves with the same ripped jeans. A campaign called Live Below the Line, for example, challenges willing participants to survive on $1.75 per day for five days to raise awareness about how difficult it is to live below Canada's poverty line. It's a well-intentioned fundraising initiative, but the whole thing is kind of bullshit. People proceed through the experience comfortably knowing they've got clean sheets and a savings account. Their psychological safety blanket is so toasty warm that they could never actually know what it's like to feel controlled—truly, anxiously antagonized—by money. But they convince themselves that they've gotten a glimpse, and then they blog about it, and they tweet about it, and they congratulate one another on playing hungry. They go home to apartments where the rent has been paid, where the hot water will run, where they stocked up on mouthwash and tofu and avocados before their five-day stint of cheap living began. At the end of the week they slide back above the poverty line to gush about what a learning experience it was. The administrators of the campaign even offer materials to help people prepare—there is a manual. There is a recipe book.
Glorification of the working class is not a new phenomenon (the man who wrote "Working Class Hero" was a millionaire, after all), but attempting to place oneself inside the plight of having less privilege is a scheme that needs to stop. Whether inspired by guilt (poverty fundraiser) or whatever the fuck motivated Anna Wintour to dial up a rotary phone garnished with crystal from her hideaway in The Hamptons and say "Hello, Chanel? Make the Met Ball PUNK this year," fake struggle is vile.
The Met Ball is, of course, one of the most lavish pageants of unironic daydreamery there is. Guests were challenged to make punk look glamorous in celebration of (and to raise money for) the museum's "Punk: Chaos to Couture" exhibit. But surprise! No one did, because punk isn't glamorous. Many of us spent the night of the Met Ball nauseously scrolling through pictures of the stupidest party ever (or nauseously ignoring them), because of how maddeningly antithetical punk culture is to the shimmering A-list celebrity lifestyle. Punk cobbled itself together because people—working class people—were disenfranchised and oppressed by the same exclusive cohort of society that dressed up as them this week. To disregard the origin of punk is ignorantly revisionist and embarrassingly out of touch. To know the origin but parade around anyway is just rude. (Maybe not as rude as wearing a mohawk-style headdress designed by Philip Treacy, but still brutal.)
Urban Outfitters, the one-stop-shop lifestyle emporium (floppy hats and vinyl records and mugs shaped like owls) has long referred to its target demographic as "upscale homeless," as if such a term could ever be true, as if those words could ever be combined in a way that describes any semblance of a genuine demographic. But it works for Urban Outfitters, because Urban Outfitters shoppers—much like my old roommate—want to look stylish-but-struggling. They want to look cool, but not rich, not lucky. A girl with whom I am social media-acquaintances recently posted a photo of anti-capitalist graffiti she found during a boutiques and mimosas trip to Ossington Avenue. She's a publicist for Canadian Tire. Don Cherry recently claimed that he is "working class" because he used to operate a jackhammer. It is widely estimated that he now earns around $800, 000 per year. "Upscale homeless" is grievously fallacious, but so is making extravagant fashion statements using a subculture that has no money. So is Instagramming graffiti from an iPhone enshrined in a polka dot-patterned Kate Spade case.
Last week at a screening of The Punk Singer, a packed movie theatre in downtown Toronto cheered for the scene in which Kathleen Hanna performs feminist spoken word poetry to a small crowd of people in the early '90s. The poem is called "The Middle Of The Night In My House" and it is about sexual assault. It ends with the question "Why would a baby dream of rape?" repeated three times. How many of the people in that packed theatre would have supportively cheered for a raucous angry feminist punk performing spoken word poetry about oppression at a radical gathering of misfit kids in the early '90s? Probably not an entire movie theatre's worth. Probably not three separate screenings of an entire movie theatre's worth.
I wonder if all of the people who are down with Kathleen Hanna at present were down with spoken word poetry and radical feminism before they became popularized in the hindsight of nostalgia. I very much doubt that any person who is not currently impoverished actually wishes they could not afford what they can right now afford, or would like to go on pretending for more than five days. I know that hypocrisy is inevitable. I have to turn off the music on my iPod when I enter my day job because the friction between who I really am and the job I'm playing dress-up for is sometimes too much to take. It's not a crime to think one thing and say another, occasionally. But pretending to be oppressed in pursuit of cultural currency is abhorrent.
Everyone wants to read Just Kids but no one wants to sleep in the doorway.
Follow Carly on Twitter: @carlylewis