Over the winter break, I took a stab at my reading list and finished White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. As the title suggests, the author writes about class and race, arguing that the U.S. has had a permanent underclass of dirt-poor people of European dissent generally considered to be garbage people, particularly in the South, going back to the first colonists landing on the shores of the new world. It’s more of an academic than a “popular” book, but it was very thought provoking and I would recommend it.
While the book focused primarily on class and race, a few sections commenting on recent history reminded me of L’s previous post bewailing country singer Carrie Underwood’s penchant for singing about “violent revenge fantasies.”
If I may characterize Isenberg’s thesis broadly, many of the themes romanticized and/or celebrated in country music reflect the white lower class’s attempt to find cultural pride in an otherwise isolated, poverty-stricken, and seemingly inescapable “redneck” existence. Unfortunately, it appears that this “redneck” pride applies only to men. As Isenberg writes regarding the 1990s,
Redneck was no longer the exclusive province of country singers. It had become part of the cultural lingua franca, a means of sizing up public men, and a strangely mutated gender and class identity. . . women cannot wear ‘white trash’ or ‘redneck’ as a badge of honor.
Now, I will admit that I know almost nothing about the country music scene, but I found this very interesting considering the struggles female country stars have had to find empowering roles within the genre. How is the female artist supposed to operate within a male-dominated cultural environment that glorifies the downtrodden man with a pickup truck and a buxom blond in the back? Dolly Parton, to her credit, took an aspirational approach, recognizing poor white women’s realities:
Her image, as Parton confessed in her autobiography, expressed the desire of poor white trash girls to see themselves as magazine models. She explained, “They didn’t look at all like they had to work in the fields. They didn’t look like they had to take a spit bath in a dishpan. They didn’t look as if men and boys could just put their hands on them any time they felt like it, and with any degree of roughness they chose.” Poverty, for a female, went beyond the wretchedness of having no money.
Judging by L’s Carrie Underwood post, the underlying poverty problems haven’t gone away, only now we have redneck culture that implicitly (and in the case of the country music industry probably cynically) romanticizes all those things L was complaining about: the abuse of women, drunkenness, teen-age pregnancy, violence, suffering, and death. Can a female star write an aspirational song as L suggests and still sell records to a cultural group defined by their negatives? Does Carrie Underwood have the courage to do so? Or has she accepted a culture that assumes a sad and violent fate for her? This seems like a good example of multiple systems of oppression (class, race, and gender) interacting to produce an intersectional feminist issue. I would love to hear thoughts from people who know more about this cultural niche.
P.S.: I now have two Dolly Parton biographies on my various reading lists. Look out for a future Dolly Parton-themed post or two if I ever get to them!