Yesterday was Halloween, a holiday which I am increasingly falling out of love with. There’s the pressure on girls and women to sex it up. There’s also the issue of cultural appropriation costumes. All of this over the last couple of years has started to take a little bit of the joy out of one of my favorite holidays.
However, I did dress up for work yesterday, and my costume of Zombie Lenore & The Raven tied for third place (with Robert Smith from The Cure) in the office popularity costume contest.
First place was awarded to a co-worker whose costume consisted of a Disney princess gown and wig, pillow for a baby bump, a baby doll, a cigarette dangling from his lips, and a half full bottle of Jack Daniels. He (a middle class, straight, white, cisgenerder man, for what it’s worth) called it “Snow White Trashed.”
Holy misogynistic, classist trope, Wonder Woman!
Now, you may think that by taking offense to this costume, I am over-reacting, but I don’t think so. It perpetuates a stereotype of working class women that is repulsive. It holds it up, and it points a finger at it, and it laughs at it. (Not with it. At it.) That stereotype is that the working class woman is too stupid and too lazy to better her situation, and it’s bullshit. And if you’re me, that caricature is ever more offensive, because at a point in time, that was what my probable future looked like. I was a working class girl, from a working class family. My grandparents were migrant farm workers. My parents were enlisted in the Navy. We didn’t have much. I grew up in an working class neighborhood, and I was educated in California’s desperately underfunded public schools. There was a time when my parents thought I couldn’t make it out of high school without getting “knocked up.” They had no idea how we would pay for me to go to college, if I could get accepted, other than enlisting like they had, and getting a G.I. bill. I grew up afraid of my future. Fear was my motivation.
My story is not the Horatio Alger myth. This is not about my boot straps. When I think about the working class women who haven’t managed to achieve the “American Dream”, I know that it’s not because they are lazy or stupid. For some of us, it worked out. For most of us, it did not. I graduated high school near the top of my class and horribly ignorant. I can say that when you’re ignorant, you do not know that you’re ignorant until someone or something slaps you in the face with it. For me, that happened in my first year at a university that I somehow managed to get accepted into. It was only then that I learned the damage that my public school education had done, that I didn’t know anything about learning, and that I had been the victim of a system that rewarded me for doing the bare minimum, and passed me into the world without any knowledge of how to succeed. I got mostly A’s in high school simply because I was there. The overworked, underpaid teachers who don’t have the time, the resources, or the energy at the end of the day are not to blame. The young people in the schools are not to blame. The system is not set up to help anyone succeed, the teachers or the young people, especially not the young women. It is an institution that is broken, and the ill prepared students it churns out have little with which to build a future any different from their parents, nor the skills with which to fix institutions.
It wasn’t just the public schools, though. My parents didn’t know what I wasn’t being taught. My father was never good at school, and would tell you that he did just enough to keep his grades high enough to play football and baseball. With a batting average above 400 in his senior year of high school, he thought he his future laid in professional baseball. When he was not picked up by the Giants, he enlisted in the Navy. My mother tried college, but after a year of struggling with it, she enlisted, too. My siblings had children early, and some of them dropped out. I was the only one who went straight to college from high school. My family was not the kind of family that knew what successful education looked like. All they knew was hard work. They taught me hard work, but they didn’t know how to teach me to have more for myself than what they had, raising a family on too little, and working too hard. When you don’t know what you don’t know, all your left with is what you do know. All you know to teach your kids is what you know. They did the best they knew how to do, and I don’t fault them for it.
So, maybe you think I’m over-reacting. Maybe you think I’m too sensitive, or too easily offended. I think that you just don’t understand what it is to fear that trope, to fight against it, and to try to live it down. I don’t have the luxury of laughing it off or not being sensitive to it. I know Snow White Trashed all too well. I might have been her, and if I had, so fucking what. Being poor doesn’t make someone bad, stupid, pathetic, or lazy. I was as lucky as I was smart and determined. I did not get pregnant. I graduated from college. I got a nice cushy internet job. The stars aligned.
There but by the grace of god go I.