Cultural Studies' Misfit: White Trash Studies

By Smith, Dina | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Cultural Studies' Misfit: White Trash Studies


Smith, Dina, The Mississippi Quarterly


IN DOROTHY ALLISON'S Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), the first-person narrator, a young girl called "Bone," describes 1950s rural poverty and what it means to be white trash. Bone lives in relatively stark conditions amid the culture of fifties affluence. But what terrifies Bone is not the lack of material possessions so much as the social disgust leveled her way by a proper middle-class community. She begins to understand such coding as a means of "keeping her down" in the trash, a "trash" constructed by her community and the larger culture:

   Aunt Alma had given me a big paperback edition of Gone with the
   Wind, with tinted pictures from the movie, and told me I'd love
   it. I had at first, but one evening I looked up from Vivien Leigh's
   pink cheeks to see Mama coming from work with her hair darkened from
   sweat and her uniform stained. A sharp flash went through me. Emma
   Slattery, I thought. That's who I'd be, that's who we were. Not
   Scarlett with her baking-powder cheeks. I was part of the trash from
   down in the mud-stained cabins, fighting with the darkies and
   stealing ungratefully from our betters, stupid, coarse, born to shame
   and death. I shook with fear and indignation. (1)

As this passage makes clear, no one in Bone's immediate family looks like Scarlett O'Hara. Denied such easy identification, Bone finds herself unsutured from this popular narrative and its romantic images of Southern womanhood, a narrative deeply nostalgic for an antebellum plantation past. Instead of Scarlett, Bone imagines herself as Emma Slattery, part of the white trash spectacle. Allison's novel reminds us of the growing specularization of "white trash" in today's popular culture, which, as Bone narrates, is mediated by an intense nostalgia for an imagined Southern past in which class distinctions were as easily read, or as clearly coded, as two-dimensional film stills. This essay will examine the growing spectacle that is "white trash studies" in U.S. academic and popular discourses, and will argue that much of this recent work is a nostalgic derealization of the lived-lives of many Southern poor-white/working-class populations. To construct a consumable "white trash" identity is a form of techno-ideological obsolescence, to use Evan Watkins's phrase. (2) It is to obscure how obsolete Southern working-class populations are presently produced and to sustain the positional dominance of others. Linking some iconographic contemporary white trash images to their economic and cultural contexts, this essay will then press the borders of the white trash frame, illustrating how the consumer of today's white trash identity becomes the consumer of illusion.

We might begin to think of the recent white trash phenomenon (from a scholarly collection to the Anna Nicole Show on the E! Network) as a sign of late capital economic shifts, in which older designations such as "white trash" get recuperated and deployed in radically different ways. Notions of class shift along with the economy. Fordist "white trash" referred to unemployed (depressed) labor or unskilled labor, oftentimes designating the initiate city factory worker who had recently left his/her tenancy. Or as with Erskine Caldwell's Jeeter Lester, "white trash" was the defiant relic farmer who refused to leave his land in the wake of large-scale incorporation. White trash, then, was out of place, because it refused to obey a changing Fordism's imperative of regulated change; it was defiantly immobile or illegally mobile. This older conception of white trash often anchored the term to a racialized economic and occupational class status--the white trash sharecropper, the white trash migrant worker, the white trash miner, the white trash mill worker, all of whom are stuck in place. At once white and trash, a metonym for blackness, the term historically designated a border position between white privilege and black disenfranchisement.

For instance, in Harper's Lee's iconic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, this older trash lives on the border, occupying the black family's once isolated subject position or home. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Cultural Studies' Misfit: White Trash Studies
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.