They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary

By Paula Rabinowitz | Go to book overview

3
Margaret Bourke-White's Red Coat; or, Slumming in the Thirties

I

A popular Irving Berlin song from 1933 invited its financially strapped middle- and working-class listeners to 'go slumming on Park Avenue.' Written in the midst of the worst year of the Depression, when unemployment soared between 25 and 33 per cent, the song sarcastically played upon the (downward) class mobility caused by the 1929 Crash. This turning of the class tables was a common theme in Hollywood as well, where spunky golddiggers displayed their goods ( 'We're in the Money') to entice wealthy men who visited the seedy nightclubs in which they performed before they retreated to the safety of their men's clubs.

During the 1920s, 'when Harlem was in vogue,' wealthy whites had traveled uptown, to take in the atmosphere of jazz and high living offered in Harlem's famous night spots. A decade before, tour buses passed through the ghettoes of the Lower East Side and were assaulted with missiles of paving stones and garbage according to Mike Gold's autobiographical novel Jews Without Money. The class and ethnic boundaries superintending America's cities were rigid; yet popular culture encouraged their permeability: for the wealthy WASP elite, black and Jewish ghettoes provided a voyeuristic thrill. But after the stock market crashed, popular culture unleashed a new pastime -- working stiffs gleefully surveying the lives of the tragically rich whose means left them incapable of adapting to straitened times.

If we take Irving Berlin seriously, then we can begin to understand class as both a social practice and a representation, precisely in the ways that Joan Scott and Teresa de Lauretis argue gender operates in culture. 1 In his famous sentence describing the peasants and small

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