Friday, September 4, 2009
This photo is from the latest user-submitted photo blog to go viral, "People of Walmart [sic]." The caption there says, "I have to assume that this guy, in a fit of rage after a monster truck rally or tractor pull, ripped off his sleeves and then went to Wal-Mart to get a few cases of beer to enjoy on the couch on his front porch."
Can you count the classist stereotypes in that sentence? (I came up with six.)
CNN noticed the blog's popularity and posted a story about it, reporting in part:
It's a blog where people post, and make fun of, pictures of out-of-shape, poorly dressed and otherwise awkward people shopping at Wal-Mart.
And, in less than a month, with no marketing to speak of, it's become the toast of the Internet.
"People of Wal-Mart," a gag started by two 20-something brothers and their buddy to share crazy pictures with their friends, has gone viral. Promoted largely on sites like Digg and Funny or Die -- and linked ad nauseam on Facebook and Twitter -- the site picked up enough traffic to crash its servers on Wednesday.
"I'm still baffled -- I really am," said Andrew Kipple, 23, one of the creators of the site, who said his team was frantically working Wednesday to add enough server space to handle the surge in traffic.
Photos on the site, sent in by viewers all over the United States, frequently feature overweight people wearing tight clothes, bizarre hairstyles (with versions of the short-in-front, long-in-back "mullet" leading the pack) and fashion crimes ranging from furry leg warmers to miniskirts that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination.
There's a guy enjoying a can of beer outside a Wal-Mart, a guy dressed as Captain America and another guy with a goat. Yes, a live goat.
Can you believe it? A live goat! Freakin' hilarious, dude!!! [/sarcasm]
I suppose that some people from any social class could laugh at this site's photos of "awkward" people (really, CNN? "awkward"? I doubt that's a word most of the site's fans would use). But when people who occupy higher rungs on the socioeconomic ladder laugh at them, their laughter is derisive, unsympathetic, and condescending. That's because the laughter is mostly triggered by connections that many of the photos make with the unexamined classist stereotypes firmly embedded in their heads.
It seems to me that much of the online CNN report is also largely written from an unidentified middle-class perspective, one that views working-class people from a safe, smug distance, and reduces them to a "crazy," "bizarre" spectacle. Which, despite my best intentions, is not unlike my own perspective at times on working-class people, as in a recent post about a car launch in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin.
Many commenters there pointed out my own classist perspective in that post, and for that I'm grateful. As I noted in a comment of my own, I think another blogger's post about my "car launch" post summed up well, just in its satiric title, the main problem with my post, and also with the "People of Walmart" blog. Jane Van Galen's brief post about my messed-up post is entitled "Those Curious Working Class Folks." I now think that her title is a valid imitation of my post's distanced, classist approach to the Turtle Lake car launch fans.
But then, maybe in labeling the People of Walmart blog "classist" instead of "funny," I'm just demonstrating that I have a PC stick up my posterior?
Or maybe, to put a finer point on it: depending on who's laughing at the people exposed by People of Walmart, some of the laughter it elicits is fine, and some of the laughter is classist (and, for some of the site's photos, racist, sexist, and heterosexist as well).
At any rate, I'm not the only one who finds this photo blog generally despicable. Much to its credit, CNN also reports that "not everyone appreciates the humor," adding that some say "the site goes out of its way to mock poor and rural patrons of the store, reinforcing stereotypes along the way":
"American culture likes to single out people who appear to be different," said Tim Marema, vice president of the Whitesburg, Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies. "Whether it's a joke or not, all depends on which side of the camera you're on."
Furthering stereotypes can strengthen the rifts between rural, urban and suburban residents and, in the worst-case scenario, can affect the way some people are treated by government and industry, he said.
Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer with more than 4,200 U.S. stores and over $400 billion in annual sales, may be more prominent in rural areas, Marema said, but to use that to stereotype its shoppers doesn't make sense.
"The reality is that everybody shops at Wal-Mart," he said. "If you want to find the guy in the golf shirt and khakis, he's there too."
It's not quite true that "everybody" shops at Wal-Mart, but I do agree with Tim Marema's point that associating it with working-class people, and then mocking those people, furthers damaging stereotypes.
As for the People of Walmart blog, who knows what the future holds? Maybe a blook?
So far, it doesn't seem that the site's creators are listening to their critics. The "About Us" page does suggest that the creators are alert to, and ready to block, ableism: "There is no reason to send us pictures of people that are seriously and unfortunately handicapped so don’t be an asshole."
But classism? Not so much, as evinced by this statement on that page -- again, can you count the classist (and heterosexist) stereotypes here?
It’s not everywhere that you can shop for milk at 10 a.m. next to a 400lb mother of 6 wearing a pink tube top, leopard tights, and hooker heels. Where else can one go to pick up underwear at 3 O’clock in the afternoon and spot the greatest mullet of all time paired with a mustard stained wife beater (which only accents the extreme amount of body hair) and camo pants that were actually used in Vietnam. And if you haven’t run into the 6’2” bull-dyke with a shaved head, rockin a wonder bra, flannel cutoff shirt, and jean shorts at 2 a.m. when you’re there to pick up frozen pizza, chips, and cookies, then you can get the fuck out right now.
How's that for classy?