Friday, September 4, 2009

make classist web sites

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?


  1. I think you're right: not everyone shops at Wal-Mart, but I would say most people do at least now and then (I'm guilty.) But it's like much anything else: if there's something that people don't like in themselves, they can always turn to someone else and ridicule them for it.

    What's more, for some people, they don't have much of a choice; in some cases Wal-Mart is the only practical place to shop when there are not many stores around. Then again, that typically happens to people in rural places outside the big cities that have plenty of alternatives, and those rural people are often the ones that fit the lower-class stereotypes.

    To their question, "where else are you going to find a 400 lb woman and tall dykey-dyke..." well, it might be that some of the upscale stores that the elitists are shopping at are...well...elitist...and the "awkward" peeps likely don't feel comfortable going there cause they know they will be looked at/laughed at. You can find all kinds of people at Wal-Mart, however, so strangies aren't really that strange, there.

  2. I've often had the same issue with the ever popular Fail Blog. A lot of what they label as "Fail" looks to me like folks finding creative ways to make do with what they've got available. That sounds a lot like "Win" to me.

  3. This is kind of hard for me to figure out which side I fall on. Personally I've always thought classism is the core issue that divides our country and at the same time I can't help but laugh at a guy wearing bright pink shorts and a Steelers jersey. It makes me wonder why I find that funny and why we laugh at anything in the first place. And going further with that idea, if someone wants to dress like that it doesn't bother me, I'd actually encourage it! There's something kind of punk rock about saying "I don't care what other people think, I'm going to wear what I want."
    At the same time, I've seen rich people wear things that I thought were ridiculous and laughed at them but I understand it's a lot easier to take a camera to a Wal-Mart and make fun of people than it is to go to the opera or a high-end restaurant. Like I said, while I admit that this is an issue about class I think a lot of it comes down to why do we find things funny? *shrugs*

  4. On the other hand, these people are not being mocked for shopping at Wal-Mart - or you would see the girl in a suit, and the guy in jeans and a nice t-shirt. These people are being mocked for choices they have made. No-one wakes up in the morning with skin-tight clothes stuck on their body they cannot remove or cover. No-one is born with a permanent mullet. It's not like they are mocking people who are disabled, or asian, or such.
    Frankly, I see the stereotyping here - you are the one declaring that 'weird' people are lower-class.
    There are tons of people out there with little money that dress simply and nicely, and will never show up on this blog. I'll bet some of these strange Wal-Mart folk are well in the middle to upper class.
    Sure, there's a good chance that many of the people live and perpetuate the stereotype, but pointing that out is a far cry from gathering together a bunch of lower-class people and mocking them for being so.

    If everyone shops at Wal-Mart, then it's merely a great place to catch all kinds of people, and inevitably the weird ones - not the lower-class ones.
    If you want to take issue with laughing at a man's choice to wear see-through shorts and patterned underwear, take issue with that, but the reason for the mockery is his very abnomal choice - not judgements on his clas.

  5. Kai, did u even read the words from the site that Macon quoted?You're blind, dude. Or else in denial. Which could be what's blinding u.

  6. I just stumbled on this site, and I find it very interesting.

    However, I, like a few others here, don't think this is a class issue. My friend Patrick and I grew up poor/kind of poor. I was pretty well off (we owned computers and stuff like that), but Patrick's family was broke. His mother was a meth addict, and used to let her friends use her food stamps in exchange for drugs. I heard she turned tricks a few times, too. She looked like a lot of people on that website. Toothless, haggard, and wearing a tube top. On top of all that, she wasn't too bright.

    Patrick, however, despite his shitty childhood, despite his family's lack of money, despite being raised by his brother instead of his dad, rose above it. Patrick was poor, but he wasn't trashy. He read Plato and Vonnegut, he listened to art rock, he watched avant-garde cinema. He wrote poetry and music, he taught himself how to play guitar and use music-editing software. He got a grant, and now he's headed to college. (I just realized I made him sound like a bit of a sissy. I suppose we both were. Hahaha.)

    The point is, your financial situation does not have to determine your intelligence and sophistication. You do not have to go to the Metropolitan to enjoy opera. You do not have to have a degree in English to read Camus (maybe French, haha.) And even if you never find the time to do these things, you can at least have the grace to wear modest, flattering clothing and behave like a classy, elegant human being.

    And then again, like the guy above me said, there's also something admirable in not caring at all. In which case, I'm sure they don't give a shit if strangers on the internet laugh a bit.

  7. "She looked like a lot of people on that website. Toothless, haggard, and wearing a tube top. On top of all that, she wasn't too bright."

    How would you feel about about a picture of your friend's mom turning up on he site?

  8. @Purple (and world)
    I did read the single quoted entry, and agree that that single contributor was assuming a whole list of 'white trash' stereoptypes from the photo.
    but then I did a little research on my own, and read through other parts of the site. As a whole, it is classist in no way. The site description encourages laughter at strange choices, not poor people. Most of the postings fit this general idea. A single stereotyping contribution does not a classist website make.

  9. My parents migrated down to South Florida because...well, for a few reasons, but Caribbean/South Asian peeps from the East Coast seem to end up there!

    While visiting them, my brother and I (born and bred New Yorkers) will often go to Walmart in the wee hours on the weekends because that is the only time his work allows him to.

    Of the many, many times we've been there, the only person with a shaved head is him, and the only people picking up a frozen pizza is us!

  10. "strange choices," kai? According to whom? A lot of them are indeed simply bizarre and unclassifiable choices, but many others are on the site because they replicate stigmatizing stereotypes about "white trash." They violate unspoken middle class standards for what's proper and clean and attractive. U can turn your eyes away and stick your fingers as deep in your ears as u like, but the classism oozing from that site will still be there.

  11. @AIF

    Your comments remind me a bit of my grandad. He grew up in dreadful poverty and was intensely proud of having taught himself a skilled trade. He'd sometimes sneer at what he'd call 'costermongers' and 'barrow boys' who 'had no culture'.

    There have always been divisions between the 'respectible' and less respectible working class.

    But personally I'm just not confident that it is, as my own mum would always say (when explaining why her dislike of someone more 'lumpen' wasn't the same as the class snobbery the middle classes would in turn show towards her), solely about whether you have 'culture' rather than class.

    Some would see it as just another class division (people like my grandad are partly what the term 'labour aristocracy' was originally coined to describe after all).

    So, speaking for myself, I would try to avoid sneering like that in the website described - especially as it sounds very much like in the case of that site that its a sneer from more than one class division above.

    "your financial situation does not have to determine your intelligence and sophistication. "

    It doesn't _have to_ but, on aggregate, it clearly often does determine what culture you acquire and what behavioural norms you learn (I don't agree with 'intelligence' in that context - I've never been entirely sure what that word even means).

    Its not impossible if you are poor (especially if you have some other advantage) to acquire high-status culture but its a lot _easier_ if you are middle class. So why should middle class folk be entitled to disparage those who didn't have the same advantages they did?

    And I think Kai's claim that somehow class-related things are purely a matter of individual 'choice' (that we are all totally neutral classless creatures who just 'choose' to have certain cultural traits and can make ourselves from whole cloth) is completely ridiculous and politically naive. At least save that sort of thinking for issues that hurt other people, like criminal behaviour, rather than just clothing choices that harm nobody.

    Also, the people on that site don't know anything about the personal circumstances of the people they picture (surely some could actually have mental health problems? It's not exactly unknown for such people to dress oddly, no?).

    Political analysis aside, its just plain rude.

  12. That site bothers me, too. I've grown very tired of white liberal elitism. I am a white liberal myself, with southern and Texan roots. (I also lived in trailer park when I was a kid.) The assumptions these people make about southerners and Texans are so ingrained that they assume their attitudes are universal.

    I've lived in the northeast and in the San Francisco area, where I frequently encountered that kind of sneering (at ALL southerners, not just the kinds of people shown on that Wal-Mart site) and the bad parodies of their accents. When I rolled my eyes or questioned their attitudes, they were genuinely surprised at best, dismissive at worst. These are folks who pride themselves on their tolerance (as opposed to those rednecks!).

    The Civil War never really ended.

  13. Julie,

    CONservatives are elitists too ya know. Except they use their southern accents and questionable ties to Christianity (going to church) to get poorer whites to vote against their own best interests. It's pretty sad actually.

    White Conservatives = rich

    Their Constituents = MUST shop at Wal Mart

  14. I stopped shopping at Wal-Mart when I learned it was owned by Republicans. But the general attitude there is, they don't care how much money you have- come in however you want, and get out under budget.

    I don't think this website is indicative of anything other than what people wear when they are exhausted and need to pick a few things up. They probably don't wear those outfits to work, travel outside of their neighborhood, or on a date- at least my dates haven't.

    But I do see how this becomes classist- because none of these website holders are in the fashion industry, nor do they realize how much of what they wear comes from "the street", so the irony is on them. They find it ridiculous because they wish these shoppers cared more about what they think, and that's their issue. It reminds me of people who always make observations about POC's "broken English" as if to say, "they wouldn't pass my college courses." They consider them under-exposed and uneducated, because if they were educated they would conform as they have to societal norms and prejudices. America treats people they perceive to live in poverty with less respect. These shoppers at the Wal-Mart are not to be respected, they are to be washed in some seedy town off the highway and left there because they were too "awkward" to get it together. Short sited jokes.

  15. BlkSmarTee, I wasn't implying by omission that there are no conservative elitists. There are elitists of all stripes, for sure! I was only talking about white liberal elitists in relation to the People of Wal-Mart website.

    I agree with you that many of the southern conservative politicians who troll for the votes of poor white people also sneer at and stereotype them. That is some ugly cynicism, right there.

    Ugh. And yeah, I know elitists aren't the only ones enjoying that website.

  16. I think people are just guilt ridden for breathing... and until we start having confidence in the fact that we are actually alive this pollution will multiply like cancer in our hearts till they are apples with core rotted out...

  17. I like the people of Wal-Mart site and think it's pretty funny. The best part about it is being able to contribute photos. I have submitted a couple and hope they end up on the site some day.

    To me, it's refreshing to see whites portrayed in such a well, negative manner. When i go to the Wal-Mart about an hour from me it's kind of like going on an expedition to photograph animals in their natural, comfortable habitat. And we all know those backwards, mindless conservative whites are all uneducated. So why not just ridicule them just because they're the honkeys they are?

    And yes, many of them do appear to be and act subhuman and should be treated as such. I don't dislike all whites, only the ones i think are undeserving of respect because of where they live and if they look racist. And all small-town, medium-sized town and suburban whites fit into the "being racist" category.

  18. lefty liberal elitists are going to have to learn, at some point, that its these midwestern working-folks who decide elections. the residents of the midwest, you know: that big "empty" space between the left and right coasts. it just might take the election of sarah palin into the white house to drive that fact home. are we really this stupid? (wait, dont answer that).

  19. macon d,

    Douglas' comment is a perfect example of what is so offensive about this site. If you are monitoring comments why would you let something so obviously offensive, ignorant and pointless fly? As well as all the insulting comments to me?

  20. Isabel,

    Your apparent oblivion to how offensive and insulting some of your own comments are is, at the least, dismaying.

    I disallow several comments per day, but Douglas' is on the topic, and it seems like it could be satiric -- I think he might be someone who actually agrees with a White Rights defender like yourself. It's a potentially useful contribution to the discussion, because others might respond to it in a way that continues the discussion here on the People of Wal-Mart site.

    As for what's "so offensive" about swpd -- you repeatedly accuse me and others of making broad, overgeneralizing statements about all white people, when it's very subtitle says that each post is about something that some white people do. If other white people don't do it, then the post isn't about something they commonly do. Why is that distinction so hard for you to see?

    And by the way, what do you think of the point that this post makes? Do you agree that the People of Wal-Mart site is classist? Or is it too out of character or something for you to acknowledge that you actually agree with a post here?

  21. "seems like it could be satiric"

    I wondered that but we don't know. If not, how is it "on-topic"?????

    "then the post isn't about something they commonly do. Why is that distinction so hard for you to see?"

    Because you are not saying "some people" you are saying some "white" people. And the most common category of "some" white people that is referred to is left un-named, and the "blame" is diffused to an entire race of people. The result is not just offensive, it's non-sensical.

    You're question is asked so disrespectfully I decline to answer.

    And WTF is a White Rights defender? Really, your insulting attitude is over-the-top.

  22. Completely off-topic, but since Isabel has seen fit to curse us with her presence again...

    Macon D,

    I really admire the work you put into this blog. I understand that you want a forum where people from all backgrounds could engage each other in discussions about race, and I respect that. However, I just want to know how and where you draw the line.

    I mean no disrespect, but approving comments like Isabel's make the this environment rather hostile, especially for POC like myself. I love having conversations with people whose views are different from mine. There have been commenters who have approached these topics with, "I understand what you're saying, but I respectfully disagree..." In conversations such as those, everyone learns from everyone else, and we can walk away from the keyboard with greater insight. The only thing that comments from Isabel and the other trolls accomplish are headaches and frustration. She's obviously not here to learn or to share; she's here to scream, rant, plug her fingers in her ears and scream LALALALALALA.

    Again, I mean no disrespect, and I hope I'm not coming across as someone who's trying to tell you how to run your own blog. (I apologize if that's the case.) But, how much leeway should be given to encourage open debate, without causing others to feel discouraged and upset?

  23. That's a tough question, Angel H, but thanks for asking it. Isabel's obstinacy frustrates me too. But, she's not always like that, and I've never banned an individual from this site, only certain comments. I won't let a name-calling match like the one that happened a week or so happen again, and I'll make more of an effort to disallow comments from her or anyone else that are clearly derailing, or too far off-topic, or insistent that this blog be about something other than what it's about, or just plain belligerent. So, case closed (for now).

    And Isabel, my "attitude" toward you ("insulting" or not -- and I think it's not) is a result of your refusal to take part effectively in a discussion here. You do little more than run around telling people here that they're wrong, all the while denying truths that others here see as evident and important. You maybe be sincere in your arguments here, but you refuse to get, or even try to get, the general point of this blog, and of other things about race that others here explain to you repeatedly. You interpret analysis of whiteness and common white ways as slams against white people in general, when they're not. You claim that racism will just "take care of itself," when it clearly won't. That's just some of why people see most of your efforts here as derailment and "concern trolling."

  24. The odd thing about Douglas's comment is, that a number of the people mocked on that site are in fact, black.

    Having browsed the site, I have to admit to being rather stunned by the picture of the woman with a huge Nazi-style Swastika on the front of her sweat-shirt. Either she's an actual Nazi or perhaps its another of those whacky PETA stunts?

  25. Thanks, Macon D. I appreciate your answer.

  26. I think that this website exists as a way for people who shop at walmart but "know better" to distance themselves from it. It's called people of walmart, implying that people who shop at walmart are some sort of untouchable underclass, but wasn't the person who snapped the picture a "person of walmart" as well? It's a way for people to feel better about their own need/desire to shop at a discount superstore by saying "i shop here too, but at least im not one of THEM. im different, ive got taste!"

  27. Hell, more power to this site if it manages to attach a deeper social stigma to Wal-Mart shoppers. If classist attacks on random individuals is what it takes to hurt a corporate giant in the pocketbook, it's fine by me. You know, in the big picture.

  28. @Sam: Using classism as a tool against Walmart (in the way that it's being used on that website) won't hurt the company any more than a lone mosquito hurts an elephant. It does however reinforce and even advance the culture of class hierarchy that gave birth to capitalism and Walmart in the first place. The stigma of being a Walmart shopper may drive people to try harder to climb the class ladder (out of shame), an inherently competitive and exploitative (and usually futile) act.

    If you want to hurt the company's pocketbook, then there are ways to do it that do not require exploiting and insulting the people who must patronize the place. Gasoline and a match is one possibility.

  29. Very interesting blog you have here Sir. I will mark and visit again.

  30. "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."

    I count seven. In order:

    1. Fit of rage = poor people are overemotional and unable to control themselves.

    2. Ripped off his sleeves = poor people do not care if they look trashy.

    3. Went to Walmart = the purpose of the site is to make fun of the poor people who go there, not the middle class people who attempt to justify their presence because "it was an emergency". Wal*Mart as lower class lifestyle, if you will.

    4. Monster Truck Rally and 5. Tractor Pull = poor people do not bother to edcuate themselves, and will watch low-class "event sports" rather than something "edifying" like the Discovery Channel (or read a book for entertainment).

    6. A few cases of beer = poor people like to drink too much and act stupid.

    7. Couch on his front porch = poor people have no taste.

    Number 7 is particularly interesting to me, since a lot of expensive outdoor furniture is indistinguishable from a couch or armchair, except for the fact that they are upholstered in weather-reseistant fabrics (the teak and cushioned loveseats and couches at shops like Frontgate and Restoration Hardware come to mind). Clearly, the price one pays for the furniture on one's front porch matters.

    I had a futon on my front porch for years, and I enjoyed it very much - it was extremely comfortable.

  31. I find the overt classism, ableism (oh it's there, dude using a scooter to motor around whilst wearing a Jimmy Buffet shirt)racism and sexism a disgusting. I think it's incredibly problematic folks are being stigmatized for being poor.

    No, I'm not some uptighty liberal. I'm a snarky fucking black chick who despite tremendous benefits of upper middle class privilege, is often "read" as poor, uneducated, etc because I am of color.

    Sites like these are disturbing to me because humor often allows people to keep their fucked up ideas secured packed, and anyone who points out the problematic nature is considered "too PC".

    Why is so funny about these people? Please tell me. I find tons of things funny, but laughing at OTHER PEOPLE from an outsider's stance is like the lowest form of "humor".

    How embarrassing and sad this is their only outlet for fame.

    If I made a "small dick" comment in regards to the site's owners would that be okay?

    Oops, already did.

  32. I'm certainly not of a higher class than any Walmart customer, but I have to say I've seen the craziest things happen there. And I've experienced the worst in humanity there. Having said that I should also say it's been years since I was a voluntary patron there. I've gone under duress with a friend or my mom, but I hate Walmart. I haven't encountered anything like it anywhere else. I don't know what it is, but I mean - I could write a book about horrifying Walmart experiences that I've had alone, and then I could make Volume 2 with my friends' experiences. Until I saw The People of Walmart site, I really thought it was me. I think South Park was right, Walmart's just evil. ;)


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