My good friend Jen brought up, in her comments on my recent entry entertainment thoughts, the question "don't you find the Earl show to be classist? I haven't figured this out yet - but the representation of poor white Americans is somewhat disturbing..."
I have to say, this gives me pause...but I haven't found anything in the show so far that either strays out of my personal experience or shoves a view that is outside of possible expectation. The main thing of which I'm reminded is the reaction from my Northern friends (who, aside from having pretty ugly versions of barbecue, are generally okay) to Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? They kept asking me if, as a southerner, I took offense to the southern stereotypes. I remain puzzled by that one, and, after further review, I have to admit to a certain amount of puzzlement over the Earl show comment...and, of course, this brings me to a whole deeper issue, that of context.
My father grew up in what could most likely generously be called working class situations. Although I have no real details, I always got the impression that his mother's first marriage (to his father) was not particularly happy. I know for a fact that it was not particularly long, and at a time when marriages generally didn't break up and single motherhood was not really easy, she divorced him, so that says something. Her second marriage was happy but short, as the man had health problems. Somewhere in the non-married times, my grandmother sent my father to live with one of my great aunts and uncles. When he did live with Grandmother, I know she had to work several jobs.
(I suppose for fairness, I should include something about my Mom's upbringing...after all, she was the daughter of a small town British farmer. However, my mother, most likely as the result of her schooling, seemed to acquire a certain desire for that sophistication and civilized life that is uniquely British...and also a covert elevation of upperclass values as to that which all should aspire. So this is obviously important, but I just can't figure out how to articulate it just yet...)
When I was growing up, my dad was in the Air Force for most of the time (through 7th grade), so the perks of military life (living in exotic lands, on-base housing) kind of ameliorated any real level of class consiousness awareness (racial as well, but that's a different post). When he retired and we moved to Florida, he ran into ageism and couldn't get the kind of job for which he was clearly qualified. So, for a while, he worked at first as a security guard and then at a propane delivery company before eventually getting his Post Office job. But his retirement pay, and the career military mindset, kept us, for the most part, shielded from the spectre of working class culture.
School, however, could not. Friends could not. The working class neighborhoods where some friends lived, where fellow musicians lived, let us know that we were in a vastly different place than an Air Force base. When I started working at Little Caesar's Pizza (see the pizza of my dreams), that also exposed me to a whole new realm, class-wise, of society of which I had not seen.
In many ways, the Air Force base lifestyle was better. Identity seemed to be not as much of a factor as outside our enclave. We were all military, even if black, from a rich background, from another country. There were jerks, yes, but they were mostly just jerks because of their personality. Maybe I was just too young and naive to see it, but it seemed a zone where the only thing by which people would judge you was your rank, and you could always change that. But was this realistic? Reproduceable?
Civilian life was different. Upon entering high school, I found the whole status-as-related-to-what-kind-of-car-you-drive thing hilarious (of course, I drove beaters, but still...). Upon working in different neighborhoods and seeing how class could largely determine how much of a jerk you were, I started to formulate ideas. Upon gaining friends from a wide range of classes (some had doctors parents, some had pawn shop owner parents, some had grunt work parents), I started to question how each person's sense of and definition of reality was determined by this social class.
Somehow, I tended to gravitate towards the working class people. One friend told me and my brother, upon getting his own trailer, that his fondest desire was to live somewhere where he could open his door, go out to the woods, and burn something. I had some female friends in high school who assumed they would be working full time right out of high school, not due to any "women's lib" notion but to the reality that they would never be able to have a family without two incomes. I worked with people just turning 16 who knew they would have to punch a timeclock until they turned 65 at least. I can picture these people playing beer can tag or stealing roadside barriers for the recycling money.
Conclusions? The working class had better music; where would you rather go, Skynyrd or Yanni? They had better food, as a rule, with barbecue being example one...Tony Bourdain says that the best cuisines, including what is now thought of as Classical French, came about due to the necessity to use the nasty bits of animals left over from the rich.
They also had a distinctly different outlook on life. I don't really think they believed that they could drastically improve their situation. They didn't have the time or opportunities for the sustained education which might lift them...could you really gamble away four years of earning potential, especially if you were chancing large debt and still having the uncertainty of a better career? In many respects, they saw the power structure for what it was (crooked, biased, self-serving), but they didn't have the luxury of even considering reform.
Their main goal was surviving, and maybe getting an extra pocket of luxury by any means. They had long abandoned the illusion of some idyllic fifties utopia. Their quest for survival lead to different pleasures, different aspirations. I've kind of suspected that it was a post-apocalyptic life for most, and that sort of situation breeds that different outlook which must appear foriegn to those who have never experienced it.
So, that's how I see My Name is Earl. Moreover (and definitely more importantly), I think I'm willing to see that whenever identity is the subject. When one views society from a middle or upper class perspective, it gets easy to forget the true impact that life can have on someone. If you are in a post-apocalyptic world, your logic is formed by your basic realities, not the basic realities of outside observers, no matter how open-minded they are. And yes, you may act weird, even after having the eureka moment of enlightenment, be it a windfall, karma, or anything else...but it's only weird from a perspective informed by a different rule of logic.
Although my parents did their best to shield me from that poor/working class life (are they really that different?), I got enough exposure to understand and adopt the thought process. Maybe it's the thing that makes me stand out in department meetings or in seminars (I learned long ago that it never really was the hair or the fashion choices that made me different). It's what accounts for my unconventional approach to handling students, my unconventional approach to my scholarship, and my unconventional approach to my musings (which surely you've noticed by now...).
Sometimes, that weirdness is a better approach to life. Or maybe there are more factors I haven't considered: how, for instance, is all of the above informed by the fact that we were White? Southern? Living in the eighties and beyond?
So, is this all a classist outlook? My gut's telling me no, but it is definitely an issue for further pondering. And maybe, it's not the depiction of poor white culture in the show that is the problem, but the accuracy of that depiction is what should give us pause.