17 September 2008

The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world...

For most of my life, I've been enchanted by the idea of class. And really just one in particular. You know, the people who dress well, who go to parties that you weren't invited to where they are photographed for glossy magazines, who speak with flowery words and say things like "quite" and "darling," who have family estates, an Aristocratic lineage, and a fair amount of incest, drama and prescription drugs always lingering.

Well, actually, these people kind of only exist in books that I've read, most of which are satirizing the pretensions of this mythical class and the pathetic desperation of the poor souls trying to break in. The accounts are mostly funny, sometimes tragic, and occasionally rooted in reality. In fact, so much has been written about these folks that in many ways, the satirical accounts have come to standardize how the anglophiles, wasp lust-ers and social climbers of all sorts model their lives.

Class, as explained to me by James, Wharton, Waugh, Trollope and dozens of other authors, doesn't truly exist in the United States. The so-called establishment might have been the closest we came to anything like that, but you can bet that today, for the most part, any proclamation of old guard ties or authenticity is at best exaggerated. That's not to say that societal demarcations don't exist here - we've just developed a new currency that includes pure income, label flaunting (or lack thereof), beauty and celebrity.


But I guess this very American social structure isn't glamorous or entertaining enough. Celebrity is too easy follow, and maybe its randomness is infuriating to people trying to figure out the system. And lots of people are wealthy enough to afford all of those labels that show other people just how much you fit in and the products that make your lips puffier and your hair shinier....so income, beauty and labels are also kind of attainable. So what ELSE are we consumers to desire when most things are either at our disposal or easy to imitate with fakes. To be part of the class of people that most people have already concluded to be irrelevant? Sure! Why not? We wouldn't want girls in the fly over states having delusions of grandeur just because they can afford a silly bag. It's best to put them in their place.

Jimmy Stewart's character in The Philadelphia Story said it best: "The prettiest sight in this fine pretty world, is the privileged class enjoying its privileges." The irony was either lost on the studio executives or they were just too blinded by the easy sell to advertisers.

There's a certain element of escapism in watching wealth on film and television. It's unpleasant to think about financial matters, and oh, wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to worry about rent or bills or stuffy jobs and could just go on with our charmed lives and fancy outfits, dealing with the more interesting stuff.

Most shows that I'm familiar with commit one of two financial flaws. The first is placing middle class people in situations and residences that are laughably unattainable for them and where the characters remain blissfully unaware of any financial realities. A few famous examples: the occasionally employed cast of Friends living in that large, clean Manhattan apartment, the ordinary family in Mrs. Doubtfire residing in Pacific Heights, and anything that ever happened in any Nora Ephron/Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film and Sex and the City.

The second offense is making wealth the reason for the show's existence and the basis of all plots. Which brings me (finally!) to my point: I'm done with the wealthy teen dramas. There are about five scenarios that repeat relentlessly and yet, more shows keep popping up with the same basic premise - outsiders trying to fit in amongst the privileged. Consider:

The OC: Blonde and handsome outsider from the wrong side of the tracks gets adopted by rich Orange County family, looks good in a suit and never goes back.

90210 v2.1: Kansians move to Beverly Hills and girl bakes cookies for crush. How embarrassing, you quaint little thing! But she's pretty and thin...with the right clothes she'll recover from this and other imminent social gaffes.

Gossip Girl: Watch what happens when the poverty stricken Brooklynites try to socialize with the Upper East Siders...dresses are stolen, lies are told, and arrangements are made with wealthy guy to lift girl's status and conceal guy's homosexuality.

Privileged: Pretty, struggling journalist takes a job tutoring spoiled Palm Beach teens, mingles with Palm Beach types!

The Hills: Los Angles, fake jobs, lots and lots and lots of talk about really boring relationships between really attractive people. Oh and they wear expensive things and go out a lot. At least the middle classes are spared humiliation in this one (I think...I've watched only one episode of this train wreck.)

All these shows really offer is a peek into lives of people you'll never know, who own things that you'll never own, and who seem to just be having a grand time with all of their pretty things. Heather Havrilesky of Salon.com does a wonderful job of explaining why this trend is so disconcerting.

"This isn't about catching a glimpse inside these magnificent spaces or getting an amusing glance at the silly excesses of a select few living in Manhattan or Palm Beach or Beverly Hills. This is an extended tour through the many concrete benefits and perks of life among the very rich....Kids without money demean themselves to keep up appearances, over and over again, while the rich kids blithely move through the world perfectly coiffed and dressed to the nines....It's a perverse consumerist fable for young people, built on the notion that money provides the only sure escape from tension, stress and impending challenges.

Can these dramas -- which are made for young people, after all -- really be written off as harmless fun when so many of us aspire to throw money around like young barons and dukes with demonstrably tragic consequences for the entire country? As a growing percentage of families lose their homes and taxpayers are forced to foot the bill for the mortgage industry's indiscretions, while millionaire executives and private investors remain unscathed, should we feel so comfortable celebrating the growing divide between the haves and have-nots?"



The celebration of the advantages of these teenagers and 20-somethings is gratuitous, mainly because these shows have lost the gift of satire. All they do is flaunt the money and the things. In the best books on the subject (in my humble opinion) neither "side" comes out particularly well. All are exposed for their absurdities. I've heard that the Gossip Girl books are more Waugh-like than the show gives them credit for. Maybe I should give them a try.

And if satire is too complicated, give the teens another My So-Called Life, Wonderfalls or Freaks and Geeks. Depth and sincerity aren't that scary.

These shows, though, they'll make Becky Sharpes out of us all.

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