In a scene from the “American Idol” satire “American Dreamz,” an industry suit tells the Kelly Clarkson-styled character (Mandy Moore) and her mom that a “white trash” background is great for her image.
“We’re not white trash,” the mom counters, taken aback.
“Of course you’re not,” the suit replies, rolling his eyes at their garishly decorated middle-class home. “But look how well it did for Britney Spears.” Mandy Moore’s character nods vigorously, ready to embrace any persona that promises fame.
In life, as in art (or at least this movie), the suit is right. Whether it’s America’s embrace of our verbally-challenged president, backlash against Hollywood’s hoity-toity values or the omnipresence of obnoxious reality show jerks, white trash is white hot.
Formerly an insult originated in the antebellum South, the term now describes a growing state of cool, moving beyond the now-passé trucker hats and PBR-in-a-can to full-on “keeping it real.” In fashion lingo, white trash is the ghetto fabulous for spring.
To illustrate the growing white trash cachet, witness “My Name is Earl” (a postmodern “Roseanne”) or the budding movie career of “Blue Collar” comedian Larry the Cable Guy. (An “Ernest” for the new millennium?) Someone tell “The Simpsons”: Between the rise of NASCAR and Dick Cheney’s hunting accident, white trash ain’t just for Cletus and Brandine anymore.
Take Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. On “The Simple Life,” these silver-spoon skanks don’t need a Southern background or humble beginnings typically associated with the low-class moniker. Despite their trustafarian benefits, Paris and Nicole wear their riches like white-trash lottery winners, blowing their cash on pricier versions of regular junk: jewel-encrusted PDAs and cell phones, silk wife-beaters, etc.
Trailer park? What trailer park?Trucker hats aside, white-trash accoutrements are still all the rage. Swag bags given to celebrities at this year’s Oscars included T-shirts from online retailer White Trash Palace, emblazoned with such slogans as “Every mother is a working mother.” George Clooney auctioned his Oscar bag for charity, but other celebrities wear the white-trash logo as a badge of honor. And that doesn't even include country artists such as Toby Keith, with his new CD “White Trash with Money,” or Candye Kane's “White Trash Girl.”
Kid Rock, with his “White Trash on Dope” tour, worked this shtick from the beginning. Perfectly coifed Jessica Simpson used her own backwoods background to win the coveted Daisy Duke role in the big-screen “Dukes of Hazzard.” Hilary Swank, in the acceptance speech for her second Oscar, crowed about her trailer-park beginnings, much to the dismay of her family, who didn’t remember their life quite as gritty as Swank described.
Swank’s family may have good cause for embarrassment by her podium proclamation. White trash, after all, didn’t start out as a funny slogan on an overpriced T-shirt. In “Gone with the Wind,” Mammy warns Scarlett O’Hara against acting like “white trash.” In its original 1890s definition, the term is a slur against impoverished and uneducated white families in slave-era South — doubly biting in its implication that all non-whites are trash (hence the “white” distinction). It’s also used in “To Kill A Mockingbird” to describe the Ewell family, the patriarch of which is a violent, incestuous drunk.
In a recent episode of England’s hit soap opera “Coronation Street,” a character accused his sister of behaving like her “white trash friends,” and the nation exploded in controversy. Fans were appalled by the show’s use of an insult with racist overtones. Meanwhile, back on these shores, white trash still retains the associations of trailer parks, Camaros-up-on-blocks, screaming babies, unemployment, public drunkenness, lack of education or social skills — but not the social stigma.
Trash litThese days, hipsters who 10 years ago would have embraced grunge grow long mustaches like the one worn by the title character in “Earl.” White trash now spawns the same pop-culture ephemera associated with past trends. Like the “Preppy Handbook” and “Hipster Handbook,” we now have the “Down Home Trailer Park” book series by Ruby Ann Boxcar, and "White Trash Etiquette," by Dr. Verne Edstrom, Esq., due out this summer.
Plus, we have the style bibles of white-trash couture: reality shows. What’s more uncouth and stereotypically hick-like than obnoxious and seemingly unintelligent people grappling for fame and fortune sans hard work or talent? Beyond “The Jerry Springer Show,” there’s “Nanny 911” and “Trading Spouses,” revealing to the world America’s inability to raise its children. And don’t forget one of the original reality shows, “Cops,” still going strong.
Fashion statements aside, do we really want to embrace white trash as the new cool? Take, for instance, the antics of current white trash pinup girl Britney Spears and her no-means-of-visible-support husband Kevin Federline. The real-life Beverly Hillbillies recently got a visit from the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and a deputy sheriff. It seems a doctor reported their baby, Sean Preston, suffered a skull fracture six days before he was brought to the hospital. Two months earlier, Britney was caught driving with baby Preston on her lap.
It don’t get more “Cops” than that, folks. And it don’t get more white trash than “Cops.”
Helen A.S. Popkin was raised with a car up on blocks in the front yard and "educated" in the Florida public school system.