A recent sorority recruitment video from the University of Alabama last month was critically received on the internet for what some claimed were racist overtones. The nearly all-white, bikini and lingerie clad sorority sisters portrayed pranced happily throughout the over-5 minute long video, never opening a book, attending a class, or even appearing to be affiliated with a learning environment. As a college instructor, the mother of a young girl, and self-proclaimed feminist, I mentally ripped the video apart when I saw it. I also conceded that the video was probably racially insensitive, but my biggest concern with the video and the women portrayed lay in another vein: classism. As I watched the women on the video, my working-class roots reared up, and I nearly screamed at my computer screen, “what college aged woman can afford those clothes? The highlighted hair? The manicured nails?!?” And then I vented to Julie Withers on Facebook. It went something like this:
We often focus on race and ethnicity as the great dividers in American Society, but in reality, I would argue that race and ethnicity differences are secondary to class today, as the great divider, and the sorority video illustrated that. Watch the video, and tell me how many ways Class is displayed. :
I pick up on the class things more than race. Who can afford those clothes? Those teeth? Manicures, pedicures, fake nails, tanning. The expense of bleaching and highlighting your hair like that? My students sometimes can’t eat daily because they pay tuition, rent, can’t find a job in our over-educated town with 30,000 other students willing to work for minimum wage; how can anyone afford the expense of paying sorority dues and buying the crap needed to belong to one with such high material expectations?
But the ultimate class differences are in perfectly capped teeth. Anyone can get hair and makeup and pretty clothes done for a video shoot; the teeth are the inescapable sign that scream “upper class” in the sorority video.
A fascinating article in the online magazine, Aeon, discusses the poverty of a crooked set of teeth brilliantly. The author, Sarah Smarsh, not a sociologist but definitely a journalist-ethnographer, tells the story of teeth far better than my ranting. Check out the article here.
My baby teeth were straight and white, and I wasn’t obese – an epidemic among poor kids that hadn’t yet taken hold in the 1980s – but I had plenty of ‘tells’: crooked bangs, trimmed at home with sewing shears; a paper grocery sack carrying my supplies on the first day of school while other kids wore unicorn backpacks; a near-constant case of ringworm infection (I kept a jar of ointment on my nightstand year-round); the smell of cigarette smoke on my clothes, just as cigarettes were falling out of favour with the middle and upper classes; sometimes, ill-fitting clothes, as when the second-grade teacher I revered looked at my older cousin’s shirt sagging off my shoulder and said: ‘Tell your mother to send you to school in clothes that fit you.’ In fifth grade, a girl noticed my generic, plastic-smelling, too-pointy boots – a Kmart version of the black leather lace-ups that were in fashion – and for weeks hounded me before and after school, kicking dirt on my shins and calling me Pippi Longstocking.” — Sarah Smarsh