Class warfare

Following up on yesterday’s post, I think class attitudes are a particularly challenge to write.
They’re a challenge because judging someone by social class is something we’re not supposed to do, and it doesn’t have the deep roots in American society that race, sex and religion. I know there are snobs, and plenty of people who insist the rich really are better than the rest of us—but that’s supposedly because the rich work so much harder and more diligently and earned all that money, not because their bloodlines are better. The idea we should be a classless society is embraced more widely than the idea we should be colorblind or genderblind.
Which makes it that much harder, I think, to get into the mindset of a Hindu Brahmin who finds the idea of an Untouchable touching him utterly vile. Or to write an aristocratic hero who genuinely believes that his servants are inferiors, or that it would be a shame on his family to marry someone beneath him. It’s one thing if the hero learns better by the end of the story, of course, but what if he (or she) doesn’t?
Class is a big deal in Great Expectations: Pip’s obsession with rising in the world, his conviction that he must be more than a common brat or his mysterious benefactor wouldn’t be helping him, his horror when he realizes it’s Magwitch the loathsome convict. The Ethan Hawke film of the book flopped, in part, because it’s updated to the present and that Victorian class consciousness doesn’t transfer at all. Hawke’s Pip ends up happy by accepting that the poor whites he grew up with are really fine, salt of the earth types and that it’s not shame to live among them—which is a good sentiment, of course, but it’s nothing to do with the book.
Barbara Stanwyck’s tearjerker Stella Dallas is also about class: Stanwyck plays a crass, white-trash woman who marries above her class, divorces him and raises her daughter alone; when she realizes her daughter will never make a “good” marriage with a mom like her, she contrives to walk out and let dad and his sophisticated new wife introduce the girl to society.
This works despite the implicit snobbery because Stanwyck’s performance is fantastic; not only agonizing emotionally (yeah, I cried a couple of times) but she really does come across as a tacky, embarrassing family member (as critic David Denby put it, she’s tasteless the way some people are colorblind).
When Bette Middler remade the film as Stella in 1990, the rationale for handing her daughter off to daddy makes no sense whatsoever; class attitudes have changed too much. Plus Middler plays Stella as a pretty likeable, cool mom: Sure, she’s beer-and-pretzels rather than champagne-and-caviar, but Middler’s natural charisma made it hard for me to believe any family that would turn up their nose at her would be worth marrying into.

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