The Cultural Mythology of “White Trash"
We have been raised to view any difference other than sex as a reason for destruction, and...to face each other’s angers without denial or immobility or silence or guilt is in itself a heretical and generative idea. It implies peers meeting upon a common basis to examine difference and to alter those distortions which history has created around our difference. For it is those distortions which separate us.
—Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, 1984
They, those people over there, those people who are not us.... They are different. We, I thought. Me.... Me and my family, we had always been they...We die so easily, disappear so completely...they, the ones who are destroyed or dismissed to make the “real” people, the important people, feel safer.... That fact, the inescapable impact of being born in a condition of poverty that this society finds shameful, contemptible, and somehow deserved, has had dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome or deny it...the vast majority of people believe that poverty is a voluntary condition. I have loved my family so stubbornly that every impulse to hold them in contempt has sparked in me a countersurge of pride—complicated and undercut by an urge to fit us into the acceptable myths and theories.... The choice becomes...one valorizing and the other caricaturing...trivializing the choices men and women of my family have made. I have had to fight broad generalizations from every theoretical viewpoint.
—Dorothy Allison, Skin: Talking About Sex, Class, and Literature, 1994
One theory blames environmental conditions such as diet, climate, and disease. The other theory, what David Reynolds refers to as the “blood-line theory,” argues that poor whites are “biologically inferior” and thus “genetically predisposed to be white trash.” This second theory continues to be used today as a means of perpetuating the myth of America as a classless society. In this way, Reynolds argues, America cannot be blamed if white trash are biologically depraved, and belief in “the land of opportunity, where prosperity is possible for all” can thus be maintained. (16)Despite an increase in visibility for the poor, the popular consciousness was often lured and entertained with comical, romanticized representations of white poverty-culture. Tailored to the demand for a palatable and amusing story that would facilitate popular culture’s ignorance and indifference, such sensationalized accounts often resulted in a false and grossly exaggerated version of reality. Specifically, the theatrical adaptation of Erksine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road serves as a glaring example with its prominent manipulation of stereotypical sexual promiscuity, as “animalistic sex was surely at least partly responsible for the record attendance” (Reynolds 361). Although the novel originally burned with Caldwell’s fierce anger at a self-serving, fate determining, and exploitative power structure, “the sexual titillation and the absurd caricatures merely reinforced the prevailing stereotypes” (McDonald 17). Providing further insight on such representations, in 1945 James Agee wrote in his review of the film A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, “the comfortable have always been able to lick their chops over the hunger of others if that hunger is presented with the right sort of humorous or pathetic charm” (qtd. in Reynolds 143). Upon further consideration of Agee’s especially relevant commentary, Reynolds concedes in his critical analysis of Dorothy Allison’s writing and “literary descent,”
James Agee, who had his own touring fascination with Southern poor whites...sheds light: the wealthy are not particularly interested in a frank documentation of poverty, especially when the impoverished are white Americans. However, if the poor can be presented in a charming or scenic way, standard approaches in American mass media, then they can be stomached guilt-free (357).
Thus, when attempting to prepare the story of impoverished life in America for
comfortable consumption within the realm of popular culture, many authors
created caricatures of white trash identity that were funny or pathetically
However, for all the humorous, valorized, or agreeable qualities ascribed to the “good” poor, those directly above or dangerously close to “trash” on the socioeconomic ladder are often compelled to distance themselves from the poor as they simultaneously romanticize them. The desire of the middle and lower-middle classes to disassociate themselves from white trash is a rather paradoxical impulse. David Reynolds explains this confusing and contradictory shift from condescension and affectionate distortion to blame and demonization:
Those closer to white trash on the economic spectrum have a more personal relationship with the white-trash myth. Viewed by the wealthy as indistinct from white trash, the upper-lower class and the lower-middle class may feel the need to define themselves by what they are not. Thus white trash may be seen by those who arc themselves on the fringes of poverty as the “low-other,” the convenient economic scapegoat. (357)Indeed, the suggestion that the cultural mythology surrounding “trash” functions as part of a scapegoating process employed by the middle class—intended to differentiate themselves from others whom they feel are less entitled to limited resources—is certainly a viable one. Underneath an economic system that forces fierce competition for what little benefits remain for those excluded from the upper class, ideas and definitions of identity that keep the “illegitimate” and undeserving in a state of deprivation come to prevail and perpetuate. Stereotypes that function to allow those in competition to feel entitled and righteous in their discrimination are certain to dominate popular sentiments about the poor. Providing further evidence for the “othering” process that invents and manipulates exaggerated, derogatory representations of white trash, Reynolds summarizes the results of two sociological studies, one conducted by Allison Davis, Burleigh Gardner, and Mary Gardner entitled “Deep South,” and the second study, “Social Standing in America,” researched by Richard Coleman and Lee Rainwater:
A 1941 sociological study of the caste system in the deep South...found that while the upper classes made no distinctions between the [middle to] lower classes, lumping them all together as poor whites—the [middle to] lower classes drew plenty of distinctions. The next-to-lowest class considered themselves poor but honest, calling the lowest class “shiftless people,” whereas the lowest class considered themselves to be “just as good as anybody,” labeling the class above them as “snobs trying to push up.” A study conducted in Boston and Kansas City in 1978 arrived at similar conclusions: upper-class Americans still lumped the lower classes together as a single homogeneous group, while those in the [middle to] lower classes differentiated between the poor who were “physically and morally clean” and those poor who were “not clean in either respect.” Interestingly, there were no white respondents in the 1978 survey who identified themselves as belonging to the lowest class. Both studies found that...the poorest people tried to draw distinctions between themselves and their neighboring classes. (356-357)Although the results of both surveys may initially seem to indicate feelings of upper-class indifference, it is quite possible that the highest social classes in the American stratification system entertain an investment in the myths of the poor produced through the middle classes’ competitive “othering” process as well. Not only do such distortions and gross generalizations serve to soothe the conscience of the more fortunate middle class, myths that define white trash as unworthy and rightly deprived because of inherent flaw function to the advantage of the upper class as well. Because portions of the middle class come to define themselves against those people they feel somehow lesser and lacking, false representations of the “unentitled” come to reinforce division and encourage competition among the lower and middle classes, thus obscuring the forms of exploitation and injustice from which the obscenely rich benefit. Therefore, numerous divisions of society exhibit an investment in caricatures of white trash for their own distinct reasons. In order to misplace blame, justify greed, veil power structures, perpetuate competition, deepen division, and provide comfort in prosperity, negative and derogatory representations of white trash become commonplace and virtually uncontested. Allison articulates her own understanding of the “othering” process as follows:
Most of all, I have tried to understand the politics of they, why human beings fear and stigmatize the different while secretly dreading that they might be one of the different themselves.... The horror of class stratification, racism, and prejudice is that some people begin to believe that the security of their families and communities depends on the oppression of others, that for some to have good lives there must be others whose lives are truncated and brutal.... It is a myth that allows some to imagine that they build their lives on the ruin of others, a secret core of shame for the middle class, a goad and a spur to the marginal working class, and cause enough for the homeless and poor to feel no constraints on hatred or violence. (Skin 35-36)Because such distortion surrounding white trash identity is supported and maintained by so many factions of society, the internalization of degrading stereotypical attributes of the poor becomes inevitable for the poor themselves. Many aspects of popular and dominant culture, not to mention daily interaction with those who feel themselves intrinsically superior, all function together to impose the idea that those living in poverty deserve their condition because of some inherent, inevitable, or inescapable flaw or defect—sealing the fate of poor youth to that of their parents’. Something is “not quite right,” or as Allison best articulates the feeling, when you come from a poor family as a “scholarship kid,” or are a “golden child,” you are “not quite full ticket.” In Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, Allison describes her development as a storyteller, recounting elaborate tales she would tell for her little sisters when they were small girls. Even as children, the conviction that somehow there was something intrinsically wrong or lacking was deeply-rooted and terribly believable, necessitating an explanation:
I’ll tell you a story and maybe you’ll believe me. There’s a laboratory in the basement of the Greenville County General Hospital, I told my sisters. They take the babies down there. If you’re poor—from the wrong family, the wrong color, the wrong side of town—they mess with you, alter your brain. That was what happened. That was it. You believe me? (3)Upon further reflection, as an adult, Allison comes to examine the way in which feelings of entitlement have affected her personally. Because the myths surrounding poverty often lead the poor to believe that something is intrinsically wrong or defective about them, it logically follows that certain rewards and benefits are reserved for certain, privileged people possessing qualities and qualifications that the poor do not. The identity constructed through these false notions strongly suggests that those somehow “marked” by poverty have no right to lay claim to such reserved privileges—they are not entitled, and will surely fail or be detected should they pretend to be something they are not. Oftentimes, this fear of detection can follow “trash” throughout life, even when they have escaped the poverty of their youth. In her essay, “A Question of Class,” Allison writes,
Why are you so afraid? my lovers and friends have asked me the many times I have suddenly seemed a stranger, someone who would not speak to them, would not do the things they believed I should do, simple things like applying for a job, or a grant, or some award they were sure I could acquire easily. Entitlement, I have told them, is a matter of feeling like we rather than they. You think you have a right to things, a place in the world, and it is so intrinsically a part of you that you cannot imagine people like me, people who seem to live in your world, who don’t have it. I have explained what I know over and over, in every way I can, but I have never been able to make clear the degree of my fear.... (Skin 14)As listed and demonstrated above, the false, reductionary representations of the poor that exist in American literature serve to uphold and strengthen a mythology that results in the lower class’ internalization of notions that justify their deprivation and denial. Distortions of impoverished identity serve to trivialize experience and individualize blame for the hopeless condition of the lower class, denying them an illumination of the circumstances of their full experience, complete with it’s contradictions, restrictions, and tragedy.
The working-class experience as a subject has been devalued in the study of literature as well.... Literature departments’ biases have reflected those of the larger society.... Many contemporary novels about the everyday problems of the middle classes are published; yet there is the assumption that the lives of people who do less interesting work are somehow less interesting. And the pursuit of working-class literature, unless it includes studying a few big-name authors, is likely to be discouraged in graduate school. There are some indications that this is changing as a response to a call for departments to be politically correct. Still, the fashionableness of the term “politically correct,” now bandied in magazines such as New York, highlights the deep-seated resistance to acknowledging diversity in literature and academic departments. (14)Through the visibility afforded the poor and working class experience with literary voice and inclusion, the “choices” presented those in subordinate class positions that restrict their lives receive exposure in an unobscured and uncompromised form. In addition, the “voice” the author claims through narrative allows a vital opportunity to reclaim one’s history and affirm identity that springs from personal experience. Establishing a “home” within the realm of literature functions towards more than simply claiming a place for oneself and one’s people in print or on the page. Finding a “home” within a society’s literature serves as another step towards finding a “home” within a social order that seeks to devalue and deny. When challenging notions of what are “fit” subjects for literature, working-class authors practice a strategy of resistance to cultural forces that so frequently distort or silence their experiences. In the introduction to Calling Home: Working Class Women’s Writings, Janet Zandy comments at length on the nature and aesthetic of working class literature:
Writing is a way of locating oneself, a way of finding a home in an inhospitable universe. Because acquiring an actual, livable home is such a struggle for working-class people, one might assume that home as a philosophical or poetic concept is beyond their grasp. Not true. What is true that the economic circumstances of working-class life offer fewer opportunities for expression.... To dare to write about working-class literature in a culture where the working-class itself is denied a name, never mind a literary category, is to plunge in over ones head.... Narration—the persistent human urge to tell a story as a way of certifying one’s humanity, linking generations, and denying oblivion—is the key.... Once one recognizes the interrelationship between class and culture, and how one class can dominate the definition of culture and subordinate or erase anything that contradicts that definition, then all the literary questions are raised at once.... The writing itself becomes a tool, a means of confronting life’s tragedies and hardships. Intellectualization and deep emotion are not compartmentalized.... In asserting the legitimacy of pain—as coming from a specific context not from personal failure—these writers are offering models for solidarity and resistance. As a body of work, working-class literature is about possibility, not despair. (1-11)Through narration, then, the poor and working class are afforded the opportunity to tell their own story, in their own words. Working class literature serves to reclaim the space denied the poor within American culture, and resist all that seeks to silence or distort their lives. By allowing the working class to tell the stories of their lives, and acknowledging these stories as worthy members of the literary canon that represents the culture in which they live, hardship and tragedy are placed in context in a life-affirming manner.
Mama hated to be called trash, hated the memory of every day she’d spent over other people’s peanuts and strawberry plants while they stood tall and looked at her like she was a rock on the ground. …She’d work her hands to claws, her back to a shovel shape, her mouth to a bent and awkward smile—anything to deny what Greenville County wanted to name her. Now a soft-talking black-eyed man had done it for them—set a mark on her and hers. It was all she could do to pull herself up eight days after I was born and go back to work waiting tables with a tight mouth and swollen eyes.As a writer, Dorothy Allison endeavors to document her own experience and that of her family through the genre of fiction. Because her writing illustrates full and uncompromised “white trash” identity, Allison’s body of work provides necessary social and economic context so frequently absent in literary representations of the poor. And it is precisely this genuine context, “so little to share, and so vital” (Skin 12), that functions as resistance to misplaced and individualized blame, and provides an alternative to manipulating the symptoms of poverty in an explanation for its onset and cause. The voice and visibility achieved through the literary representation of subordinate class identity also illuminates the severe limitation of life “choices” available for the poor, not only placing their story in context, but making their reality comprehensible. Allison’s writing presents the everyday realities of life in poverty and the limited options frequently available to the deprived. Because her stories detail the physical and psychological restrictions and barriers surrounding her characters’ lives, the conscious reader is forced to question the prevailing notion that poverty is a voluntary condition. Concerning the theme of “choice” in Bastard Out of Carolina, Jillian Sandell writes:
—Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina, 1992
Ultimately, Anney has to choose between Glen—who she still loves in spite of herself—and Bone, and she chooses Glen. Such a decision, however, must be understood, at least in part, as a need for economic survival. Notions of “choice,” in other words, must be understood within the context of larger social and economic relations. Indeed, the fact that Anney’s need for Glen is both psycho- logical and economic is articulated by Alma, Anney’s sister, when she says, “[she] needs him like a starving woman needs meat between her teeth.” (221)Realistic context, and specifically an explanation of how different realities, possibilities, and options shape differing—and often conflicting—value systems for the poor in relation to the middle class is a very important part of Allison’ s literary strategy. The circumstances of daily life—and how previous experience dictates expectations for the future—molds a world view for the poor and working class that is both pragmatic, given the conditions under which they live, and fate-sealing or self-damning.
Taken to its limits, the myth of the poor would make my family over into union organizers.... As far as my family was concerned union organizers…were suspect and hated however much they might be admired for what they were supposed to be trying to achieve. Serious belief in anything…was seen as unrealistic...the only thing my family whole-heartedly believed in was luck and the waywardness of fate. They held the dogged conviction that the admirable and wise thing to do was...trust that luck might someday turn as good as it had been bad—and with just as much reason. Becoming a political activist...was the thing I did that most outraged my family…. They did not so much believe in taking pride in doing your job as in stubbornly enduring hard work and hard times.... Sometimes I felt as if I straddled cultures and belonged on neither side...as I grew older, what I felt was a deep estrangement from their view of the world, and gradually a sense of shame that would have been completely incomprehensible to them. (Skin 25-26)Allison’s characters often exhibit a difficulty in looking to the future, or planning a way out of their condition—mostly because all others before them have failed miserably. The only recipe for survival that proves pragmatic, then, is acceptance and endurance. Throughout the novel, Bone witnesses the broken, abusive, and warped love-relationships of her aunts; the blistering, back-breaking, and seemingly fruitless work of her uncles; the imprisonment for petty crime of the faithless young boys in the family, and the impregnation, abandonment, and suicide of her girl-cousins. The future looks hopeless for Bone herself, and given the context of her life, she has plenty of evidence to believe that a fate identical to that of her family members’ before her is her unchangeable destiny:
Growing up was like falling into a hole. The boys would quit school and sooner or later go to jail for something silly. I might not quit school, not while Mama had any say in the matter, but what difference would that make? What was I going to do in five years? Work in the textile mill? Join Mama at the diner? It all looked bleak to me. No wonder people got crazy as they grew up. (94)As demonstrated with the deeply contradictory characters of the Boatwright sisters, Bone’s uncles, and the mother-figure that appears throughout all of her stories, social class figures very prominently in the development of identity and the definition of the self. Just as the nature of various aspects of social life inform socioeconomic status, so too does class-status inform or interact with the social construction and/or physical form of the family, the home, sexuality, gender, and race. Because the conditions of poverty cannot simply be used to explain or dismiss its occurrence, it becomes necessary to examine the interrelationship between institutions of social life and associated class-status in a sincere search for accurate answers to the question of poverty. Different aspects of identity targeted by mechanisms of social oppression—class, race, gender, or sexual oppression—cannot be isolated from one another, however unrelated they may seem at their surface. Analyses that consider sole facets of identity, isolated from larger social context, are superficial at best, and reducing and silencing at worst. To slice oppression into neatly divided categories means to reduce and compartmentalize the experience of those identities affected or informed by multiple prejudices, denying many their full story.
Indeed, one reviewer of Skin explicitly criticized Allison for not talking about race, thereby reiterating the problematic notion that whiteness is some sort of unmarked, unracialized category. Allison’s work articulates, however, the extent to which no one element of an identity—whether class, sexuality, gender, or race—can be understood except in relation to the others. To try to separate them is to always experience a sense of alienation. (Sandell 223)Although Allison’s non-fiction pays little attention to the nature of the intersection at which class and race meet, she does draw parallels between non-normative class and racial identity within her fiction. In a conversation—rather, an argument—between Bone and her “friend,” Shannon Pearl, Bone comes to realize that it is not just poor whites that are held in cruel contempt by the white and middle-class. Skin color and socioeconomic status are two very different portions of identity. However, both are markers of difference used to discriminate and deny in a similar fashion. Shannon’s spiteful and self-righteous dismissal of an entire church of talented gospel singers is both puzzling and disgusting for Bone, while it simultaneously strikes a very sensitive chord for her as she herself desperately wants to sing in a performing gospel choir. Unfortunately, Bone has neither the means for training or recognition—even though Shannon’s father is a talent scout and organizer for gospel events. The Pearl family looks “down their noses” at the Boatwrights in a fashion all too similar to the way they dismiss “coloreds,” and the contemptful, derogatory terms “trash” and “nigger” evoke within Bone identical feelings of outrage at ignorance and prejudice.
“It’s colored. It’s niggers.” Shannon’s voice was as loud as I’d ever heard it, and shrill with indignation. “My Daddy don’t handle niggers.” She threw wildflowers at me and stamped her foot. “And you made me say that. Mama always said a good Christian don’t use the word ‘nigger.’ Jesus be my witness, I wouldn’t have said it if you hadn’t made me.” “You crazy. You just plain crazy.” My voice was shaking. The way Shannon said “nigger” tore at me, the tone pitched exactly like the echoing sound of aunt Madeline sneering “trash” when she thought I wasn’t close enough to hear. I wondered what Shannon heard in my voice that made her as angry as I was. (170)Allison’s commentary on the parallels between class and race is far from literal, and does not figure as a prominent theme in either her fiction or her non-fiction. Nonetheless, to claim that her work ignores the issue of race and its location within the “intricate lattice” of oppression is to obscure her literary allusion to the parallels between class and race discrimination and deny her recognition of a network of hatred.
I know I have been hated as a lesbian both by “society” and by the intimate world of my extended family, but I have also been hated or held in contempt (which is in some ways more debilitating and slippery than hatred) by lesbians for behavior and sexual practices shaped in large part by class. My sexual identity is intimately constructed by my class and regional background, and much of the hatred directed at my sexual preferences is class hatred—however much people, feminists in particular, like to pretend this is not a factor. The kind of woman I am attracted to is invariably the kind of woman who embarrasses respectably middle-class, politically aware lesbian feminists. My sexual ideal is butch, exhibitionistic, physically aggressive, smarter than she wants you to know, and proud of being called a pervert. Most often she is working class, with an aura of danger and an ironic sense of humor. (Skin 23-24)An additional facet of life very much informed by class and economic status is the home. In a social order where the marginalized poor and working class struggle for a sense of belonging, notions of “a home” become all the more crucial to the construction of identity. Home is traditionally defined as the safe haven from the pressure and demands of the outside world, a constant because of the security it provides in an insecure world. The poor are frequently denied a sense of belonging and community through the stigma surrounding their social group, and oftentimes “home” is the only source to which they can turn to for identification, unity, camaraderie, and definition. Oftentimes, the home functions as an intense support-network, reassuring self-worth and affirming intrinsic value when all else induces shame. Janet Zandy comments at length on the theme of “home” in working class writing:
...finding a place where one can be at home is crucial. Home is literal: a place where you struggle together to survive; or a dream: “a real home,” something just out of one’s grasp; or a nightmare: a place to escape in order to survive as an individual. Home is an idea: an inner geography where the ache to belong finally quits, where there is no sense of “otherness,” where there is, at last, a community. (2)
Even though the home is a crucial aspect of working class life, it can also be a suffocating environment, sometimes laced with bitterness, hopelessness, and violence. A loss of faith and frustration with the world on the part of angry and cynical parents becomes contagious for children—they repeat the patterns of their parents because they know no other way to survive. Remaining in the home can confirm a hopeless situation, and seal a damned fate. Indeed, Allison eloquently states, “The reality is that for many of us family was as much the incubator of despair as the safe nurturing haven the myths promised” (Skin 215). When the sustenance of the family is forever on shaky ground, and liable to collapse with the slightest shift in economic winds, an imminent sense of danger and approaching disaster loom all too close to the home. Thus, an aura of instability and impending failure can penetrate the home to its core. The family and the home are also institutions stigmatized by cultural mythologies of the poor— some hopeful and upwardly mobile working class descendants feel that their only way out of the destiny intended for them is to escape the home, and the background that has shaped who they undeniably are. Therefore “escapees” often harbor intensely ambivalent feelings about the homes they were raised in. The desire to run away, make oneself anew, escape the home, and thereby escape fate, is something Allison calls “the geographic solution.”
We had generations before us to teach us that nothing ever changed, and that those who did try to escape failed.... I wanted to run away from who we had been seen to be, who we had been. The desire is one I have seen in other members of my family. It is the first thing I think of when trouble comes— the geographic solution. Change your name, leave town, disappear, make yourself over. What hides behind that impulse is the conviction that the life you have lived, the person you are, is valueless, better off abandoned, that running away is easier than trying to change things, that change itself is not possible. Sometimes I think it is this conviction—more seductive than alcohol or violence, more subtle than sexual hatred or gender injustice—that has dominated my life and made real change so painful and difficult. (Skin 18-20)The impulse to run is a strong one, and according to Allison, just as faulty a strategy as it is powerful and compelling. In order to effect change, real change, one must reconcile one’s past with one’s present, and negotiate who you are—as influenced by your family and background—with who you want to be.
After my childhood, after all that long terrible struggle to simply survive, to escape my step-father, uncles, speeding Pontiacs, broken glass and rotten floorboards, or that inevitable death by misadventure that claimed so many of my cousins; after watching so many die around me, I had not imagined that I would ever need to make...a choice. I had imagined the hunger for life in me was insatiable, endless, unshakable…. Like many others who had gone before me, I began to dream longingly of my own death. I began to court it.... I am the point of a pyramid, sliding back under the weight of the ones who came after, and it does not matter that I am the lesbian, the one who will not have children. (Trash 14)Trash is littered with examples of relatives who died brutal deaths and were erased from the memory of the family. Speaking about or remembering the fate of dead children, husbands, or wives was not an easy subject for survivors in the family to confront, and through neglect, many of the deceased were forgotten. Erasure of the past, oftentimes, became a coping mechanism necessary for survival. As a result, Allison frequently articulates the feeling that she is ignorant to the history of her family. Where some have fond memories and tales to tell of generations past, many of the poor have only a gaping hole. As she frequently articulates, a denial of personal history often results in a denial of the self. Without a memory of the past, the present loses context and definition. In Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, Allison writes, “...if we cannot name our own we are cut off at the root, our hold on our lives as fragile as a seed in the wind” (12). Therefore, much of her fiction is a reclamation of her and her family’s past, and the geneological, historical context that has shaped her present identity.
I show you my aunts in their drunken rages, my uncles in their meanness. And that’s exactly who we are said to be. That’s what white trash is all about. We’re all supposed to be drunks standing in our yards with our broken-down cars and our dirty babies. Some of that stuff is true. But to write about it I had to find a way to pull the reader in and show you those people as larger than that contemptible myth—And show you why those men drink, why those women hate themselves and get old and can’t protect themselves or their children. Show you human beings instead of fold-up, mean, cardboard figures. (Hollibaugh 16)In many ways, the circumstances of her characters’ lives –which are often beyond their capacity to change, or to imagine what change would look like—force behaviors that are often considered the result of depravity, rather than the result of a hopeless, cyclical, brutal situation. Allison presents her characters as conscious, thinking, feeling actors, and in so doing challenges the idea that such people are often one-dimensional, brutish, or emotional voids, therefore fit for nothing more than the life of a work-horse. Her characters alternately fit derogatory stereotypes and break free from them, demonstrating how many of their contradictory tendencies are developed as coping and survival mechanisms. Frequently, Allison presents her characters as consistent with stereotype, using such an identification as a point of departure from myth and blame. Aside from using her characters’ attributes and personality tendencies to dispel myth, Allison also hopes that her audience will come to identify with her fictional characters as human beings.
The need to make my world believable to people who have never experienced it is part of why I write fiction. I know that some things must be felt to be understood, that despair, for example, can never be adequately analyzed; it must be lived. But if I can write a story that so draws the reader in that she imagines herself like my characters, feels their sense of fear and uncertainty, their hopes and terrors, then I have come closer to knowing myself as real, important as the very people I have always watched with awe.... What I want—my ambition—is larger than anyone imagines. I want to be able to write so powerfully I can break the heart of the world and heal it. I want to write in such a way as to literally remake the world, to change people’s thinking as they look out of the eyes of the characters I create. (Skin 14, 212)Some of the most powerful and influential characters in Bastard Out of Carolina are Bone’s aunts. The sisters of the Boatwright family are tough as nails, yet just as tender and loving. Their lives are marked by loss, hardship, and disappointment, and they are at constant battle with the world around them—including the men of their family. Together, they form a strong emotional and physical support network for each other, caring for each other’s children and helping each other through hard times. The children of the family, including Bone, look up to them with reverence, awe, and sometimes fear at their endurance and will to survive. As a unified front, they see each other through emotional crises, the loss of their children, and the departure of husbands.
The Boatwright women seem unable to recognize the support they derive from the strong community of women in the novel. In her interview with Megan, Allison pointed out, “They knew it was important but didn’t think it was nearly as important as what a man and a woman made together” (Bastard 77). The aunts’ “nasty and strong” support network provides an alternative world to that of the “spitting, growling. overbearing males” (Bastard 91). Together, the Boatwright sisters can draw support from one another rather than devoting all their energy to caring for their men. The aunts nurture and sustain one another, give one another power and strength, and help one another survive, but ultimately they believe they need to rely on their men. (20)Thus, Allison’s strong and enduring female characters also have a fatal weakness. Ultimately, they are vulnerable and divided in the shadow of their husbands and male lovers.
He’d hit her in the side of the head—dented her into a life time of stupidity and half-blindness.... None of them had told me that story. I had been grown and out of the house before one of the Greenwood cousins had told it so I understood, and as much as I’d hated him then, I’d raged at them more.... My Aunt Grace had laughed at me. “You want us to cut him up and feed him to the river? What good would that have done her or her children?” She’d shaken her head, and they had all stared at me as if I were still a child and didn’t understand the way the world was....”But to leave her with him after he did that, to just let it stand, to let him get away with it.... It’s like all of it, all you let them get away with.” ...All I had known was that I had to get away from them—all of them—the men who could do those terrible things, and the women who would let it happen to you. I’d never forgiven any of them. (100-101)Among the many female relationships in the novel, the problematic bond between Bone and her mother is the most significant. A major theme within the novel—and even more so, in Cavedweller—is the complex relationship between mothers and their daughters, and the potential for betrayal that lies therein. As is the case with many of the Boatwright women, Anney finds herself incapable of rescuing Bone from her husband’s violent attacks. Anney is forced to choose between Glen—whom she clings to in spite of herself—and her eldest daughter, who desperately needs her mother’s protection from her stepfather’s physically and psychologically damaging advances.
Ending Bastard Out of Carolina with Anney betraying Bone was, however, a conscious strategy of Allison’s to expose the lies women often tell themselves about loyalty among women. “Pretending that our mothers do not fail us, pretending that our mothers do not literally betray us, juts puts a gloss over this gaping wound which allows it to lie there and fester the rest of your life. You’ll never get out of it, you’ll never get over it.” (Hollibaugh 16; Sandell 222)Originally, the theme of betrayal did not figure quite as prominently in the novel. The first ending Allison wrote to the book had Anney and Bone murder Glen together, concluding the story with an act of mother-daughter unity. Even though the original manuscript included a brutal killing, Allison decided to cut her “happy ending” in favor of a more realistic conclusion. When asked about her decision to edit the end of the book, Allison explained,
I wrote an ending in which Anney and Bone together killed Daddy Glen. I’m not a damn fool. I wrote an ending in which it was ambiguous, there was a whole question of who intended what, and of course there was an enormous amount of guilt. And even writing it I realized that that act would have destroyed both of them. There was just no way that that child could survive it. I don’t believe in easy answers. You can’t just kill the mother-fuckers. Even though sometimes that’s all you really want to do. (Hollibaugh 17)The mother-figure frequently appears in Allison’s writing, either in the form of Bone’s mother Anney in Bastard, the narrator’s mother in any of the short stories in Trash, or her own non-fictional mother, Ruth Anne Gibson, as she describes her in Skin and Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. Allison’s representations of her mother—be they in the form of fiction, essays, or a memoir—are always consistent with her over-arching pattern of female strength and endurance. However, underneath a tough exterior and carefully-constructed front, there lies emotional pain and a broken heart. The characters Allison uses to portray her mother always experience a life marked by hardship and loss. Although suffering serves to make the women of her novels strong in many ways, it is not experienced without taking its toll. The reader is led to believe that one of the biggest reasons Anney is unable to leave Glen is because of her fear of loneliness and loss. Despite her broken heart, the narrator’s mother in Allison’s stories remains composed, never revealing her vulnerability or displaying her pain to those who seek spiteful satisfaction through breaking her will. Anney’s resistance to the contemptuous opinions of others, and her unwavering, persistent efforts at decency, composure, and acceptance in the face of hate and loathing seem relentless to Bone. Sometimes, however, Anney loses her patience. In the below passage taken from Trash, the narrator describes how her mother taught her the value and power of profanity:
Coarse, crude, rude words, and even ruder gestures—Mama knew them all. You assfucker, get out of my yard, to the cop who came to take the furniture. Shitsucking bastard! to the man who put his hand under her skirt. Jesus shit a brick, every day of her life. Though she slapped me when I used them, Mama taught me the power of nasty words. Say goddam. Say anything but begin it with Jesus and end it with shit. Add that laugh, the one that disguises your broken heart. Oh, never show your broken heart! Make them think you don’t have one instead.... ”We are another people. Our like isn’t seen on the earth that often,” my mama told me, and I knew what she meant. I know the value of the hard asses of this world. And I am my mama’s daughter— tougher than kudzu, meaner than all the ass-kicking, bad-assed, cold-assed, saggy-assed fuckers I have ever known. But it’s true that sometimes I just talk that way to remember my mother, the survivor, the endurer, but the one who could not always keep quiet about it. (39)The use of profanity is commonly associated with stereotypes of white trash, and the narrator’s mother in “Mama” doesn’t seem to have any qualms about using it—if a situation warrants foul language. On another level, however, her use of powerful and stigmatized language is potent beyond its mere shock value. More than just a display of anger, or an attempt to assert oneself, the use of profanity by Allison’s characters also serves as a defense-mechanism. As part of a constructed front, Mama’s foul and crude language serves to obscure the extent to which she has been hurt by her detractors. Although her cursing and swearing may initially seem to be nothing more than an unchecked temper or “unrefined” frustration, the narrator’s mother uses lewd words to hide her fear, disappointment, and broken heart, and obscure the extent to which her anatagonizers have taxed her time and emotion. Foul language is often the only was she can elicit a response from people who might prefer to ignore her humanity and existence. In a way, her harsh words force recognition and acknowledgement: “I exist, I am here, and I am angry as hell about what you’re doing to me and my family, and I won’t stand for it.” Although her words might provoke a condescending reaction to her “poor upbringing,” or “unrefined manner,” they force recognition from those who would prefer her silent compliance—or better yet, a public display of her vulnerability and pain. Thus, her use of profanity serves both as a defense mechanism and a means of asserting herself.
“Who do you think we are girl?” she said. “We an’t the people who buy things for show.” I couldn’t help it. Just for a change, I wished we could have things like other people, wished we could complain for no reason but the pleasure of bitching and act like the trash we were supposed to be, instead of watching how we behaved all the time...the Waddells didn’t have as many cousins and aunts and uncles as we did…. Their kids went in and out of the house, loud, raucous, scratching their nails on the polished furniture, kicking their feet on the hardwood floors, tracking mud in on the braided rugs. “Those little brats need their asses slapped.” Mama was sit ting with us at the picnic table in the garden, out where no one could hear her. She’d come to check on us where we sat in our starched dresses, our faces stiff as the sleeves. Reese and I were sweaty and miserable trying not to wiggle around on the benches, to look well-behaved for Mama’s sake and stay out of the way of those kids who hated us as much as we did them. (Bastard 66, 101)The strength and influence of stereotype is best demonstrated by Bone’s concern to “look well behaved for Mama’s sake.” Although her mother is a fierce and strict disciplinarian, the threat of punishment by their mother’s hand is not required to keep the girls from roughhousing or bad-mouthing. Rather, the threat of stigmatization and degradation is much more powerful. Because the upbringing of children is so closely associated with social and economic status, Reese and Bone go to great lengths to make known the degree to which their mother invests herself in their proper parenting. The girls can sense Anney’s great concern for the opinion of others, and know fully well that when their behavior is being judged, it is their mother’s value as a parent and as a person that is under scrutiny. The opinion of others, and the constant evaluation of themselves and their family is all the discipline they need to keep them in check.
The tragedy of the men in my family was silence, a silence veiled by boasting and jokes. If you didn’t look close you might miss the sharp glint of pain in their eyes, the restless angry way they gave themselves up to fate.... ”Hell, I’m a man. I can handle it.” His voice was gravel rough. He was still a handsome man but at that moment he reminded me of a painting in the Sunday school lesson book, a picture of a murdered John the Baptist, his face drained of color and pulled thin with despair. For the rest of my life I would not see him without remembering the way he looked on that night—a man who had lost the woman he loved, and with her his belief in his own life. Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that no one is as hard as my uncles had to pretend to be. (28-32)As demonstrated above, social class is a very prominent theme in Allison’s writing which she explores from several different angles. Her characters challenge stereotype with their realistically contradictory nature and sheer humanity. However, poverty is not the only aspect of identity Allison addresses to bridge across difference, dispel stereotypes, and challenge dogmatic, preconceived notions of difference. In addition to a commentary on the restrictions of socioeconomic status, Allison also delivers a critique of gender and sexuality. However, the two subjects—class and gender—are not so easily separated from one another. Allison’s fictional representations of masculinity are often heavily informed and influenced by class status. Her depictions of sexual identity, masculinity, and femininity engage in dialogue with both traditional gender and sexuality, and traditional feminist thought. Therefore, hegemony is called into question with respect to both the stigmatized poor and established gender roles with Allison’s complex fictional characters. As a feminist author, Allison also moves beyond a simple critique of traditional gender roles and restricted sexuality to offer a commentary on feminist thought.