I had deja vu while reading this article. The writer Brook Bolen is annoyed with the facetious phrase “The struggle is real” and especially with copycats who mimic aspects of working-poor life. She even goes so far as to make things like the tiny house movement, beard-wearing (!?!), and shopping at thrift stores into markers of pretend poverty.
Her leading anecdote unfolds thus: A co-worker referred to Bolen’s lunch as a “struggle meal” – a meal made when the cupboard is almost bare and the paycheck is a week off. I empathize with Bolen because I, too, have faced mockery for eating Suicide Rice.*
However, she uses this molehill to build a mountain. To wit:
“Utilizing a word [struggle] that denotes hardship in a way that essentially parodies it is hurtful and offensive to those people whose lives are defined by real struggle; it also functions to neuter the word and divorce it from its power. Herein lies the most dangerous aspect of this linguistic cultural appropriation: it can render words ineffectual and wrest power from the speaker.”
What irony! Guess what else can “render words ineffectual and wrest power from the speaker”? Using a term like “cultural appropriation” that means “takes something that belongs to a particular cultural group” and applying it to something that merely has personal meaning.
Bolen complains of fetishization of hardship, but it’s not just an upperclass trait. In college, I knew several other girls whose families struggled economically. One wore her family’s socio-economic status as a badge of self-righteousness.
Did someone buy a new dress? She’d begin her salvo of contempt with “I wish I had the money to go shopping at the mall.” (In hindsight, the perfect answer was If you stopped smoking, you could afford a dress off the clearance rack at Sears, too.)
Did a relative improve her standard of living by moving to an urban suburb and continuing to work after marriage? “Forgetting where she came from,” she intoned.
During our sophomore year, she and I got into a wide-ranging argument. What benefit is there to wearing hand-me-down clothes when you want to look “professional”? Is it better to share a cheap apartment on the edge of a decent neighborhood or to live alone in a dangerous-after-dark place? Why condemn blue-collar workers as “bourgeois” for wanting nice things but believe the subsidized poor are entitled to new appliances, fresh paint, and updated carpet? Isn’t it hypocritical to condemn social-climbers while we study for white-collar professions with good wages and benefits?
I wish I could report that we gave each other something to think about. Instead, we scuttled our friendship.
Still, I remember her from time to time, especially during my first years in Cubicle Land when I had to cobble a professional wardrobe from clearance racks and Kmart.** I wonder if she learned to enjoy “nice things” without feeling she’d betrayed an unwritten code about lower-class conformity.
So you’ll understand if I bristle at Bolen’s “code of struggle.” It encourages judging folks based on superficial conventions. There’s self-destructive envy in it, too. I empathize, as I used to sadly compare my colleagues’ lifestyles to my own.
What cured me was a conversation I had with my insurance agent. Looking at photos of La Casa de Tontería, she wistfully said not only was it a good “starter” home but a “finisher” home for a retiree. While I dreamt of the splendours of waterfront homes, she and her husband wanted to unload their empty-nest Victorian and high-maintenance yard. She admired the simplicity of my abode.
The truth is that everyone has struggles large and small. Many are hidden. The person with the enviable salary, living in an exciting city – the object of envy – pays a huge percentage of their income to rent and to transportation. Many up-and-comers suffer under the constraints of student loan debt.
No one has a monopoly on struggling. There is no crown for Miss Downtrodden; if there were, the runners-up would complain that their suffering was better. Those who ironically say “The struggle is real” include people who have indeed fought against adversity and are grateful for what they have.
*Suicide Rice is rice flavored with whatever is available. As I recall – because my friend mercilessly reminded me a few years ago – the menú del día was rice with pickle relish. She also turned her nose up at boiled onions (with salt). But living frugally is the best revenge, since now I live in La Casa de Tontería and she travels the world with her hubby. Ha ha ha….! Oh, wait. Nevermind.
**Don’t laugh. Celebrities Nicki Minaj and Adam Levine had Kmart clothing lines. When Jaclyn Smith celebrated the 30th anniversary of her brand, I remembered fondly how her mix-and-match clothes helped me achieve the elusive business casual.