Tuesday, August 5, 2008

conspicuous consumption

I was raised by parents who very logically and frugally dressed me in hand-me-down clothes. Not just from my older sister, but also from babysitters and neighbors' kids -- all of whom were many years older. These clothes were long out of style. We're talking big 70s collars when Izods were de rigeur, olive green suede addidas when I should have had topsiders or docksiders (I still don't know the difference, but it sure mattered to the kids at school). I was the object of ridicule, publicly humiliated in class and out. Boys threatened to beat me up after school, in a running joke that was probably funny precisely because I didn't know they weren't serious. None of the adults I confided in did anything to stop the bullying. I can't remember a day I didn't cry, either in school or after. Attempting to bring an end to this misery, one day I donned a new pair of penny loafers. I learned the hard way that my penny loafers were Buster Brown, not Bass or Sebago, apparently the only acceptable labels. Did I mention this was the fourth grade? (And yes, I know I went to elementary school with a bunch of spoiled kids with parents steeped in trendiness and social climbing.)

All of this is to say that I am no stranger to conspicuous consumption. Soon I will be attending yet another wedding, those hellish signifiers of class status. While it's hard to rid weddings entirely of conspicuous consumption (I know many who have tried), there are some I would regard as over the top, either all around or in certain respects. Ones that were outsized in terms of the number of events, the number of guests, the prices or types of items on the registry, the seven-course sit-down meal, the pricey designer bridesmaid gown I had to buy and never wear again, the big-name gourmet restaurant venue, hosts of attendants, renting out entire hotels, you get the idea. (And yes, a lot of these were the weddings of the aforementioned spoiled rich kids and their ilk, but a surprisingly large number were not.)

Gary Dauphin of the Village Voice once wrote "Straight white male privilege is like bad breath. No one notices they have it, but if you point it out, you're an asshole." Class privilege is no different in this regard. Saying anything about conspicuous consumption in relation to weddings elicits some problematic responses:

1) What did you expect? Of course one silver fork costs more than my refrigerator.
If they were saying all weddings are displays of wretched excess, I would tend to agree - where do you draw the line between "regular" and "over the top" conspicuous consumption? But these aren't folks with a radical critique, if their own weddings are any measure of their perspective. Rather, I think they are trying to imply that this is how they roll. They project themselves for a moment into this imaginary world they aspire to, in which they would do these things, if they had the money. And apparently my expectations are supposed to align with their values.

2) Just have fun - at least you know there will be an open bar.
Do they really think for a second I won't enjoy myself? It's hard NOT to let the pomp, or the alcohol, or the people-watching, or whatever else lull and distract one into oblivion - it might even help me forget the fourth grade. Is that really what worries them, or are they worried I will seem ungrateful, and that would be rude to the hosts. "Just have fun" means I should shut up and enjoy it (and stop pointing this all out, lest I indict their wedding in the process). Whether I have fun or not is beside the point; I am a witness and a participant - and my complicity in such nauseating acts of conspicuous consumption continues to disturb me.

3) Just be happy for them. Why do you hate America?
Sure, underneath it somewhere there's a couple of people who love each other and have a serious legal commitment to make, and the community is committing to support them, and they do. But to get to that part you have to dig through layers of weird family bullshit, hidden under layers of makeup and cake frosting, hidden under layers of impressive stone edifices and tall steeples, under layers of patriarchy-reinforcing tradition, under layers of hallmark saccharin, under layers of faux-virginal whiteness. Not to mention that big hard glittering rock, bought with two month's salary and the blood and lost limbs of enslaved children.

Oh, no, I wasn't talking about your wedding. That was t o t a l l y different.

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