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White Hot Trash!

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But white trash best encapsulates the galloping sleaze that has overrun both rural and urban America. And it's also the phrase that best gives voice to the stifled longing of the well-to-do, who covet what they perceive as the spontaneous authenticity of the poor. "In the summer in Baltimore, whole families live outside on their front steps," John Waters notes admiringly. "They watch TV in their bras and underwear, and if someone comes by, they give them the finger. I'm jealous of their confidence and their alarming taste—they're just freer than I am; they don't worry as much."

The allure of guilt-free freedom explains the mainstream intoxication with white-trash cultural tokens. The Guess? jeans ads have been only the most visible manifestation of a whole white-trash-fashion movement: candy-apple lipstick, chipped cherry-red nail polish, fishnet stockings, rhinestone earrings and dime-store barrettes, Candie's mules, tattoos—of which Drew Barrymore alone has five.

But in truth white-trash behavior is a bleak phenomenon, defined well by Ernest Mickler in his book White Trash Cooking: "Common white trash has very little in the way of pride, and no manners to speak of, and hardly any respect for anybody or anything." In this light we see white trash's moon-face beaming out at us from the Big Gulp lines at every 7. Eleven; from spring break at Daytona Beach; from every graceless winner of the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes; and from all wearers of T-shirts emblazoned I'M WITH STUPID.

(And Charlotte and Mark Brown, though scraping by on Mark's disability pension, are not, by our behavioral definition, white trash—they turned down a $2,000 offer for an interview on A Current Affair. "We could certainly have used the money," Charlotte says, "but we didn't need any money for the truth.")

Trash values metastasize through our cultural lymph nodes; television screens. There's Cops and Jenny Jones and Richard Bey and Hard Copy and Studs; and there's Fox, which is virtually a white-trash network. Of the hottest romance on television's trendiest show, Fox's Melrose Place, Grant Show has said that what fuels the passion between Amanda and his character, Jake (whom Amanda has termed a "gold-digging grease monkey"), is that "even though Amanda's got more money than most of the chicks he's gone with, she's still just white trash like he is."

Trash blares from behind the scenes of Roseanne, where Tom and Roseanne Arnold jointly "married" Tom's assistant, Kim Silva. As Roseanne said in her July petition for divorce—from Tom, that is, not from Kim—"I now realize that I have been a classic battered and abused wife." Whatever the truth of that, Tom did sell stories about her to the National Enquirer, and he was arrested for public urination outside a McDonald's; she, of course, says she used to turn tricks in the parking lot between comedy gigs. Turning to face the strange, both NBC and Fox are developing fact-based dramas about her life.

A clear symptom of the white-trash epidemic is that trash signifiers and behavior have become slipperier, crossing ethnic lines. Consider slaphappy Hungarian Zsa Zsa Gabor; the two Italian-Americans, John Esposito and Salvatore Inghilleri, who, respectively, were convicted of kidnapping and of sexually abusing Katie Beers; and the voguish Asian-American model Jenny Shimizu. Shimizu flexes tattoos of a blue spark plug and a blonde straddling an eight-inch wrench; she eats a lot of Big Macs and is fond of leaving "You suck" messages on friends' answering machines, using her talking Beavis and Butt-head toy.

And trash now lurks in an upscale guise at the euphemistic "gentlemen's clubs"—joints with a dress code for customers and an undress code for employees. Last year, 10 million customers spent $3 billion at places like Stringfellow's, where a table dance costs $20 and where men in ties and suspenders watch topless women crawl around "winking, purring, and sometimes barking," as the New York Times wonderingly put it.

Even once-lofty venues have fallen—the Olympics, for instance, where Tonya Harding stole the show. "Pool-hustling, drag-racing, cigarette-smoking, trash-talking Tonya," as a quickie bio describes her. She of the bleached, permed hair; the blank, cheap eyes; the rabbit-fur coat and the job working at Spud City. She who skated to ZZ Top and whose bodyguard, Shawn Eckardt, drove a 1974 Mercury with missing hubcaps. She whose ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, just sold the X-rated video of their wedding night to Penthouse, which has made it available to a bemused public through an 800-number.

Politics, while often venal, once had a patina of respectability; now it's a vast trashscape. James Carville proudly tells me, "I'm white trash myself" and riffs into a series of jokes about ways to tell if you are, too: "A ceiling fan messes up your sister's hairdo"; "Your brother-in-law is also your uncle"; etc. Whitewater, though numbingly complex, is at bottom a pure good-old-boy scam; the Clintons' former partner, James McDougal, lived up to that tradition when he came to the Whitewater hearings accompanied by one Tamra Meacham, a student from Arkansas's Ouachita Baptist University who modeled bleached-blonde hair and a teensy-weensy black dress. Daniel Patrick Moynihan terms Clinton's welfare-reform ideas "boob bait for the Bubbas," and we are reminded anew that our president's family tree has bubbas on every branch—his father's acorns, in fact, keep turning up.


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  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Aug 22, 1994 issue of New York
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