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White Hot Trash!

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White trash has ever been in the eye of the beholder, and as a lay classification, it remains a way to pinion someone to his roots, to deny him upward mobility. In Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter stingingly tells FBI trainee Clarice Starling, "You're a well-scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste . . . desperate not to be like your mother. . . . But you're not more than one generation out of the mines, Officer Starling. [In the movie, it's out of "poor white trash."] Is it the West Virginia Starlings or the Okie Starlings, Officer?"

But even as the term passes into the realm of the unsayable, white trash's connotations increasingly describe America. The country is becoming underclass-laden, illiterate, promiscuous, and just plain fat. A recent report by the Labor and Commerce departments showed constant-dollar median income declining from 1972 to 1990 by 23 percent for men with less than a high-school education, and by 5 percent for women from the same group. The well educated did much better. There is a spirited debate over who's responsible for the widening gap between the have and the have-nots, but the fact is that the number of have-nots is growing. "Trash gets all the working poor who fall out of the middle class—the middle-class boys gone bad," notes Dorothy Allison, author of the novel Bastard out of Carolina and the short-story collection Trash. "It's the difference between thinking your life is hopeless and knowing it is."

The Educational Testing Service reports a drop in young-adult literacy from 1985 to 1992. Sexual-partner numbers are hard to compare because of differing methodologies, but it's suggestive to contrast the 1953 Kinsey Report, in which just 5 percent of females reported having had more than ten premarital partners, with the 1993 Janus Report, which shows 55 percent of women having had more than ten partners—an elevenfold increase.

And according to the government, the number of overweight adults, which had held steady from 1960 to 1980 at 25 percent of the population, suddenly ballooned to 33 percent between 1980 and 1991. We gained a collective 155 million pounds last year, even as Kathleen Sullivan dieted furiously. (The boom in comfort food is very white trash. In White Trash Cooking, Ernest Mickler's recipe for a "High-Calorie Pick-Me-Up" directs you to "pour a small bag of Tom's peanuts into a cold Pepsi. Turn it up and eat and drink at the same time.")

Traditionally, to find white-trash backgrounds, one looked for "artificial grass, velvet paintings, double-wide trailers adjoined as a sign of status, fish sticks, Spam, muscle cars, John Deere caps, sideburns, collections of dolls or Hummelware, pink flamingos in the front yard, painted tires that hold flowers, and people who like Liberace or Elvis," says Michael J. Weiss, a demographer who draws up cultural maps of the country. His maps of above-average concentrations of National Enquirer readers and mobile-home owners carve out a Trash Belt of the eleven states of the old Confederacy (excluding Atlanta), Maine, Appalachia, strips of rural Texas and Arizona, and pockets of the Midwest.

Hollywood has turned to such maps for clues in its perpetual treasure hunt. Previously we got the risible (Buford Pusser) or the cloddishly endearing (Jim Varney's Ernest character). But now screenwriters are obsessed with the idea of the road-tripping, spontaneous, and often murderous poor. (It is ever tempting for Hollywood to impute authenticity to the ignorant—and to give them bodacious bods.) In addition to the forthcoming Natural Born Killers, we've been visited with Guncrazy, True Romance, A Perfect World, and Kalifornia.

"It's totally about sex," says director John Waters. "Extreme white people"—Waters's preferred term for the white underclass—"look incredibly beautiful until they're 20, and then they look about 50. It's a sexual fantasy for people in movies, who don't meet those sort of people very much—it's the idea of the bad boy, the juvenile delinquent."

Movies give us an airbrushed dream of white trash: alluring and deadly. Television, on the other hand, locks us into a trash feedback loop. "The explosion of tabloid TV sensationalizes problems that were previously repressed and unarticulated, except as small-town gossip," says Mary Matalin, host of Equal Time (and wife of James Carville). "Ten years ago, no one would talk about fat, incest, and wife or child abuse. Now, with Tonya [Harding] or the Bobbitts, it's tantamount to why we used to go look at the Elephant Man or the Lobster Boy."

Fittingly, the latest trash scandal involves "Lobster Boy" Grady Stiles Jr. of Gibsonton, Florida, a footless carnival attraction whose two-fingered hands looked like claws. Stiles's wife, Mary Teresa (previously married to a dwarf), was just convicted of conspiring to kill Grady as he relaxed at home in his underwear; Mary Teresa's unsuccessful defense was that he had sexually abused her, head-butted her, and swatted her with his pincer hands. Since Phil Donahue began the genre in 1967, daytime talk has never run out of such gross turpitudes—indeed, the cat-fights and jaw-dropping catastrophes give Greg Kinnear an endless supply of highlights to smirk at daily on Talk Soup.


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