But most people don't watch to scoff. Penn State sociologist Vicki Abt, who recently studied 1,000 hours of Oprah, Donahue, and Sally Jessy Raphaël, estimates that 90 percent of the guests are illiterate, and suspects that the viewers aren't building their vocabulary much either: "If you see shows about men who sleeps with their mother-in-law enough, people get used to those things," she says. "If you see this all the time, the man who doesn't sleep with his mother-in-law will eventually become strange . . . . A child sees that if he acts terribly, he might get on Phil, Sally, or Oprah."
Indeed, not only is there no manifest reward in our society for behaving well; there is now a reward for behaving badly—the fifteen camera crews on hand to immortalize Joey Buttafuoco's exit from prison after he'd served his term for statutory rape; the reported $500,000 he made from A Current Affair; the $200,000 he made from the CBS movie Casualties of Love. Witness John Wayne Bobbitt, who has made hundreds of thousands of dollars on a "Love Hurts" media tour featuring appearances where he autographs steak knives and plays "Stump the Bobbitt," a contest testing his knowledge of Bobbitt-castration jokes. He has begun marketing a Bobbitt penis protector, made by the Klimax Corporation, and is negotiating with Playboy for a photo spread in which his sometime fiancée, former topless dancer Kristina Elliott, shucks her clothes while he, with becoming shyness, keeps his on. Modestly, too, he turned down $1 million last week to do a porn movie featuring his reassembled manroot.
Ponder also Kris Belman, a leader of the infamous Lakewood, California, Spur Posse. Belman had been charged with—and would later be put on probation for—committing lewd and lascivious acts with a 13-year-old girl. But after he appeared on Jenny Jones and Inside Edition, "a lot of girls called," he reported happily. "I went out with them."
And Gennifer Flowers, who in the wake of Paula Jones's accusations marketed her phone-call "love tapes" with Bill Clinton for $19.95, was outraged by a caller to a Florida radio show who suggested she was leveraging her own immorality. "You better just shut your mouth!" Flowers shouted. "I'm here to put some factual information to you idiots out there!"
White-trash culture commands us to "squeal like a pig!" And we're oinking.
Whatever happened to the useful idea of shame? (Any vestiges of our expectations about guilt, the private, less-conscious version of shame, vanished with the Menendezes.) When James Agee wrote about Alabama sharecroppers in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), his shame at his comparative social and journalistic advantages was matched only by the sharecroppers' shame at the exposure of their pitiful circumstance. "There was in their eyes so quiet and ultimate a quality of hatred and contempt, and anger," Agee wrote, "toward every creature in existence beyond themselves, and toward the damages they sustained, as shone scarcely short of a state of beatitude."
Nowadays, shame is felt only by those who remain obscure, who never get the call from Montel Williams. Jessica Hahn, the then-mousy church secretary who was sexually abused by televangelist Jim Bakker in a Florida hotel room and later paid $265,000 in hush money, felt deep shame for years. But the klieg lights of publicity are better than a therapist's couch. Only posing topless for Playboy in 1987, she said, "made me feel clean again." Hahn's passage from shame to shamelessness ended in white-trash nirvana: She became a regular on the Howard Stern Show, a featured star in such Stern videos as "Butt Bongo Fiesta."
As Stern himself bellicosely notes about the shame question: "How many guys have the balls to ask their mom if she takes it up the ass?" More and more, apparently. Stern's pay-per-view New Year's Eve pageant grossed a record-setting $15 million; its judges were Hahn and John Wayne Bobbitt. "If Howard Stern didn't exist," Reverend A1 Sharpton has correctly observed, "white trash would not have a superstar."
Stern's compulsions—his fascination with farting, body parts, and some Platonic dream of nympho lesbians—are at trash's root. White-trash behavior is defined by childlikeness and the headlong pursuit of easy gratification—quite often, sex. Feral child Amy Fisher said of Joey Buttafuoco that he introduced her to "expensive restaurants and cheap motels." Joey had some difficulties getting to the motel all the time, so Amy shot his wife.
Courtney Love's dark roots and dirty baby-doll dresses are as sophisticated an appropriation of the childlike white-trash aesthetic as was the Rolling Stones' homage to black urban style; Love's delight in looking like "a 14-year-old battered rape victim," a "kinderwhore," is a nutshell of white-trash chic. So, too, are the suggestively named Tease-brand baby-doll T-shirts, which evoke a Lolita-at-the-Dairy-Queen thing. (Real-life Lolita Bridget Hall, the 16-year-old model with an eighth-grade education from Farmers Branch, Texas, stayed with Ford Models head Eileen Ford when she came to New York but refused to eat her chili because it didn't come from a can.) The slumming well-to-do believe that by affecting trash poses they are tapping into authentic despair and alienation, just as certainly as if they had styled a beret and black turtleneck in the fifties.