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White Hot Trash!

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Fittingly, both Beavis and Butt-head "have single mothers, we've decided," says Mike Judge. "They're from some town like Channelview, Texas, where everyone's parents are welders or work in a big yard where they store pipes. If they had a dad around, there'd be more supervision and they probably wouldn't get away with as much."

The boom in trash behavior clearly owes less to Marx than to Freud, less to the resolution of class dialectics than to simple indulgence of the id. There is, in short, much to be said for repression. "The Zeitgeist of the twentieth century is to throw off the artificial restraints of civilization and etiquette, to express yourself and not control your feelings," says Judith Martin, better known as "Miss Manners." "It's a pop misreading of Freud, and I abhor it. The moral results are that if you don't like someone you shoot them, or smash their car, or, if you insist on being law-abiding, sue them over small matters."

The ultimate restraining figure, of course, is the jealous God who has loomed over the American landscape since preacher Jonathan Edwards's early warning that "all children are by nature children of wrath, and are in danger of eternal damnation in hell." White-trash behavior comes not just from the absence of stern parents but from the masses skipping Masses, from all those going cold turkey on religious opiates.

Consider the falls of evangelists Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, and, most recently, Arkansas's Tony Alamo, convicted of tax evasion and of having wed eight of his followers within the past eighteen months. Jessica Hahn was once a devout Pentecostal, and Roseanne Arnold's father sold 3-D pictures of Jesus door-to-door. Paula Corbin Jones had daily prayer sessions growing up in Arkansas. Of her mother's Bible Missionary sect, Charlotte Corbin Brown says, "They don't wear makeup, no wedding rings, jewelry, no pants for women, no shorts, clothing below the elbows and knees, no movies and no TV—Mama wouldn't even watch Paula on TV now."

"Miz Corbin is so religious it would embarrass Paula," Mark Brown says. "So Paula went away from all religious-type things. She went away fast."

White-trash behavior is neither a delightful plastic flamingo on the front lawn of American culture nor a glimpse of existential freedom. As Mike Judge says of his own creations, "Beavis and Butt-head are funny from a distance, but I wouldn't want them around a lot. If these two guys came into a restaurant, you'd be thinking, I hope they don't sit over here."

"So we're dangerous," says Dorothy Allison. "We don't necessarily care for your life."

True trash is unsocialized and violent. "[They] are obvious losers and it bugs them," Hunter Thompson has written of the Hell's Angels. "But instead of submitting quietly to their collective fate, they have made it the basis of a full-time social vendetta. They don't expect to win anything, but on the other hand, they have nothing to lose."

An even more damaged trash response than being chubby and riding without a helmet is serial killings, which are almost exclusively committed by white men between the ages of 25 and 40. More serial murders have been reported since 1970 than in all previous American history combined. The commercial response has been swift: There are five lines of serial-killer trading cards; Axl Rose sings Charles Manson songs and Spin has the cult leader on its cover; the late John Wayne Gacy's paintings sell for up to $20,000. And Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and the ubiquitous Howard Stern have said that they could have easily responded to their childhoods by becoming serial killers.

White trash disproves the notion that we are all infinitely perfectable, that all that stands between us and felicity is a few hours of self-help. White trash is about scars that won't heal. Twice in the past three months, John Wayne Bobbitt has been charged with battering his fiancée. Being unredeemable is "part of the Roseanne-and-Tom shit," Dorothy Allison says. "They're always going to be figures of contempt—there's no reward for not acting trashy, so why shouldn't they do what they want?" Both Roseanne and Tom say they were molested as children; Roseanne has alleged (improbably) that her father would "chase me with his excrement and try to put it on my head. He'd lie on the floor playing with himself. It was the most disgusting thing you can ever imagine." Yes, pretty much. Courtney Love's mother turned her in to the police when she shoplifted a Kiss T-shirt at the age of 12. And Tonya Harding's vision of the future was also clouded early. She moved eight times as a child; her half-brother allegedly assaulted her; and her mother, LaVona, who was married five, six, or seven times, depending on who you believe, beat her with a hairbrush and called her "bitch" and "scum."


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