Writing about social class in America
This weekend, my wife and I went to see the premiere of a new play being rolled out in four cities, Doublewide. Admittedly, the first act was slow, as the culture of white, low-wage, working class America needed to be spelled out for the typical theater goer, who was probably middle or upper class. My wife hated it, and I can't say it ranked up there with Hamlet, but there was one scene in particular that I found brilliant in how it dramatized the contrast between classes in America. One of the characters, Lorelei, is a seventeen-year-old girl, raised in her parents' double-wide trailer, with cell phone and all other trappings of American youth. She is struggling in school, due to lack of motivation. She confesses to her tutor, an upper middle class kid who initially says he chose to tutor for service learning credit (we later see he has a longstanding crush on her), that she wants to enter the recording technology program at the local community college, because she loves music, but couldn't see herself being a performer, because she thinks she isn't any good. The boy immediately hits the Internet and finds there is a minimum GPA of 2.75 required for admission, and he excitedly tells her she can do this. He begins to lay out all the steps she would take, and promises to tutor her many days a week. She can't quite get it together and make herself go to school. At one point, after they had slept together, as his idol worship of her left her in some ways feeling better about herself, the tutor confronts Lorelei about her lack of persistence in the goal of getting into the community college program. She tells him she hasn't had her period in two months. When he asks if she is going to get an abortion, she asks him if he is going to pay for it. He muses out loud about how he can't put it on his credit card because his parents check the statements and remembers he has some savings bonds his grandmother gave him. He decides to cash them in and lie to his parents, claiming to pay a bill for college.
She then tells him she may not want an abortion. He panics. After letting him stew for a while, she tells him the doctor said she wasn't pregnant. She asks him to examine what he had felt, the feeling of being trapped. She posits it is the first time in his life he has ever felt trapped by his circumstances, unable to freely pursue whatever future he chooses. She then told him that this is what it feels like every moment of your life when you are poor. She said she didn't want to be "his project."
What seemed eminently reasonable to a middle class kid, pursuing an objective systematically, was impossible, psychologically, for a kid raised in a world where it was difficult to think of herself as mattering, as worth anything. And the middle class kid didn't get it at all until he was made to live what being trapped felt like. To him, she was funny, talented, creative, beautiful and way smarter than anyone gave her credit for. But she wouldn't let him be Pygmalion. She couldn't bring herself to be Eliza Doolittle.
This play is far from the first mention of the psychological barriers to middle class success. George Orwell makes precisely this argument in his 1937 work, The Road to Wigan Pier. He reprints a letter to the editor in which an upperclass woman wonders how the poor can't live on their salaries. She presents a shopping list of how perfectly good food could fit within a shopping budget. Orwell argued that splurging on unnecessary but cheap luxuries was necessary psychologically. In the context of Doublewide, at one point, where the father wins some cash at the casino, rather than paying a bill, mom and dad go out on a date and have fun. The date was a psychological necessity, a way of feeling human, a way of saying, "I matter." They may not own a house, they may not be able to pay for their daughter's college, but goddamnit, they can go out for a night, have a nice meal, get drunk and go dancing.
Orwell made these arguments in essay form. They are hard to convey in literature, but Doublewide had many moments that were brilliant at dramatizing not just lower working class attitudes, not just the barriers to upward mobility, but the inability of people outside this class to understand why what they would do is not what a poor person would do.
Sure, generalizations are dangerous, and sure, the scene on which I focused also had other conflicts: gender for example. That being said, I would have found completely believable a story in which the most frightening thing about needing an abortion for an upper middle class teen young woman was, like for the boy, hiding the credit card statement from her parents, so I would argue that class was the primary barrier in this scene.
My question as a science fiction writer: how would these conflicts change in the future? I must admit I have never broached the issue in my writing. Indeed, I don't think I've ever read a work of science fiction with a scene that dramatized how one class is incapable of understanding another as well as that scene in Doublewide.
There's something important to say here. I'm not yet sure what it is. I'll ponder.