The tragedy of Paula Deen, I believe, is not her heart-rending choice of pink liquid cosmetics on the occasion of her famously damp sua culpa (my term for blaming current shortcomings on one’s social origins). Nor is it her provocative defense against accusations of racism: “I is what I is” plays as badly on the electronic media as it does in ESL classes. Well, maybe years ago it would have gone down passably on Mayberry R. F. D., but morning television doesn’t coddle tautological idiots.
No, what I really hold against America’s least talented cooking show host is the fact that the revelations concerning her views on minorities emerged too late to appear in Charlotte Hays’s delightful new book.
Stop your sniveling. Yes, you are allowed to use the term “white trash” in a title, especially since the author doesn’t confine her attacks to the color-challenged or to those without the means to defend themselves. Kim Kardashian, for example, gets it in the Chiclet teeth for “expecting a little bundle” with rap star Kanye West while her 72-day, highly lucrative marriage to a previous hunk was still unraveling. In Hays-speak, in other words, “white trash” is simply a synonym for “vulgar,” a boundless source of democratically discourteous, tacky offensiveness available to all Americans of all classes, genders, and races. We should be proud.
A word about the author herself: In the interest of full disclosure (a matter which I prefer to leave to the very last line of any article), I have to concede that Charlotte Hays is a good friend. She is also a Southerner, her Mississippi accent having, since her trek northward a few decades ago, inexplicably deepened, essentially paralyzing all syllables. She retains—as in her previous bestselling books, these with recipes—a sentimental, deeply unreconstructed passion (in print, anyway) for the kind of food that, when ingested, generally fattens the incomes of cardiologists. This probably explains why chapter three of her new book begins:
If the potential demise of the Hostess Twinkie sent you into a deep depression, chances are you are White Trash. As Steve Berger observed in his essay collection, Raised By White Trash, “There’s a close correlation between white trash, family love, and diabetes.”
The last affliction appears to be of special interest to the author: “Diabetes is the talismanic New White Trash disease, having replaced pellagra, the Old White Trash disease,” she writes. And, in fact, much of this book compares Ur-Trash (“Owning cows and being too lazy to make butter”) to the more self-destructive New Trash (“Eating butter to the point where you look like a cow”).
But a great deal of Hays’s plaintive tract—and it is melancholy underneath its bright coat of humor; and it is a tract, a serious political one, in fact—is devoted to a series of questions which she never chooses to formalize: Who are we? What have we become? And, above all: What the hell is wrong with us?
To illustrate, the author ventures into territory that is, while not exactly virginal, always fertile: television shows. It’s not good enough anymore to insist, as we once did, that Hey, these dumb shows are fictional, stuffed with incredibly flawed imaginary characters. They are more than fictional, more than flawed, more than reflections of a changing culture in changing times. They are, in fact, as Hays indicates, tragically inspirational, featuring, as they do, “predatory female doctors . . . always on the prowl for sex,” “a hotshot reporter with a child born out of wedlock,” and a character on Two and a Half Men who declares to his onscreen uncle (played at the time by Charlie Sheen, naturally): “You drink, you gamble, you have different women here practically every night. You’re the best role model a guy could want!”
Hays views all these characters, all their doings and their repartee, as trashy to the nth. And, of course, they are that. But underneath the merriment at the expense of the fictional is some true despair about those who exist in reality, children especially. The author’s antecedent (actually the step-grandmother of her mother) used to say, “When children turn 12 they become very silly and you must send them away until they get over it.”
For her part, Hays seems to feel that a lot of that silliness has actually been actively transmitted to offspring by their negligent parents, the ones who allow their children to watch Charlie Sheen and Kim Kardashian. And it clearly eats at her. After all, Hays insists, there are plenty of ways—easy ones, classic and time-tested ones—to clean up the trash:
A friend of mine who is otherwise quite modern in her outlook raised two delightful sons, now attractive young men, by the simple expedient of threatening to send them to bed without dessert whenever they got the least bit out of line at the dinner table. Okay, I’m oversimplifying. There were other childrearing techniques involved. But the threat, which, by the way, was not idle, was magic. Moreover it pre-supposed two conditions not inevitably present nowadays: 1) family dinner; and 2) that parents, not children, ruled the roost. In other words, the parents civilized their offspring.
Well, I have just three things to say about that. Four, really.
One: Yes, I did used to threaten both Noah and Sam, my attractive sons, with no dessert and also an order to leave the table whenever they got out of line as children. Two: I’m not so sure “ruled the roost” quite covers the way we were perceived by those who were thus deprived of our company. Three: Threats of banishment or deprivation weren’t invariably successful civilizing instruments. Four: There was, for example, that time during a very long Rosh Hashanah service when the boys started punching each other, and I said, “You two do that again and I’m taking you both home in a heartbeat! And that’s a promise.”
All I am saying is, and I am certain Paula Deen would understand this part: Civilization ain’t easy.
Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.