The Representation of White Trash in the Media, specifically in TV Shows and Movies

By: Grace Harter

Stereotypes of White Trash in the Media, Specifically in TV Shows and Movies

This pop-culture project focuses on the stereotypes of white trash in the media specifically through TV shows and Movies.  White Trash, the term used to describe people of the white race who economically make very little money, serve the purpose of reinforcing white power and privilege.  Since there are so many prevalent examples that consist of people identified as white trash, I thought it would be interesting to view different pieces of media that abide by the certain stereotypes given to these individuals.  Many people today enjoy watching shows such as Honey Boo Boo and BuckWild because of the mindlessness that is involved and the entertainment that comes along with it.  However, when looked at more closely, the audience viewers will realize the term ‘White Trash’ is more universal and hard to define than it may seem.  Also, people who are identified as white trash exemplify that there is a need for boundaries in society and that without these boundaries, us as individuals would find it hard to classify social structure and our place within it.

Stereotype #1: Through stereotyping as an Expression of Values: White Trash people are seen as being replete with references to dangerous and excessive sexuality such as rape, incest, and sexual abuse. 

Joe Dirt:

http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi3383689497/ (Trailer)

This video clip is from Joe Dirt, a movie about a janitor who loses his parents at the Grand Canyon at a young age and aims to find them.  Throughout this film the stereotypes of White Trash are blatantly demonstrated.  Stereotyping is a commonality in today’s society and to many, is the way by which people form their first impressions of others.  According to Dyer, stereotypes serve as an activity that is necessary for societies to make sense of themselves (Dyer 96).  With this being said, in this particular example, Joe Dirt fits within the typical stereotype of being a white trash male; one who has a mullet, works as a janitor, orates words that do not make sense, and even contemplates sleeping with his own [so he thinks] sister.  Even though Joe Dirt has immense sexual feelings for this woman in the clip, he knows that there is the possibility of her being his sister. However, even with him being fully aware of this possibility, he continues to have sexual relations with her regardless. It is a commonality for people to view white trash as being incestuous even though this can occur in all different kinds of populations and cultures (Wray).  Excessive sexuality in general is an occurrence that is prevalent towards all different class backgrounds and social upbringings as well.  This immensely correlates to stereotyping as an expression of values.  This type of stereotyping invokes consensus and makes assumptions about race [whiteness], class [lower class], education [Lack of], economics, etc. (Dyer).  All of these factors pertain to the audience who view Joe Dirt as white trash.

Stereotype #2: People who are white Trash accept their situation for what it is and stay within the invisible boundary society constructs for them.

 Eminem, 8 Mile Rap Scene

The hegemony of white privilege is what keeps the stereotypes of white trash in its place; a consented number of ideologies provide a common sense of the status quo (Lull).  In other words, people who are identified as white trash have accepted this label and grow up living with the title and rarely make the decision to step over this invisible boundary (Lull).  A very good example of this is in the movie 8 Mile, which is a film about Eminem the rapper’s life before he reached his stardom.  In his final rap to the crowd at the end of the movie, he calls out his opponent for being wealthy and not like the rest of the group.  Eminem openly admits that he is white trash and that how the situation is.  This exemplifies the hegemonic influence of white privilege.  In this case, Eminem himself is not the minority because of his economic status, but he is the minority racially.  Whiteness plays a huge role in this white trash term.  Whiteness is a privileged category of identity according to many scholars because it is seen as a social domination around the globe (Wray).  With this being said, the cultural advantages of whiteness are evident, however when a person is white trash like Eminem, he or she is still disadvantaged regardless of the color of his or her skin (Wray). Eminem is considered the lowest of the low in his community because he his white trash exemplifying that white privilege is tarnished and that being a white male who is poor is worse than being a black male of the same socioeconomic background.

Stereotype #3: People who are considered White Trash are in the Lower Middle Class therefore subject themselves to classism, a repressive ideology.

 Poor White Trash, Movie:

http://movies.netflix.com/WiPlayer?movieid=60003925&trkid=13462100&t=Poor%2BWhite%2BTrash&tctx=-99%2C-99%2C888c530d-8846-4646-90a9-59b71657730c-32342643

Movie Needs to be Streamed on Netflix so I incorporated the Movie Trailer to be viewed:

This stereotype is represented in the movie, Poor White Trash.  The first 5 minutes of the film consist of two boys, who the audience would view as white trash, trying to steal from a local store.  As the boys are talking to cashier, he calls Tony out on his mom trying to buy beer before noon on Sunday.  The cashier then goes on to say that trash comes from trash and that both of the boys were nothing but white trash.  Another stereotype that society has identified as white trash is that they are obviously white, but are poor as well. This stereotype is not accurate because there are plenty of wealthy people who are considered white trash as well.  Some examples are Mrs. Siegler from the Queen of Versailles and Paris Hilton.  However, we do not think of those people immediately when thinking of white trash.  This is because according to Marxist theory, “Getting and keeping economic power is the motive behind all social and political activities” (Tyson 53).  Furthermore, economics is the base by which superstructure of social and political ideological realities are built (Tyson 54).  Since white privilege personifies having a certain color of skin [white] allows greater opportunities and advantages, the term white trash throws off that whole dynamic.  White trash skews the status quo, and to deal with this, society finds it easiest to make people identified as white trash to be very close to the bottom of the economic superstructure.  Along with this, repressive ideologies such as classism prevent us (society) from actually understanding the historical conditions by which we live by refusing to acknowledge that these conditions have any bearing on the way by which we see the world (Tyson 56-57).  Classism equates one’s value as a human being with the social class to which one belongs when everyone is of the equal amount of value and potential.  In the film, Tony is getting ready to go to college, with goes against the norm for people of his socioeconomic background.  He has value like everybody else, but that still does not prevent others from identifying him strictly as a poor, white male.

Stereotype #4: White Trash Men and Women are objectified as “class savages”

My Name is Earl, Pilot:

In the pilot episode My name is Earl, the main character, openly admits to the kind of person he is (what the audience would identify as white trash) and the scene starts out with him buying a lottery ticket, stealing things from a middle-class white family’s car, drinking in a bar, getting drunk and marrying a random girl who’s pregnant, and then living in a trailer.  The actions of both Earl and the Joy [The woman he marries and then divorces] are objectified by many audiences as savage-like behavior.  Due to the lack of financial and social responsibility among the characters, they can be considered white trash by many.  The woman [joy] exemplifies the white trash stereotype of women being irresponsible and getting pregnant with multiple men and not being good caretakers of their husbands or kids.  Earl exemplifies the typical white trash male; one who drinks all the time, is careless and not very bright, and does not have a full time job. These stereotypes result in white trash being looked at as savages in a way. Society views people who do not go along with the social norm as outsiders (Dyer).  Not only are people identified as white trash outsiders, but they are also careless and irresponsible, which allows them to be better compared to a savage than an actual human being.

Stereotype #5: People in identified as White Trash are not able provide adequate lives for themselves from the viewpoint of society. 

Here comes Honey Boo Boo, Pilot

I used the TV show, here comes Honey Boo Boo for this example because the show consists of a family who aren’t shown working real jobs, who have child who are pregnant, who live in a little house right by the railroad tracks in the middle of nowhere, and who are obese and enjoy doing the most outlandish things with each other.  Honey Boo Boo and her family are considered by white trash because of the reasons listed above, which then correlates to the stereotype that because they are white trash, their hopes of providing a life for themselves that society would approve of are slim to none.  The play of boundaries comes into the picture once again in this scenario.  According to boundary theory, we have to ask ourselves how categories such as race and class shape our perceptions of society and the world (Wray).  It is social categories that we use in everyday life.  According to Wray, “We tend to learn the shared representations and the cognitive schemas relevant to our social worlds and to assimilate our own perceptions of reality to them.  In this way stereotypes occur without much thought and boundaries are created”(8).  So because of society creating a norm for a large group of people, we are more inclined to judge and look down upon others who go against that norm.  Honey Boo Boo and her family are not nuclear, her parents do not have prevalent jobs, her family is not healthy (weight-wise), they live in a tiny cluttered house too small for the size of her family, and their language and actions are atrocious.  It is families like hers that allow the audience, or society, to place all white trash people into the category Honey Boo Boo is in.  This then correlates to the belief that people identified as white trash are incapable providing an adequate life for their family and/or themselves because they don’t live “normal” lives compared to society’s standards for living.

Analysis of Pop Culture Playlist:

The pop culture playlist theme for this project was stereotypes of people who identify as white trash in the media, specifically in movies and TV shows.  All five pieces of the media chosen represent a specific stereotype of people who are considered to be white trash.  However, all of the stereotypes are interconnected to one another not only because they are stereotypes, but because they all contribute to one main underlying factor:  People considered to be white trash serve the purpose of reinforcing white power and privilege.  According to Wray, the term ‘white’ carries an essence of power and prestige; it is seen as a social domination around the world (3).  When the term trash is placed behind of the term white, it portrays a disturbing liminality; it puts people in one category where boundaries of the two separate terms are uniquely defined and separated.  White trash immensely blurs these boundary lines causing conflict in society (Wray 2).

With these blurring of boundary lines, society finds it easiest to create many stereotypes to make sense of the conflicting term white trash.  Previously mentioned in the Eminem video paragraph was stereotyping through the expression of values.  According to Dyer, stereotypes are taken to express a general agreement of a social group in order to make more sense of this group without our brains doing tedious work to analyze them (14).  However, Dyer also brings up the point that it is from stereotypes that we get our ideas about social groups.  This holds the importance that any short cut leading to quick assumptions that provide satisfaction to the audience is the route they are going to take in order to ease their inner conflict about a certain group of people (12).

With this being said, when looking at the media clip of Eminem rapping about his white trash lifestyle, he is openly admitting to the shame he has lived with because people had endlessly put him down for it. Eminem learns to accept his situation and to allow that term to be a part of his identity, but at the same time, he desires to overstep the boundary that separates him from his peers along with the rest of society. Even though Eminem admits to one aspect of his identity, he emphasizes that this is not the contributing factor that truly defines who he is a human being.  This example relates to the rest of the stereotypes of white trash.  Such stereotypes include white trash people portraying savage-like behavior, lower class level, the incapability to provide an adequate lifestyle for their families, and their excessively sexual nature, which all originates from society being conflicted internally about what to do when the term white is linked to the term trash.  Each media text presented in this playlist represents a stereotype and shows, through the production level, how white trash people are portrayed in life regardless of whether or not it is true depiction of who they are as human beings (McIntosh).

 What keeps society in order are these boundaries and boundaries are created through the use of stereotypes and economic power.  According to Tyson, “Getting and keeping economic power is the motive behind all social and political activities” (53).  Going along with this, since the term white has an esteem of privilege and power, when the term trash follows it, this upper class privilege is discarded for a lower class identity.  This is exemplified through the media piece, Poor White Trash when the check out man calls out the boy for being trash like his mother, specifically white trash, because his mother tries to buy beer before noon on a Sunday.  Through the cashier’s eyes, white trash people do not hold up to the power of whiteness and the privilege it bestows upon them and therefore are not worth any time, effort, or value.  People identified as white trash therefore reinforce the fundamental emphasis of white power and privilege.  If a person who is white cannot go along with societal norms then they are out-casted from the group and are looked down upon.  This then provides an example to people who are white to not do what the white trash or outcasts do.  This shows people that society is expected to abide by certain norms and if these norms are not achieved, then society will look down upon you and will subject you to negative stereotypes and ridicule.

When considering the term white trash, the audience should now be considering the power of white privilege, blurred boundary lines, stereotyping and the reasons behind it, along with the conflict of the terms white and trash coinciding with one another and the purpose it serves.  By doing this, the audience will grow to understand that people who are identified as white trash have value and self-worth; they are humans that have the same traits and mannerisms as anyone else would in any other social class. It is our job as a society to think more intersectionally about media pieces and to really apply ourselves to a situation before we are quick to judge.

Works Cited:

“Best of Boo Boo.” Writ. Evan Gilman.  Dir. Brandon Golnick. TLC. 2012. Online.

 Dyer, Richard. “The role of stereotypes.” The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation.New York: Routledge, 1993. 11-18. Print.

 Joe Dirt. Dir. Dennie Gordon.  Perf. David Spade, Brittany Daniel, Dennis Miller.  Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2001. Online.

 Lull James. “Hegemony.” Media, Communication, Culture: A Global Approach.” New York and Chichester, UK: Columbia University Press, 1995. 1-5. Print.

 McIntosh, Peggy. “White privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom (July/August 1989), 9-10; repr. in Independent School, 49 (1990), 31–35.

 “Pilot.” My name is Earl. Writ. Gregory Thomas Garcia. Dir. Gregory Thomas Garcia. Netflix, 2004. Online.

 Poor White Trash. Dir. Michael Addis.  Perf. Sean Young, Jason London, Jaime Pressly.  Miramax, 2005.  Online.

 Tyson, Lois. “Marxist Criticism.” Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide. 2nd ed. New York, NY:

Routledge, 2006. 53-82. Print.

 Wray, Matt.  White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness. 2006.  Duham: Duke University Press.

8 Mile. Dir. Curtis Hanson.  Perf. Eminem.  Imagine Entertainment, 2002. Online.

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