Monday, August 27, 2007 • 7:49 AM Comments ()

When a bedskirt is more than just a bedskirt: Thoughts on class, marital discord, and the fear of falling

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For the last six months or so my wife and I have been having a low-level argument about whether or not we should put a bedskirt on the bed in our guest room (pictured above). My wife’s argument can be summarized thusly:

The metal bed frame is cheap, and the box spring is pretty tattered looking, and if you don’t mask the cheapness and tattered-ness of the frame and box spring with a skirt, then we look cheap and tattered.
My argument can be summarized as follows:
Bedskirts look cheesy. They’re a lot of unstructured fabric, and they’re ruffly, and I’d rather have the clean uncluttered shabby chic of the frame and box spring visible than look like the kind of people who use bedskirts.
We could, of course, just buy the kind of bed frame that envelops the box spring in its frame-ness and therefore mitigates the need for a bedskirt altogether—which is the set-up we have in our bedroom—but that’s expensive, and both of us are just cheap enough that we’d rather fight it out over the bedskirt than just pay for a new bed.

The bedskirt, of course, is more than just a bedskirt. It’s a site of the clash between our different class anxieties. It’s one of the ways that we negotiate the different places we come from and the different class values and aesthetics we’ve inherited.

I was raised in a home that straddled the line between middle and upper-middle class. We had the income of the middle class, but many of the status markers of the upper middle: mysterious assets, expensive educations, Jewish minimalist taste, lefty-intellectual cred, etc. A cheap metal bed frame and visible box spring remind me of my dorm rooms at Yale, of my parents’ house, of what it looks like when people with class and money haven’t quite gotten around to fixing the place up yet. I don’t even consider that someone might think it looks low class, because how could anyone possibly mistake me for low class?

The bedskirt, however, stokes my deepest class anxiety—that I might be perceived as too middle-middleclass, too bourgeois, too middle America, too middle.*

My wife was raised in a middle (gradually ascending toward upper-middle) class home that had some lingering attachments to the lower-middle and working classes. For her it’s the shabbiness of the uncovered bed frame and box spring—the possible symptoms of trashiness—that push the class insecurity buttons.

Class is a difficult subject to talk about for many reasons. We flatter ourselves that we’re a classless society, or at least that class is just one, relatively insignificant tile in the glorious mosaic of characteristics, loyalties and categories out of which we constitute our identities. Yet in part because of our (arguably egalitarian) desire not to focus too much attention on class, we don’t know how to talk about it bluntly without accidentally saying the wrong thing and offending someone’s sensibilities. Further compounding the difficulty is that class anthropology, in America, can be pretty complicated; I’m certainly classier than Donald Trump, for example, but it wouldn’t make any sense to say that I’m more upper class than he is.

Arguing over a bedskirt might seem trivial, but it’s part of a larger conflict that’s one of the substantial conflicts of my marriage, and, I would argue, of most marriages – how are we going to present ourselves, as a family, to the world? What cars will we buy? What prints will we frame and put on the walls of our home? What linens will we choose? How will we dress our daughter (exclusively in Baby Gap, natch). What wine should we bring to a dinner party? What records will we play for our kids. What bumper stickers will we put on our car.

My wife and I—who first met at prep school—are in fact much closer to each other on a lot of these issues than it often seems to us from inside the marriage. We’d never put our daughter in a shirt that says “Mommy’s Little Princess.” Our next car will be a Honda, or a Subaru, or a Volkswagen. We buy lots of organic produce at Whole Foods. We live in Austin, Texas, which has one of the highest hipster quotients in the continental US. We’re Bobos— bourgeois bohemians—as David Brooks called us in his book Bobos in Paradise.

And all these choices of taste, all of these primarily consumer decisions, are ways that we signal to the world that we want to be recognized, and treated, in a certain way, and that we absolutely don’t want to be treated in certain other ways (like the middle-middle class, like white trash, like the working class). They’re ways of contending with our insecurity, our “fear of falling,” as Barbara Ehrenreich puts it in her book Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class.

It’s sad, perhaps, that we feel the need to worry so much about establishing our bona fides out of the stuff of consumerism, but I’d also suggest that such anxiety is an almost unavoidable condition in a culture like ours, which is so dynamic, consumeristic, insecure, democratic and alienated.

We’re not doomed, however, to be un-self-aware about it. We’re not doomed to let politicians and demagogues manipulate us with subtle exploitation of our class insecurities. And we’re not doomed to be embarrassed talking about it.

*I realize, by the way, that I might be totally cracked in my perception of the class connotations of the bedskirt (my wife thinks as much); the point is that I perceive it as déclassé, and that I view the world through a class lens alert to the dangers of being associated too closely with such an aesthetic.

--Daniel Oppenheimer, Writer and co-founder of Masculinity and its Discontents.

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