“Even the poor have something very chic about them.” – Karl Lagerfeld, creative director for Chanel and Fendi, discussing India’s slum-dwelling, “elegant” women

After watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s kitschy film Amélie and taking in its bright colors and even brighter vision of Paris and love, it’s easy to want to drop everything and find a tiny apartment in Montmartre. There, you could ride around on a one-speed bicycle, work at a charming brasserie, and find love, perhaps even sport a cute lil’ bob like Miss Audrey Tautou (God bless her and that haircut).

Don’t we all pine for the simple life? The life of the baker or shoemaker or even the Parisian waitress like Amélie? After all, it seems so simple. When the rich, or even the middle class, imagine the lives of the working class or poor, they envision an existence that is uncomplicated, void of stress, pure, and moral.

In any society, there is a working/service class, a sort of “underbelly” as Zola would call it; but, often, the middle and upper classes view it not as miserable, merely as an alternative life path on which the usual pressures of job promotions and performance reviews are swapped for a generic routine characterized by simplicity and morality. Waitressing in a chic Montmartre brasserie? Simple? Yep. Then, ah, how romantic.

Shame though. This equation doesn’t always add up.

One can see this simplification in recent literature and film, where the working class is generally depicted as either:

  • Deeply moralistic and contented with their socioeconomic position (probably in order to mitigate any guilt the more privileged class might have). Ex. Slumdog Millionaire, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Son, Good Will Hunting

-or-

  • In need of assistance which is often provided by a white, wealthy character of higher social status. Ex. The Help, The Soloist , The Dark Knight Rises

Think of the typical narrative scenario where the New York banker might go to, say, Indonesia on vacation only to meet a poor fisherman who is “truly living” life, finding out that — gasp — the fisherman is the “richer” of the two. The fisherman’s life is simple, and isn’t it just so darn beautiful the way he can take in the setting sun before he runs home to his family, rather than worrying about duping people into buying overpriced derivatives?

Oh, but wait, the Indonesian fisherman doesn’t have any teeth because he can’t afford the dentist. And his “home” is actually a straw shack. His wife is constantly distressed, and he’s always anxious because he knows he will always struggle to feed his children. Days often end in fights and the constant, crushing poverty seems too much to handle; but he wills himself to get up each morning, hoping, praying that he’ll catch enough fish to keep his family alive.

But, wow, he’s good at enjoying the sunset, right?

When we idealize poverty, we confound simplicity with happiness, and that is both naïve and, more often than not, quite offensive.

Let me explain:

Poverty is not just romanticized in media, but also in daily life. There is the idea of the “boho” or bohemian — the struggling writer, painter or otherwise artistic individual — who taps into this working class ethos of simplicity and goodness, pushing aside the capitalist framework he is seemingly forced to accept. The bohemian puts passion above material comfort, and, in many cases, it’s a noble pursuit.

However, the seemingly similar but in fact quite different idea of the “bobo” or bourgeois-bohemian is a more despicable offshoot of the bohemian. Bobos take the daily “simplicity” of the bohemian and the working class and combine it with a financial security that members of the latter are never privy to.

You tend to find bobos where wealthy young people mix — at East Coast private schools like my own university, NYU, for example. These bobos pretend to be poor when they’re actually extremely rich. (It’s surprising how often I’ve confused a homeless person in Washington Square Park with a student whose father is a corporate lawyer and whose “Kerouac-inspired slum residence” is really just a Lower East Side one-bedroom that’s, in fact, very safe, well-appointed, and seemingly decorated by Zooey Deschanel — Chinese lanterns and all.)

The ultimate representation of this bobo lifestyle is the store Urban Outfitters whose main demographic, as explicitly stated by founder and president Dick Haynes, is the “upscale homeless.”

Indeed, for many of the wealthy, especially the young wealthy, poverty is “cool.” The Live Below the Line campaign, which challenged well-off participants to survive on $1.75/day for five days to demonstrate how hard it is to live below Canada’s poverty line, was perhaps admirable in theory, but in practice, it was pretty much nonsense. Everyone participating knew it would be over in five days and could go back to gawking at way-too-large savings accounts, never knowing what it feels like to be entirely controlled by money and a measly, ever-dwindling balance.

Poverty can also be invoked as a vehicle for escapism. In Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, for instance, Cate Blanchett’s character, a wealthy Manhattanite, loses much of her fortune and moves to San Francisco to live a drastically less privileged, but more enjoyable life. Both travel and monetary disadvantage are wrapped up in this fetishized vision of leading a less-moneyed life, and it’s fascinating to see how social class jumping can be interpreted as a kind of escape, akin to traveling to a different country, which often seems different, fresh and exciting, but which quickly wears thin with the passage of time and one’s familiarization with the social milieu or “exotic” locale.

When people speak of the poor or working class in this escapist context, they are responding to a brief desire to change — ostensibly, to “simplify” — their situation, which may be complex and stressful, but in the grand scheme of things, is more enjoyable and comfortable than the less privileged alternative regardless of their admirable intentions to “help.”

Instead, we revel in the whitewashed depictions provided by the media or in the dreamy fraud perpetuated by bobo culture; we elevate and desire “the simple life,” while passing on the whole, you know, poverty part.


Postscript:

  • I would highly recommend reading George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London as a fantastic exception to these rules. That being said, Orwell didn’t become wealthy until after publishing Animal Farm. If you have any great books or films about poverty from the perspective of the rich that successfully skirt romanticization I would love to hear from you!