The Selling Of 'Trailer Park Chic'

Jason Saffer of Alexandria performs as Jolene Sugarbaker, Queen of the Trailer Park.
Jason Saffer of Alexandria performs as Jolene Sugarbaker, Queen of the Trailer Park. "White trash with class: That is real Americans," said Saffer, who is also developing a fragrance called White Trash Woman. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 18, 2006

Perfect is out. In its latest twist, marketing has taken up what Michelle Lamar describes as the anti-Martha Stewart, the anti-Pottery Barn. Offensive or not, it's called white trash.

"If you're not that ideal person, then you're white trash," says Lamar, a mother of two from the outskirts of Kansas City who runs online retailer White Trash Palace.

The book "White Trash Etiquette" dispenses advice on how to win bar fights. Earlier this month, gift bags for the Oscars included kitschy T-shirts, from White Trash Palace, with slogans such as "Every mother is a working mother" -- alongside a pair of $1,000 black diamond Havaiana flip-flops.

Once strictly a pejorative label with racist undertones, the term "white trash" is now being taken up by marketers and retailers. Call it white-trash chic, redneck couture or trailer fabulous -- whatever it is, the idea is to make it cool.

Lamar calls herself white trash and proud of it. Just read her blog, titled White Trash Mom. Her Christmas lights stayed up months after all the gifts were unwrapped. She has mastered the art of driving while talking on her cellphone and yelling at her kids in the back seat. And sometimes -- just sometimes -- she buys cookies from the store and crumbles them at the edges so that they look homemade.

Now she has an agent who is shopping a White Trash Mom book. That's a sign that "white trash" has shed its connotations of rural poverty and poor education to become a symbol of everyman, said marketing consultant Simon Sinek. It now evokes a simpler life and more comforting times -- terrorists don't attack trailer parks.

"We live in times of high stress," said Sinek, who also teaches at Columbia University. "Messages that are simple, messages that are inspiring, messages that are life-affirming, are a welcome break from our real lives."

The trend has been percolating in pop culture for several years: Think Von Dutch trucker hats, Kid Rock's White Trash on Dope tour and the recent MTV trailer-park home makeover show.

Pennsylvania State University sociologist Karen Bettez Halnon, who finds the selling of white trash troubling, describes it as the latest incarnation of a broader movement she calls "poor chic," in which well-off consumers mimic the culture of the lower class. From punk to grunge to hip-hop, American consumers are constantly seeking ways to keep it real.

"What consumers are shopping for more and more is authenticity," Halnon said. "And where they can find authenticity . . . is to go through traditional activities of the lower class."

She worries that sends the wrong message.

"This is making fun of poverty, making it recreation," she said, ". . . but divorced of any kind of social obligation."

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