Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Stuff White People Like" Update: I Still Hate It

Two weeks ago I went off on the blog mentioned above because I didn’t think it was about white people. Even after Stamford Talk readers posted clear-headed answers, I was still bothered by it and wanted to figure out why. I’ve rewritten and edited my opinions down to two main points.

1. The generalizations on SWPL are not about white people. Every article I read says the same thing: "Well, it's really about yuppies." So, change the name. If it’s only about say, 2 % of white people, the blog shouldn’t be titled “SWPL.”

Lander is a 29 year old (aspiring) comedy writer in LA. In a nauseating NPR interview, Lander explains that his blog is less about soccer moms than “Park Slope parents.” Ohhhhh... chuckle chuckle! I get the difference! I’m in on the joke! But Lander, those are your peers- twenty-nine year old upwardly-mobile creative types. They call those people “yuppies.” Most white people in this country aren’t like that. I’m sure Chris Lander is aware of the distinction, but he knows that “SWPL” sounds funnier. See if you can listen to the NPR interview without wanting to throw up at his smug, self-satisfied tone of voice. I only made it through 5 minutes.

Stamford Talk reader KG posted, “You can’t take it too seriously when you read it. I can see how perhaps if you think about it too hard, you can take offense, but I just get a chuckle.” I do see why people get a laugh; it’s a cute site even if it doesn’t appeal to me. I’m only thinking hard about the title of his blog. If he’s going to talk about race (which he’s not), he should know what he’s talking about (he doesn’t, so he should rename his blog).

It’s fine if someone wants to write satire about a certain demographic of white people. If you like his writing style, cool. It will be just as good when he changes the name to "Stuff Yuppies Like."

2. The media is overly-positive about the site, and are trying to make it into something more meaningful than it really is. ST reader John C commented, “You're overthinking the site. SWPL is as empty-headed as those VH-1 specials wherein people make snarky comments about daily observations...” That’s why I’m astonished and annoyed by all of the media coverage.

The media is over-thinking the site, not me. I was quite happy to ignore SWPL. When I first saw the site, I looked at one entry, got the impression from his “About” page that he was an uneducated dolt, and quit out without thinking much about it. I was surprised when friends sent me the link; that’s when I wrote the first post. When Zobot provided the link to the Boston Globe article, I realized the situation was worse than I thought. Respectable news outlets were talking about the blog’s insights on race.

From abc news: According to experts, he hit the right note at the right time, while — perhaps unintentionally — creating a forum for people to openly mock, or explore, what it means to be white. You mean, what it means to have money and privilege. I live in Fairfield County, so you can trust me on that.

The articles I read offer convoluted explanations about why the blog is such a hit. From an expert quoted on “The blog does a really good job of walking the line between provocative and offensive... I think the reason it's popular with a really broad spectrum of readers is that white readers can be the focus of the content and that's not usually the case with blogs about race." I don’t find Lander’s writing provocative or offensive. Yuppies have been joked about before; so have white people.

As the Globe says: The blog's popularity may have something to do with its singularity. Jokes about rednecks and Republicans are common. But white middle-class liberals rarely face comedic barbs unless they're the target of black comics such as Dave Chappelle or Chris Rock. Right... so how is it rare if the nation’s top comedians talk about it all the time? And, as my sister pointed out, who is this “broad spectrum?” She’s less yuppie than me, but she’s white, so her perspective has been invaluable: “I’m white, and none of these apply to me.” Straight from the mouth of a white person.

An LA Times reporter writes: Lander is doing to whites what scores of journalists and politicians do to non-white minorities every day, "essentializing" complex identities -- that is, stripping away all variety and reducing them to their presumed authentic essences. One irony-deficient reader complained that the blog was less about white people than it was about yuppies. And without knowing it, she was cutting to the heart of the joke. Lander is gently making fun of the many progressive, educated, upper-middle-class whites who think they are beyond ethnicity or collectively shared tastes, styles or outlook. He's essentially reminding them that they too are part of a group. Uh... right, but the group is not white people. I don’t think I’m irony-deficient; what joke’s heart am I cutting to when it say the blog is about yuppies?

The same LA Times article quotes Lander: "I'm writing about the white people who think they're absolutely unique and individual... I'm calling them out and poking fun of myself. The things I post are all the things I like too!"

Oh! Well, whoop-dee-doo for you, Chris! You sound super-dumb, so maybe you should keep letting the journalists speak for you. I don’t think you even have your target audience down. Yuppies don’t think they’re unique; it’s hard to miss all the other people leasing BMWs, joining book clubs, and drinking red wine. The FC is all about shared tastes.

Wait- wait! I think I get the joke. The LA Times article was titled “A blogger explores the attitudes and foibles of a new minority group.” So is the irony that we’re stereotyping yuppies? Is the joke that yuppies aren’t aware they’re part of a group? I don’t think so; anyone who watches TV and movies can figure that out. Are people not aware that stereotypes of “white minorities” exist, other than white trash?

Oh, Lander can help me. From the Globe: "This is the stereotyping of people who have tried to distance themselves from what they perceive as white stereotypes: the white trash, the Republican," says Lander, 29, who works as a copywriter at Schematic, a new media marketing company. "Well, you're still white, you still have white privilege. It still exists, believe it or not. No matter how much you donate to charity or how much organic food you eat, you still have white privilege."

Noooooooooo shit, Sherlock. Wow- this joke is as obvious as I thought, and that’s why I’ve missed it. I commend Lander for writing; writing takes guts and skill, and he’s got that. He’s missing a few key concepts, but I’ll let him slide if he renames his blog.


John said...

How wonderful that this is on our minds simultaneously, and I think it's fun and fascinating to look at the different ways SWPL resonates. I’ve got some thoughts I’ll try to brief with.

Let me start with some identity admissions: I'm a mid-twenties white kid from the suburbs of Philly. My family never had tons of cash to throw around (my mom is a minister, my dad worked for the navy), but I also don't think I lacked for opportunities. I went to good public schools, attended a private college, where I was the punk kid on campus (dyed my hair every color you can imagine, studied math, then when math got boring switched to philosophy). I have worked in nonprofits and the like my whole professional career. I think I'm a pretty creative guy, and I would like to think I've got an interesting take on the world around me. I would claim to be far from a yuppie, but I could be really wrong on that one... I dunno.

What I do know, is that when I started reading SWPL I was struck by how often they hit things I like. That said, I also take it completely as a joke and something to be taken fairly lightly, so looking at some of the media coverage, I would tend to agree that the media angle on SWPL is pretty bizarre.

What I enjoy most about the site is the tongue-in-cheek tone when they get to saying, “now here’s how you can use this new knowledge to get in with white people.” This air of advice is actually what I most often find really hilarious about the site.

In your post today you briefly mentioned a comparison to shows like Best Week Ever, and I think that comparison could be a good one. I enjoy reading other blogs like Wonkette, where they take news about politicians and DC happenings and toss them up in sarcastic and completely scathing ways. Just today they took a video camera to the National Portrait Gallery in DC and posed the question, “is Steven Colbert well hung?” to various people. I think there’s a brand of humor that often is described as snarky, where the bread-and-butter is sarcastic observation. Sometimes it rings true, others hollow, but overall it works when it comes through as somewhat detached, yet accurate.

Back to SWPL, I think they hit the mark sometimes and at others they don’t. I typically scan entries and skip a good few. When I am drawn to one by the title they are fairly good about 2/3 of the time. I think one positive of Stuff Nobody Likes is that it has no demographic, hence it isn’t open to people overanalyzing it as a tool for understanding some group. All in all, I think the whole realm is aimed at good fun, if at any time it isn’t enjoyable, it’s a complete waste of your time. Hence, if you don’t like it, I could see how you would quickly become frustrated by it.

wow... epic comment! Oops!

Stamford Talk said...

I like epic comments from smart people!

Your self-descrip sounds a lot like me, except for the hair, and that I’m not from a suburb of a big city. (I like Philly a lot.)

I’ve also been thinking about if I’m a yuppie or not. I DID go back to look at the full list, and I only match maybe 1/6 of them. I want to go back to see the full list, but I don’t want to give the guy hits. I think I’ll go and paste it into a word document. OK, 23 out of the 95 apply to me, except I can’t afford some of those 23 (living by the water, Whole Foods). I think it’s hard to live up here and not be a yuppie, and maybe choosing to live here is a yuppie element. If I’m a yuppie, I’m proud, because I like the way I am.

I’d be curious to see what you think of the NPR interview.

John said...

Wow... the NPR interview is pretty cringe-worthy. I think I need to go take a walk to clear my head, but maybe just because it was so bizarre for NPR. Granted, a friend and I were talking last week about how Talk of the Nation often disappoints relative to other NPR shows... and I used to think it was a pretty good show.

A couple thoughts having burnt brain cells listening to the whole interview:

a. Lander talks at the end about an upcoming post on the subject of "Self Importance" and I think part of what makes listening to him on the radio difficult is his own.
b. I think enjoyment of SWPL is inversely proportional to the degree to which one takes it seriously. Listening to NPR, the interviewer seemed especially keyed up on this notion of, "wow, look at this funny great tool for understanding how white we all are..." which is a ridiculous idea.
c. This commenting process made me wonder how many things on the list actually do apply to me... I came up with about 53 of the 95 topics currently posted.

Ultimately, I think SWPL is a funny bit of fluff that sometimes falls flat. They've gotten tons of hits, thanks to people like me who read a few entries that were hilarious then told any friend who would listen. The T-Shirts entry, for example, to me was pretty hilarious. Interestingly, I think their analysis of the T-Shirt phenomena is a little basic and flawed, but the mere presentation of it made me laugh, as someone who has purchased shirts from Threadless and other such sites in the last 6 months.

What I think may be even more interesting over the weeks and months to come, and this is why I posted about SWPL and Stuff Nobody Likes, etc. is this: since SWPL is now a phenomena like LOLcats before it, you can count on seeing all manner of spawns emerge. Some will be downright awful, some could take the SWPL model and make it much better, but people will definitely imitate. Perhaps in so doing we'll see the degradation of our national dialog on race into blog after blog of useless generalization... but I would guess that instead we'll see some really bad attempts at humor, the occasional interesting insight, and some stuff that's so absurd you can't help but shake your head and chuckle.

Apparently I can't comment about this in fewer than 7 paragraphs! Maybe I need to go to Graduate School and write a thesis on it while drinking coffee or perhaps bottled water.

Stamford Talk said...

A good white person- I mean yuppie, obviously- would use a Nalgene bottle like I do.

Maybe any dialog on race is a good one? I don't think SWPL does that, but maybe some others will be more related to race rather than money. I love discussing race and socio-economic stuff- is that on SWPL?

"Basic and flawed"-- that is exactly what I think of SWPL!