marchioness (marchioness) wrote,

Friends, I am going to drop some sociology bombs.

Well, perhaps. I am a little rusty. But, please, bear with me as I write one of the strangest things I've ever written.

As a native West Virginian, who has always tried to see the beauty in her home state but who's always tried not to be blinded by its ugliness, I get a little angry when someone discusses West Virginia and its mythological status as a bastion of backwardness and even incestuous predilections. You've all heard the joke, I'm sure. The state which is the heart of Appalachia has been the butt of many a joke about sister-fucking, har-dee-har-har. The tellers of these jokes often like to give a little smirk and a wink as they throw down the punchline or nod, tongue-in-cheek, as they make the allusion. It's something that we are supposed to understand, as a culture, I think: that such cultural backwardness as West Virginia supposedly exhibits must surely imply something dirty in its background, and that cultural backwardness is one of the few universal cultural taboos, namely incest.

Well, I have a problem with equating West Virginia with incestuousness, and I won't just shrug it off with more smirking, winking, and nodding as I lay the blame at our benighted neighbor's feet ... namely, Kentucky.

My hypothesis is, once you dig deep enough and begin to unpack the baggage surrounding West Virginia and incest jokes, is that the joke is really about poverty. And there's something deeper going on, here.

I wish desperately that I could find an article I read, which first sparked this idea for me. Bear in mind, then, that the original idea that planted this seed in my mind doesn't belong to me. I'd give credit where credit was due, if only I could remember where I first read this. I'll try to find the article at a later point.

Note: if you google "romance and capitalism," you'll see a number of articles which almost reach the point of the one I read, but not quite. Still can't find it. Darn. But this book kind of gets to the heart of the idea.

But, not to digress too much ... this is the idea: that romance and relationships are capitalist at heart, based on capitalistic exchanges.

I daresay the idea doesn't sound too unfamiliar, given the proliferation of anti-Valentine's Day memes circulating on Facebook in early- to mid-February. We've turned romance into a symbol of commodification, true romance isn't flowers and heart-shaped chocolate boxes, and so on. The historical socioreproductive bond of marriage was based on companionship, and as we move closer to the modern era, we see socioreproductive bonds changing over time, shifting toward romance, individualism, and what we now see as the appropriate basis of a relationship. In other words, we don't marry or shack up to create a future, to reproduce, to hoard and cultivate family alliances as in the feudal times, but rather we marry or shack up because we desire each other, we appreciate each other as singular individuals, and so said relationships are "meant to be." To sum up, relationships moved from companionate partnerships to desire-based romances.

We see this in the exorbitant price and aggressive marketing of diamonds and other jewels. "Every kiss begins with Kay," proclaims a well-known commercial for engagement rings and tokens of affection, and I bet you read the line in the sing-songy voice from that commercial, as I did while I was typing it. One of the most well-known authors of chick lit wrote a book titled Chasing Harry Winston, in which the heroine was angling for a big, shiny designer engagement ring; one gets the impression that the husband was incidental to the process. And for those of us who remain single on February 14th, consider the stereotypes we are supposed to represent, best circulated by those aforementioned memes: we're supposed to go out and buy a pint of Ben and Jerry's, watch Netflix, and cry ourselves to sleep. If we're feeling a bit more spiteful about the process, we'll treat ourselves, buy our own heart-shaped chocolate boxes and have flowers delivered to our workplace. We take the place of our nonexistent significant other, and splurge on all the appropriate capitalistic displays. So, while the singletons have no one to love them on Valentine's Day, they show how much they don't need a relationship. They love themselves.

Here's an excerpt from the linked book above that sums up what I'm trying to say:

Since the early 1900s, advertisers have tied the purchase of beauty products, sports cars, diet drinks, and snack foods to success in love and happiness. Illouz reveals that, ultimately, every cliché of romance — from an intimate dinner to a dozen red roses — is constructed by advertising and media images that preach a democratic ethos of consumption: material goods and happiness are available to all.

I don't think that's too hard to see. My favorite example of this is perfume commercials. Have you ever seen a perfume commercial? It's essentially softcore porn, and its message is: if you smell good, if you buy our fragrance, you, too, could have lust-filled encounters. I suppose they had to come up with something creative, because they can't really demonstrate via commercial that the product they're selling is actually pleasing to the olfactory senses, but y'know. They're still softcore porn, and so over-the-top that it's laughable.

Whatever article I read, and probably that book, too — which I'm adding to my to-read list — pretty much said that we're taught that to buy things which make us more attractive, and pretty much help us to advertise ourselves on the dating market. I mean, to even present yourself as worth someone else's time, romantic or not, is called "selling yourself." And selling yourself boils down to making the best initial impression, because it's well-known and documented that human relationships are incredibly dependent on the first couple minutes of an initial meeting. You can make or break yourself before you even open your mouth. And to sell yourself, when you don't have the benefit of opening your mouth to say all the right things, you have to possess all the right things. You have to have swag. You want a perfect smile, perfect clothes, perfect makeup, perfect accessories. No wonder fashion advertisements are so sexy. If you wear our clothes, you'll get all the sexytimes! And no wonder dating apps like Tinder seem so cheap: because you have to sell yourself for cheap. You have to make that first initial impression, lest someone swipe left.

Anyway, let's bring this back around to incest. Here's where my own hypothesizing takes place. Here's where I depart from the ideas I've mentioned before, and try to make the important link as to why we think West Virginia and incest is so har-dee-har-har funny. What does incest have to do with the capitalistic desire at the heart of romance? Well, even if you think of historical, companionate relationships, in which romance and desire weren't a part of it ... even then, the relationship was forged on financial concerns and/or power consolidation. The princess marries the prince, not because it's happily ever after, but because her parents want to forge an alliance. Two noble families marry their heirs to each other, to consolidate power. And unequal social or financial power in such a relationship often meant disinheriting one or more parties, or socially ostracizing them, no matter what the historical romance novels tell you. Marry outside your class, and you become persona non grata. And, sure, sometimes they married cousins to each other, but you really only hear of brothers and sisters and uncles and nieces marrying in ancient Egypt. Or in Valyria and Westeros.

With romantic desire replacing companionate marriage as the driving force between relationships, it's still all about money, and buying the right things to present yourself as a desirable mate. If you think about it — and I mean think about it in an academic way, not pretending to get squicked over it so you can feel morally superior — incest flies in the face of that. Presumably, because you were raised around the person you're attracted to, you don't want or need to advertise yourself. They already know your situation, and they already know you. You don't need to buy all the right things. Capitalism isn't really at the heart of incestuous desire, at least, not in the ways we typically think about desire.

How does West Virginia play into it? West Virginia is typically somewhere in the top three poorest states in the country. West Virginia is the only state to be completely situated in the Appalachian region, typically a poor and financially exploited region in itself. There are some funky racial and ethnic dynamics at play in this exploitation, namely setting poor whites against blacks when they really have more in common than racism wants you to think. And the oppression of poor people cuts across racial and ethnic lines, too, though those racial and ethnic components add complexity and nuance to the issue.

West Virginia's poverty is a distinctive kind of poverty, too. Barefoot, living in shacks, crude in manner and dress and way of living, shiftless, disdaining honest work, preferring to exploit the system, blah blah drugs blah blah highest overdose rate in the nation. Oh, yeah, and because they're so backwoods and ignorant and poor, they're probably fucking their sisters, too.


Do you see how these ideas are just conflated and uncritically accepted as ideological partners? No one even bothers to question why we put them together?

Because they're poor, they can't (and in the most insidious and dangerous "welfare-cheating" stereotypes, they don't want to) contribute to the economic behemoth of our society. And their culture reflects their poverty. And because people and societies typically use marriage (and in today's society, relationships and romance and desire and sex) as a statement on economic viability, they generally just assume that desperately poor and illiterate folks just fuck each other.

I'm sure I'm not expressing this in the way I want to. But, for me, here's why the conflation of West Virginia and incest is so appalling.

The people who make West Virginia incest jokes aren't really making jokes about sister-fucking. They're making jokes about being poor.

Ultimately, it's a statement about West Virginia's poverty. It's making fun of some of the most desperate, gut-wrenching, dehumanizing poverty in the country. It's making fun of generations of people who've been oppressed by the exploitative nature of the coal mining industry, it's making fun of people who, because of the sick cycle of poverty reinforcement at play in our country, will probably never get out of their situation. Upward class mobility is not even a thing. It's a statistical anomaly. These kinds of jokes dehumanize people who are ... well, people. It's denying them respect, and saying that because of their poverty, and the assumed backwardness inherent in our conception of poverty, they're not really worth our time. They're one step above the beasts in the forest. They'll do anything to anyone, because they have no morality or common decency.

(And doesn't that sound like the way racists think of people of color, too? Barely one step above animals, not worth time or consideration, not really human? And that's where the intersection of racism and economic oppression join to make for some really interesting, and really heartbreaking and enraging, analysis. Though these different forms of oppression, namely racism and classism, affect people in different ways, their core element is dehumanization. "This thing, which is different than me, must therefore be lesser.")

It says a lot about our values, about who counts and who matters, and who doesn't count and who never mattered.

Some idiot I went to grad school with was going on and on about how socialism never works, it's just stupid idealism, yadda yadda. I quietly spoke up and told him that, on the contrary, it's how most poor Appalachians live. Pool your resources with your family members and your neighbors, because apart from each other you really don't have enough, but together, sharing the burden, you can scrape by. I told him, that's how my family and my community survived: on the knowledge that we had to work together to live, that resources should, for the most part and to the extent that it's possible, be shared. That the capitalistic system isn't fair to people like the folks I came from, so we had to stick together. I told him that we were so poor we weren't even affected by the recession. I told him that, in fact, I had seen socialistic values in action for most of my life, and I could attest to their success and their worth.

And that imbecile then proceeded to loudly tell me I was wrong. My experience was wrong. I had somehow misunderstood it. I didn't understand my own family and my own community and my own West Virginia culture. Oh, yeah, and I was so very out of touch with American values, it was shameful. I wasn't a patriot. I was a damn commie!


I knew kids, growing up in the 1990s, who didn't have indoor plumbing. (And oh my god, let me tell you, we teased those kids — a boy and girl — by saying they probably had sex with each other. Oh my god. We were children, in elementary school. How did it become so ingrained in us, even then? Talk about internalized oppression. I am sorry every day for the way those of us who were a little more fortunate treated those kids.) You didn't have to drive very far, from where I lived, to see seriously abject poverty. I didn't question not having to pay for my lunch, because so few people had to pay for lunch at school. I thought everyone got free lunch. I always wondered why the kids on Saved by the Bell had to pay, because it just seemed strange and exotic. Nobody beat up anybody else at my school for lunch money. Super weird, right? But, then, I got to college and got out in the world and saw that ... nope, folks paid for their lunches. Just most of ours were state-subsidized because we fell below the poverty line.

Why do we think people who can't afford shoes are hilarious? Why do we think people who can't read are just absurd? (Especially since most adults in the United States don't even pick up a book after high school.) Why do we think people who are born into generation after generation of poverty, who see the future as bleak and become so disheartened that they stop struggling and just slowly sink, are repugnant?

To sum it all up: I am a West Virginian, born and raised, and proud as can be of my mountain mama. I see in my home state a kind of toughness you don't find in most other places, a culture rich and peculiar and fascinating because it was formed amid pretty desperate straits, among life-threatening poverty. And if you like to make jokes about West Virginia and incest, I'll automatically write you off as the dumbest of dumbasses, the least critical and sensitive of jerks, the most pretentious of classist and privileged dickheads.
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