Phony rags to riches stories

I just finished watching the movie Julie and Julia, and it irritated me in the same way that many books and movies have irritated me lately: they purport to be the story of extremely humble origins turned into ravishing success through pluck and persistence. But they aren’t.

I didn’t mind, in fact I preferred the Julia Child half of the movie which was essentially riches to riches—none of the privilege was buried—but what an interesting and likable human being she was, and if the movie was close to fact, what a happy marriage in tough political times.

It was the Julie side that seemed deceitful. Perhaps to appeal to the vast majority of Americans, who are not upper middle class, the movie makers appeared to hide Julie’s real status and make her seem more like Everywoman. This entailed skipping quite a few steps on the ladder to success. For one thing, the real Julie attended an Ivy League school, Amherst. That was never mentioned. Maybe she was an Equal Opportunity student on full scholarship. But I don’t think so.

When we hear of Julie’s background, we have to ask: how many working class homes have Julia Child’s cookbook in them? How many working class families have the dad’s boss over for dinner and serve beef bourguignon, as Julia’s mother did? (I’m tempted to ask a few people I know if they’ve ever even heard of beef bourguignon.) This is cultural capital. This is privilege.

Because reality and story were so at odds, the movie held many contradictions. Was Julie a secretary, as she suggested late in the movie, or was she a mid-level manager as the movie also claims? There’s a gap between the two that the very high-up wouldn’t notice, but you can bet actual secretaries know the difference. Was she a pink-collar nobody who one day decided to write a blog and then miracles happened? That’s the line the movie puts out. Her own blog describes her position as “a dead end secretarial job.” Various online bios skirt the issue by saying, “an unfulfilling job.” One says, “customer service representative.” But how many of the most successful blogs in the country are written by clerical workers? I couldn’t find any.

We get no indication of how her little blog went from the no-man’s-land of blogspot, where hundreds of millions of blogs languish unread, to Salon.com. That little step could use some explaining. All we know is that suddenly she’s among the top three bloggers at Salon.com, but how did she get to Salon.com in the first place?

Mysteriously, Julie had some very successful friends: VPs rising even higher, and real estate folks making deals in the gazillions. Do most secretaries lunch with such people? No. Do most mid-level government managers lunch with such people? I don’t know.

Lots of people in retail or food service jobs aspire to an office job. It’s certainly a sign of privilege to think of oneself as a mere mid-level manager. For so many, a mid-level managerial job is aspirational, the stuff of dreams. To disdain this position and spend one’s energy on even higher aspirations is quintessentially upper middle class.

Now let’s turn to housing. In the movie, the apartment in Queens that Julie and her husband moved into (from Brooklyn!) looked downright ghetto. I thought, wow, they’re really poor. Nine hundred square feet isn’t a lot— for Kansas— but the average NYC one-bedroom is 750 square feet and costs $2700 a month. Secretary? I don’t think so. Not when the average secretary in NYC earns $69,000 a year before taxes. She would have paid $32,400 in rent. On the other hand, her husband, an editor, likely made at least as much as she did, so their combined income would be about $135,000. By contrast, the combined income of two minimum-wage workers would be about $30,000. (The 2013 minimum wage was $8/hour and most minimum wage workers can’t get 40 hours a week consistently, so I assumed 35 hours.) Every single cent of their income would not be enough to pay Julie’s rent.

Would a secretary have the money to buy four lobsters at a time, duck, and exotic provisions every night for a year? Julie seemed to shop only at boutiques and charcuteries, never in a Safeway, much less a Food Maxx or bodega. Though Powell and her husband weren’t one per centers, the privilege they did have was substantial and downplayed.

It was confusing at the end of the movie when suddenly their ghetto crib turns out to have a big, beautiful rooftop garden where they hold a celebratory dinner under strings of lights. Where was that hiding? The social capital of an Ivy Leaguer was everywhere in evidence, if one thought about it, yet nowhere admitted.

Why does this bother me? It bothers me because phony rags to riches stories pretend that equal opportunity exists in this country, and it doesn’t. Every day there is less. Every day that we shave off another chunk of public life and hand it over to the profiteers, we remove opportunity for those without private means, those who depend on public resources. It truly would take a series of stunning miracles for a regular office worker without an Ivy League degree to attain the status Julie Powell attained—it’s not absolutely impossible, just extremely unlikely and rare. She worked hard at gaining fame and fortune, sure, but it’s wrong to suggest that her path and an unconnected secretary’s path are alike in their difficulty.

The other part that bothers me is what I call the Jane Austen problem (or the Brady Bunch problem). Everyone whose problems lie beneath the level of gentry is beneath view. “Poverty” and “suffering” stop at the level of middle manager. But this means the majority of people in history, their struggles and despair, their individuality, their humanity, their real life situations don’t exist in large swaths of our culture, or don’t matter. As Cornel West said, “Love and trust and justice, concern for the poor, that’s being pushed to the margins, and you can see it.”

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