Definition: Hegemony – control or dominating influence by one group over other, especially by one political group over society. In order to help you connect the ideas you are learning so that you can start to think more broadly about children’s literature and the logics of representation the genre employs, this week’s materials start by reiterating some of the class politics in Stella Street. This reiteration is also important because much of last week’s content was taken up with explaining how narrative theory works, rather than foregrounding the class issue as a core focus. By promoting middle class values through its focalising character, Henni, Stella Street shows how texts for children serve the interests of the dominant or hegemonic class segment. The novel endorses middle class values by constructing wealthy people as shallow, selfish and lacking in integrity and, in passing, underclass characters like the Brown Brothers and the rent-a-kid as deviant. It does not offer the point of view of those who are not middle class. Markus Zusak’s Fighting Ruben Wolfe (2002) offers an alternative perspective on social class. In this first person narrative, Cameron Wolfe reflects on the effects of unemployment on an otherwise proud working class family, in particular its impact on his older brother, Ruben. In so doing, he also reveals his consciousness of the ways in which his class location stereotypes him and his family as inferior. Indeed, Cameron’s awareness of his family’s low social standing again shows the hegemony of the middle class. One does not need to belong to the dominant social group to subscribe in its values. Because their lives do not conform to the middle class standard, Cameron and Ruben believe they are ‘losers’. When Ruben is approached to compete in an illegal boxing racket, he sees it as the chance to be a ‘winner’. Sporting games are common in contemporary children’s fiction. It is important to realise that sporting games in fiction are often symbolic of social struggles experienced by the characters and therefore the deeper meaning of the narrative. In ALL153, football plays a role in relation to Aboriginality and white culture in My Girragundji and Yolngu Boy. In various ways, the characters in these novels and in Fighting Ruben Wolfe do not conform to the norm and for some of those characters competitive sport offers an opportunity for success and acceptance. Class identities can never be fully separated from other identity categories. Different class cultures endorse different ways of being male and female. Ruben and Cameron are ‘tough’ boys and perform a particular kind of masculinity. Our study of Fighting Ruben Wolfe introduces you to the notion of hegemonic masculinity and asks you to consider the types of masculinity endorsed by working class culture, Hegemonic masculinity refers to the style of masculinity a culture promotes as the ideal. We saw the role of physical violence and dominance as hegemonic masculinity in Stuart Little and WTWTA. There are more elements of masculinity to pursue than just dominance, but it’s always a good place to start. To continue our class-motivated comparison of Stella Street and Fighting Ruben Wolfe. Stella Street promotes middle class values through its focalising character, Henni. The value judgements implied by the way in which Henni describes the Phonies, how she interprets things about their appearance, lifestyle and activities, and even the language she uses all position the reader to agree with Henni’s point of view. As we saw last week, Henni makes negative judgements about the Phonies even before the kids’ detective work begins and of course the fact that the Phonies end up being crooks vindicates her assumptions. This reinforces the idea that rich people have only got that way through dubious means or unfair advantage rather than honest hard work. Here are some more examples of evidence that the Phonies are bad people. Taken out of the context of the book, do you agree that they are grounds to suspect people of criminal behaviour or being bad sorts? Possible examples: %uF095%uF020They don’t have children %uF095%uF020Mrs Phonie wears perfume and has blonde boofy hair %uF095%uF020They don’t recycle %uF095%uF020They don’t talk to their neighbours We are invited to interpret these things as reasons why the Phonies don’t fit into Stella Street: Don’t have children = selfish Mrs Phonie wears smelly perfume and has boofy hair =superficial, fake Don’t recycle = Wasteful and stingy (especially by comparison to Auntie Lily) Don’t talk to their neighbours = stuck up; don’t value community; no sense of humour. These meanings are often not directly spoken in the novel, but, would you agree they are implied? Where the Stella Street neighbours make money by old-fashioned hard work (see p. 136), the Phonies appear to just have everything. Is there a sense of jealousy also motivating Henni’s dislike of them and all their expensive stuff? Henni wants more possessions too (can you think of some examples?), and perhaps her resentment about the Phonies’ Mercedes is telling in more ways than implying the Phonie’s snobbery: ‘with a car like that you will never have to actually walk anywhere and you will never bump into undesirables’ (p. 54). And what do you make of Henni’s suburb judgments about appropriate places for people of different class to reside: ‘Why didn’t they buy a mansion in North Boring?’ (p. 74)? So, the Stella Street people represent ‘good old-fashioned middle class values’, but remember: the dominant culture remains dominant is by positioning people who are different as inferior. If we belong to the dominant culture and think things are the way things ought to be in our neighbourhood, then we may be tempted to think that we wouldn’t want people like the Brown Boys and the Phonies around. Perhaps, the real problem with the Phonies is that they are different: they don’t fit in. The novel implies that people who are different to the reader are suspect and justifies their exclusion. Stella Street shows how texts for children serve the interests of the dominant or hegemonic class segment. As I’ll go onto explain, capitalist ideology maintains it dominance is by stigmatising certain groups. Stella Street stigmatises rich people and maybe we don’t feel so bad about this because most of us are probably not rich and we have been socialised into similar beliefs about rich people. Theories of Class To help you understand the complexities of class better, the following discussion is divided into subsections: %uF095%uF020Why class matters %uF095%uF020Class and the culture of blame %uF095%uF020Capitalist ideology in Ruben Wolfe %uF095%uF020The underdog trope and passive ideology %uF095%uF020Intersections between class and gender Why class matters One of the reasons that I think it is important to start here is because I believe that, like Americans, we like to believe that Australia is a classless society.
In the US, that assumption is based on the ideology of the American Dream that you saw in Stuart Little. According to the American Dream, the poorest of the poor can succeed if they just work hard enough. After all, America is the land of opportunity and so all you have to do is grasp the opportunity. We all have a sense of the American Dream because global media culture beams American TV into our homes and minds on a daily basis. Of course, there is another side to the ideology of the American Dream, which is that if you believe that anyone can achieve success if they try hard enough, then not succeeding means you haven’t tried hard enough. This implies that it is your fault if you are poor. Now, we may not have an equivalent notion of the Australian Dream (unless it is owning your own house), but here and elsewhere in the world the same logic as informs the American Dream is influencing the way we think about social class, and the working poor and underclass in particular. Increasingly, social problems formerly attributed to class inequality are being, as class theorist Pierre Bourdieu argues, “transformed into … personal failure” and “are perceived as social only indirectly and to a limited extent” (89). This creates a tendency to understand social problems the poor confront in terms of their personal dispositions or inadequacies. As an example, you would be aware of discourses about the character of people on welfare that circulate in the media, and these feed assumptions about such people as lazy, irresponsible and stealing taxpayers’ money. Think about the reason that Cameron’s and Ruben’s dad won’t claim the dole? To accept welfare payments symbolizes personal failure and defeat for this proud working class man. It does so precisely because welfare has been stigmatized by a culture that blames people for their economic circumstances. This culture of blame makes the obstacles to economic and social success invisible. Indeed, prejudice is as much an obstacle to social mobility as low income, lack of education, inadequate housing and health care, and other forms of disadvantage. Class ranks the value of individuals and groups mot only according to their income, but according to their dispositions and lifestyles and creates prejudices for and against certain class cultures. In the paper on DSO in which I write on Fighting Ruben Wolfe and another Markus Zusak novel, I draw on the research of French philosopher, Pierre Bourdieu, to explain this. Bourdieu coined the notion of ‘positional suffering’, which concerns the low social standing of the lower classes and its impact on the self-esteem and aspirations of individuals and communities. Positional suffering has to do with the impact of being aware that, from the point of view of the others better off than you, you are a loser. Fighting Ruben Wolfe offers the point of view of characters whose lives are shaped by positional suffering and a glimpse into the reality of what it feels like to be poor. That’s made very clear when, in a meta-fictional moment, Cameron ‘wonders about the stories inside’ the tiny houses in his neighbourhood (p. 23). He wonders why houses have windows, asking Is it to let a glimpse of the world in? Or for us to see out? Our own place is small perhaps, but when your old man is eaten by his own shadow, you realise that maybe in every house, something so savage and sad and brilliant is standing up, without the world even seeing it. Maybe that’s what these pages of words are about: Bringing the world to the window’ (pp. 23–4). Why does this matter? Bourdieu says that positional suffering is created by the perceptions and misperceptions, or judgements and misjudgements we make about ourselves and others. Class ideology in children’s texts shows readers how to understand their own class identity and the class identity of others. The social settings in which characters interact often entail hierarchical negotiations of class (that is, ranking of people by class). We’ve already seen how rich and poor were presented solely from a middle class perspective in Stella Street and the way this positions to the reader to agree that middle class is best. Fighting Ruben Wolfe gives an alternative point of view. Elizabeth Honey’s novel serves the interest of the middle class, but it also serves the interest of capitalism by promoting the work ethic. To understand why this is so, and to further explain why blaming people for being poor serves capitalist ideology, I’m now going to discuss capitalism from a Marxist perspective. Capitalist ideology in Ruben Wolfe When we talk about class, we are talking about the economic structure of society and the class cultures it produces. Society is made up of rich and poor and differentiated into a class hierarchy according to underclass, working class, middle class and upper class over which we can map a hierarchy of social and political power. Different types of political economies have different class structures. Once upon a time in the West you had royalty, nobility, merchant and peasant classes. When we talk about class in the contemporary West, we are talking about a capitalist economy. Capitalism rests on the logic of private property and an economy or market regulated by competition. It tends to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few. Those studying the representation of social class in literary texts have traditionally drawn on Marxist theory to do so. For those of you not familiar with 19th century German philosopher, Karl Marx, he wrote two key texts, the Communist Manifesto (with Friedrich Engels) and Das Kapital, in which he laid out his theories of political economy. I don’t want to say much about the Communist Manifesto, other than it supported state instead of private ownership as a means to achieving a classless society, in other words, a society of equals. The following is a summary of some of the assumptions of a Marxist understanding of capitalism that may be useful to you when thinking about class.
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%uF095%uF020Involves the exploitation of one class, the labouring or working class (the proletariat) by those who control and profit from their labour (the bourgeoisie). %uF095%uF020Alienates workers from the commodities they produce and the profits made from them. %uF095%uF020Creates alienation from various members and groups in the society and results in social fragmentation. %uF095%uF020Privileges profit and loss over the welfare of the worker. %uF095%uF020Determines the culture and values of society in ways which serve the interests of those who control the production, distribution and exchange of commodities.(Adapted from Peter Barry 2002, p. 157) Is a Marxist perspective of any use to us in reading Fighting Ruben Wolfe? We really don’t see interaction between the different classes, but we do see hierarchies of power, exploitation and fragmentation take place within the class milieu Cameron and Ruben inhabit. I’m going to focus on the operation of the Marxist notion of fragmentation as the context for thinking about those issues because it also speaks back to Bourdieu’s notion of positional suffering and the culture of blame I began with. Fragmentation is one of the strategies by which capitalism maintains its hegemony or dominance in order to serve the interests of those with economic power. According to Johan Hattingh, Instead of maintaining domination by unifying individuals in a collectivity, this mode operates by fragmenting those individuals and groups which might be capable of mounting a serious challenge to the dominant group. Such forces of potential opposition may also be neutralised by projecting them as evil, harmful or threatening (1998, online) In other words, one way of disempowering class groups is by undermining any kind of collective voice (unions for example). One thing that struck me when I read Ruben Wolfe was the way in which those moving within the same general class location treat each other. People who share the same class location will to a greater or lesser degree share certain ways of being in the world. You might think that shared values or interests might unify people belonging to a particular class or community. In fact, we see a lot of evidence to the contrary in Ruben Wolfe. Think about why the boys walk their neighbour’s dog. It’s because ‘most of [their] neighbours think [they] are kind of hoodlums’ (18). Yet the following suggest that they stand out in their community as different as a result. Think about it. There’s street. Rubbish. Traffic. People yelling at each other over the top of their TVs. Heavy metallers and gang-looking guys slouching past … and then there are these two juvenile idiots walking a ball of fluff down the road. (19) There is an implication of mistrust, alienation and disharmony within the community which shares a similar culture. Even more striking is the way in which Perry Cole treats the old man who asks for change: He says,’ mate, what’s the capital of Switzerland, do y’ know?’ ‘Berne,’ the old man replies after some thought. ‘Very good. However my point is this … In that country, once, they gathered up all the gypsies, whores, and drunken bums such as yourself, and they threw ‘em over the border. … So you’re an incredibly lucky drunken bum now, aren’t you? You not only get to stay in our fine land, but also earn a living out of kind-hearted people such as myself and my colleagues here.’ ‘They didn’t give me anything.’ ‘Certainly, but they didn’t throw you in the Pacific either now, did they?’ He grins, evil. … He adds for good measure, ‘Like they should have.’ ‘You’re crazy.’ The drunk begins to leave. ‘Of course I am,’ Perry calls after him. ‘I just gave you a dollar of my hard earned wages.’ Yeah, right, I think. It’s money he earns from fighters. (57) Perry Cole may give the old drunk some money, but he degrades and humiliates him as well. In the definition of fragmentation I had up before, Hattingh suggests that one of the ways in which the potential opposition of an exploited class to their exploitation can be neutralizcd is by projecting them as evil, harmful or threatening (why the Swiss deported those groups or, think of this, why Faarquad rounds up all of those fairy tale characters at the beginning of Shrek). The narrative presents an attitude to the poor (and in this case probably destitute) I’ve been talking about, but it doesn’t endorse it. We know this because Perry is an unlikeable character and, if this is not clear, Cameron’s narration includes negative judgements about him (in the quotation above the use of “grins” and “evil”). And of course the final line of the quotation makes the exploitation in which Cole engages explicit and undermines his attempt to take the moral high ground. In the same way, because we get to know the Wolfe family over the course of the novel, we are positioned to empathise with Cameron and Ruben when they are ridiculed because their father has door knocked in search of work. The novel does not endorse this lack of compassion and community support, and in this respect, criticises the way in which the stigma of unemployment and poverty to which all classes are encouraged to subscribe promotes class division. Fighting Ruben Wolfe points to the way in which we are socialised into such cultural beliefs, indeed, uncritically internalise them. The boys, Ruben in particular, are driven by their consciousness of being inferior or, as they put it losers. The boys commit to a season of boxing, ostensibly in order to assist their family with any winnings. However, the real reason is ‘inside’ the boys who ‘have decided … there is no time to stick our tails between our legs and run … we have to give it a shot. If we succeed, good. If we fail, it’s nothing new’ (pp. 46–7). As Ruben tells his brother, ‘We’re gonna get there, and for once, we’re gonna win. We’re not leavin’ without winning …. We can’t accept bein’ just us any more. We’ve gotta lift. Gotta be more … I mean, check Mum out. Killin’ herself. Dad down and out. [Brother] Steve just about moved and gone. [Sister] Sarah gettin’ called a slut’. He tightens his fist in the wire and explains it through half-clenched teeth. ‘So now it’s us. It’s simple. We gotta lift. Gotta get our self-bloody-respect back.’ (pp. 54–5) As Cameron puts it, Ruben wants to be ‘a winner because he wants to beat the loser out of himself’ (pp. 90–1). On the one hand, Ruben’s sense of himself reflects the sort of positional suffering Bourdieu talks about and which I have linked to the culture of blame. The situation that the Wolfe family is in is not their fault, but Ruben’s attitude shows that he takes on the sense of responsibility and blame for being a ‘loser’. It is not the fault of the way society is set up, but individuals. On the other hand, the novel promotes the notion that the boys need to help themselves if they are to not end up as ‘another couple of boys who amounted to nothin’ but what people said [they] would’ (55). That may be all well and good, but the only way that the boys can be winners is to play by the rules of a game that actually have a lot to do with the way capitalism works. In Fighting Ruben Wolfe, this is conveyed through the motif of sport, specifically, boxing. The triumph of the underdog Authors who use sporting games in their fiction ‘transform the playing of sport into life symbols that become the “deeper meaning” of the novels’ (Detweiler 1976, p. 52). Many such narratives conventionally follow the triumph of the underdog, a point made quite clear in Fighting Ruben Wolfe by the boys’ family name, associated imagery and the fact that Cameron’s ring name is the Underdog. The underdog trope works particularly well with stories about sport because the competencies required for sporting success are ‘fairly equally distributed among the classes (Bourdieu 2002, p. 214). Success in sport becomes emblematic of the possibility of success in other social fields, but also disguises the obstacles to success. Moreover, sport stories are problematic to the extent that they betray the same assumptions as ‘triumph-of-the-underdog stories’. Both involve an unquestioning acceptance of three questionable ideas: (1) that in every situation there always has to be a winner and a loser, so that a happy ending requires not just someone's triumph but also someone else’s defeat; (2) that the best way to win is to have the individual power to take control and win by one's own actions; and (3) that a truly happy ending occurs only when a person who was oppressed achieves a position in which it’s possible to oppress others. (Nodelman & Reimer 2003, p. 157) The issues of power, competition and rivalry flagged here are part of a broader ideology which can be linked to capitalism and class, because capitalism is based on competition. It is significant, therefore, that in FRW the sports are informal, illegal or coded lower class and are not team sports. The people who hang out at the dogs are spectators not players. The boys don’t have a proper football or place to play. And, in the case of the boxing, the boys are on their own; demonstrating the fact that the individual is responsible for his or her social success or failure. As Bean and Moni point out in their reading of the novel, in boxing ‘one’s identity is clearly on the line, all alone and as fleeting as the next fight’ (2003, p. 644). The boys know this: as Cameron reflects: The only people we want to blame are ourselves, because it will be ourselves that we rely upon. We’re aware of it, and the knowing will always walk beside us, at the edge of each day, on the outskirts of each pulse in each heartbeat. (56) Of course, although the narrative uses the motif of social winners and losers, it does refuse the triumph of the underdog and the final fight between the brothers is ‘Not a win, or a loss, but a fight’ (p. 149). In that the contest ends in a draw, there is no winner … fragmentation … capitalism … what will change for the Wolfes? Class and masculinity Now, I want to link class and masculinity. Over the next two weeks, we will be talking about gender so this is a bit of a foretaste. We are born male or female, but our gender, our masculinity and femininity, are learned. We construct a gender identity for ourselves through our participation in our society and culture. Ways of being male and dominant styles of manhood have varied historically, culturally and geographically. Contemporary masculinities are arguably linked to capitalism and vary over different classes. Did you realise that ‘the notion of the male ‘breadwinner’ or ‘sole provider’ emerged in the late-nineteenth century with the rise of industrial capitalism, replacing preexisting conceptions of family based income production (Leach 1994, online)? Leach goes on to say that masculinity is ideological in that the notion of the male ‘breadwinner: … reflects industrial capitalism’s need to mobilise a responsible, compliant workforce. The ‘breadwinner’ notion not only legitimates the sexual division of labour, but also operates to limit resistance to this organisation of work by transforming social expectations into issues of responsibility and self-esteem. (Leach 2004 online) [Thus] masculinity is significantly defined by, and in turn comes to support and justify, the organisation of work in society. The strength of gender-identity as ideology stems from the fact that masculinity is easily (and deliberately) confused with biological maleness. Ideological assumptions are thereby bestowed the status of ‘the natural’. In this context, it is probably no coincidence that masculine values strongly reflect the values that characterise capitalist economics and ideology: competitiveness, authority, individualism, strength, aggression, and a belief in hierarchy. (Leach 2003, online) In Reading Ruben Wolfe, Mr Wolfe’s unemployment not only stigmatises him in terms of class, but failed masculinity. In terms of gender, he refuses the dole because it puts him in the position of dependence – a stereotypically feminine trait which is also learned. Leach says that ‘the media invariably depicts the unemployed male as the "fallen man", trapped, compromised, and effectively castrated in the female household’ and of course it is Mrs Wolfe that is the breadwinner. Furthermore, industrial capitalism ‘required a separation of home and workplace’, so the fact that Mr Wolfe is reduced to hanging around the home puts him in a feminine space. Because it is so easy to construe gender as ‘natural’, unemployed men like Mr Wolfe ‘are more likely to see their fate as a personal failing, rather than as a reason to question the system that makes them redundant’ (Leach 1993). Moreover, working class men do not enjoy the same prestige or power as middle class men While the ideology of masculinity is aimed at all men, the realities of work and class necessitate compromise and reinterpretation, and result in the formation of particular class styles of masculinity.
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