Social class is about more than money; that’s been one of the enduring points I’ve been touching on throughout this series. In Wednesday’s piece on Jersey Shore, I argued that the narrative surrounding that show is classist, regardless of the amount of money the castmates now have. Perhaps, though, the inverse example of the fictional Bluth family of Arrested Development is more compelling. It’s certainly more entertaining.
After to a string of ambiguous white-collar crimes committed by George, the family patriarch, the formerly wealthy Bluths now face assured financial disaster. The only one who seems to notice is Michael, who walks around asking, “Why am I the only one who seems to get how much trouble this family is in?” and “Is nobody even gonna try to get a job?”
Michael, stop being such a downer. Once you have the social and cultural capital, you can pretty much fake it, even when the cash goes up in flames. (Which it does, quite literally, when Michael and his son George Michael burn down the family’s frozen banana stand, only to discover later there were $250,000 lining the walls. The family without money to burn has done just that.)
For the Bluths, their wealth is a performance, but their class privilege is real. They live in a former shell of their old life: they share a model home built by the once-lucrative Bluth construction company that stands alone in an unfinished development. Beautiful inside and out, the home deteriorates throughout the series, but the façade remains intact. And to most of the members of this family, that’s what’s really important.
What’s hilarious about the Bluths is how much they pass, and how far they get on so little. Without jobs, common sense, or any shred of adult reasoning ability or discipline, they coast along from ridiculous premise to absurd scenario on the sheer expectation that exceptions will be made, that money will materialize from somewhere, that they’ll be met with success. And it usually does, because that’s what having class privilege means. They act and spend as they once did because they still want to be perceived as wealthy. They expect special treatment from the judicial system, and they receive it. They maintain access to the same wealthy social circles, prestigious schools, charity galas, and country clubs—although their club membership is downgraded to “pool-only.”
How do they do it? We’re never really sure. When Lindsey and Maeby secure the appearance of employment for a single day, they each independently goes out to lunch: “Lindsey and Maeby separately went to the same restaurant to celebrate the jobs they hadn’t actually done with money they hadn’t actually earned.” (Of course, after her celebration, Lindsey is hungover and sleeps through the job.) Mostly, though, they’re able to keep up appearances because they know how to keep up appearances and they have enough privilege to do it—and that’s what passing is really about.
The sociological idea of “passing” is the act of appearing as something other than what you are, usually (but not always) as a person who is more privileged than you are so that you can have access to that privilege yourself. It becomes particularly charged when discussing social constructs such as race and gender that can have physical markers. We like to think that, without those markers, class passing is more straightforward. If you were poor, and now you have money, you’re upper class—even if you don’t have money, you can buy one expensive outfit and fit right in at the party, right? Not really, and not only because a privileged past begets a more privileged future. It’s because class background influences not only the ways people spend money, but their values, decisions, priorities, and ability to negotiate a more privileged world. As a friend and fellow sociologist once said: “You might be able to afford the expensive art, but you’ll hang it in the wrong place.” And the people with more cultural capital and a more privileged background? They’ll notice. And you won’t pass.
The Bluths can pull it off though because they aren’t trying to pass as something something new; they’re trying to pass as what they once were. And so it works for them, in a hilarious fashion.