The 99%: “Money Can't Buy You Class”

screen shot from the opening credits of the Beverly Hillbillies, showing a family of four white people driving in a car with lots of stuff in the backA very special thank you to the Countess LuAnn of the Real Housewives of New York for supplying the title to today’s post.  I doubt this is what the Countess was going for, but she brings up a good point: what’s the difference between having money and having class privilege?  Is there one anymore?

There’s always been the concept of “old money” and “new money,” and the former seems to spend a good deal of time spurning the latter until begrudgingly accepting them—usually when newer money comes along.  In fact, when Caroline Schermerhorn married William Astor in 1854, this was a marriage of old and new money.  Caroline brought to the marriage old New York Knickerbocker stock (this is where the New York Knicks get their name from) and William Astor brought the new real estate money.  The Astors were now “old” money, and would be allowed to look down their noses at the upstart Vanderbilts with their tacky railroads.

But do these lines between old and new money ever really go away?  The Beverly Hillbillies of the 1960s showed us an unsophisticated rural family transplanted into swanky Beverly Hills after oil is found on their land.  Are they accepted by their neighbors? No, obviously not. But their tight-knit family and clearly voiced morals place them as superior to their rich, superficial neighbors.  If upward mobility won’t get you accepted by the people with money, well, that’s OK—did you really want to be like them anyway?

Even on Gossip Girl, ruling prep school princess and over-achiever Blair Waldorf is portrayed as a bit of an upstart because both of her parents have earned, rather than inherited, their money (like Serena’s parents did).  As Jenny (who lives in Brooklyn, takes the subway to school, and makes her own clothes, so is clearly “poor”) tells Blair in season two:  “You might be privileged, Blair, but you work for every single thing you’ve achieved. Like me. Serena just glides through.”

What’s really going on here?

Well, the Countess has a point.  Class privilege is something different from having money, even though having money can take you pretty far. (And it should go without saying that class privilege is connected to race privilege—people of color don’t have the same opportunities or experiences as white people, regardless of how wealthy they are.)

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was one of the first to spell out how class privilege really comes from different kinds of capital.  There’s the obvious kind: economic capital, cash money, the stuff that gives you purchasing power and freedom from having to worry about how to pay rent, your heating bill, and your student loans.  

Then there’s social capital.  This is your network: who you know, who your parents know.  Unsurprisingly, if you go to a fancy prep school with the grandsons of Congressmen and the daughters of business leaders, you have pretty darn high social capital.  You have easier access to sources of power, which means you have more power and privilege.

Finally, there’s cultural capital.  This form of capital is not who you know, but what you know about how to succeed in the culture you live in.  (It can also include what you own, based on what you purchased because of what you know.)  So, if you’re well educated, and you read the right books, know the right artists, own the right gadgets, watch the right TV shows, can name the right designers, speak with the right accent, and eat with the right fork—well, that’s a form of privilege all on its own.  Middle-class families can be really, really good at giving their children lots of cultural capital, even when they lack economic and social capital.

I’m opening my series with this little sociology refresher so that, as you (hopefully) read on, you understand what I mean when I refer to class privilege, and you can think about what kinds of privilege different characters in pop culture might have and where they got it.  Additionally, when we talk about social mobility, we might wonder with kinds of capital are most important to that mobility.  Because, really, we’re not just talking about money.

Previously: Exploring Wealth, Poverty, and Inequality in Popular Culture

by Gretchen Sisson
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Gretchen is a research sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. She studies cultural representations and constructions of parenthood and reproductive choice.

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5 Comments Have Been Posted


This is so interesting, I'm so glad there's a series like this one.
Keep up the great work and thank you!

Really Interesting Post

I loved reading this - the whole idea of cultural capital is something that still seems to fluctuate a lot, and perhaps with the economic situation then we'll end up placing 'what you know' and 'who you know' above how much you actually own.

Thanks for your comment,

Thanks for your comment, Polly! One thing I definitely should have stressed more in the article is the idea that you can't really tease apart the different forms of capital -- they're different expressions of the same privilege. So, well there's the advantage to who and what you know, it's those with the most class privilege that determine what and who are worth knowing.

I'd assert that, in most situations -- especially in today's economy -- social capital is really the most important. It's also more tied to financial capital than cultural capital is. If you want to get a promising career today, you need those connections more than ever. Those connections come from having money, or at least going to the same schools/parties/events as people that have money (which usually requires you to have money yourself).

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