Roxane Gay mocks “wealth porn” in the Times!

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2013

Then quickly breaks our hearts: According to Nexis, the term “wealth porn” does not enjoy a rich history.

Within the Nexis archives, the term tracks to Matt Zoller Seitz, then of the Newark Star Ledger. He reviewed a TV documentary in 2002 as the swells made ready to summer:
SEITZ (6/1/02): "The Hamptons" is an impressive achievement—a serious work of social anthropology that can be enjoyed as pure entertainment. The fact that it's running over two nights on a major broadcast network is amazing all by itself. (When a network has nothing to lose, it rolls the dice on art.)

If you tune in expecting a shallow spoof of privileged people, a trashy so-called "reality" series or a voyeuristic slab of wealth porn, you'll be pleasantly (or unpleasantly) surprised.
Two years later, he used the term again, this time reviewing Trump TV:

“Like HBO's Sex and the City, The Apprentice is wealth porn—a weekly showcase of privilege that lingers over limousines, aircraft, champagne, caviar, fancy clothes and expensive shoes with the same loving care that soft-core sex movies lavish on naked bodies.”

Since then, the term appears in the Nexis archive about two dozen times. In 2011, Seitz used the term in Salon to describe the TV adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s wealth porn best-seller, Too Big to Fail.

Yesterday, the term appeared in a headline at Salon. We were thrilled, then instantly saddened:
SALON HEADLINE (9/11/13):
Why we read New York Times wealth porn
Their stories of the 1 percent are gruesome real-world fairy tales—and I can't look away
Doggone it! The piece was written by Roxane Gay, who doesn’t use the term “wealth porn” herself. In her piece, Gay describes her subject as “the fawning wealth journalism of the New York Times.”

In our view, that subject is very much worthy of exploration. But doggone it! Why did Gay have to say that she enjoys the New York Times’ wealth journalism so much?
GAY (9/11/13): “Blue Jasmine” is very much one of those movies trying to make a subtle statement that ends up doing the opposite. While the film is supposed to be some kind of high-minded critique of excessive consumption and who pays the real price for the wealthy to remain wealthy, the movie falls desperately but unapologetically short of that ambition. Instead, there is an aspirational quality to the filming, with loving depictions of wealthy New York—homes in the Hamptons, the impeccably designed apartment in the city, Jasmine’s exquisite wardrobe, ladies lunching. Oh how wonderful it would be, the film suggests, if we could all have nice things.

This reminds me of one of my truly guilty pleasures: reading articles about rich people in the New York Times. I cannot get enough of the breathless, thinly veiled envy in so many of these articles written by journalists who are, like most of us, on the outside looking in at the wealthy as they breathe such rarefied air. What I particularly enjoy about these articles is the shamelessness. These people have money they have earned (or stolen, or inherited), and by god, they will enjoy that filthy lucre.
The fact that the Times does a lot of “wealth journalism” is an important observation. We only wish Gay hadn’t said that she enjoys the product so much.

We also think Gay misunderstands the relationship between those struggling New York Times journalists and the “wealth journalism” they’re forced to produce. Sorry—in most cases, the writers are not, “like most of us, on the outside looking in at the wealthy as they breathe such rarefied air.” It’s true that most of those journalists won’t ever become super-rich. But if they work for the Times, they have already earned a shot at the lower rungs of the culture’s guild of the pointless and over-compensated.

Just a guess: In their hearts, those journalists are often playing on the same team as their wealthy subjects. Nor do they plan to risk their gigs at the Times by getting their ascots out of line.

We recommend Gay’s piece, which catalogs the types of pieces she regards as “fawning wealth journalism.” We wish she had discussed the way the cultural values involved in such work inform the Times’ entire package of news reporting and opinion journalism.

Increasingly, the New York Times is designed to tiptoe around the concerns and the interests of the mega-rich. You see that in the obvious ways they avoid reporting the types of looting which increasingly define the society. In a lighter vein, you see it in the type of porn Delia Ephron smeared on our faces last Sunday.

Ephron went on and on and on and on, letting us know about all the fancy pastries the wealthy enjoy. We rubes are expected to admire her conspicuous self-admiration.

This Hamptons culture suffuses the Times. You see it in the ridiculous piffle Gail Collins plies you with two times a week—work which seems designed to keep you chuckling and clueless.

In our view, people like Gay shouldn’t wink at this work. It comes from a pernicious culture and it’s spreading fast, even as the upper-end hacks at Salon chase the brass ring of success.

Amanda Hess noticed the wealth porn too: At Slate, Amanda Hess noticed the wealth porn too, although she treated it more as a manifestation of sexism.

Under the circumstances, three cheers for Amanda Hess.

23 comments:

  1. When I was a Times fan I noticed how the articles concerned with the poor were full of ads for high-end products, aimed at the people they really wanted reading the paper.

    ReplyDelete
  2. What's the line from Woody's "Manhattan"? "No, I didn't read the Times article on China's faceless masses. I was too busy checking out the lingerie ads." That's what I think of when they say "wealth porn."

    When I look at the Times, I get the impression they're aiming for the same readership as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. I guess the ad people know what they're doing. I always feel like I'm doing whatever's the opposite of slumming, like I'm crashing one of Gatsby's parties in work clothes, always on the lookout for a story to be interrupted by some parenthetical editor's note saying, "Wouldn't you really be happier reading the Post?"

    At least the crossword puzzles are getting dumber.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Actually, that pretty well describes the way conservatives are treated in the media-conspicuous-consumption-industrial-complex.

      We are portrayed as both the fattest of fat cats AND déclassé denizens of Walmart. Meanwhile proclaimed socialists like Katrina vanden Heuvel denounce us while wearing a Chloe blouse.

      I struggle with my many of the views that my political party has about wealth and the acquiring of it. Not so much with capitalism, but with the lack of emphasis on the responsibility of wealth as regards citizenship, and as it pertains to what it may cost the faceless people of the world.

      It's hard for me not to see our media culture as a way of absolving liberals of such concerns. Watch Morning Joe any day of the week and you'll invariably see a smug and condescending elitism that is buffered by a political position. By a view on public policy that will cost these people little and have an even smaller effect on their lives.

      Don't tell how much you care about social justice while your sneering at the masses. That's our media and our elites. Utterly.

      Delete
    2. If the Times can convince prospective advertisers that wealthy people read it, then it can charge more for advertising.

      I like the term "wealth porn" because it properly captures the idea that conspicuous, mindless consumption is obscene.

      As ever, I blame capitalism.

      Delete
    3. the problem is not so much capitalism, but rather rigged 'capitalism' in favor of the moneyed interests which eliminates or significantly impedes competition which is intrinsic to true capitalism.

      Delete
  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. I once read a scholarly article about how Hollywood films changed in the 1930's from gritty realism to lavish musicals and zany comedies.
    People suffering from the Great Depression wanted to escape it for a while, not see it enlarged on the big screen.

    Perhaps we are seeing a rerun of art and culture as we rerun history. If you can't join 'em, glorify 'em.

    Lenny Bruce put it more pithily as to why poor Catholics accepted the grandiosity of their local churches in the middle of the ghettos.
    "I live in a shit hole, I don't want to pray in one."


    "Of course, we have to look back to that time when the focus of the hereditary aristocracy shifted from a sense of duty, to a stipulation of privilege." - Thomas Hobbes

    ReplyDelete
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