Bette Midler’s “Poor, Illiterate, and Strung Out” & The Danger of Viral Respectability Narratives

On December 20, Bette Midler took to Twitter to express her frustration at Joe Manchin’s opposition to the Build Back Better act, writing, “What #JoeManchin, who represents a population smaller than Brooklyn, has done to the rest of America, who wants to move forward, not backward, like his state, is horrible. He sold us out. He wants us all to be just like his state, West Virginia. Poor, illiterate and strung out.”

Midler’s Tweet came across my timeline on Tuesday. Throughout the week, I would join many other friends who live and work in West Virginia to take up arms against Midler on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, defending the good about the state, and pushing back against the insensitive and harmful stereotypes she posited.

I could not sleep on Wednesday night after getting word I’d been exposed to a friend who tested positive for COVID, frustrated with policy choices that made it so I had to frantically scramble for hours to attempt to access testing in Pittsburgh, where I was staying at the time with my partner. We made the decision to isolate from his roommates and leave to stay in my 1 bedroom in Morgantown, soon realizing we also would not be able to test in Morgantown after searching for nearly an hour. We would end up driving 45 minutes to Mannington, WV, near Joe Manchin’s hometown in Marion county, as this was the only Walgreens with available tests. That night, as I attempted not to ruminate on what a COVID illness might mean for my under-insured body, I flipped through Instagram stories and saw many people I follow posting photos of themselves in college caps and gowns with a reshare sticker with the words “Poor, illiterate, strung out #WVProud”, talking back to Midler.

Feeling the urge to join in, I searched through my camera roll and located a photo of myself in my cap and gown from the Pittsburgh institution where I’d received a full ride. I began drafting in my head what I might add in a follow-up story about the harm that propagating stereotypes concerning illiteracy can do, how I’ve seen it first hand as a writing instructor at WVU, and how punching down just isn’t it. But alas, I realized I could not figure out how to use the reshare sticker and gave up.

Over my coffee the next morning, I scrolled and pondered Midler’s words again. I could post a photo of myself in $180 graduation regalia, receiving an approximately $50,000 degree (most of which I did not have to pay partially out of hard work, but also partially out of pure luck). But, a sense of insecurity arose about how my followers, many of whom are friends from my small town high school who did not leave after graduating, would perceive this act. Would they see it as a performance of literacy, as a performance of sobriety, or as a performance of class? As I questioned what stereotypes I would be dismantling or subverting with this post, I couldn’t come up with a straight answer.

Later, after a few conversations about these questions, I concluded that, while these posts by my friends who had graduated with Bachelors degrees were likely made with harmless intentions, they didn’t subvert Midler’s punch down by punching up — instead, those using the “Poor, illiterate, and strung out” reshare may even unwittingly be punching down too.

Understanding the trend of posting graduation photos with Midler’s line front and center as an example of a respectability narrative may help us better relate to one another on social media and beyond, building solidarity across classed and racialized lines. I think the way we behave on social media matters, both in the cybersphere and in the material world, and that we may be able to build more compassionate connections with one another on platforms like Instagram if we intentionally move away from propogating respectability narratives.

But what do I mean by respectability, and why does it matter in this context?Jenney Dorsey and Emily Chen’s guide to Understanding Respectability Politics explains:

“Respectability narratives are generally used in attempts to create a connection between the dominant group and marginalized ones… Civil Rights marchers ‘wanted to look clean cut because they wanted people to see them and say, ‘These are the respectable people. Look at these people. They’re not even different from us. Their cause is something that we can identify with.’ However, even when they succeed in building a sense of shared values, these narratives do little to address systemic issues….(emphasis added)

While the origins of respectability politics likely reach back through the history of colonialism, professor and author Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham first gave name to the concept in her 1993 book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920. The contemporary performance of respectability by, and the policing of respectability within, marginalized groups has been noted by Pitcan and Marwick in their 2018 article “Performing a Vanilla Self: Respectability Politics, Social Class, and the Digital World.” Noting the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism in respectability performance, they explain:

While Higginbotham (1993) describes it as a way to counter racist stereotypes and structures, respectability requires condemning behaviors deemed unworthy of respect within one’s in-group. For example, advising women to dress modestly positions the speaker as more respectable than those who dress immodestly, reinforcing sexism (Hasinoff, 2015). Second, respectability endorses values that contradict stereotypes, such as presenting Black women as modest, thereby enforcing a dominant narrative that women should exercise sexual restraint. Third, practicing respectability involves impression management to align with White, middle-class indicators of class status and privilege, such as using standard English rather than African-American vernacular English in racially-mixed audiences (Warner, 2015). Thus, strategies to enact respectability reflect and reinforce the norms of the status quo (Wolcott, 2013). Underlying these tactics is the belief that respectable behavior allows marginalized individuals to obtain upward mobility (Shaw, 1996). As politics of respectability reflect the broader culture in which they are situated, such tactics both facilitate social mobility and limit the ability to challenge oppressive systems. (emphasis added)

I remember struggling with the concept of respectability in an Intergroup Dialogues facilitation course. Over that semester, I was given the life-changing opportunity to unlearn the adage “Respect is earned, not given” repeated so much throughout my schooling in a small, predominately white, Protestant, West Virginia town. While I do think it is fair to acknowledge lost respect in interpersonal relationships when the respect I give another is not returned, I do not find myself demanding respect from strangers before I treat them with respect — this is simply impossible in customer service roles. In my role as an educator, I’ve been trained to treat my students with respect from day one. Further, to the extent which I can, it tends to go best when I treat each day as a new day with all students, even if they may have caused behavioral disruptions the day before. From where I stand, life is much easier when I treat others with respect without doing a calculus of the respect I think they have earned from me.

I genuinely wonder if the concept of “earning” respect is in place to reinforce dominator culture (see bell hooks’ work), because, whose respect must be earned? Considering respect as a concept and as a group of behaviors, as something so mediated by cultural difference and nuance, who and what in American society determines which actions are respectful and which are disrespectful? I argue those with racial, classed, and gendered power — those who benefit from using that power to enact domination — are those who benefit from people who find themselves on the margins of any institutional context behaving, both to them and one another, as if respect must be earned instead of given.

Returning to the original line of argument, I do situate graduation photos alongside Midler’s “Poor, illiterate, and strung out” to be a performance of a respectability narrative. In an attempt to disprove Midler’s stereotype, the folks I follow have performed an earned respectability — they have earned their degree; despite the systemic poverty they have “risen” from that keeps so many in their hometowns trapped; despite the prevalence of substance abuse systemically centered in Appalachia (no matter that predisposition to substance abuse is partially biological and partially environmental), despite graduating from schools ranked 39th in the nation (no matter how poorly the state treats its teachers). And I do think that succeeding despite these environmental circumstances is something to be proud of. However, posting about these successes does nothing to counter Midler’s harmful rhetoric, and through the lens of respectability politics, these posts only serve to maintain the status quo and self-segregate the individual posters from those in their Appalachian communities who may be “poor, strung out, or illiterate” at higher rates than those who find themselves in places in the US that have not suffered under an extraction economy and, frankly, incompetent leadership from both Democrats and Republicans for decades.

To conclude, I’d like to discuss Bhattacharya, Mcconville, and Rutland’s recent piece for Ms. titled “Respectability Politics (and Joe Manchin) Are Killing Us.” They offer an overview of Manchin’s response of Build Back Better, in which he declined to support the bill in part because it would continue Child Tax Credit payments. The writers note, “…he believes parents entering the third year of a global pandemic are more concerned with taking drugs than taking care of their kid” despite that “families have overwhelmingly spent CTC money on basic needs like putting food on the table and paying the electricity bill, and this year’s payments have had an outsized positive impact on Black and brown children — because they are more likely to live in poverty due to systemic injustice.”

Blocking Build Back Better has harmed the poor and marginalized throughout this country, including the systemically impoverished in Appalachia. Manchin, along with 51 other senators, killed long-term care for those permanently disabled by COVID, child care access for single parents, and Medicaid access for the millions who are uninsured and under-insured like myself. While Midler’s comments were out of line, what we need now is solidarity, not a shallow respectability performance by those of us who were able to earn degrees — a performance which further separates ourselves from others in our communities who may not have been so lucky to evade the systems of oppression and domination we did. Bhattacharya, McConville, and Rutland put it better than I, stating:

The danger in attempting to appear respectable is that it pretends we’re at a garden party instead of the trenches of a war with real lives at stake, in which we’re battling for nothing short of the soul of this country.

While taking pride in our personal accomplishments is necessary and important, I’m not sure the performance of individual accomplishment can dismantle the power behind the harmful stereotypes posited by Midler. With that being said, I don’t intend to evoke feelings of remorse or regret from those reading who may have posted a graduation photo with the reshare sticker — instead, I hope to encourage reflection and solidarity so we may collectively respond more productively next time stereotypical insults are targeted toward Appalachians by a popular figure. I hope everybody able to read this far is able to continue on their individual journeys to their own successes, however they may look. Moreso, I hope for Appalachian communities to come together to receive and build the aid needed to overcome the COVID recession, the opioid crisis, and the multiplicitous barriers to healthcare we face, and that young educated people in Appalachia feel empowered to use their platforms to advocate for everybody in their communities without the baggage of respectability.



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