Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Privilege of Playing Poor

If there is one female stereotype I fall into, it is this - I love Love. I love romance. I love engagements and weddings and public displays of affection. I love the small acts of love people share on a daily basis - holding hands, leaving sweet notes for a mate to find, gentle touches, exchanging smiles. You get the idea. I'm a big sappy romantic, and I'm damn proud of it. I am also currently helping my youngest brother and his long time girlfriend plan their Breakfast at Tiffany's themed wedding for next year, in which my sister and I have the honor of creating cupcakes for the reception, so I'm up to my ears in wedding talk all the time (and I love it!). 
Because of this, one of my daily internet routines is to read about expressions of love, particularly geek love, and sigh a contented sigh when I have had my fill of it. Over the past year, there have been some amazing geek proposals and weddings shared on the internet, and I have loved them all. The world is full of creative geeks who love Love enough to put energy and effort into celebrating said love, and the world is a better place for it! 
But when I first found the Etsy blog post about a hobo themed wedding, I approached it with some trepidation. It didn't take long, however, for me to be downright disgusted. 
Fellow geeks may know the groom, Brian "Box" Brown as the cartoonist behind the web comic Everything Dies (a comic I'm aware of but am not particularly a fan of). The Browns were inspired to create their hobo themed wedding based on Sarah's love of the era and a story Brian's grandmother told them:
Though some of the details fell into place quickly, the “Depression-era hobo” theme of our wedding didn’t come to us right away. In fact, it was my obsession with the 1930s, the “great recession,” our own limited budget and, finally, a suggestion from Brian’s grandma, Rose, that planted the tiny seed of the idea into our heads. Rose told us about her own wedding reception in the 1940s. They called it a “football party” because, instead of a fancy catered dinner, the guests were served piles of wrapped sandwiches in the center of each table and they tossed them from table to table like footballs. Something about the spirit of that back-to-basics kind of reception got to us (and made our bellies rumble for sandwiches). We wanted to create an event that was unfussy, honest, beautiful, fun and, most importantly, from the heart. Just like Rose’s sandwiches!
Now, before I go any farther, let me just state a few things. I am all for nontraditional weddings. I am all for being creative and making your special day something that means something to you. And I happen to be a big fan of vintage, as it reminds me of my own childhood growing up with grandparents and great-grandparents who lived through this time. In fact, the pictures of the Browns' wedding remind me a bit of Summers at my maternal great-grandmother's house. She lived in a hollar in Southeast Ohio in a tin roofed home surrounded by woods, fields, and the old family cemetery. Grandma Gertie didn't even have running water until the mid 1980s, and even then she only had a sink installed; she still walked out to the outhouse in the yard. 
Had the Browns decided to call their theme "vintage farm life," or simply "rural 1930s" and didn't include the hobo imagery, I'm sure no one would have batted an eyelash. In fact, if all I had to go on were the pictures of the wedding, sans the shots of the cut up vintage quilts and the hobos, I would have liked it quite a bit. But sadly, the whole story is out there, and it's infuriating in its audacity, cluelessness, and class privilege. 
By the groom's own admission via his Twitter feed, the couple spent $15,000.00 on this "handmade wedding," which I'm assuming includes the "round trip airfare and lodging" they spent to fly in a photographer from Kansas to the wedding venue in Pennsylvania (I can only assume by this that there are no wedding photographers left in PA, which is seriously a bummer). The thought of spending that much money on a wedding makes me a bit panicky, or as one Etsy commenter put it - "The one and only time my husband and I spent $15, 000.00 on anything, our son was handed a college degree at the end of it." I'm also at a complete loss as to how a wedding with a free venue (they got married in the bride's mother's home, which she spent "months redecorating" to prepare for the wedding) can cost so much. Oh wait, I think I see:
Once the theme was decided, we got to work researching the Depression era and hobo culture. As we prepared to make everything for our wedding, we collected feed sack dresses and old work boots, antique hand-stitched quilts and jug band instruments. After reading that the word “hobo” may be a syllabic abbreviation of “homeward bound,” we fell in love with the notion. Brian was in charge of illustrating and designing our save-the-date postcards, creating custom labels for our party favors (mini-flasks of “moonshine”) and our wedding invitations, and writing the ceremony from scratch. I was in charge of creating the atmosphere of the event: putting together our hobo-chic outfits, the outfits for our wedding party, the wedding d├ęcor, flower arrangements,bindle bouquets and boutonnieres.
Again, let me stop right there. I grew up on stories of The Depression from my maternal grandparents - Nannie and Pawpaw. Nannie told me stories of her and her sisters making feedsack dresses and trying their hardest to make them not look like feedsack dresses because they were embarrassed that they couldn't afford cloth. They rarely got Christmas presents, and when they did, they were simple. Not 15K-to-look-poor simple, but actually simple. She said the first Christmas gift she can remember came when she was a teenager and it was a ribbon for her hair. Her mother had somehow earned 15 cents and she bought a length of ribbon which she then cut into three pieces and gave a piece each to her three oldest daughters. She told me stories of how the older children used to beg their mother to nurse them when she nursed the baby so they could actually eat. She told me how she'd wake up in the middle of the night and see her father sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands, crying because he didn't know how they were going to survive. How they asked a local orchard owner if they could pick the apples that had fallen to the ground up and buy them at a discount because they were half full of worms. How my great-grandmother would offer lodging and care to actual hobos when they came knocking, even though they could barely take care of their own children because, in her words, "The hobos had it worse than we did. At least we had a home and a family." 
Never in my life did I hear those stories and think "That would be a charming theme for a wedding!" 
And yet, here are the Browns with their "hobo-chic" outfits and their invitations that claim the dress code is "hobo casual," romanticizing one of the greatest social tragedies in American history at a time whenthe poverty rate is at a 15 year high and many families have a yearly income that's less than what they spent on their wedding. When challenged by other blogs and commenters on Etsy, Mr. Brown insisted via Twitter that they are not mocking the poor, as they are poor themselves. I'm sorry Mr. Brown, but you are not poor. What you and your wife are is clueless. You are clueless and insensitive. I would also venture to say that you are also oblivious to your class privilege, because only the upper middle class would be so casual in their insensitivity. No one who is actually struggling financially would look at this and think it is cute or kitschy or romantic. No one with compassion or empathy would look to The Great Depression and see only how quaint it all was and how it would make great wedding photos. And only someone living in their own bubble of economic privilege would read The Grapes of Wrath as if it were Martha Stewart Weddings
But the Browns' love of so-called "hobo culture" doesn't stop at their wedding. Sarah has a blog dedicated to hobo weddings in which she links to an Etsy store selling feedsack dresses that she claims are "affordably priced" at $98.00. It's crap like that that makes me thankful Nannie doesn't venture onto the internet. 
Sarah is also getting flack in the blogosphere for cutting up vintage quilts for her decorations. In her words:
I also found perfectly worn quilts that I cut for table runners and buntings
This upset many on the Etsy blog, and my feelings about it are summed up best by this user:
Did you re-upcycle the vintage, handmade quilts that you cut and ripped apart toupcycle into raggedy decorations? My heart about broke when I read that. How can could you destroy vintage. Its the ESSENCE of Etsy. Other than resellers, I mean.
I had the same feeling of heart break upon reading that. Handmade quilts, especially of that era, were not made just for the hell of it. They were made to keep oneself and one's loved ones warm and comfortable. And due to limited resources, they were not turned out quickly. Nannie told me stories of how they'd have to save fabric scraps for sometimes up to a year to have enough to make a quilt. Quilts are also living history which people take strides to preserve for future generations. And now Sarah announces that she cut some up to make wedding decor and wonders why people think that's wrong.
The Browns have a few supporters, however. I was very sad to see that Jess Fink, the creator of the erotic steam punk comic Chester 5000 XYV, was one of them. She also took to her Twitter feed to defend the Browns:
it seems so impossible for people to see someone else's point of view. I wish they could see it just a little bit.
I have felt so sick about it all night! I don't understand this pastime of being cruel on the internet. I don't understand cruelty
I just get really upset when I see ppl on the internet hating people they don't know. Especially when I know those people.
I am a big fan of Jess' work, but I think she's being a hypocrite here. She had no moral issue what-so-ever when people on Regretsy helped defend her against someone who infringed on her copyright, but takes issue when those very same people now question her friends' glamorization of poverty for the sake of a kitschy wedding
I understand that the Browns are upset about the criticism they are receiving, as it is obvious from the pictures that they had a very special day and love each other very much. I sincerely hope they have a good life together in which they grow old together and have lots of adventures. Putting this out there on the internet, however, opens you up to criticism. Their lack of forethought has made this situation entirely self-wrought. I would feel some compassion to them if they showed one ounce of clarity after having been presented with very logical and historical reasons about why this is entirely inappropriate. Perhaps they think doing so would ruin their memories of their special day, or perhaps they just don't care. Whatever the reason, my other sincere hope for them is that in time they come to understand why this is offensive.  
In the meantime, I will be encouraging my brother and his fiance to keep their Breakfast at Tiffany's theme in lieu of an Irish Potato Famine theme.
Originally posted 3 August 2011 


  1. hello! first of all, i want to let you know that i admire you speaking out about something that offends you! a good thing about the internet is that people can share their differing viewpoints. :)
    i would like to share a couple things with you about this wedding... :)
    first of all, i've only met sarah once, which was the day of her wedding.

    i flew to philadelphia from kansas to photograph the wedding. the bride probably spent approximately $500-600 total on airfare & one night's stay in a hotel for me. when they originally contacted me, i stated my pricing for weddings (my standard coverage is $2,500)... she told me that she was on a very limited budget (i shoot a lot of weddings. $15,000 IS a very small budget for a wedding of that size, especially on the east coast) & said that she couldn't afford me. after talking with her & hearing all of the creativity & love she was putting into the wedding, i offered to shoot the wedding for just the cost of transportation.
    sarah inspired me that much.
    so, for a photographer, they paid maybe $600 at most. standard wedding coverage ranges in price from $2,000 to $8,000 in philadelphia. i assure you that it would be nearly impossible to find a quality wedding photographer for $600 in the tri-state area, & absolutely nothing lower in price.
    while there is nothing wrong with offering criticism, it is entirely silly to make uneducated, sarcastic, incorrect assumptions:
    "I can only assume by this that there are no wedding photographers left in PA, which is seriously a bummer"
    perhaps they did find the most affordable photographer they could.

    secondly, i felt sick to my stomach reading the criticism on cutting up & destroying antiques. sarah & her family did the exact OPPOSITE. they took already damaged quilts that were in poor condition, & lovingly re-purposed them. they spent lots of time re-stitching them.
    once again, assuming that they then just threw away these special decorations is ridiculous. of course they didn't.

    thirdly, the whole paragraph on how the browns are "NOT POOR" is completely outrageous. how can anyone know what their bank accounts look like? & what gives anyone the right treat their assumptions as fact? so the total cost of the wedding was $15,000... how do you know that they didn't save up for this for years & years? or maybe they had multiple donations from friends & family. maybe their wedding so important to them that they saved & saved as much as they could until could finally afford to get married the way that they wanted to. where does anyone get off assuming how much money they make, & telling them where they stand financially?

    this family was THE most welcoming, loving group of people i have EVER, EVER worked with. all of their guests were equally welcoming & kind. i have never seen so much love expressed between family members & friends at any other event, or any other time than this wedding.
    comments regarding them as the privileged, insensitive upper class are almost laughable, they're so far off.

    implying that they spent loads of cash on a photographer, destroyed vintage items, didn't recycle them, & "mocked being poor" is negatively criticizing them. these criticisms are all based on incorrect, uneducated assumptions, & make you seem as "clueless and insensitive" as you claim they are.

    these people are kindhearted. nobody had any cruel, hurtful intentions in the planning of the wedding. if anything, the intent it was to express the beauty that those with the right attitude can find in ANY situation.

    t makes me really sad to see so many people throw hateful words around on the internet, sarcastically treating these two people as insensitive & stupid... especially because most of the arguments expressed are based only on incorrect assumption.
    it is unsafe to judge others until you know the full story.

  2. While I appreciate you taking the time to try to correct me on a perceived wrong, there is no way we're ever going to agree on this because we do not agree on a few simple basics. For one, you will never convince me that spending $15,000.00 on a wedding is reasonable, and I will never convince you that it's ridiculous. This is pretty much to be expected because you are in the wedding business and I am a divorced woman who deeply regrets ever having been married in the first place.

    Secondly, you were inspired by this, and I was offended. Those are two radical ends of the "like" spectrum, and I don't see us finding middle ground here. The reasons for my disgust are clearly laid out in my post, and I don't feel the need to rehash them.

    But what we can talk about is that I never questioned how much love the couple and the family has for one another (that much is evident in the pictures, as I took care to note; the picture of the bride and her sister in front of the quilt is especially true of that statement). I never once questioned whether or not they treated their guests with hospitality, whether or not they were warm and welcoming, or anything of the sort. Again, as I stated in my last paragraph, it's obvious that they had a great day and that there is a lot of love there, and I sincerely and happy for them for that.

    I also did not accuse them of throwing away their cut up quilt decor. I don't really know where that accusation came from, but it confused me. I'm ok with you not agreeing with my opinion (I'm a writer on the internet after all; it comes with the territory), but I don't really enjoy having words put into my mouth. If something I said confused you or lead you to believe I was making this accusation, please let me know.

    Being critical of someone's choices is not the same as being critical of the person. Everyone makes mistakes, has poor judgement, etc. I did, however, find it disappointing that neither the bride nor groom, nor anyone else associated with the wedding, publicly say that they understood the perspective of those being critical. Everyone seems to be under the impression that the criticism comes because they couldn't afford a "real wedding," which is a load of crap. Their wedding is every bit as real as any other. Designer gowns, tuxedos, Waterford crystal, and an open bar do not a "real" wedding make.

    I do not for a minute think that the Browns intended to offend or that they had cruel intentions. But I firmly believe that they did not think through their wedding theme clearly and the reasons I believe that are also well laid out in my post. I also believe that they should not have been surprised to have strangers react to their wedding when they put it out to the internet for people to see. I also believe they've been entirely ungracious in accepting that criticism (and I'm talking about just the criticism here, not the personal attacks and such). I would have had a lot more respect if they had said "That wasn't our intent, but we can see how it could have been taken that way. We apologize if anyone was offended." Instead, they came out, guns a blazing, and made an emotional situation worse. An important and successful dialogue could have been had out of all of this, but instead it turned into a flame war. And that is sad.

  3. It's totally unrelated to the wedding, but your grandmother's stories brought it to mind. Mom was recently visiting with some of the older ladies in our home town and talking to them about what the neighborhood was like when they were children. One lady said her family was so poor that she didn't even have a rag doll, so she carried around a big rock and pretended it was a baby.

    That story and the things you wrote from your grandma really drive home to me that most people in the 21st century really have no idea what it means to be poor.

    I come from a rural neighborhood that wasn't even effected by the recession because all our factories shut down 15 years ago and everyone was already unemployed, working crap jobs, or driving a hundred miles a day for decent wages. But even there "poor" was not being able to get your kids a Nintendo for Christmas (okay I'm showing my age a little, haha) or having to buy your school clothes at thrift stores.

    I know there are lots of people in America right now who are way worse off than any of my friends and neighbors growing up, I'm not trying to say real poverty doesn't exist. What I'm trying to say is that over the last 100 years the line between our wants and our needs has shifted pretty dramatically and we think we need a lot more than we really do.

    I'm definitely nowhere near poor these days, but I'm making an effort to be much more thoughtful about what sorts of things that I spend money on and what I take for granted.