White Trash

White Trash

White Trash? On the Problematic Resignification of an Already Problematic Term

While being part of the organising committee, I will also give a presentation at our conference. I will talk about the concept – or shall I say – racial and classist slur “White Trash”, which was – and to some extent still is – used for “[p]oor white people of low social status” (OED). Recently, however, another dominant contemporary meaning of the term seems to be arising. In YouTube videos and other social media the term “White Trash” is used – equally problematically – for highly privileged white individuals like Lena Dunham or Amy Schumer, who act insensitively towards minorities without acknowledging their own privileged position.[1]

In my talk, I will trace the evolution of “White trash” up to current debates and demonstrate the term’s polysemy. Lena Dunham, a highly controversial public media persona, will be used as a case study to theorize the term’s contemporary meanings. I will show how discourses around feminism, diversity, class and racism intersect and how they influence/contradict each other. We will see that Dunham occupies a third space between feminist icon and “white trash”, that her works and performances oscillate between subversive and hegemonic positions and that her success arguably lies in playing with those boundaries.

The Bigger Picture: Disgusting Female Bodies in Contemporary Popular Culture

My talk on “White Trash” is a side note to my PhD project, in which I look at the nascent discourse of the ‘disgusting’ female body as part of contemporary popular culture. As hegemonic mainstream culture is often associated with the normalisation and (s)exploitation of female bodies, it is all the more surprising that many young female artists like Lena Dunham or Charlotte Roche, performers, authors and media activists use the notion of the ‘disgusting’ (i.e. hairy, fat, menstrual, etc.) female body to subvert the mainstream from within. It is hypothesized that these artists’ transgressive, but at the same time highly popular and commercially successful multimedia texts and performances (from narrative fiction,(semi)autobiographical essays, TV series, films, drama, art performances to posts on social media sites) contribute to an emerging fourth wave of social media led feminism. I am very grateful that my PhD project is funded by a uni:docs scholarship, which I received in October 2016.

Author: Elisabeth Lechner, Uni:Docs Fellow at the Department of English and American Studies

[1] Cf. A YouTube video by Sensei Aishitemasu entitled “So, About Lena Dunham Still Being Trash…”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RnPFHo-CWcU (last accessed on 12 October, 2016).