Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture / Edition 3

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Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, Roseanne Barr, Martha Stewart, and Britney Spears typify class-passers—those who claim different socioeconomic classes as their own—asserts Gwendolyn Audrey Foster in Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture. According to new rules of social standing in American popular culture, class is no longer defined by wealth, birth, or education. Instead, today’s notion of class reflects a socially constructed and regulated series of performed acts and gestures rooted in the cult of celebrity. 

In examining the quest for class mobility, Foster deftly traces class-passing through the landscape of popular films, reality television shows, advertisements, the Internet, and video games. She deconstructs the politics of celebrity, fashion, and conspicuous consumerism and analyzes class-passing as it relates to the American Dream, gender, and marriage.

Class-Passing draws on dozens of examples from popular culture, from old movie classics and contemporary films to print ads and cyberspace, to illustrate how flagrant displays of wealth that were once unacceptable under the old rules of behavior are now flaunted by class-passing celebrities. From the construction worker in Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? to the privileged socialites Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie of The Simple Life, Foster explores the fantasy of contact between the classes. She also refers to television class-passers from The Apprentice, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and Survivor and notable class-passing achievers Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and P. Diddy.

Class-Passing is a notable examination of the historical, social, and ideological shifts in expressions of class. The first serious book of its kind, Class-Passing is fresh, innovative, and invaluable for students and scholars of film, television, and popular culture.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Class-Passing is positively overflowing with ideas and insights, teeming with splendid observations of an original and challenging nature. Foster’s ability to link class with issues of race, gender, and the body is quite marvelous and convincing. Class-Passing is very much in the forefront of contemporary film and cultural studies, superior in every way.”—David Desser, University of Illinois

“At a time when studies of social class in media representation have taken a back seat to analyses of race and gender, Class-Passing, in daring and original fashion, maps and elaborates on contradictions in performing social class via the media and popular culture. The book is commendable for the range of examples that illustrate continuities and changes in representations of social class as well as their relation to treatments of race and gender. Foster’s innovative analysis is not restricted to cinema but includes television, advertising, etiquette books, popular manuals, and video games, providing a broad field from which to assess the character and vicissitudes of class passing.”—Marcia Landy, University of Pittsburgh

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809326563
  • Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2005
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Edition number: 3
  • Pages: 152
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, a professor of film studies, women’s studies, and cultural studies in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, is the author of eight books. Her most recent book, Performing Whiteness: Postmodern Re/Constructions in the Cinema, was named an outstanding title in the humanities for 2004 by Choice.

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Read an Excerpt


Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture
By Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Southern Illinois University Press

Copyright © 2005 Gwendolyn Audrey Foster
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8093-2656-3

Chapter One

Class-Passing and the American Dream

We all class-pass. We all negotiate class. We all experience and perform class. Yet very little discussion of class occurs, very little attention is paid to class in popular culture and film. In this book, I consider the many ways in which we class-pass in contemporary popular culture, using TV reality shows, video games, advertisements, the Internet, and twenty-first-century digital cinema as some of the key media of access to this fantasy universe. As bell hooks writes in her groundbreaking study of class, Where We Stand: Class Matters, "as a nation we are afraid to have a dialogue about class even though the ever-widening gap between rich and poor has already set the stage for ongoing and sustained class warfare" (1). Indeed, hooks calls class "the uncool subject" (1), as opposed to race or gender and, I would add, sexuality. Another of the few who address class in popular culture is Yvonne Tasker, the author of Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema.

The repression of the discussion of class is itself a subject that should make us pause, because therepressed will always return and cause us to lurch and gasp and recognize desire. In his article "Is There a Class in This Text? The Repression of Class in Film and Cultural Studies," David James looks into the ways in which class has been marginalized in academic study of cinema. He notes how our field moved away from classical Marxism toward identity theory and, in particular, theory grounded in psychoanalysis.

In the 1970s we saw a radical shift toward the study of feminism, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and even disability, all revolving around identity markers such as gender and race and all thoroughly grounded in psychoanalysis. The problem I have with psychoanalysis, that it can only theorize an overdetermined sense of identity based on a history of desire that is itself based on lack, is a problem James identifies.

The only social difference that film theory could thenceforth register was the specificity that psychoanalysis itself could theorize, that is sexual difference. After this point, given that even the historically specific family structure was not admissible as a mediating agency in the structuration of the unconscious and of language around the phallus or its lack, the main currents of cinema studies had no theoretical means of addressing issues of class. (195)

Similarly, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari find psychoanalytical approaches truly lacking. Their call to action is Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, a text published in 1977. Mark Seem, in his introduction to the book, stresses that Freud, Lacan, and others reduce the body to an oedipal neurotic figure. Seem explains that Deleuze and Guattari's work attacks "all reductive psychoanalytical and political analyses that remain caught within the sphere of totality and unity, in order to free the multiplicity of desire from the deadly neurotic and Oedipal yoke" (xx; emphasis mine). Deleuze and Guattari are obsessed with freeing desire from the standard psychoanalytic frameworks, which they see as colonizing imperialism at work. They insist that the oedipal framework has reinscribed desire within a capitalist framework-and a very limited one at that. Their point is that the unconscious, as it had been oedipalized, was reduced to an unconscious "that was capable of nothing but expressing itself-in myth, tragedy, dreams[, and that it] was substituted for the productive unconscious" (24; emphasis mine). I wish to resuscitate and borrow from Deleuze and Guattari's ideas primarily because I think that they provide a Marxist reclamation of desire from the overdetermined and reductionist couch of psychoanalysis. The idea of a productive unconscious seems to me to be a place where I can begin to understand the cinematic fixation with class mobility because it insists on the social negotiation of desire, moving desire off the couch and into the collective fantasies of the capitalist American Dream, including fantasies of upward mobility that are often enacted and performed on-screen. Because both capitalism and psychoanalysis are dependent on projections of lack, whether it is lack of a penis or lack of a job, "lack as a function of market economy is the art of a dominant class" (28). Indeed, Deleuze and Guattari insist that we move away from capitalist logic because it falsifies and maintains a split between social reality and private fantasy, where desire lives. Desire is social; so is production and so is fantasy, according to their thinking, and any split between "social production" and "desiring production" inscribes us into a system in which social mobility, or any desire for that matter, is impossible to conceive of or recognize.

As long as we are content to establish a perfect parallel between money, gold, capital, and the capitalist triangle on the one hand, and the libido, the anus, the phallus, and the family triangle on the other, we are engaging in an enjoyable pastime, but the mechanisms of money remain totally unaffected by the anal projections of those who manipulate money. (28)

The productive unconscious is constantly expressing itself on-screen and in popular culture, especially with regard to questions of class, yet with the exception of a few academics working the field of cultural studies and sociology, few are prepared to comment on class performances and classed acts that appear right in front of our noses merely because the desire for class mobility seems as normative and opaque as the American Dream itself.

Class-passing and class mobility are not usually treated as behaviors or fantasies that spring from desire, whether it be the work of the unconscious of the individual or that of the collective unconscious. Class-passing simply has been normed so intrinsically that it no longer stands out, much like whiteness. Like whiteness, it has been dangerously adopted as a norm. Richard Dyer's White exposed the danger of not recognizing whiteness, noting the "assumption that white people are just people" and adding that white people are treated as "just human" and all others are "something else" (2). Dyer also notes that lower classes are marked by a lack of whiteness. In art and poetry, for example, he finds that working-class people are rendered darker than middle- or upper-class people (113). "Class as well as such criteria of proper whiteness as sanity and non-criminality are expressed in terms of degrees of translucence, with murkiness associated with poor, working-class and immigrant white subjects" (113).

In my own study of whiteness, Performing Whiteness: Postmodern Re/ Constructions in the Cinema, I drew from Dyer's work but injected a heavy profusion of ideas about performing the body from the work of Judith Butler. In studying the performativity of whiteness, in insisting that much of what we call whiteness is actually performed, I came upon and identified repeated acts of class-passing. I noticed that so many American films are not just about properly performing whiteness but also about performing class. A significant number of films, often but not always romances, comedies, and Horatio Alger-type narratives, are about class mobility and what I called class-passing. This class-passing often involves marrying up, marrying down, and moving through social positions because of a change in job, marriage, or any number of plot contrivances. I began to obsess about this notion of class-passing and its relationship to the American Dream of social mobility. I began to wonder how class-passing is like and unlike passing in terms of race or gender. As I wrote in 2003,

Class-passing is in some ways like race-passing, gender-passing, or straight/gay-passing, but class-passing, like whiteness, is not often noticed or examined. It is essentially viewed as normative behavior, especially in America, where one is expected to do as much class-passing as possible, regardless of one's race, gender, or economic circumstances. (102)

Because so much work has been done in the area of race- and gender-passing, I turn to studies of passing across race and gender for help in understanding class-passing. Kathleen Pfeiffer's Race Passing and American Individualism brought me back to some questions I have long held about class-passing. For example, in her introduction, Pfeiffer notes that passing for white "has long been viewed as an instance of racial self-hatred or disloyalty" (27). But, Pfeiffer wonders,

Must the passers' embrace of the potential for success to which their white skin avails them be seen simply as their co-optation by a culture founded on "white" values? Must passing necessarily indicate a denial of "blackness," or racial self-hatred and nothing more? (2)

Furthermore, I wondered, why is class-passing so often celebrated rather than problematized or stigmatized? Perhaps the answer lay in Pfeiffer's factoring in of American individualism as a mass-produced fantasy, a "social production," and a "desiring production," to quote Deleuze and Guattari. Pfeiffer suggests that we reenvision the race-passer

as a figure who values individualism, who may be idiosyncratic, self-determining, or inclined toward improvisation, [inviting] a much richer and more complex reading. Moreover, when we recognize that the passer often demonstrates ambivalence about whiteness as well as blackness, we avail ourselves of the passing figure's more complicated nuances. Understood in this light, passing offers a problematic but potentially legitimate expression of American individualism, one that resists segregation's one-drop logic and thereby undermines America's consciously constructed ideology of racial difference. (2)

Mary Bucholtz also wonders why the concept of gender-passing is embraced when race-passing is generally rejected.

Why is a concept that is considered invaluable for understanding certain social categories rejected as a way of understanding others? The answer can be found in the eagerness with which poststructural feminism has declared the end of identity and the destruction of social categories. This event has not been met with answering cheers from all quarters, a reticence that is due to the fact that the implosion of sexual categories authorized by queer theory has not yet been matched by the eradication of racial and ethnic categories. The subversive appeal of queer identities lies precisely in their ability to be disguised. Metaphors of theater, parody, and drag permeate postmodern feminist writing, with little recognition that disguises cannot be as easily assumed by members of social groups whose identities have been imposed rather than assumed or appropriated-namely, members of nonwhite racial and ethnic groups. The categorizing power of skin color, hair, and facial features remains a reality for most Americans of non-European background, a fact that is often overlooked by white poststructural feminists. Whereas gender theorists celebrate passing as an achievement, a transcendence of sexual difference, in ethnic studies the phenomenon is generally considered an evasion of racism, an escape that is available only to individuals who can successfully represent themselves as white. (352-53)

Nevertheless, many critics agree that passing reveals the constructedness of race and acts as a critique of race. Gayle Wald adds that race-passing is not just about individualism and opportunism but also about imagining and reimagining "home."

Insofar as it is possible to generalize about racial passing narratives ... [they] are concerned with elucidating concepts of "home" in relation to social categories of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality. In particular, they represent the struggles of subjects to imagine a "home" that would not demand their subjugation to, or confinement within, the various defining discourses alternatively imposed and wielded by the dominant culture. (51)

Returning to Deleuze and Guattari, I note a parallel concern for freedom, freedom from colonizing frameworks of desire as they are enacted in academic work or as they are enacted in treatments of class. Looking across a wide spectrum of film and popular culture, we find socially inscribed desires for icons of social mobility in everything from film to "reality" television. In 2003 the Fox network premiered Joe Millionaire, a show in which a construction worker passed himself off as a millionaire to choose an appropriate "mate" from several women contestants. The desire to watch "Joe" pass reeled me in, along with 40 million others who tuned in for the finale (Prose 59). The idea of the class-passing white male figure intrigued me as much as the women's performances of class on the program. Another reality-based program that I found myself watching was The Simple Life, in which socialites Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie flaunt their privileged status in front of a working-class midwestern farm family. The show was wildly successful, and I wondered why.

Nobody won any money. The two young female stars did not pretend to be anything other than spoiled, pampered, and elite. They did not really "slum" as much as highlight class differences by their very presence. They provided a fantasy of contact between the classes, and that point of contact is explosive and meaningful to the average American. That point of contact is not unlike the hybrid space of the class-passer, the race-passer, or the transvestite. The hybridity of the point of contact between classes is a desire capitalist America produces and maintains. It was similarly exploited in such programs as Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?, Trading Spouses, Wife Swap, The Bachelorette, and My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé, in which a young upper-middle-class woman tries to win a half million dollars by passing off an obnoxious and overweight actor, who pretends to have absolutely no class whatsoever, as her future husband. The shows are best watched by viewing the pilot episode, checking in once in a while, and waiting for the final episode, not just because the show is boring and repetitive but also because the finale reveals the class-passing and the class-passer, which is the only thing really worth watching in these programs. As Francine Prose writes, these programs reinscribe a rather conservative vision of the American Dream.

Observant readers may already have noted that the guiding principles to which I've alluded-flinty individualism, the vision of a zero-sum society in which no one can win unless someone else loses, the conviction that altruism and compassion are signs of folly and weakness, the exaltation of solitary striving above the illusory benefits of cooperative mutual aid, the belief that certain circumstances justify secrecy and deception, the invocation of a reviled common enemy to solidify group loyalty-are the exact same themes that underlie the rhetoric we have been hearing and continue to hear from the Republican congress and our current administration. (60)

The performers on so-called reality television shows perform a sort of minstrelsy that is in some ways reminiscent of blackface minstrelsy in performing class and rejecting the idea of a natural state of class even while they support the hegemonic desire for that natural or biological essence of class. As Kathleen Pfeiffer notes, "minstrelsy often reflected an anxiety regarding self-identity, a desire to define the self oppositionally," adding, "minstrelsy's genius was to be able to both display and reject the 'natural self'" (11). Thus, the point of contact, the rupture and fissure of class difference, is what lies at the heart of these "reality" programs. They are much like two race-passing films Gayle Wald discusses, Elia Kazan's Pinky (1949) and Alfred L. Werker's Lost Boundaries (1949), in that they "enable their protagonists to realize their American 'dreams' of professional success while also insisting that they remain in their 'places'" (87). But the difference is perhaps that the reality shows enable the audience to distance themselves from any painful reminder of their own class or race differences or anxieties.

Class-passing in "reality" programming both displays and disrupts the notion of class as an identity marker. Class-passing is certainly as problematic as race-passing, but both are also dependent on deception and American ideas about individualism and the worthiness of the American Dream. The tough thing in talking about class as a performative act is that real class differences, real consequences, real hardships, and real privileges that come with class certainly exist, just as real privileges and hardships exist with regard to real race-passing. I wish, however, to remain primarily in the realm of wishes, desires, and societal fantasies because they have to do with class, and I have a vested interest in talking about class and class-passing because I myself do not come from a background of class privilege.

I am struck by the ways in which even our language suggests that we rethink our notions of class and note that in many situations class is an act. Think of the term class act in a sentence such as, "She was such a class act." I can't think of a similar term that centers on another identity marker such as race, gender, or sexuality. Is it perhaps because class as a term refers to so many levels of signifiers? Class is not only about wealth, status, and birth but also about everyday performed behavior. How one does everything from eating to speaking to any kind of behavior is classed or troped by class. In this way, class trumps many other identity markers such as race, gender, or sexuality, does it not? If anyone can be a "class act," it stands to reason, then, that class, at least removed from actual, tangible real wealth or lack thereof, is all about performance and performativity. (Continues...)

Excerpted from CLASS-PASSING by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster Copyright © 2005 by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. Class-Passing and the American Dream....................1
2. Class-Passing, Consumerism, and Gender....................22
3. Class-Passing and Negotiations of Masculinity....................43
4. Celebrity Fantasies: Marriage and Class Mobility....................61
5. Live in Your World, Class-Pass in Ours....................79
6. Classing the Body: Cash-Passing and Class "Mashup"....................100
Works Cited and Consulted....................119
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