Taste and class

My PhD research has changed tack a little since reading Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction. Cultural Studies is new to me, and I haven’t studied Sociology since my undergraduate degree in the 1980s, so forgive me if my tiny mind is being blown by very obvious stuff!

I originally conceived of my research involving white working class children in reading class signifiers through a more economic conception of class: exclusion through money. However, I have always felt very uncomfortable by the judgemental attitude that children’s literature authors can have towards their child characters’ families. For example, the Dursleys in Harry Potter books are obviously grotesques; resentful of Harry, they are cruel, deny him food and clothes and indulge Dudley to a comical extent. However, they are also described as social climbing middle class, anti-intellectual and their home, full of tasteless knick-knacks, has lower-middle class signifiers. 

Roald Dahl is the king of punishing people with bad taste. As an author who is considered “anarchic”, he is surprisingly judgemental about “common”, greedy people who watch television. Matilda’s family- bullying, greedy and anti-reading- are punished, but Matilda is rewarded for not being like them. Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is rewarded for being poor but humble. 

David Bell and Joanne Hollows in Ordinary Lifestyles discuss the rise of a new bourgeoisie in the 1960s and 1970s. Less secure in their social position than the old bourgeoisie, they reinforced their social position through conspicuous consumption, and were the intended viewers of the new lifestyle media of the 1970s, such as Delia Smith’s cookery television programmes and the rise of glossy lifestyle magazines such as Elle in the 1980s. 

Dahl mocks the Wormwoods in Matilda for always having the television on, and Mrs Wormwood for reading magazines. Mike Teavee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is first shrunk and then stretched because of his obsession with television. And yet, of course, Roald Dahl was the creator of the television programme Tales of the Unexpected. Presumably TV dramas were more acceptable to Dahl than cookery shows, aimed at women.

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