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The Exploration of Social Class Privilege in “Valour and Vanity” by Mary Robinette Kowal

[Huge spoilers.  Beware.]

Mary Robinette Kowal’s most recent work, “Valour and Vanity” dazzled me with its insightful exploration of privilege, social class, and social stratification through a heist plot. This fourth book in her series of Glamourist Histories follows her protagonists, Jane and Vincent, who can create magical illusions called glamour.  Throughout the series, they push the boundaries of their craft, which is relevant to the plot of this book, as they have developed a technology that criminals want to steal to sell. Jane and Vincent are artists but privileged artists. Sir Vincent is the Prince Regents’s official glamourist and is privileged due to this superior connection. All societies have a socially constructed hierarchy called stratification, in which some people have more power, wealth, or other privileges. Kowal pays meticulous attention to the historical time period in which she writes, the Regency, and her characters visit different European nations throughout the series.

The privilege of Jane and Vincent is established at the beginning of the novel. The types of problems they encounter are certainly important to Jane, but are “of the prosaic sort: which carriage to take, how to arrange their party’s quarters, and, most of all, how to manage her mother’s nerves” (11). Jane begins the novel ready to leave her family and travel alone with Vincent to work on a Glamour project in Murano. They are beset by pirates (or so they think) en route, and they lose all their valuables and are threatened with slavery. A banker onboard offers to help them by paying a ransom for them.

At the port office in Venice, it becomes apparent that their slide down the social classes has begun. They have lost some of their privilege, as no one believes that Vincent is the Prince Regent’s glamourist. For example, they can’t enter the city due to an entry fee, nor do they have a change of clothes, food, or shelter. A rich banker, Signor Sanuto, was aboard the ship when they were boarded by the pirates and offers to help them. On his charity, they are allowed to leave. He helps them establish a line of credit through his bank, loans them clothes, and allows them to stay at his palazzo. For a time, Jane and Vincent seem stable: they replace their clothes and even buy a replacement cane for the one that Sanuto lost during the pirate raid. They begin to work on their glamour project with the glassmakers, and time passes. Eventually, they truly plummet down the social classes when they are victims of a heist. The glasses that they make containing called Verre Obscuri are stolen, and Sanuto disappears.

Jane and Vincent are left destitute, and their friend, Lord Byron is out of town. They are forbidden from leaving Murano with no shelter, clothes, or food. Kowal does an excellent job showing the emotions that Jane and Vincent experience like anger, anxiety, and depression. They are treated in a stigmatizing way in the first church that they visit: the priest assumes that Vincenet lost all their money gambling.  He then proceeds to act as if they are the guilty parties.  The priest offers Jane a place to stay, but Vincent would not have had one.  The priest  states: “‘Venice’s charities are intended to provide means for those who cannot fend for themselves. Women, children, and the lame or ill’” (165). Jane refuses. They decide to pawn Jane’s wedding ring, although Vincent was loathe to do it because he felt he was failing at their marriage vows. They are able to rent a tiny room above a grocer, although they go to sleep with no food. Part of Jane’s privilege is revealed; she has never made more than toast and tea. Nor does she know how to launder clothes.

At this juncture, Kowal explores the intersection of gender and social class in occupation. Although ladies like Jane do not have a profession, lower class women did have professions like dressmakers and cooks.  Furthermore, the point is made that while glamour is considered a woman’s art, the only professionals in the field are men. Vincent comments that it is more “natural” for women to stay in the home to which Jane ponders giving him a copy of a book on “The Rights of Women” by Mary Wollstonecraft, which is an actual book you can read through the Gutenberg press online for free. Vincent plans to demonstrate his glamour abilities door to door, and they happen upon a church that the swindler had mentioned to them earlier. Jane manages to gain employment there.  It turns into a fulfilling experience for her over time.  The nuns teach her many skills including bread making, and eventually, she starts teaching the young pupils glamour in relation to their music lessons. This work, for Jane, is the opposite of alienating work.  She feels pride and gets to work on the whole product. Furthermore, she discovers a passion for teaching.

Contrastingly, Vincent has trouble finding employment. This line by Vincent is the experience of many educated people today in a stagnant United States economy: “‘Today, I attempted to acquire a job hauling bricks for a mason.  I was declined.  Apparently, I have the hands of a gentleman and am unsuited for ‘real work’’” (192).  This relates to the fact that many people in the United States (and elsewhere) are unable to find work relating to their educations or are underemployed.

When Vincent finds a job doing glamour and is reticent to discuss it, Jane fears that he is working as a coldmonger, which is dangerous work, established in a previous book. Often, the most dangerous and dirty work of a society is given to those in the lower social classes because they don’t have many options.  The dangerous work done in coal mines and textile mills are great examples of work that has immediate or long term dangers.

One poignant scene getting at the differences in social class is when “the more wealthy simply rode through the rain in sedan chairs or upon the water in gondolas, leaving the task of getting wet to their drivers.  In that moment, Jane would have been happy just to be able to afford an umbrella.” (215)  In another scene, a store clerk stereotypes Jane and states “no credit.” Jane buys a bar of lavender soap due to this interaction.When Jane begins to question the clerk about her assumptions, the clerk admits that they often get thieves in the store. The clerk apologizes and asks Jane if she used to be a lady.  Jane feels as if the woman was blaming her for her poverty.  (This reminds me of this short video, “Cracking the Code,” that is on race but relates how to how store clerks stereotype certain categories of people.)

Vincent and Jane fight over the purchase of the lavender soap.  It has been established earlier in the book that the couple had a warm, friendly relationship with calm conflict resolution.  Their change in circumstances (e.g., the stress) leads into more heated conflict.  One problem is that Vincent is upset that Jane is bringing in more money. Jane and Vincent fight about who does the household chores, quite reminiscent of many modern conversations. In fact, Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung, looked at these topics in “The Second Shift” originally published in 1989. This book is an easy read and still relevant to modern issues. The second shift is the idea that when (usually) women get home from their paid work, they have to do the household and care work in the home. Interviews were conducted with dual career couples. While “The Second Shift” is about a later time period and a different place, it is relevant to the conflict faced in the book.

There were three different ideologies: traditional, transitional, and egalitarian. Before their downward social mobility, Jane and Vincent were essentially both working as elite professionals and would likely fit into the egalitarian mode. They shared similar power in their relationship in terms of decision making and did similar work. (Although due to her gender, Jane is not recognized for her contributions by society.) They could afford to employ others to do the second shift. Today, many professionals hire maids to compensate for not having a spouse in the home.  However, Vincent’s comment that women were more naturally suited for the home would fit in with a traditional ideology, in which the man works outside the home and the woman works inside the home.  Usually, women have less power in these relationships over major decisions.  Transitional ideology occurs when it assumed that women will both work outside of the home and fulfill the housework and childcare.

At the end of the book, after Jane and Vincent complete a dazzling heist of their own, they return to their previous station and social class.  They realize how privileged they were and things that had seemed normal to them at the beginning of the book seem like luxuries: eating pastries, enjoying lavender soap, and the return of Jane’s wedding ring.  I love this line of Kowal: “Jane…knew that she would always love him, for richer, for poorer.  With and without soap” (382). In the final chapter, they pay off their debts, restore their clothes, etc.

As they walked along in their new clothes, Jane notes “Today the other passers-bye saw her, but as a fitting part of Murano rather than as a bit of refuse that they would prefer not to acknowledge” (384).  Kowal is spot on in her analysis of how people treat the poor and homeless.  People often look past these groups as if they are invisible. They are stigmatized and often blamed for situations created by the larger political and historical changes happening around them.

Kowal’s book is both highly entertaining and thoughtful. It is my favorite so far. I highly recommend it and the entire series.



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Art, Inequality, and “Dirty Work” in “Wasteland”

“The really magical things are the ones that happen right in front of you. A lot of the time you keep looking for beauty, but it is already there. And if you look with a bit more intention, you see it.”

Vic Muniz

Due to an illness, I decided to show the documentary, “Wasteland,” to my intro sociology class last week. “Wasteland” won many awards during 2010 and 2011. It’s perfect for a sociology class or for anyone looking to understand a different culture, interested in inequality and social justice, or who loves artistic endeavors.  The video is also a great look at recycling and environmental activism.

Vik Muniz, the artist in the video, is an internationally known artist who left Brazil to go to the United States due to receiving a payment from a person who shot him. In this TED Talk from 2003, Muniz humorously chats about his view of art and his own art specifically. After his success as an artist, he wanted to help others. He decides to return to Brazil, specifically to Jardim Gramacho, a landfill outside of Sao Pablo. He lives among the catadores, or the workers who scavenged the materials for recyclables. The documentary explores why the catadores perform the work they do, as opposed to other jobs. For many, tragedies struck their lives giving them few options. It also notes the activism of the workers to create the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho (ARPJG) prior to the arrival of Muniz.

As one would expect, the catadores’ views on their situations varied.  Some viewed their work with pride, focusing on their important contributions to their community and helping the environment.  They were responsible for recycling waste and saving space in the landfill.  These workers derived meaning and purpose from their work.

On the other hand, some seemed ashamed.  More than once, women pointed out that at least they weren’t working as prostitutes.  This reminded me of the concept of “dirty work” in sociology.  The concept was created by Everett C. Hughes.  Dirty work is socially constructed, meaning that society decides what work is dirty.  This concept is about more than just physical dirt.  It can also refer to work that a society perceives to be morally suspect.  Finally, people that even work to help groups of people seen as stigmatized may be considered to be doing dirty work.  Often, to feel respectable, workers completing dirty work will try to avoid their stigmatizing label and legitimize their work to themselves and others.  (If you want to read more about this, you can refer this PDF of an analysis of Ashforth and Kreiner’s look at dirty work by Stacy J. Chidaushe.)

While I follow the attempts of some sex workers in the US to define their own lives and refuse to be rescued by other people, I do not know what the experiences of sex workers in the areas of Brazil were like or how they perceived themselves. However, it is interesting to me that these workers that likely had common social class interests. By trying to avoid the stigmatizing label and to appear respectable, the catadores participated in the stigmatization of another group.

For the most part, I feel that the documentary did a good job of showing the daily live of the catadores, in addition to the horrors that they sometimes faced. One woman discussed finding the body of a baby in the refuse. Often, people would dump murder victims in Jardim Garamacho.  Yet, there were beautiful moments of love, care, humor, and creativity.  One of the catadores was a leader in ARPJG, and he discussed the excitement of finding and reading books.

In the end, Muniz gets the catadores to pose for portraits, some of which were their own ideas.  Then, he gets them to help him make huge murals of the portraits using recyclable goods from the landfill.  The results were absolutely amazing, and the process seemed to be an empowering one.  They take one of portraits to an auction and make $50,000 for the catadores.  Of course, this is heartwarming, but I really respect the fact that they address the potential for harm for the catadores by participating in the video.  Eventually, Muniz would leave and how would the people’s lives be changed for the better or the worse by the interactions? Often documentaries or journalism provide moments for an audience to enjoy, and then leave the people without any further assistance or even without a follow up.

I found an article from PBS that did address what happened after the video.  In 2012, the landfill was closed.  The city planned to pay some of the pickers about $7,500 a piece due to the efforts of the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho.  For the 2014 World Cup, the pickers received contracts to work on recycling.  However, to really know what happened to the catadores, a follow up would be needed to see if their conditions are better under these new contracts and payments. “Wasteland” is a great documentary, and although the landfill is no longer there, the concepts relating to dirty work, stigmatization, inequality, and art make it worth watching.

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