Ripples of the global financial crisis were still being felt across evicted households when the Steven J. Baum foreclosure law firm decided to throw a Halloween party in 2010. Images from the private event, which were later leaked by a former employee, revealed how the office space and its personnel in Upstate New York were transformed to resemble the crude economic reality they had helped to shape. While the interior of the workplace included a neglected row of newly foreclosed houses, the staff decided to step it up a notch by mocking the people they had indirectly evicted, dressing up in derogatory homeless attire. Reducing their sterile managerial environment to curated squalor, the pretend poor were carrying the usual props one could expect from this kind of tone-deaf shtick. Brown paper bags that barely concealed bottled vices played second fiddle to signs that had “will worke [sic] for food” written all over them. It doesn’t take much to flinch at the idea of anyone who decides to present a harsh socioeconomic condition as a baboonish costume. It sucks. But what is it about mockery that it (almost) always correlates to the way that someone looks?
Mockery is an abusive exaggeration done for the sake of comedy that attempts to make an amusing claim at the expense of someone or something. And as the trusted lawyers morbidly exemplified, it often pokes fun at the qualities that people can’t change about themselves. If that’s the case, it would be easy to see why those who mock feel the need to uglify those they are mocking: looks are one of the prominent indications of our socioeconomic backgrounds and are therefore particularly common subjects of harm. They are bits of information about who we are or how we present to others that we provide to anyone we come across with, and that unfortunately includes potential abusers. Mockers tend to pick on the physical traits of someone and then proceed to blow them out of all proportion, exactly because it is that easy. It’s a way of stirring up a topic that feels very personal to those being laughed at, while still avoiding any meaningful knowledge of who they really are.
You might think to yourself at this point Hold on, people can still change the way that they look, right? New sweaters are still bought every once in a while, and in some cases someone might even go under the knife and chisel their jawline. True, but here’s the thing: individuals must have access to enough money or fair material conditions in order to alter their appearance in the way that they would like to. And if we go back for a moment to the not-so-tactful office party, it all makes a lot of sense. Because the poor supposedly don’t have the substantial resources to change their garbs or features, they become an easy target of classist mockery. And so, those who didn’t have a choice but to wear potato sacks or bankruptcy barrels back in the day became the butt of so much mockery, and the go-to signifiers of destitution. Like the homeless, peasants and serfs of centuries past seemed inseparable from their material environment, as they did not have the necessary means to separate and, most importantly, to individuate themselves from it – a moral stance that remains an imperative for the rich to this very day.
Unlike other forms of abuse which intend to create a clear distinction between the bully and the victim, mockery is unique in that it usually assumes the role of the subjugated person. Imitation is most common when it comes to expressing mockery. Its theatrical action splinters the self into a few personas, which thrive from their dissonance between one another. It’s pretty straightforward to see how this type of projection is a way for people to unleash their carnal desires by pretending that they are not their own. Mimicking the way that people walk, talk or dress means to use them as the social scapegoat of disclosed mental cravings.
Mockery is a slippery slope which can often lead to the harassment of the vulnerable, but it doesn’t mean that it always has to be that way. The emancipatory practices of mocking are part and parcel of so many festivities around the globe. An obvious historical example of that would be the tradition of Carnival in Medieval Europe. Dressing up as a king while still retaining the manners of a peasant was considered a hoot for those who were lucky enough to take part in the shenanigans. Carnival was first and foremost a political event in which hierarchies were turned upside down for a day. Its folklore reminds us that costumes are more than just a funny spectacle. They’re an assertion that power is not only arbitrary, but also something that should be taken lightly. At its best, mockery reveals the absurdity of status when it is stripped away from violence: nothing more than pretense. It can exercise the promise of toppling existing social ladders instead of cementing them further, whenever it is the marginalized who dress up as the affluent and not vice versa like in that office party. Maybe that’s a fitting portrayal, given that beggary is anyway-valued as a playful activity in the custom of Halloween. It’s a holiday in which poverty is treated as something spooky. I mean, what is trick-or-treating if not the choice between a demand for goods such as candy, cakes and money (historically speaking), or making someone the subject of mockery whenever this sort of demand is refused?
Mockery demonstrates laughable qualities but passes them on as belonging to others. The same clearly goes for contemporary modes of ironic consumption and those who spend loads of money just to look poor-but-sexy. God forbid anyone would ever think that a fashion-forward person would wear bermuda shorts intentionally, they’re just mocking a hypothetical other who does. Any group that needs to fabricate an imaginary ugly as a vindication of its own legitimation is questionable. This type of commerciable mockery is a thin veneer of distancing and a win-win for those who participate in it. Its social conventions are employed as a tool of comedic marginalization. Whether we like it or not, mockery involves a degree of creativity which has the potential to unleash immense imaginative powers. Dressing up as someone else should be so much more than just a nasty pejorative. If anything is to be learned from extravagant celebrations such as the Medieval Carnival or the Ball Scene of the last century, it is how mocking is a jubilant subversion and a way of undermining power. Sometimes, putting on the garments of a king or a straight counterpart is a way to defy social stratification by simply dressing above positions or across rigidly fixed identities.
Kendra (2009) Feed Sack Fashion in Rural America: A Reflection of Culture
Based on the works of LeGoff (1978:93) and Gurevich (1985:53)
Maksym Kozlov, The Squad, from the series Lose Yourself to Dance, 2022