Monday, September 6, 2010

Nickel and Dimed: On Being a Pretentious Bitch in America - by Ryl

I read this book hoping to find an interesting sociological experiment in which a woman from the upper middle class disguises herself as a woman from the working class to learn first-hand the struggles those people encounter each day. What I found was "prissy bitch goes slumming and whines about it for two hundred and thirty pages." This is one of the books that I hate more each time I think about it. Here's a partial list of how it pissed me off:

1. Her "experiment" was not at all valid. She did not live like working class people live. She had to have a car. Had to. No public transportation for Ms. Ehrenreich, no siree bobaroony! In fact, she didn't even look for work in places that had public transportation. Honey, I work with the working class you tried so hard to think you emulated. They take the bus. They get friends and family to drive them to work. When they really have no other way into work, they walk. She also had to have her very own place. She didn't even think to look for shared housing, which would have saved her a lot of money. Instead she looked for pricey run-down trailer parks and rent-by-the-week hotels. As a reviewer on GoodReads put it, " the only folks I know in my town who chose the roach motel route were also doing meth or had lousy rental references from too many parties or property damage." Way to do your research, Babs.

2. Her attitude was slightly snotty in the beginning and then descended to positively grating as the "experiment" progressed. She is shocked--SHOCKED!--to discover that the working class is populated by actual human beings who take pride in their work and work very hard every day. I nearly threw the book across the room during the maid chapter when one of her co-workers twists her ankle on the job and then is angry at being sent home the next day to let the injury heal a bit more. "But why," Ms. Ehrenreich pontificates, "would she be upset about this opportunity to rest and recuperate when she has been injured?" "Because she won't get paid to sit at home waiting for her ankle to heal, bitch!" I responded. "She only gets paid for the hours she works and since she just found out she's pregnant, she wants and needs to accumulate as many hours as possible before she has the baby and has to pay for the birth!" Simple logic escapes Ms. Ehrenreich at the most obvious times.

3. Her relentless ivory-tower liberalism. I say this as someone who leans towards the left side of the political spectrum. She tries in each of her jobs to bring power to the workers, subtly at first and ending up with her preaching the gospel of union at Wal-Mart. I do agree that maybe a union would do Wal-Mart and its workers some good. However, she went about it in the most annoying and least likely to succeed way. I suspect Ms. Ehrenriech was getting bored with her slumming and decided to stir the soup to entertain herself. It never occurs to her that the working class is too busy working to worry about empowerment, and/or they don't want to risk getting labeled as a troublemaker and losing their job/good references for their next one. Going without work means going without pay and there's not much to save when you're making $7.50 an hour and have bills to pay. This leads me to the most irritating thing about this book:

4. Ms. Ehrenreich never really immersed herself in the culture she was studying. She always had an "out." When she got a rash, she called a doctor friend who prescribed a cream to take it away. When she smoked pot before a drug test (really?), she wasted money on patent medicine cures before her appointment. When she got bored or was about to get into trouble, she suddenly revealed, ta-dah! I have a Ph.D. and you were all guinea pigs in my little experiment! (And then she was shocked--SHOCKED--to find out that no one really cared about that. What they were worried about was getting through the next day with one less person on the team. Little things like two weeks notice apparently have no meaning for slumming Ph.Ds.) I kept hearing Pulp's "Common People" in my head as I read this book, especially this part: 

Rent a flat above a shop,
cut your hair and get a job.
Smoke some fags and play some pool,
pretend you never went to school.
But still you'll never get it right,
'cause when you're laid in bed at night,
watching roaches climb the wall,
if you call your Dad he could stop it all.

You'll never live like common people,
you'll never do what common people do,
you'll never fail like common people,
you'll never watch your life slide out of view,
and dance and drink and screw,
because there's nothing else to do.

I highly recommend the William Shatner version of this song. Seriously, he really gets the feeling of the narrator down.

There is one thing I liked about this book, though: her revelations on how the rent-a-maid services really work. They're not cleaning, they're just shining things up a bit so they look clean.

Ryl is a professional desk monkey who must reserve her vast array of sarcasm for the internet. She enjoys unleashing it on bad movies and books that irritate her more than they should. Her hobbies include playing way too much Oblivion, putting off her cross-stitch project, and wondering how she screwed up her latest crochet project. Her blog can be found at


  1. So much yes. I thought I was the only one who hated this book. Even one of my poor momma friends loved it so much she ended up writing for Ehrenreich's site.

  2. Maybe it's true that she didn't try alot of things she should have, like share an apartment and go without a car. But the fact that she still had a hard time, even with more luxuries, and even though she always had an out, shows what a hard time alot of people have making ends meet.

    "It never occurs to her that the working class is too busy working to worry about empowerment, and/or they don't want to risk getting labeled as a troublemaker and losing their job/good references for their next one."

    - I think she does, and it's exactly that kind of oppressive fear that needs to stop, and that she's trying to expose.