'the simple life' was an accidentally brilliant reflection on america's political divide

15 years ago, Paris and Nicole illuminated the festering culture wars before Trump brought it all to the surface.

by Cassidy George
27 November 2018, 8:00am

Few people are more emblematic of pop culture in the Bush years than Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie — and their time captivating public interest is far from over. The original reality TV show socialites are making a comeback thanks to to a millennial induced wave of 00s nostalgia. Today they are mostly lauded for their generation-shaping fashion choices, but their contribution to culture is much grander than their legacy of making crotch-length Von Dutch mini skirts socially acceptable. Aside from inventing the kind of celebrity that created a path for the all-encompassing Kardashian reign, Paris and Nicole’s career-making reality TV show The Simple Life is, in retrospect, an accidentally brilliant commentary on white America.

Although the show initially aired 13 years before Trump’s election, The Simple Life is a meditation on America’s deep-seated cultural and class divide. The show maintains this unique ability to fascinate its viewers from both ends of the spectrum –– rural and/or conservative folk gawk at rich nihilism, while affluent and/or urban folk gawk at pastoral traditionalism. What viewers at the time likely didn’t anticipate was that these rifts, exploited gleefully by producers for entertainment, would evolve into something far more sinister. As the world watches Trump’s American trash fire with bewilderment, particularly in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings and the majorly depressing but not entirely shocking illumination of white women’s unwavering allegiance to the GOP in the midterms, it’s Paris and Nicole who may provide some unlikely answers to the prevalent and pressing question: “how the hell did we get here?”

The Simple Life season one’s plot is deceptively simple. Two Hollywood heiresses, one born into wealth and the other adopted by singer Lionel Richie, are stripped of their money and sent to live and work in Althus, Arkansas for one month. The city’s humble population of 839 was roughly 98% white and had a per capita income of $17,376, according to the 2000 census. It’s geographic and economic profile would make Althus a small place in a vast region ripe for the coming wave of populism. Paris and Nicole venture into the heart of what we now know as Trump’s America. The Razor flip-phone carrying, extension sporting and Chihuahua toting party girls arrive on the Leding family farm, where chaos immediately ensues. In attempting and catastrophically failing at a number of taxing blue collar jobs, like dairy farming and fast food service, the show brews a dark humor based on the absurdity of difference in socioeconomic status and ideological mindset between the heiresses and their hosts.

The Simple Life joyfully tackled one of the most taboo subjects in American society, its criminal levels of income inequality –– an injustice often excused by fairytale stories of social mobility and myths of meritocracy, which are the exception and not the rule. Schadenfreude is the central character here, bolstered by festering class resentments. Paris and Nicole, part of the 0.1% percent of American society who hold as much wealth as the bottom 90%, are lampooned as they fail to imitate working class lifestyle. Even the most unassuming scenes are incidentally poetic reflections of the age of high capitalism. One B roll shot of their Louis Vuitton luggage being transported in the back of a rusty blue pickup truck, for example, is a neat visual metaphor for how the wealth of the few in the US is carried by the exploited labor of the masses. But The people of Althus, however, are not the heroes of this story. The severity of their small town disposition is equally subject to jeers.

Paris and Nicole’s trials and tribulations at the various jobs they’re fired from (enjoyable as they are to watch) reveal some profound truths about the country's pastoral resentment for the American elite. While those of more urban or affluent backgrounds tend to dismiss the rural disposition as “ignorance,” Paris and Nicole (despite all of their privileges) unveil their own profound ignorance of basic concepts of daily life in a number of indelible one liners –– like when Paris bluntly asks her supervisor at drive-thru restaurant Sonic what a tax return is, or when Paris must explain to a confused Nicole what a laundromat is (“a place where people who can’t afford their own washing machines go to wash clothes”).

Their producer encouraged trouble-making at work, which involves intentionally inhibiting productivity and efficiency at their temporary employers’ expense is played for major laughs. It’s nothing short of sabotage. Paris and Nicole spill gallons of milk due to laziness before topping off half-filled bottles with water, effectively cheating paying customers out of their expected supply. They decorate a handmade taxidermy bear (which they are supposed to deliver) with make-up and give the middle finger to drive-by customers at Sonic instead of enticing them in (while dressed as giant slushies). Their blatant disrespect and anarchic antics reveal absolute disregard for the American working class, and sure, that was the whole point of the show. But their insensitivity to the plight of their rural counterparts sheds light on the highly criticized elitist mentality (big city indifference). Central to Paris and Nicole’s misbehavior is the idea that the rules don’t apply to them, as they so rarely do in the real world of the wealthy. The townspeople want to educate Nicole and Paris, but they don't want to learn. The audience laughs at Paris and Nicole, but Paris and Nicole laugh at the people of Althus.

The Simple Life tackles a far more complicated subject than the difference between rich and poor, which is the radical difference in value systems produced by things such as geographical location, education access, and religious beliefs. In the show, Paris and Nicole are hyperbolic examples of metropolitan lifestyles that provoke rural anxiety. They are portrayed as the worst of their kind: vain, materialistic, lewd, and destructive party animals, who believe in nothing and care for no one. Their nihilistic grandeur is contrasted with the “wholesome” family values of the people of Althus, who embody the vestiges of white, Christian and conservative values.

Paris and Nicole’s scantily clad fashion also brings the subject of values –– and even feminism –– to the fore. Their minimal clothing is a physical manifestation of one of the show’s major themes, which is Paris and Nicole’s overt sexuality. Their "boy craziness" is amplified and used to cause distress in their host's lives time and time again. The show's humor lies in Paris and Nicole's lascivious behavior so genuinely offending the women around them. They suggest a threesome with their host brother, encourage gay activity at the town fair's kissing booth, and even conjure up a couple of gas station boyfriends, who bolster their image as town floozies. Paris and Nicole are compared to hookers and scolded by many women in Althus, who claim their behavior is “disrespectful to their town.” When it feels impossible to understand how women in 2018 can vote for a party of people who endorse sexual harassment and vote against women’s rights, the demonization of Paris and Nicole’s sexuality in The Simple Life illustrates that sexual empowerment is by no means a national interest.

Its inherent connection with feminism further complicates the topic for women with conservative, traditional, religious (or sexist) values, who aim to preserve conventional (or oppressive) gender roles. The Simple Life serves as a reminder that women's lack of political alignment is rooted in deeply different beliefs (philosophically, spiritually) about the roles women should play in society. The show offers evidence of how much the culture war still trumps (pun intended) the gender war. While it seems outrageous that any woman could still cast votes for a party that is anti-woman, consider that these votes mark racial allegiance. These are votes to protect their privileged racial position, rather than to advance their second class gender position. Acknowledging their own oppression would require acknowledgement of the oppression of minorities. Amplifying marginalized voices comes at the expense of sacrificing their own dominant societal position.

The great battle between urban American and #murica isn’t just over values, it’s over cultural “inequality,” stoked by the feeling among the rural populous “only a small elite slice of the country defines what tastes and values are acceptable,” according to Alissa Quart at the Guardian. The derision is exemplified when Paris and Nicole join a quilting group and are bored to tears by their classic approach to the medium. Nicole asks her fellow quilters, “Don’t you guys get bored of making squares?” before enthusiastically encouraging them to “make it a little bit edgier, like with some cigarettes burns or paint, almost like a graffiti type!” They are flabbergasted at her request and she replies, cackling, “I get that you guys are traditional, but make it fun, make it exciting!” Nicole’s sincere advice to partially destroy their handicraft speaks volumes about how privilege, education and taste intertwine. This isn’t to say that Paris and Nicole’s taste is good or refined; their constructed trashiness is just the product (or rejection) of aesthetic education. Nicole narrates huge parts of her time on the farm while wearing a shirt that says “Dude, where’s my couture?” with giant sunglasses sitting on her streaky, highlighted hair. The juxtaposition between the message of her shirt and Arkansas reality is the hyperbole central to the show’s entertainment factor. Later she sports a tank top with the word “rich” spray painted on it, which forms a clear contrast with an Althusian in a shirt which reads “101% hillbilly.”

The dismissal of the validity of rural culture has helped to breed resentment that has fueled a new kind of populism which is fiercely anti-intellectual. Why did poor white people in 2016 elect a born-elite billionaire (who, economically speaking should be the person they’re voting against) who then cut taxes on the rich? In large part, because of Trump’s allegiance to the ideological pastoral in the American culture war. His gruff manner of speech and disgust for political correctness appeals to the hearts of the many who not only feel their own culture is dismissed as inferior, but who also fear the alleviation of systematic oppression against women and minorities. Inflamed privilege protectors (of varying socioeconomic status) have resultantly ushered in an age where crude selfishness masquerades as greatness.

The Simple Life is a rumination on the role of the echo chamber in fueling the class and culture wars, a power which has become only more extreme with the rise of social media. Status and privilege dictate opportunities, lifestyles and therefore surroundings; like-minded people attract like minded people. The Simple Life is a reflection of the most drastic polarities of this effect. Hollywood princesses meet their polar opposites; both the heiresses and their hosts are products of a restricted environment (the former by choice, the later likely not). The rural community they encounter is the product of lack of diversity in opinion, lifestyle, race, and background. Paris and Nicole also come from an environment which lacks diversity. An echo chamber forms when everyone around you thinks a certain way and that frame of mind is then perceived as incontrovertible reality. An alternative methodology or ideology isn’t presented and therefore isn’t an option.

The source of The Simple Life’s fun is the havoc unleashed when bubbles are burst, and the safety of the echo chamber ceases. The show manages to find the humor in the severity of Americans misunderstanding of one another, and their ignorance of one another's hardships, values, or lack thereof. In an ideal situation this kind of meeting of worlds increases empathy. When tears are shed as the girls leave the farm, there are only mild suggestions of productive exchange. Here, reality TV forebodes a political reality, one that we can no longer laugh at. Racist, xenophobic, homophobic, and transphobic attitudes have, in the United States, been rewarded with a series of distorted funhouse mirrors. The lack of disruption in this echo/reflection has bred extremism and deepened already profound rifts. When it feels impossible to comprehend the flourishing of reactionary mindsets and the political endorsement of bigotry and hatred in America, watching The Simple Life proves just how easy it to demonize those you don’t know, and empathize with those who you do.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

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