God Loves a Terrier : "Best in Show" as Exploration of the American Class System
“We met at Starbucks. Not at the same Starbucks but we saw each other at different Starbucks across the street from each other.”
When Paul Fussell wrote his 1983 book “Class: A Guide Through the American Class System” he was touching on one of the last great taboos in American society : social class. And while a lot has changed since 1983 - like, a lot a lot, so much so that many of his ideas seem hopelessly outdated - his writing remains deeply relevant in one important sense - that while class in America is a forbidden topic, it's nonetheless profoundly established. It's one of the key decisive factors of an American life trajectory, and our mouths are clamped shut, it remains starkly visible to the eyes.
The true beauty of Fussell’s work lies in its Bourdieuian approach, a subtle work-around that spares a reader the stress of real economic analysis. For Fussell, class is a set of behaviors and a series of purchases. It’s a system that’s comforting in its simplicity. He’s basically arguing that social class isn’t financial, it’s “read” through a system of signs. You don’t need to look at someone’s bank statement to guess their social class, you can see it by the kind of tie they’re wearing.
It’s precisely that read of things - that series of signifiers - that makes the 2000 mockumentary film Best in Show so hilarious. Oh yes, oh yes. I recently rewatched Best in Show for the first time in a long time and it hit me so hard over the head that I had to Google this topic to make sure there weren’t already like 170 things on the Internet about this. I’m not entirely unconvinced that Best in Show isn’t actually a film adaptation of Class.
Social class is never overtly mentioned as a theme in the film, but it’s the central thread that makes it funny. Because it feels to me like the whole game is taking a bunch of people who wouldn’t normally show up at a dog show and sticking them in one; they’re not personalities, they’re archetypes. You know by what they wear, by their jobs, by the way they speak.
(Honestly maybe those are all Dog Show People, I wouldn’t know. I always kind of imagined them all as the breeder played by Jane Lynch, but maybe I’m confusing Dog People with Horse People. I come from Llama People, that’s Fussell’s Class X if I ever saw it.)
In some strange way, it takes Fussell’s work (a very narrow, caricatural, out-moded analysis of class in America) and it reminds us that there’s still some relevance to it. Social class feels like a less and less relevant tool of consumer behavior study in a world where mass consumption of small consumer goods is largely democratized. Which is not to say that buying power has somehow miraculously evened-out, or that everyone has equal access to the wonders of the Golden Age.
Rather, what we buy has become increasingly democratized, particularly in terms of dress. Gone the days of judging a man by his tie. It’s the great Internet Equalizer, we’re all wearing jeans and Stans now. Also, from a distance, you cannot tell the difference between high-end and low-end denim, don’t lie to me. Put otherwise, class remains a good indicator of consumer behavior, but I think it would be more difficult to call it a predictor.
I think that’s why Best in Show is so fun for me - because, as exaggerated as it is, it’s an important reminder that we’re still reading people. They’re archetypes, sure, but they’re recognizable. If you get the jokes, if you totally know those people (or don’t), it’s because you’re able to understand a series of signs and signifiers, of subtle little tics like dropping your g’s or memorizing an L.L.Bean catalog. It’s the Starter Pack meme in a movie. Maybe social class is no longer the most relevant tool for studying consumerism, but it’s a reminder that we exist, inescapably, in a visually legible class context.
In one of several appendices, Fussell is kind enough to provide a quiz for the curious reader, anxious to position himself on the ladder (although if you are anxious, according to Fussell, there’s no need. We already know you’re middle class). Go through your living room and award yourself points for the items you see. +5 points for a piano, -3 points for a white lacquer baby grand. +3 points for any of the following magazines on your coffee table: The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the Smithsonian. +1 point for National Geographic. -1 point for Reader’s Digest.
There’s an obvious bias for the upper class - Fussell makes a good analysis but doesn’t seem to quite escape that overtly snobbish preference for what good ol’ PB would refer to as an accumulation of embodied and objectified cultural capital. He devotes a lot of time to something called “Prole Drip” or “Slide” or something that implies that everything good must eventually become ~sullied~ by the hands of the lower echelons. I don't know, it was 1983. Academic standards were different.
Best in Show provides us with a class study not unlike Fussell’s appendix. And it so happens that I have a favorite couple in this film, my golden example: the Weimaraner people (Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock).
Let us study the Weimaraner people. They embody SO perfectly a Fussellian archetype that I smell conspiracy. Meg and Hamilton are a late 90’s yuppie couple, which is explained to us in the opening scene by a series of key tells : obsessed with coffee culture and Starbucks in particular, law school, THEY MEMORIZED THE J CREW CATALOG, therapy… the entire joke comes from the discussion of their consumer decisions, and the really great part is that they’re doing it on purpose.
It’s the conspicuous consumption of the middle class, the anxiety of “slipping down a rung” as Fussell would put it. Fussell is brutal about this, and rightly so - conspicuous consumption gets brought up in discussions of poverty, but it’s almost at its strongest in the middle-upper middle class. You are L.L.Bean people, and therefore, you are. It’s your NPR tote bag and your Ivy League bumper sticker. It’s reading The Atlantic and humble-bragging about it. Ah yes, fanning it out on your coffee table might get you taken down a rung. It’s the constant references to Starbucks, in the late 90’s, or like Soulcycle or Whole Foods or whatever the fuck today. Meg has braces in the film, I think for Fussell, it would not be impossible for her to have grown up poor and be seeking to establish herself on the class rung. No one, according to Fussell, is having less fun in this game of signs than the middle class.
Unlike Fussell, however, Best in Show doesn’t spare the upper class. They’re ridiculed along with everyone else - out of touch, old-fashioned. And at the end of the day, despite all their advantages, they’re not the ones to walk away with a prize-winning show dog. It’s the Norwich terrier who takes it all in a stunning upset at the end. It’s the couple who couldn’t pay for their hotel room, who’d maxed out a few credit cards, who lived in Florida, who bleached their hair and had a nickname like “Cookie”. They’re unpretentious, and like Fussell’s counterparts, seem to be both aware of their position on the ranks and unconcerned about it. (In the sense, according to Fussell, that they’d be less anxious about class positioning than the middle class. I’m not saying I agree.)
So, in the end, class and rank isn’t quite the predictor that we’d imagined it to be - both in the film and in reflecting on Fussell’s work 30-something years later. If it seems out-of-touch, irrelevant, narrow, that’s because it is. It’s overwhelmingly white, for one, not unlike Best in Show. It’s a world where upper-class meant preppy. There’s no intersectionality. It’s long lost its use as a sociological text, but it remains a fun romp. It’s pure fluff, not unlike Best in Show. It remains, much like the film, a fun game of personalities. Exaggerated though they may be.