THE OFFICIAL GUIDE TO OFFICIAL HANDBOOKS
THE RICH LEGACY OF PUTTING OTHERS IN THEIR CULTURAL PLACE
I spent the mid ’90s in a café called Limbo, smoking and trying to write a novel. A friend who worked at Henry Holt gave me a copy of The Field Guide to North American Males by Marjorie Ingall, and I saw that I’d been pegged: I was the “Acerbic Bipolar Novelist” cross-bred with the “Slacker Boy Toy.” Among the things that anger the Novelist are “a huge advance for… a writer he considers marginal” and “a price increase at Kinko’s.” Check and check. The mating call of the Boy Toy is: “Wanna come over and watch The Simpsons?” It was like reading my biography, or at least my FBI file. It was like reading the file of every guy I’d ever met between the ages of nineteen and forty. There’s the “Patriarchal Yet Nurturing College Professor” who “takes you to the one ‘fancy’ Italian restaurant in range of campus.” The “Witty Advertising Exec” can be found “in his ironic yet slavishly decorated apartment.” It’s an ingenious and sweeping exhibition of the female gaze—which turns out to be a lot sharper, wittier, and more considered than the male gaze. In the years since, I’ve given the book away a number of times. Having your quirks and values exposed in a venue like this is both thrilling and embarrassing. It’s comforting to be recognized and nestled into a category—and scary to realize you can be so easily reduced to a comic set of predictable gestures.
We’re all just ourselves. Nobody answers to Yuppie Scum, Jewish American Princess, or Gen-X Slacker when the census taker comes knocking. But it’s fun to put others in their cultural place. If a demographic with some cash gets enough momentum, it will likely get a handbook, one that hews plagiarizingly close to the template set out by 1980’s The Official Preppy Handbook, edited (and partly written) by Lisa Birnbach. The books are a tough sell because of their place in the humor-section ghetto; most of them are bought as gag gifts. While individual contributions to the handbook genre may have short life spans, the legacy is strong. The genre reinforces a way of dealing with class and status that is palatable in America—telling it like it is, but with an elbow in the ribs. And if a handbook really hits its mark, it may even attain the distinction of inspiring a style of consuming.
The J. Crew catalog was born in 1983, three years after the publication of The Official Preppy Handbook. J. Crew is the genderless, ageless retail saint of Prep, the Nantucket genie that emerged when the book’s pages were rubbed. The rules on appearance are clear. Preppy men, as decreed by the Preppy Handbook and enacted by J. Crew, should be styled as “a mixture of schoolboy and corporate president.” Women’s clothing has to be “useful” and “cute.” Androgynous looks are also a plus. Bright-hued, conservative fashions convey practical playfulness and offhand confidence. Not just any belt will let on that you’re a rakish link in a generations-long chain of privilege.
So are a catalog and credit card all one needs to be Preppy? The Preppy Handbook’s “Initiation” declares that “looking, acting, and ultimately being Prep is not restricted to an elite minority lucky enough to attend prestigious private schools just because an ancestor or two happened to arrive here on the Mayflower.” But the paragraph ends with a joke that indicates the serious obstacles to crashing the Preppy gates: “In a true democracy everyone can be upper class and live in Connecticut. It’s only fair.” Connecticut, alas, is only so big, and an upper class, by definition, requires an under. Fairness rarely plays when it comes to building a social pyramid.
Americans love to believe that with the right wardrobe and vocabulary, anyone can become anything. We also love the righteousness and special insight that come with being an outsider, from being turned away from the clubs that matter. People don’t make their mark by writing books about how swimmingly they fit in at boarding school, or about how their blue-blooded family isn’t stocked with alcoholic lunatics. The Official Preppy Handbook, along with lesser followers like The Official Slacker Handbook (1994) and The Hipster Handbook (2002), capitalizes on our ambivalence about exclusivity. We cannot shake the idea that self-reinvention is as easy as following a new dress code, but we also call out those poseurs who try to crash the party by dressing like someone they’re not. The handbooks at once invite people in and close the gates.
Preppy culture was ripe for some gag anthropology—it had the mysterious sheen of power that seemed to be peaking, but also a code that could be cracked. The Preppy Handbook is a comprehensive exploration—after reading it, you feel like you’ve been dunked in a way of life, like you’ve partied with Mopsy and Kip. It’s a satire, but adheres fiercely to reality. You trust the reportage and the interpretations: for example, it explains that the duck motif is important because “the duck suggests hunting, water, Maine—all the things worth thinking about,” and “the less an object has to do with ducks, the more it cries out for duck adornment.” The substance and tone make it a cult classic—you can have your ducks and mock them too. The book focuses on the passing on of a value system through generations, and goes from birth through “The Country Club Years,” so it has more range and staying power than its followers, which focus solely on youth culture. It’s long been out of print, which, as one astute Amazon reviewer notes, makes the book even Preppier. The madras-bordered cover has aged well, and looks good even when patched together with duct tape.
Through the book one can learn the names and reputations of the important Prep schools, the appropriate and inappropriate colleges, suburbs, fashions, and pastimes, all of which will provide some cultural traction. Just like you can’t become a surgeon or a sex maestro by book learning alone, you need to live things to embody them, otherwise you’re playing a con game. Indeed, outsiders could reasonably view the whole of Preppy culture as one long, insanely successful con.
By illustrating and disseminating Preppy values—consistency, nonchalance, charm, drinking, discipline, and public-spiritedness—the book at once etched the idea of Preppiness into the national consciousness and sapped the Preppy ethos of much of its heft and mystique. It ushered Prep into becoming more a fashion than a total way of life. A careful reading shows that Preppies never were omnipotent. The final rule on the section on money is “Be in debt.” And the book claims, “Sportsmanship is also the reason why, despite their competitive training, Preppies do not actually run the world.” They’re too swell to be in command. The Preppy values of sport and breezy fashion now clash in contemporary retail.
In a section called “R.I.P. The Late Great Stores,” the handbook mentions Abercrombie & Fitch, whose “death came as a shock to the many patrons who’d purchased sporting, hunting, fishing and ‘fashion’ goods.” They write that the store “passed away with dignity.” Abercrombie & Fitch was born again a few years later as Prep style—polos, V-neck sweaters, rugbies—not merely on steroids but in the full throes of ’roid rage. The accoutrements of the old A&F—rifles, snowshoes, wood skies—are behind glass in the Fifth Avenue flagship in New York. The lighting is dim, the music loud (often pounding techno versions of ’80s pop hits), and the murals, statues, and ads aggressively homoerotic. There is often a live, shirtless slab of beefcake in the entryway. Its iconography of maleness has gone from (paradoxically) refined and grizzled to horny and chiseled. The protagonists of the Preppy Handbook must be spinning in their sand traps.
The hypersexuality of the new Abercrombie & Fitch goes against the handbook’s teachings, where the section on “Prep Sex” is subtitled “A Contradiction in Terms.” “Preppy women as a group are not sexy,” they write. “They aren’t even all that interested in sex.” When Preppy men look for a mate, “sex is extra.” Erotic energy is redirected toward civilized fun. A two-hour drive to a ski resort is more Preppy than the sex drive.
Anna Sequoia’s The Official J.A.P. Handbook, a 1982 guide to Jewish American Princesses and Princes (but mostly the former), is more sanguine about sexuality. It asserts that “the average JAP single decade brings with it thirty-two or more sexual partners.” That’s more like it. One also learns that “JAPs love cocaine.” The J.A.P. Handbook is, as one might expect, less focused on restraint than the Preppy Handbook is. It reflects the outsize appetite for status and status symbols that comes from being in a minority that finally has some money to throw around. The timeless madras of the Preppy cover is replaced by a knockoff of a Louis Vuitton print, with “JAP” instead of “LV” worked into the pattern. This handbook acknowledges the hard borders around cultural cliques; it describes one type of JAP, the “JAP-Aspirant,” as being from someplace immigranty like Brighton Beach, and who is “always a little too fat to be a JAP, her speech is just a little too regionally accented.” The new kids not fully confident of their own place have to make fun of the even newer kids, who get it even less. The book presents what are arguably anti-Semitic clichés as neutral or positive attributes. For example, “At the very core of the female Born JAP aesthetic are two guiding principles: 1) I am terrific; 2) Daddy will pay.” Preppies may also believe in their own greatness, and have their way bankrolled by their folks, but they wouldn’t say it or play it like that.
The assertion that “the desire for a bargain runs as deep within the JAP consciousness as Zionism or love of one’s daddy” comes off like a proud bouquet of stereotypes. The book tries hard to be like the Preppy Handbook but doesn’t quite make it. The drawings and jokes aren’t as well done, and it suffers from poor editing—the “Are you a JAP?” quizzes run to fifty exhausting questions each, and instead of employing a snappy little chart, the J.A.P. Handbook devotes twenty-five dense pages to “The Summer Group Singles House.” It could have been helped by a formula that required pith—something like the “You might be a redneck if…” jokes. Speaking of which: the You Might Be A Redneck If books by Jeff Foxworthy, largely a redaction of his stand-up act, function as an unofficial Redneck handbook (“You might be a redneck if there’s no record of your birth—anywhere,” or if “You own eight cars but still have to bum a ride to work”). More effectively than the JAP book, these jokes take old insults and revamp them to stake out a sense of community and self-respect.
Almost twenty years after the J.A.P. Handbook came The BAP Handbook, a cheerleader for the Black American Princess. Focusing on upper-middle-class black women, the book wants to encourage a demographic; there are literally cheers. (“Say it loud, I’m a BAP and I’m proud! / Say it loud, I’m a BAP and I’m proud!”) The four BAP types are not so different from each other, and are often vaguely defined: the “Boho” BAP is described as “A funky-fresh sister with a decidedly unique if not outrageous approach to life.” Admonishments are reserved for the “Bogus” BAP, who is chided for her greed and “overextended credit.” This is a tough line to draw, because the book extols the importance of brand names with the fervor of a hip-hop song. It recommends Prada shoes, Gucci bags, and says, “An Hermès scarf is the must-have of all must-haves.” BAPs try to strike a balance between ethnicity and assimilation. The book does take a few hard stances: “Any name beginning with ‘La’ or ‘Sh’ and ending in -ima, -ika, -isha, and -ita is never considered by BAParents,” and it warns BAPs away from boyfriends who can’t speak proper English or who have gold teeth. The book embraces African American culture most with extensive listings of black social, charitable, and professional organizations. As with most of these handbooks, the main task, after mild ridicule, is to offer guidance on how to handle material success in America.
Our glittering bar for material success is embodied by the Yuppie. This is the demographic acronym that still carries the biggest charge, despite the fact that almost no one would admit to being one. A lot of Young Urban Professionals are still out there—people who, as defined in 1984’s The Yuppie Handbook, “live on aspirations of glory, prestige, recognition, fame, social status, power, money or any and all combinations of the above.” There is a lot of animosity directed toward the Yuppie, and an expressed or understood “scum” often follows the word. But when most people above the poverty line grouse about Yuppie scum, they are grousing about the Yuppie scum within themselves. The rage at Yuppies comes from a perceived smugness and greed, but for all this negative energy The Yuppie Handbook is an affectionate skewering. Yuppies here are presented as financially, culturally, and physically ambitious, but generally harmless, if highly self-involved. The first Yuppie commandment is “Thou shalt have no other gods before thyself.”
The real Yuppie legacy is the intensification of taste—you are what you buy. A Yuppie gets points for having an industrial stove, a Volvo or Jeep, and a designer dog (an Akita in 1984), and loses points for having fuzzy steering wheels or toilet seats, or for describing wine as “stinko” rather than “anonymous.” The book is big on the “converted industrial loft” and notes that “picking a cheese has become as complicated a ritual as wine tasting.” This—along with arugula, designer water, and expensive coffee—is now standard for the middle- to upper-middle class. Those Yuppies deserve credit for being the consumer pioneers they were.
The slightly evolved version of this value system—a Yuppie, Preppy, Hippie stew—was described in 2000 by David Brooks in his insightful Bobos in Paradise. This is not technically a humor-section handbook (Bobos are too self-serious for that) but it could’ve been. A Bobo is a bourgeois bohemian, someone who combines the financial ambition and conspicuous consumption instincts of the bourgeois (or Yuppie) with the social responsibility and artiness of the bohemian. Bobo is a useful coinage, but it didn’t take. You always have to explain it. It’s impossible for one person to christen a pop demographic by force. “Yuppie” and “JAP” burbled up from the people, their origins shrouded. Erich Segal gets credit for popularizing “Preppy” in Love Story in 1970, but he didn’t invent the term. Perhaps a word that someone tries aggressively to mint but that doesn’t catch on should be called a Brooksism, in honor of David Brooks.
Brooks’s Bobos like their jobs, and this is why they “make play more like work.” Bobo vacations must be rigorous and build character, like “trekking through arid deserts…. Or sitting in some bug-infested rainforest in search of environmental awareness.” Unlike some of the other subcultures, Bobos do have time for sex; however, they use it not for fun but “to achieve deeper moral understandings.” One of Brooks’s mantras is that for Bobos, everything is graduate school. Especially shopping. Brooks cites the Preppy Handbook, saying it could have been set in Wayne, Pennsylvania, when he explores that suburb to trace the meaning of Bobo buying habits, as “classes define themselves by their means of consumption.”
He sets out a “Code of Financial Correctness” that “allows Bobos to spend money without looking like one of the vulgar Yuppies they despise.” This says it’s okay to drop mounds of cash on “needs” like fancy kitchen appliances and bathroom gear and SUVs, but offensive to spend a lot on luxuries like sports cars and racing boats. One rule says, “You can never have too much texture,” for “roughness connotes authenticity and virtue.” Bobos will hire workers “to pound some rustic wear into their broad floor planks.” Bobos have to labor for authenticity. This rule extends to food and drink: “Everything the educated person drinks will leave sediment in the bottom of the glass,” and “Bobo breads are thick and grainy, the way wholesome peasants like it.” No one is better at breaking down this belief system. Brooks writes, “We guiltily acknowledge our privileges but surround ourselves with artifacts from the less privileged.” As with the Preppies who carefully display and downplay money, knowing what to buy when you’re rich requires following intricate rules and calculations.
We tend to think our standards for the beautiful and good are natural and eternal. They aren’t. And you know who needs this analysis of Bobo consumption most? Not Bobos, nor Bobo-aspirants, but marketers. If business is about knowing how your customer thinks, then this is a business book. It tells you exactly how to jack all those fat baby-boomer wallets—whether you’re selling ice cream, a university, a book, a religion, or a company. When I see suits on planes reading business best sellers, I think: Wrong! Get some books that explain how groups try to reconcile their dreams of who they want to be with the social and economic realities of their world through the stuff they buy. Then get down to business. That’s what J. Crew did.
Because Bobos care a lot about the image they present, they sit in the upper-middle class, rather than the upper, according to the guidelines of Paul Fussell’s Class: Style and Status in the USA, a 1983 attitudinal comic-anthropology precursor to Bobos. It cites the Preppy Handbook five times, and is informed by it throughout. The main thread of the book is that the people at the top are too rich to care what others think, the people at the bottom are too poor to worry about what others make of them, and the people in the middle class—wanting to move up, afraid of slipping down—are so consumed with how they are perceived they end up pathetic and confused: “The paying of compliments is a middle-class convention, for this class needs the assurance that compliments provide.” A few Fussell guidelines: old and shabby (nice clothing, expensive cars, well-made houses) is higher than new (immaculate cars, lawns); bitter (Scotch) is classier than sweet (Seagram’s 7 and 7UP); eating late has more class than eating early; in sports, small balls are above large; and, in language, plainspoken (“drinks,” “pregnant,” “dead”) outranks euphemism (“beverages,” “expecting,” “taken to Jesus”). Fussell writes, “Elegance is the fatal temptation of the middle class,” as they’re the ones most likely to misuse or mispronounce words in an attempt to appear impressive. Fussell’s chapter on language is thorough, as it should be, since vocabulary is a huge signpost of class. The number of words and phrases that exist to protect the upper class (many of them in French, naturally) is staggering, like a linguistic rampart: new money, nouveau riche, not-our-kind, arriviste, parvenu, middlebrow, barbarian, prole, rube, striver, upstart, social climber. These savages have gauche manners and live in McMansions. It’s dreadful. There goes the neighborhood. All these cultural handbooks exist because class is far more complex and cutthroat than how much money you have or make. One wrong word and you might as well live in the sticks.
If you get nothing else from the Preppy Handbook, you’ll know that “key” is key. Birnbach and Co. provide not only the words for a proper Preppy vocab but the ethos behind the words: cynicism and sarcasm, esprit de corps and joie de vivre (theirs is a language “unfamiliar with the concepts of lonely and melancholy”), and worldliness and enthusiasm (“The charmed life of the Preppy leads to a disproportionate use of superlatives”). A Field Guide to the Yettie justifies its continued existence largely with an extensive glossary (cybersquatting to vaporware) and a separate list of acronyms (ARE: Acronym Rich Environment; IRL: In Real Life). The Yettie vocabulary is perfectly in sync with the caffeinated, job-crazed attitude of the subculture. Any worthwhile guide should at least teach you how to talk the talk, and this is one of the failures of 2002’s The Hipster Handbook.
Bafflingly, The Hipster Handbook presents and employs a glossary of imaginary Hipster slang. Why waste time declaring that flogger means coat, or that people in the know say deck instead of cool? A Hipster would never use slang that calls that much attention to itself. Instead, explain why cool is still cool. The Hipster attitude is blasé: This old vocabulary? I’ve had it since I was twelve. Strangely, the book has a list of “Phrases and Terms Avoided by Hipsters” that’s right-on, from Cool beans to Jumping Jehoshaphat. Is this a practical joke? Perhaps the goal is to get wannabe Hipsters to tag themselves by using an invented, traceable argot (though this sort of mild subversion would seem more in line with the angry, fight-the-power-from-the-couch belief system of the Slacker). The mere possibility of a “pretend” Hipster proves one important thing—there are such creatures as “true” Hipsters, and they didn’t get there by following directions in a book.
Hipsterdom, like the Slacker Way a decade before, is one purported escape from the class quagmire. In fact, Fussell’s Class ends with a chapter called “The X Way Out,” with X’s being bohemians (or, as he says, “the talented”). Fussell writes, “You are not born an X person… you earn X-personhood by a strenuous effort of discovery.” This idea of earning a place in a culture points toward a market for handbooks. What are X’s? X’s are “a sort of unmonied aristocracy.” They aren’t fat and don’t go to church. They carry babies in slings, sit and sleep close to the floor, read a lot, and like foreign magazines, back roads, and “campy fabric.” They eat when they want (usually late), mostly exotic foods, but sometimes “go ape American” in diet, with hot dogs and all. It’s a concise and accurate description of most youngish-adult cultures of the last twenty-five years. Fussell says that only as an X can one be “detached from the constraints and anxieties of the whole class racket.” Really? Can everyone just be part of one happy, young, and organic chillfest? Of course not. Being an X takes money, time, and training. Not everyone can just move to the city and be. And Bohemians need to be reacting against a culture perceived as dominant; if everyone were Bohemian, no one would be. If everyone decided it was cool to sit near the floor, X’s would go ape for sitting on the ceiling.
The X way, as exemplified by Gen X Slackers in the ’90s and Hipsters in the ’00s, plays out as a set of gently shifting guidelines for navigating the expanding postcollege, pre-family young adulthood phase. The Official Slacker Handbook (1994), by Sarah Dunn, shows a decent wit. She summarizes the Slacker worldview as “part old-fashioned bohemianism and part fin de siècle exhaustion, placed against the backdrop of a crappy recession and intolerable suburban irony.” Slackers really did wear shapeless flannel, take pride in finding clothes in the garbage, and fantasize about cobbling a living together via squatting, participating in medical studies, and publishing zines. They lived in fear of selling out. It was laziness with passion. Dreams of art-based fame grew wild, as they do with most young people dizzy with liberal arts degrees. The Slacker Handbook ribs these dreams with quizzes like “Are You a Temperamental Auteur or Just Another Moody Slacker?” It was a belief system far too slack to last.
An internet later, Hipsters are Slackers with a yen for—rather than a fear of—selling out. They also have a tauter fashion sense. Hipsters are almost all fashion sense, and this plays out in The Hipster Handbook, whose greatest strengths are the line drawings and small-scale social observations, such as the fact that Hipsters “spend more time deciding where to eat than eating itself.” A lot of space is dedicated to hairstyles and cool bands, as Hipsters are nestled within a matrix of cultural references. Best line in the book: “Many Hipsters let things grow naturally and brag that their vaginas are ‘old school.’” Simple facts of life—food, pubic hair—can, in the right setting, be used to delineate a mild subculture.
Any group, even one whose members are ostensibly equal, will develop codes that structure a cultural hierarchy. Our need for categories persists to the end. If we were sent back to Eden, we would quickly come up with a social ranking system based on the types of leaves we used to cover our genitals. People who use fig leaves, the Figgies, are like this, and those who use tobacco leaves, the Baccos, are like that. And based on these loose observations, someone would carve into a rock The Official Leaf-Wearers Handbook. Some would try to switch categories. Some would have their shallow assumptions about others reinforced, and some would learn to see themselves more clearly, and realize that many of their own thoughts and actions are conventions. Then, erosion would do its part and take the Leaf-Wearers Handbook out of print.
- Another Brooksism is “Yettie,” meaning Young Entrepreneurial Technocrat, from Sam Sifton’s 2000 A Field Guide to the Yettie. It came out after the dot-com bubble burst but before it deflated. Yetties were slightly hipper yuppies who worked for internet companies and, according to the book’s diagrams, wore really expressive glasses. From the Crossover Geezer to the Professional Beta Tester, Yetties were another humor-section subculture that seemed to be beyond sex; they were all married to their high-tech, high-promise jobs. But there was a sloppy divorce just after the handbook came out. ↩
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
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