How can I unlearn this toxic lesson when it’s so deeply embedded in our everyday lives?
“Hi, it’s me, your friend who never left your hometown and thinks Olive Garden is fancy. Anyway, here’s a racist article.”
This joke, in this form, was originally tweeted by Kevin Farzad this past December, and retweeted and copied tens of thousands of times since then. But truth be told, I’ve seen versions of it before. It takes many forms. Sometimes it’s that, sometimes it’s a warning in the form of a “don’t date anyone who thinks the Olive Garden is fancy, L-O-L” or “Heh, that person thinks the Olive Garden is fancy.”
And every time I read one of them, I want to put on my fanciest cocktail dress and head right on over to the nearest Olive Garden. They give me a full-body cringe.
For what it’s worth, I also loathe comments about small town ladies having their big Girl’s Night Out at Applebee’s and drinking mudslides. Same thing people just replacing “Olive Garden” with “Red Lobster” and making the same jokes. It’s just gross, it’s classist and it’s snobby as fuck. Look at what you’re trying to say here, and then think about whether it’s especially clever, or if you sound like an asshole.
And yet, I am pretty sure I’m supposed to be the intended audience for these jokes–and not just because I’m Italian and people get weirdly excited about the idea of Italian people making fun of the Olive Garden for some reason. Whatever, I’m sure my relatives who came over here from Naples wouldn’t be turning down the idea of infinite soup, salad and breadsticks, what with them being poor immigrants and all.
I grew up in a very small and incredibly racist small town in Massachusetts–notable only for the fact that a woman was found living there last year in a “house of horrors” with a bunch of dead babies and feces on the wall. There weren’t really any restaurants–hell, I think even the closest Olive Garden was in Warwick, RI.
From the time I was in kindergarten, I wanted nothing more than to get the fuck out of there. Now, I live in a major metropolitan area, I get to do what I love for an actual living, I have great friends and have myriad restaurant options.
My story is pretty standard fare, which is why these jokes hit a mark. Like a lot of people, I had a ton of anger towards a small town that was shitty to me and treated me like “Carrie” without the telekenetic powers. I understand how easy it is to fall into the trap of wanting to turn the knife.
As a kid, as a teenager, I spent hours daydreaming about my future “Geek to Chic” talk show appearance–in which I would show up looking fabulous, with a fabulous career, and shame my school bullies for the way they treated me. I’d dream about how exciting my life would be someday–much more exciting, I imagined, than the lives of those people who were being crappy to me then. Most of the time, it was the only thing getting me through the day. Spite is an excellent motivator, but eventually I had to let go of that before it turned me sour.
I had to remember that in spite of all the shitheads, there were also some really great people there. Who were not racist or shitty to people who were different. And you know what? Yeah, some of them still do live there, and I’m not about to look down on them because they wanted different things in life than I did. I’m glad all of us are happy with our different choices, and I am not about to judge them.
On top of stories like mine, we’ve got the fact that–in our adult lives–those of us who live in cities are constantly being told we’re not “Real Americans.” That the “Real Americans” are the ones living in the small towns we all ran away from. The temptation is very, very strong to want to turn around and just mock the living fuck out of them and what we consider to be their ever-so-plebeian taste in things.
But let’s not do that. Let’s please, please, please not be them. Let’s not make ourselves feel bigger by making someone else feel small. I didn’t leave a town where I felt like everyone judged me to turn around and become a snob myself, or to become some stereotype of a “latte-sipping liberal.”
The fact is, what you are really saying when you talk about these imagined people who “think the Olive Garden is fancy” is that it is somehow tacky to be so poor that the “fanciest” restaurant you can go to is a chain restaurant. That it is tacky to perhaps live in an area where that’s your nicest option. That living in areas like this, or not having money to spend on “classier” restaurants means that a person is uncultured. It’s shorthand for something unquestionably classist–and you sound like an asshole saying it. It’s definitely not punching up.
And you know what? If you repeat this joke, not only are you unoriginal as hell, you are also a thousand times more of a jerk than the people you think you are so much better than.
If people have a good time at an Olive Garden, a Red Lobster, an Applebee’s or a TGIFriday’s, I don’t see how that’s somehow “less than” people having a good time at some super chic restaurant that serves ostrich salami or whatever. It’s who you are, and the company you’re with–not where you are that matters.