I have a love-hate relationship with this song: Fancy from the album Rumor Has It by Reba McEntire.
Fancy was a big hit in 1990. During that year, I was a poverty survivor working insane hours at multiple jobs while going to college. The lyrics do not tell my story (per se) but they touched on something within my own experience.
“She said here’s your chance Fancy don’t let me down
Here’s your one chance Fancy don’t let me down
Lord forgive me for what I do, but if you want out
Well it’s up to you
Now don’t let me down you better start movin’ uptown”
Every time I hear this song play, I want to turn it into a personal theme song or a Poverty Survivor anthem because of lyrics like this:
“I knew what I had to do but I made myself this solemn vow
That I’s gonna be a lady someday
Though I don’t know when or how
I couldn’t see spending the rest of my life
With my head hung down in shame you know
I might have been born just plain white trash
But Fancy was my name”
Good strong words, but they are taken out of context. Context is important. This song tells the story of a young woman who is handed over to a pimp because her mother was poor, sick and desperate to find a way for her daughter to survive:
“Then I saw the tears wellin’ up in her troubled eyes
When she started to speak
She looked at our pitiful shack
And then she looked at me and took a ragged breath
She said your Pa’s run off and I’m real sick
And the baby’s gonna starve to death.”
But, in the end, Fancy not only gets out of a life of prostitution, she becomes extremely wealthy and famous. How? She finds several rich men who like what she has to offer.
“It wasn’t very long after a benevolent man
Took me off the street
And one week later I was pourin’ his tea
In a five room hotel suite”
“I charmed a king, a congressman
And an occasional aristocrat
Then I got me a Georgia mansion
And an elegant New York townhouse flat
I ain’t done bad”
The story describes a young woman who is physically attractive and blessed with a personality that is both subservient enough to ‘pour tea’ and outgoing/entertaining/manipulative enough to ‘charm a king, a congressman and an occasional aristocrat.’ She literally serves, entertains and flatters her way into the right bedrooms and, therefore, is able to both survive and thrive.
This is complete fiction. Under the ownership of a pimp, human trafficker or abusive boyfriend (taking a cut off of her earnings), it would have required the intervention of the police and/or an act of God to get her off the streets.
This is destructive fiction. This is one of the fatal contradictions inherent in the definition of Deserving Poor utilized here in the United States – a common fable passed around by Hollywood, television, romance novels and politicians. It’s disturbing just how many people actually believe it is factual, common and proof that women who don’t land rich husbands ‘deserve’ the punishment of poverty. Specifically: if you want to get out of poverty, you must land the right man. Girls who ‘work it’ are the ones who succeed – the rest are just lazy and worthless. Worse…those who get pregnant, raped or otherwise suffer less than ideal consequences are ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ who deserve nothing better than prostitution and single-parenting-on-welfare.
Street Feminism. If you’ve ever wondered why feminism is not popular among poor women, take a good hard look at what it takes to survive and what is expected of the Deserving Poor. These lyrics and this music video provide an excellent illustration of the reality of poverty for women – a reality which feminism, in its current manifestation, does nothing to address. Sadly, many upper-class feminists actively (aggressively) support this fantasy and the Deserving Poor fiction that goes with it – through their actions. Your theories and opinions are nothing if your actions contradict those words. Why does this happen? Because class and classism overshadows solidarity and negatively affects the feminist community.
Which brings me to the next point…
Real life in the United States. Entirely too many people (particularly children, teenagers, and young adults) are desperately poor and/or homeless in the United States. They need reasonable and easily accessible options, not fairy tales that essentially glorify an ideal that, in reality, guarantees a life of sexual slavery.
“Now in this world there’s a lot of self-righteous hypocrites
That would call me bad
And criticize Mama for turning me out
No matter how little we had”
This is a bit of truth. Self-righteous hypocrites calling poverty survivors ‘bad’ (and many other things that are far worse) because they have the audacity to survive poverty. So many things about this story are wrong….just plain wrong….because they accurately portray reality for entirely too many people (including the complications stemming from popular misconceptions). This last bit of nastiness is no exception.
Poverty survivors have a right to live. They do not owe anyone an explanation, excuse or apology for refusing to die (no matter how inconvenient that reality may be to select groups of people). Those who are lucky enough to leave poverty deserve respect, not nasty attempts at degradation, public humiliation, and slander. Slander which can, and often does, negatively affects social standing and employment – thereby sending survivors right back into poverty.
Yeah, this song strikes a chord. It grabs hold of my anger and frustration about the lack of real change in the areas of poverty and homelessness and plays those emotions like an instrument.
To her credit, Reba McEntire’s video for Fancy ends with the main character opening a home for runaways. It’s an excellent video. I just wish the lyrical story were more realistic.