May 19, 2009

Pink Flamingos and Social Class

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

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On a recent walk through my neighborhood, I noticed an abundance of plastic pink flamingos on several families’ lawns. They immediately stood out as unusual; they hadn’t been there days before, and they appeared on several lawns on different streets.

clip_image006What was behind this new fad? Are pink flamingos the new must-have for lawn decoration?

clip_image008I thought this would be unlikely in the neighborhood, an upper-middle class area populated by Los Angeles professionals. Lawn ornaments have symbolic meaning, and pink flamingos—fairly or unfairly—have been linked with a lack of taste and tackiness. Urban professionals, especially in image-conscious Los Angeles, are more likely to try to project an air of sophistication.

Homeowners around here spend a great deal of time and money on their gardens, and very few if any have plastic lawn ornaments. As you can see from the pictures below, many homes have lush landscaping and residents are very devoted to tending them (or paying others to do so). Landscape architects’ signs frequently grace front yards, and those in the know can recommend the “hottest” designer to their friends and neighbors.

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You can see just a few examples of neighborhood yards. In fact, beautiful gardens are so valued here that a clip_image014local club regularly offers tours of some of the community’s best gardens. Being included on this tour is quite an accomplishment. Yards with plastic lawn ornaments are unlikely to garner positive attention, and yet they have appeared on more and more lawns….
I found a clue to this mystery while walking past a local church that had a particularly large flock of plastic flamingos on its well-tended lawn. A pink banner hanging above said “The Flamingos are Coming!” and I figured that the plastic birds must have something to do with a church-sponsored program.

clip_image016Then I noticed a sign hanging from clip_image018one of the flamingos on another lawn; as you can see in the picture below, the flamingos were placed there by someone other than the home’s resident to get the homeowner to donate money. In order to have the flamingos removed, the recipient needed to make a donation. The recipient is also encouraged to “flock” a friend’s lawn in order to get them to contribute as well.

clip_image022After looking online I found that other communities also use pink flamingos for charitable events. A company that sells the flamingos in bulk provides ideas about how to use them to run a fundraiser; one suggestion even includes requesting that those who have been “flocked” pay extra “insurance” to make sure clip_image020that they don’t get re-flocked by someone else.

The site flockofpinkflamingos.com describes those who get flocked as “victims” of a “hit list”; clearly the pink flamingos are chosen in part to embarrass the recipient. While not explicitly stated, the assumption is that flocked people will be too mortified to keep the flamingos on their front lawn and will make a donation ASAP.

This assumption only works if enough people find the pink flamingos tacky or fear that their neighbors will, drawing on notions of social class. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted that social class is not just about how much money we might have, but it is in part defined by aesthetic distinctions we make about our clothes, food, and yes, our homes.

According to Bourdieu, we derive cultural capital by knowing the unwritten rules of a certain social group. For instance, knowing which fork to use at a formal banquet, what to say and what not to say in certain social contexts, what brands to buy and avoid all are examples of cultural capital. The flamingo fundraiser isclip_image024 based on the presumption that those flocked all know that pink plastic ornaments are not a gift but rather a way to nominate someone for social derision.

In neighborhoods where lawn ornaments like pink flamingos are common, this fundraiser wouldn’t work. It also wouldn’t be effective to flock a stranger’s house: they could just throw the flamingos away. By flocking a friend, the recipient is more likely to feel social pressure to contribute and avoid appearing stingy.

This is an example of informal social control, where our behavior is influenced by those closest to us. We might not have a problem hanging up on a stranger calling for a donation or throw away a letter asking for money, but it’s harder to say no to somebody we know. This is especially the case for people we see regularly, or in the flamingo example, are members of the same church we go to.

We can learn a lot about the intricacies of social class just by taking a walk. What lessons about social class have you found in your neighborhood?

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Comments

I find it interesting that flamingos would cause people, especially characteristically stingy people, to compromise their own stinginess just because someone put a sign on one that told them to donate. If anything, I would assume the person would use that as an excuse to file suit against the flamingo-er. I suppose not every person of higher means is nasty and horrible, and between friends it would be alright. Still, social stigma would see a more negative response to flaming-ing(?) in my mind.

It is astounding how the behavior of a close group of people can influence so many others. I am surprised that so many people ended up participating. It's basically like peer pressure. It's fascinating that people of that social standing would associate themselves with something they deem to be "tacky" just because of a chain letter.

OMG! Lighten up...not everything HAS to have some deep, dark, hidden meaning. Let go of the whole "facination of human behavior" and have some fun. Geez!

I think this is an interesting post, and there's certainly some "poking fun" at people, but from my perspective (growing up in the upper middle class), I think it's adorable and a good way to encourage people to donate.

I know my neighborhood used to do things like this around Halloween. You'd get like a coloring book picture of a witch and a bag of candy on your doorstep, along with a note saying to pass the favor on to three other houses. If you'd already gotten candy, you left the witch up on your front door so you wouldn't get any more. As a little kid, I loooooved this!

This is different, because it's asking people to donate money, but I have a feeling that in a neighborhood like this, a $10 donation or something wouldn't be much of a sacrifice. So like I said, I think your analysis is good, but I also think it's playful and lighthearted and not meant to expose people to "scorn" or "derision" - at least, the people who are participating would probably not think so.

interesting take, I thought it was all in fun. I was just looking on the internet to buy my own flock, I was thinking about having a week or two of flamingos on my lawn for a laugh. I know they are considered tacky, which is why they will only be up a week or two.. I never supposed a dark side to the "flocking" thing.

You have expressed the downside of a Pink Flamingo Flocking but the upside is important also. Much needed funds are raised and even those who actually covet the flock of yard flamingos on their lawn join in the fun and pay to have them removed. As the reader said above, "flamingos are lucky" and maybe one day people will pay to have the flocks of Pink Flamingos placed on their lawns.
Thank you,

Travis

www.ThePinkFlamingoSite.com

i have been informed that placing plastic pink flamingos in your yard is an indicator that a swinging couple lives there

This was an entertaining article that reminded me of the Haida natives that used ridicule figures in order to embarrass members of the society to repay debts. Class was very valued in that society and to appear stingy or needing to borrow money was a way to be ridiculed. It was a humorous social construct similar to this one that promotes social cohesion of desired behaviors and values. Both are very entertaining. It’s a light-hearted bullying that makes the victim appear to be the deviant. It is therefore ironic. Great article, thanks for contributing.

1.As Karen Sternheimer points out, we can learn a lot about the intricacies of social class just by taking a walk. What lessons about social class have you found in your own neighborhood?
I live in a small town and it doesn't have alot of upperclass people. But there are a few homes that may have some historical value and you can tell these homes easily by the way they look beside the lower class homes around the area. i don't believe they have a problem with lower income homes being around unless it is hurting their property value. Small towns are alot different from social communities. but there are the same kind of people living in all of them.

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