Pink Flamingos and Social Class
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.
I 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.
You can see just a few examples of neighborhood yards. In fact, beautiful gardens are so valued here that a local 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.
Then I noticed a sign hanging from one 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.
After 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 that 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 is 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?