A modest defense of Denise Whiting
The Baltimore Sun article on Denise Whiting’s trademarking the word hon for her business, Cafe Hon and its enterprises, has provoked a great outpouring of outrage.
Cafe Hon, we are informed, serves lousy, overpriced food. The annual Honfest insults Baltimore and its working-class heritage. Ms. Whiting is a greedy self-promoter who shamelessly exploits Hampden and reduces it to a tawdry stereotype. And then the comments get intemperate.
I hold no brief for Ms. Whiting. I have eaten at her restaurant a few times, finding the food and drink agreeable, and my daughter enjoys attending Honfest. But I am an auslander in Baltimore, and my daughter doesn’t count as a native either, because she was already two years old when we moved here. But I do think that I can detect something simmering beneath the unfavorable comments: envy.
Ms. Whiting is a shrewd businesswoman who has made a success of her enterprises. Her restaurant continues to have customers, and Honfest draws hundreds of people to Hampden every year. Successful entrepreneurs do not tend to have charming personalities, and if people find Ms. Whiting pushy, well, that is part of the package.
A while back, John Waters denounced Honfest as cheap and inauthentic, and that is part of the chorus of denunciations of Ms. Whiting as exploitative. But really, though Mr. Waters has portrayed Baltimore’s working-class personalities lovingly, isn’t there a degree of exploitation in his displaying those personalities for personal fame? And cash. Ms. Whiting is doing for business what writers and filmmakers do for art.
Joan Didion warned us forty years ago that writers are always selling someone out. Newspaper columnists, it appears, could not meet deadline without writing about their spouses and offspring, Novelists shamelessly work aspects of family, friends, and acquaintances into characters. Philip Roth has cannibalized himself to the point that it is difficult to tell where the characters leave off and the author begins (not that I care much for either, but the issue will no doubt breed tenure-and-promotion manuscripts in English departments for many years to come).
For that matter, who among us has not scrupled to make use of a family member or friend to get a job, a recommendation, or some other benefit?
Denise Whiting has determinedly and efficiently exploited a set of Baltimore stereotypes to make a buck, and she has been good at it. The American capitalist free enterprise system we all endorse, right? And no one compels you to be a customer. Granted, hers is a vulgar enterprise, but given idiotic merchandising like the “Baltimore, get in on it!” campaign or the popularity of reality television shows or the omnipresent Kardashian girls, it seems arbitrary to single out Ms. Whiting for abuse.
If you have a backlog of spleen that you wish to vent, let me suggest Congress.