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Class Distinctions 101

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This column was written by Catherine Seipp.
That New York Times series on class in America got me thinking about other signs of rank besides the obvious ones, such as income, education, and whether you eat "dinner" or "supper" and say "pardon?" or "what?" (Note to the perplexed: "What?" is classier. For a more detailed explanation about "U and non-U" usage, see Nancy Mitford's "Noblesse Oblige" and John Betjeman's "How To Get On In Society.") By "upper" and "lower" of course I mean upper middle and lower middle, since in America polite people pretend that basically everyone is middle class.

But class divisions, like the poor, will always be with us, at least until the Sweeneys lie down with the Stuyvesants. In the new movie version of "Bewitched," for instance, class conflict has replaced the pre-feminist conflict of the '60s TV series. The controlling sexual rage of the old TV Darrin, constantly scolding Samantha whenever she used her "powers" (i.e., twitching her witchy nose to clean up the kitchen), has vanished. Now, Nicole Kidman is a witch who just wants to lead a normal middle-class American life -- living in a blandly attractive suburban house, hashing out her problems at the Coffee Bean.

So she gives up witchcraft -- albeit in the fudging sort of way that Paris Hilton gives up money and privilege in "The Simple Life." Both "Bewitched" the movie and the DVD of "Bewitched" the TV show's first season are released this week, and watching them you realize how easily magical powers can serve as a metaphor for fame and fortune. What makes the new "Bewitched" as delightfully retro as the old series is the message that fame and fortune are as much a barrier to normal middle-class American happiness as magical powers; Will Ferrell, playing a spoiled and egomaniacal actor, only gets the girl once he gives up Hollywood perks like his own on-set cappuccino machine.