An elderly man with huge breast implants spilling out of his open shirt. A black woman in knee high I-skinned-Elmo red fringed boots and a matching red crop top and Elmo hair extensions. A white woman dressed in stripper heels in a micromini dress bending awkwardly over her grocery cart. The people - or "Wal-creatures" as the site names them - are all real Wal-Mart shoppers and are all featured on a new website called People of Walmart.
Admit it: if you saw any of these people at your neighborhood Wally World, you'd chuckle. You might even text a friend. I did exactly that the other day, actually, when I was waiting to try on a sports bra and the person waiting directly behind me was a man. Also holding a sports bra. It was weird and hilarious and the friend I texted was amused for hours. But what if I had snapped a pic on my cellphone? And sent it out as a text blast? And posted it to my Facebook? And then sent it in to People of Walmart?
Where do you draw the line between getting a harmless chuckle out of the strangeness of everyday life and cruelly poking fun of people who are, after all, just trying to buy some groceries?
The Case for Funny
- Life would be boring if everyone were the same, right? I love me a good character. Heck, sometimes I am that character.
- Why was the Internet invented if not to pass around funny pictures? Hello, remember Awkward Family Photos??
- The site also features harmless pics like a bike with training wheels chained to a sign or this one of a car with a homemade plywood spoiler on the back:
- Wal-Mart is a magnet for strange. It's about time someone capitalized on that.
- Everyone should get their 15 minutes of fame, right? Why else would anyone leave the house dressed like that if they didn't want the attention?
- We laugh at celebrities all the time for looking like morons - isn't it only fair that we're the targets sometimes too?
- The captions are usually pretty benign. Actually, they're usually hilarious.
- They are equal opportunity mockers. Sure there are quite a few fat-people-in-bad-clothes shots. But there are an equal amount of weird mullets. And lots of bizarre cars. Not to mention all the crazy stuff that Wal-Mart actually sells.
- Anyone wearing a swastika sweatshirt deserves to be publicly shamed.
The Case for Cruel
- While the captions may be mostly nice, the commenters sure don't hold anything back. They are mean. Of course, the Internet in general is plagued by mean commenters.
- If you can't go to Wal-Mart looking schlubby then where can you go at 2 a.m. in your pjs for cough syrup? Must we always look perfect before stepping out in public?
- Most of the featured people look disadvantaged in someway - either elderly or handicapped or poor or not of our culture or just not "all there." Isn't making fun of people who don't know better and/or can't help themselves the definition of cruel?
- The pictures generally appear to be taken covertly as most of the subjects don't seem to know they've been snapped. I don't know if I'd be okay with that.
- The site calls them "Wal-Creatures", as if they're not even human.
A Grand Social Commentary
Gawker.com went so far as to declare the site neither funny nor cruel but rather a compelling portrait of 2000-era Americana in all it's unairbrushed, quirky glory. I can see their point - in a world where we are bombarded with carefully crafted media messages that only show perfect people, it does seem important to remember that most of us are just normal people living lives that are only remarkable in small ways. Or maybe that's just a justification for laughing at others so we can feel better about ourselves?
Follow Charlotte Hilton Andersen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CharlotteGFE