Film Review from the March 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
It’s almost taken for granted that television doesn’t accurately reflect how we live, but it’s not always easy to articulate how it distorts the real world. Class Dismissed: How TV Frames The Working Class is a useful examination of the ways the goggle-box deceives us. The film was made in 2005 by Pepi Leistyna of the University of Massachusetts - Boston, and is easy enough to find on the internet. It only discusses American television, but the trends are recognisable elsewhere.
To follow the film, you have to tune in to the definitions of ‘class’ used. When its talking heads refer to the ‘working class’ they use the narrower meaning of people with low incomes, little power and less “cultural capital” (or what could be called sophistication). This is contrasted with ‘middle-class’ people who are a notch above on each of these scales. The ‘middle class’ is living the American Dream of gleaming affluence and clean-cut leisure.
According to Leistyna, ‘middle class’ characters on television are depicted as empowered, independent and sassy because the social and economic forces which often prevent these traits are downplayed. These characters only need to struggle against aspects of their personality which might stop them living the American Dream. Programme makers are less interested in showing issues relating to wider social forces or being dealt with collectively.
So, TV tells us how we should define success and that this is to be achieved individually, rather than through political action. An exception to these trends was Roseanne, an early nineties sitcom which retained some left-wing ideas thanks to the persistence of its show runner Roseanne Barr. However, even in this show, the family ‘made it’, and became wealthy. A British equivalent would be the Trotters becoming millionaires in Only Fools and Horses.
Leistyna gives another example of how ‘middle-class’ culture is shown on television in ways which hide wider problems: if a television show depicts a well-off black family, then this disguises the real inequalities that exist between communities. Programme makers would see it differently, of course. They would say that minorities can be shown in a positive way to challenge stereotypes and to improve how they are represented. However, Leistyna would reply that television only depicts successful characters from minority groups in ways compatible with ‘middle class’ values. He’s saying that television tolerates minorities as long as they are living that American Dream.
This depiction of those who have ‘made it’ differs from how ‘working-class’ people are presented on television. When a ‘middle-class’ character makes a mistake, it’s seen as an aberration from the confident, successful person they should be. When a ‘working-class’ character makes a mistake, it’s because that’s just what they’re like. Leistyna reels off a list of characteristics associated with ‘working-class’ people on television: bad taste, lack of intelligence, reactionary politics, poor work ethic and dysfunctional family values. Imagine a racist Homer Simpson who pushes Marge around, and you get an amalgamation of these traits. Leistyna describes how the ‘working class’ is portrayed as an underclass of hillbillies, rednecks and trailer trash whose lives are there to be ripped open on The Jerry Springer Show. Or its closest British counterpart The Jeremy Kyle Show.
Leistyna’s argument could be boiled down to saying that television reinforces ‘middle-class’ ideology as an attack on the working class. This is television as propaganda to sell the American Dream and distract us from thinking about how capitalism really works. While his argument has merit, it would be more accurate to say that the mindset Leistyna associates with a ‘middle class’ is just mainstream capitalist ideology. ‘Middle-class’ people are also alienated and exploited within capitalism, even if they don’t always have the same pressures as those lower down the social scale. The film ends by recognising that changing the ideology presented on television requires changing the society which creates that ideology. And that’s something else worth switching off your television for.