Hello, Bitch readers, and welcome to my new guest blog series The 99%: Exploring Wealth, Poverty, and Inequality in Popular Culture! My name is Gretchen, and I’m a sociologist and writer with experience researching issues of class, gender, and race. As an academic, I’m a big believer that we cannot fully understand or embrace the goals of feminism without a careful consideration of class; we can’t adequately discuss class without considering race (and vice versa), and so forth. These aren’t separate issues, but one big kyriarchical mess of hierarchy and privilege. I hope to use this series as a space to explicitly explore issues of class and socioeconomic inequality, as well as the intersections with those issues most important to us as feminists.
I’ve got 99 problems with American television, and the rich are one. We have lots of shows about rich people—in fact, we love shows about rich people. With Gossip Girl, The Millionaire Matchmaker, Revenge, Real Housewives of _______, Pregnant in Heels, and even the beloved returning Arrested Development (along with many others), the wealthy control about as much of the TV lineup as they do they the net worth of the United States, and the rest of America watches to see how they scheme, how they dress, how they find love, how they have babies, and—usually—how awful they are.
Even our “middle-class” TV characters live like rich people. Try affording any of the houses on Modern Family or the apartments on How I Met Your Mother on the country’s $51k median household income.
Then there are the shows that could be about poverty, but aren’t. The Biggest Loser, for example, rarely alludes to class disparities, and how the cheapest and most widely available food is also often the worst for you. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition showcases the lives of Americans who have “lost everything” (who are usually dealing with chronic illness) but somehow talks about neither the financial nor healthcare crises—while showing who the truly “deserving poor” really are. 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom purport to tell the stories of young parenthood, while never acknowledging that teen pregnancy is often linked to socioeconomic status.
Interestingly, though, there are a few shows that follow the tradition of Roseanne and attempt to actually portray working-class families and friendships with some complexity: how do shows like Raising Hope and 2 Broke Girls really measure up?
Of course, understanding class in America is not just about television shows, but it’s these flawed, warped representations that allow our society to seriously misunderstand the levels of inequality and the sources of struggle across our country. When serious news channels call progressive taxation “class warfare,” they get away with it because we don’t know what working-class America (let alone truly poor America) looks like, and we are taught that if they just worked harder they’d be successful—and anyway, if they were truly deserving of help, Ty Pennington would come and build them a new house.
In popular culture, rich people become a spectacle and middle-class people become rich people, while poor people are alternately overlooked, ridiculed, or have their challenges attributed to their own shortcomings instead of systemic inequalities. These disparities—both real and portrayed—are what I hope to explore in this new blog series.
What other shows do you think have really interesting (really problematic) representations of class and inequality?