The 99%: Exploring Wealth, Poverty, and Inequality in Popular Culture

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?

by Gretchen Sisson
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Gretchen is a research sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. She studies cultural representations and constructions of parenthood and reproductive choice.

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18 Comments Have Been Posted


I think that Glee distorts class and inequality in a HUGE way. We are supposed to believe that the Hummels (Kurt, his dad, Finn's mom, and now Finn) are strictly middle class, yet Kurt went to a private school AND wears lots of designer clothes. He also drives a huge, nice car- yes, his dad is a mechanic, but I believe he drives a Cadillac SUV? Get real people. Santana is also supposed to be from "Lima Heights" (aka- the 'ghetto') but also is always excellently dressed.
I do give them credit for the episode with the blonde kid who turned out to be homeless- although the issue was never mentioned again.

Most shows that I watch simply gloss over the issue of the socioeconomic status of their characters, or it is just implied that they are rich. I am very excited for this series!

Glee has actually been pretty

Glee has actually been pretty inconsistent on Santana's background: in the Brittany/Britney episode, she told the dentist her dad was a doctor and they had great insurance. Yet later on in the season when she was fighting with Lauren Zises, she became from "Lima Heights Adjacent."

What about wedding shows?

This is very little programming more disgusting than that dedicated to weddings. Especially since it results in many people I've known, with already piles of student debt, spending extravagantly on weddings.

Let's even ignore how awful diamond rings are, just everything else about it. 10-20 grand is not an uncommon number that I've heard. In some cases I have seen this justified (flying in family from Southeast Asia or the Middle East) but mostly it is just depressing.

At a very precise, though not quite as awful, intersection of class/reality is "Dinner Party Wars". There is something really vaguely weird about it, yet it is something I experienced growing up pretty often. Really, any show with "wars" in it seems to have this intersection. "Storage Wars" also comes to mind. The rich character has completely differing goals from all of the other characters and there seems to be a rather large disconnect between them as a result. The mogul character seems to catch on the fastest, but he is also the richest of the other characters.

A Few Thoughts

Any show set in New York is going be extremely problematic about wealth. There was a stretch of How I Met Your Mother when Marshall was unemployed, so he and Lily were living in Manhattan on the salary of a kindergarten teacher. Yet making rent never seemed to be a problem. Even on 2 Broke Girls, these two waitresses live in a giant apartment in Williamsburg with a frickin' backyard. I lived in Brooklyn for a while, and an apartment that size would run close to $2000 a month.
Credit card debt is also treated as a convenient plot line on sitcoms, rather than a serious issue. There was a plotline of the ABC Family Show Greek that involved one of the characters racking up massive amounts of credit card debt. Instead of having this destroy her life and causing her to drop out of school because she couldn't afford tuition payments anymore, the writers solved the problem by, seriously, having her win a school poker tournament.

I'm excited to read this column!

I'm actually ashamed that I

I'm actually ashamed that I know this but on the show Greek, she didn't win the poker tournament (she was though the runner-up). She got her first job to pay back the credit card debt. But yes, I agree with you about 2 Broke Girls, who has a backyard in NYC??? And how do they pay to feed the horse? Horses aren't exactly maintenance/cost-free.

Just a note...

While I wholeheartedly agree that way too much television devotes attention to upper-class individuals while leaving lower-class scenarios out of the picture entirely (or distorting them beyond probability), I think there is also a danger of missing pretty spectacular nuances among those depicting the upper class. 'Revenge,' for example, is a show that may be about life in the Hamptons with spectacular melodramatic elements, but in my opinion it also prominently discusses the wealth divide in the community between the "haves" and the "have-nots". Yes, sometimes in the cheesy/overly obvious "girl dating the boy from the other economic class" storyline, but overall excessive wealth seems to be a very constant theme that is overtly discussed amongst the characters. I found it actually rather impressive, that a show like this would even attempt to have a class status dialogue amongst all the back-stabbings and other soap opera-ish elements. Though it is true it also is used as a near-constant form of conflict, so maybe it was just an added element for a more complex form of discord among the characters.

Arrested Development is also a rather interesting example to use, as almost the entire point of the show is that the family is living in the mere shell of the income they once maintained. Though I'm hoping to see more analysis of that issue, to be sure!

Sounds like a wonderful series, thanks for letting me delay my final paper a little bit longer while throwing in my two cents!

Class Differences in TV land

I've also found that within the "opposite side of the tracks" scenario, the woman is often portrayed as rich and the man is usually poor. Then there's the newly divorced couple where the woman has moved on with another guy who is himself wealthy or is living with her in the fantastically huge home that she once shared with ex hubby who is now jobless, living in a one bedroom apartment and begging to see his child. He usually utters the obligatory, " Hey that guy's living in my house, with my woman, drinking my booze sitting in my comfey chair....."

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Love the show and, yes, it's meant to be heightened...but let's look at Charlie. His apartment is run-down and messy, and his eating habits and lifestyle are often looked at as "crazy," and often portrayed in such extremes to be justifiably classified as such. Is it "poverty-driven desperation" or undiagnosed mental illness? The show never truly makes it clear, but it's hard not to get the association of Charlie - Crazy - Poor - Yuck.


I am so glad you mentioned Modern Family! I love that show but every time I watch it I think, how modern can this family be? They have an awful lot of money for only ONE working member in each family.

Community deals with class issues a little--Annie lived in a very dangerous area until she moved in with Troy and Abed, and the fact that she is financially cut off from her parents comes up a lot. On the other hand, Pierce is very wealthy and often uses his wealth to get his way. The show doesn't go in-depth about the issues but I find it makes the series a little more realistic than others.

Just a thought

Just a thought that came to mind after reading the blog and the various comments. The Middle came to mind. They actually do deal with I would say lower than middle class family. Seems to be lingering between middle class and poverty almost. Both parents work. They struggle with certain things financially. They even drive an old station wagon. Yet they are able to deal with life it seem in a pretty normal way. Real obstacles. Nothing extreme like loosing their home or job (at least not that I have seen) but their leaking roof or car issues, family "vacations" sorta. Anyways like I said just something that came to mind.

I live in the UK at the

I live in the UK at the moment, and this topic is very interesting. People here are very concerned over class, the way there is much concern over race and ethnicity issues in the US. This is for historical reasons, which I don't have time to go into on this post, but after being here for a few years and observing the class issues live and on TV (there are a wealth of shows, e.g., East Enders, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps), I look back at many US shows, even ones I liked and find them to be disingenuous. All the ones supposed to be about the urban poor, give the working poor middle class values. For example, Little House on the Prairie was meant to be about a poor farming family, right? But this show always had the grownups telling the girls over and over "Make sure you eat your greens." Most of the real poor don't have these sensibilities. Food is food, their philosophy is eat as much as you can when you get a chance. Telling a child to be especially sure to eat vegetables, wouldn't occur to the really poor, because they are just concerned with food, not the four food groups.
That being said, I very much liked "Malcolm in the Middle" The family on the show was lower middle class, treading poverty because they had too many children. The 4 (later 5) boys got no parental attention so they all misbehaved in their own unique ways. Parents spent most of their time in reactionary mode, which I think is what you're actually doing when you don't have the security of a steady paycheck.

I was poor and I learned to

I was poor and I learned to eat my vegetables. My destitute mother taught us about nutrition while growing her own produce.

I find your generalizations

I find your generalizations in themselves very classist. While vegetables are expensive in the US because they're not heavily subsidized cash crops or the product of them (like corn and corn-fed meat) the idea that poor parents don't care about their children's nutrition is a ludicrous accusation. On Malcolm in the middle did they struggle because they had too many children or because they both worked in low-wage dead end jobs? Lois and Hal both had steady paychecks they were just small steady paychecks. They worked hard at full time jobs where they received minimal appreciation for sure and were exhausted at the end of the day but despite her exhaustion, frustration and tendency to yell sometimes Lois still tried to be a "good mom" and certainly made her children ate their vegetables.

Boy Meets World

<p>I recently rewatched the <em>Boy Meets World </em>episode "Turkey Day," in which Cory's middle-class family and Shawn's poor family spend Thanksgiving together. I was struck by how overtly the storyline addressed class. Cory's parents, who are usually the show's moral arbiters, are condescending and rude, and they're clearly shown to be in the wrong for it. I had a few quibbles with the way Shawn's community was stereotyped, and being <em>BMW</em>, the episode is pretty cheesy and simple, but I was fairly impressed.</p>


Leverage often depicts poor and middle-class people screwed over by the rich, like coal miners whose owners don't care about safety, or mortage-holders who are threatened by debt collectors when they lose a job. Parker and Hardison grew up in the foster care system, Elliot grew up in a rural area taking care of horses, and Nate was screwed over by the insurance company he worked for. Only Sophie may or may not have come from a wealthy background (unless it's been brought up recently, I'm only through the 3rd season).

Escapism is the Theme

I was recently reading a review of "Shameless" in Rolling Stone, where the critic complained that we are supposed to think the show is cool because the characters are naughty and rebellious [paraphrasing]. However, he apparently had no idea that there are lots and lots...and LOTS of people living day to day like the Gallaghers all over America, and living even worse just about everywhere else! I think the real issue is that people watch television to escape from their problems. TV is still a somewhat affordable form of entertainment, and even poor people are watching. Stealing condiment packets to keep in the fridge or sitting in an abandoned car just to get some space to yourself is hard to explain to someone who has always had enough of not only what they need but also of what they want. And most everyone who has been there probably wanted to be somewhere else while they were trying to keep the electricity on. Why would they watch? They use TV to escape these situations.


There is a definite class divide on Two and Half Man between Alan and Walden (formerly Charlie) though I don't think it is very accurate in any way.

Mike and Molly depicts two working people (a teacher and a police officer) who move in with family to save money before their wedding. There was also one episode where they talked about their finances and Mike, who had previously lived on his own, had a ton of money in savings, while Molly, who always lived with her mother and sister, had only credit card debt because she liked to go on exotic vacations.

The Middle is an excellent example, as someone already pointed out.

The Office does a pretty good job of showing people in the middle income. You don't see unbelievable cars, clothes, vacations, etc. that even poor characters on other TV shows somehow manage to have. It also does a good job of showing people from different backgrounds who all managed to be working at the same place.

I also think reality TV can only accurately depict wealthy people. Our societies infatuation with "celebrities" (and I use that term in the loosest way possible) makes it impossible to depict someone without money. If the teens on Teen Mom can't make rent, they can just sell a story or photo to Us Weekly to cover it. That's not real life; unless you are famous.

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