Sunday, October 21, 2012

Where did the Working Class Go?

Another fall, another TV lineup, with oh so many of those staples of American culture; the sitcom.  But while watching the previews I was struck by something, where did the working class people ever go?  It was quite something for someone who saw all those reruns of sitcoms growing up that are filled with the working class and even downtrodden.  The simple men and women or “Cheers”; the family that lives in public housing in “Good Times”; and who can forget “Punky Brewster” who most certainly didn’t get a luxury car for her 16th birthday.  It reminded me of a great essay I read from the critic William Deresiewicz who had a similar epiphany on his own a while ago:
I was listening to an interview with the choreographer Bill T. Jones, who had just published his memoirs. Jones is gay and black, and when the interviewer asked him what his father had thought about his becoming a dancer, Jones, somewhat testily, said something like this: "You don't understand. This wasn't a middle-class family. The goal wasn't to become a professional: the goal was to better yourself." The first thing that hit me about this was that it had nothing to do with race or sexuality. The second thing that hit me was that it had everything to do with class, specifically the working class—which, I suddenly realized, I never heard anyone talk about.
Exactly. To watch even good television today is to miss any reference to the non-rich.  “Modern Family”, probably one of the funnier shows on TV these days, is a great example. It deals with issues like same sex couples raising children and interracial marriages, and for that it should be commended. But while embracing diversity in some ways, it ignores them in others. Everyone is rich on “Modern Family”, everyone is devoid of any of the material pressures that “Modern” families presumably have dealt with during the great recession.  Totaling (one of several of the) family cars becomes a hilarious inconvenience, not the terrible blow to the family finances it would be to the majority of “Modern” families. Indeed the fact that one of the main characters is a real estate agent during the biggest drop in property values in decades but never is even worried about this says enough.

When the non-rich, non-middle class people do have a sitcom focused about them this uniqueness (dare I say this example of diversity) is ignored.   The comedy “Two Broke Girls” is instructive in this regard.  It’s a show about two young women with no money who have to become waitresses in New York and is typical low brow sitcom affair (although it does have theme music by Peter, Bjorn and John which is awesome.)  But when people wrote about it, especially urban well to do liberals, they focused more on perceived racial slights than on the fact that this was the first TV show in a while to focus on the other eight million people in New York who aren’t rich and don’t take car services to drive to the grocery store.  As Deresiewicz put it, “What we talk about is race and sexuality. (Or in the academy, race, gender, and sexuality, the great triumvirate. The humanities, despite their claim to transformative significance, have all but forgotten about class.)”   “Two Broke Girls” is thus unfair , unlike much praised “Gossip Girl” or the greatest work of drama since Aeschylus, “Sex and the City.”  Even if making a show set in New York with no working class and poor people is as unrealistic as one with characters who only confirm to certain stereotypes.

Other genres of TV only exacerbate this trend.  Just look at the rise of so-called “AspirationalTV” over the past two decades.  Once confined to late night pot boilers like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” “Aspirational TV” is now a prime time staple and has all but taken over MTV.  Once upon a time, you know during the Reagan Administration, shows about rich people behaving badly were the exception, think “Dallas” or “Dynasty.”  Now it seems there are desperate housewives (who are rich) and real housewives (who are ungodly rich), with no other housewives, or say wives with jobs anywhere to be seen.

It’s remarkable that perhaps 80% of the American public’s current material conditions are ignored in that most populists of all medias, television.  But it does make some things understandable, like how a man could say he thinks 47% of all Americans are parasites who are “dependent on government,” and still be in the running to become the next President of the United States.

1 comment:

  1. nice comment. i'm reminded of a "Roseanne" episode from days of yore where the focus was on the election, Roseanne gets canvassed by a candidate talking about lowering taxes for the rich in a classic model of trickle down economics. To which Roseanne eviscerates the politician describing the plight of the middle class working family, and how her husband on the picket line facing union bust thuggery wouldn't be benefited by taxes being lowered, blah blah blah. I don't have the transcript and couldn't find a clip. Point being, she laid into him, perfectly describing the current 99% movement back in a day when taxes for the upper bracked compared to the current rate would be unthinkable.

    Comedy's greatest strength is relating the common person's plight to the masses through satire and humor. If people can see things through a lens of humor and laughter, they'll pay more attention than reading a Salon article, or whatever blah attempt exists these days at actual independent journalism.

    I think television comedy has become a parody of itself as of late, but without them knowing it. Everyone involved in the t.v. process is unthinkably wealthy compared to the average family. Even the writers, once through their pilot season are paid so well they start to forget their "starving artist" beginnings. People write about their experiences, they act what the feel day to day, they publish and push for things they feel are relevant, which can only be seen through their own eyes and personal experience.

    Once someone loses touch with "the people" their day to day reflects that and in the case of tv writers, they'll start focusing on things like the hilarious car wreck, or jerk cutting in line at the coffee shop. Not about struggling to find a job or to put food on the table - what the rest of us feel.

    An argument could be made also that people are so depressed/conditioned/used to their lives, t.v. is an ultimate form of escapism and they'd rather watch the hijinks of the upper 1% than have to think about relating to their situation. Free market applying to t.v. ratings.

    However, with the right premise and writing, entertaining satire/reflection of our current landscape should be achievable. It's just easier not to.