Bingeing on TV’s middle-class ideology

BY:Andy Wright| May 5, 2021
Bingeing on TV’s middle-class ideology


Few things signaled the working class more than the sounds of Fred Sanford calling his son a “big dummy” or Ed Norton’s get-rich-quick schemes; we knew exactly what the Jeffersons were moving on up from but still toiled over; we could see, hear, feel, and even smell and taste the Bunkers’ living room. Cue the laugh track. But it wasn’t laughing for us, like it does today during moments of sarcasm and cynicism — it was laughing alongside as a cathartic release when the realism touched too close to home or threatened to knock down our door on any given day.

In the history of television, the working class were once portrayed as people with whom we could identify. However, the shift away from representing lower-class conditions gave way to two major factors of the dominant ideology of today: 1) the false notion that representation itself is of utmost importance, and 2) the overt normalcy of the middle class. From the 1960s into the 1990s, the working class were portrayed as hardworking people who sometimes escaped their class status (All in the Family, The Jeffersons).


A shift away from working-class reality

In the 21st century, however, the working class dissolved into incapable individuals that embody the “accident” of market logic (2 Broke Girls, Schitt’s Creek), “enjoy their symptom” and have no desires to leave their lifestyle behind (Shameless), or succumb to romantic and “radical” ideas before learning their lesson (often symptomatic of Michael Schur comedies). To balance this, upper classes and the absurdly rich are often portrayed as overly eccentric, usually dumb or narcissistic, and owing their successes to inherited wealth or a fortuitous fall upward. As we approached the 2000s, the middle class was portrayed as working the least and affording the most social freedom (usually with “hangout comedies” such as Cheers, Living Single, Friends, Seinfeld).

All problems are solved by honest, individual work.

However, the result of this shift of focus has been to atomize certain aspects of middle-class living. Workplace comedies such as The Office are an example of this trend. Between the proliferation of these kinds of shows and the minimizing of social antagonisms such as gentrification or state violence (The Neighborhood, Brooklyn Nine-Nine) — something medical, police, and procedural dramas have been doing for decades — television has leveled the class divides, using a near-classless imagery. Through this reduction, characters are sometimes still identified with, but how they react to their situations has become the most attractive, relatable part: a more resigned attitude toward one’s job or lot in life, learning to cope with mistakes or medical conditions, and taking failure as a means of “reinventing” oneself. As a result, a middle-class attitude fills the void, and our reflected identity becomes the victim of circumstance who still believes that success comes from hard work, and yet is wrapped up in the romance of being overly self-aware and informed (if not well educated). Ultimately, our characters learn the same lesson in order to combat not the concrete issues of today but the cynicism and corruption of others: all problems are solved by honest, individual work.

Although rare, recent films have shown working-class struggles for basic needs and against structural inequalities, whether through insurgence (Parasite), collective action (Sorry to Bother You), or full-on revolts (Snowpiercer). Unlike much of television, where class division is de-emphasized, these films are characterized by a subjectivized call-to-arms, as Jodi Dean shows with the slogan of “the 99%” of Occupy.1 These representations are at direct odds with the more romantic depictions of will-they-won’t-they story arcs or entrepreneurial plot lines.


More representation isn’t the answer

Recently, arguments over working- and middle-class characterizations in television have flourished. Some journalists point to several recent examples of working-class people portrayed in sitcoms: the families in The Middle, Speechless, and One Day at a Time; the characters working blue collar jobs in The King of Queens and Brooklyn Nine-Nine; animated families like the Belchers from Bob’s Burgers; and even protagonists who are successful in their workplaces yet struggle to make sense of sudden lifestyle changes along with their racial- and class-based identities in “class-conscious” shows like black-ish, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Ugly Betty. Despite these examples, the toilers and blue collars are not only “missing” but allegedly so is the middle class. As Wesley Morris argues, everyone on television is upper class. By pointing at the prevalence of “hangout” comedies like Friends, Living Single, and Sex and the City, Morris claims television has failed to reflect the harshness of reality, especially during economic crises. Shows with blue collar characters are “class-unconscious” because they usually aren’t working for the sake of the “maintenance of their livelihoods.”2

The representation of the lower classes is already problematic.

These arguments center around the demand for more representation of the middle and working classes. This demand is concerning to say the least because lack of representation is not even the beginning of the problem. The representation of the lower classes is already problematic, and simply adding more working-class imagery in a sitcom is not the solution. And trying to come closer to a truer representation of the lived experience of the millions subjected to financial, food, water, and shelter insecurities doesn’t just fail but feeds into something completely different.

Within the current working-class examples on television, we have two flavors of representation. On the one side, there is the “comically poor,” who represent all that is grotesque and horrifying about the Other. They survive without negative consequences, but their hygiene, finances, and shelter are trivial and the focus of comedy. Addiction, PTSD, and sexual assault have also recently become associated with these characters. In an entrepreneurial spirit, the characters plot their “escape” from these conditions by returning to school (usually into higher education like university-level or art school) or starting/joining new companies. “Re-inventing” oneself is apparently the only path out of miserable conditions. The TV show Superstore depicts the working class in this way (while advertizing products for literally 22 minutes straight).


The pathological working class

On the other side, we have those who enjoy their “conditions,” so much so that any and all chances to “get out” are unappealing because doing so would compromise their personal identity. This view of the working class is perhaps the most common perception of the lower classes and serves ultimately to justify both their placement at the bottom of the social hierarchy and the system of scarcity itself. What’s more, these characters come off as heroic for surviving in such conditions and doing it all the while enjoying the same pleasures as us. This “working-class” persona is viewed as “authentic,” and the example par excellence of this is the series Shameless.

Shameless revolves around a poor South Side Chicago family who begins each day with financial maneuvers to determine how to pay for utilities, rent, and groceries. The family patriarch, Frank Gallagher, is all but fully absent and often benefiting from someone else’s welfare. Meanwhile, the eldest sister, Fiona, stands in for both missing parents and the familial structure. These characters have “unexpected” mixtures of “street smarts” and pure intelligence, a lack of cleanliness, active sex lives, the minimum materials to survive and constant means of escapism, and the loathing of an entire neighborhood while getting by on trust.

These paradoxical attributes feed into well-established views of the working and poor classes as leeches and deviants, but in heroic fashion, making the characters’ relationships (with each other, to their living conditions) desirable. Fans of the show find romance in the characters’ attributes, and through this lens it’s much easier to bypass the fact that these characters are often offered simple solutions to get out of their miserable conditions but opt out of them in favor of family and personal identity. This over-looking reinforces both personal responsibility as the sole determining force for one’s success and failure, and the view that the lower classes are much happier with this supposed choice of “lifestyle.”

To better understand this portrayal of a pathological working class, let’s look at portrayals of rich people who suffer from a similar obliviousness toward their class conditions. Sitcoms like Arrested Development and Schitt’s Creek showcase rich families who lose everything (but still end up with property), finding themselves barely able to function socially in their new station. The adult children of these families don’t have jobs or they work as entertainers (albeit, badly); even the parents, once successful, exude no business awareness or acumen — which, of course, plays into the comedy of falling upward and being successful despite being absurd and disconnected from the “real world.” These characters could also “have things better” if they take on the entrepreneurial gambit or middle-class values, but as much as they desire “normal” middle-class lives, they just can’t seem to put in the hard work associated with middle-classness, and their failure is the root of many punchlines.


Middle-classness as ideology

At the heart of depictions of both working and upper classes is an ideology that has become the standard in TV: “middle-classness.” From hangout to workplace comedies, from procedural to medical dramas, it is impossible to miss a show about the middle class. Television is one of the best purveyors of this ideology because it has become so accessible in large quantities, making it easy to posit this ideology over and over again. This ideology functions by 1) overwriting other classes as unappealing, miserable, or as sideshows; 2) depoliticizing issues; and 3) deactivating the viewing public — all with the aim of reinforcing the status quo. Middle-classness has not changed much since the days of Amos and Andy — it has only gotten creative in its ways of hiding racism, classism, and sexism.

This middle-classness often runs counter to the jobs the main characters have — whether they run their own TV show or practice medicine. Despite their well-paying jobs, these fictional people yearn for something “normal” or traditional (30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, for example, who wants a family and a full career). Comparing this with the middle-class lifestyle of those who have blue collar jobs like in King of Queens or Brooklyn Nine-Nine, we find that stresses like financial or housing insecurity are reduced to punchlines or episodic issues at best. Moving back to the supposed working-class sitcom, like One Day at a Time or Mom, the main characters have limited income, often talk about what they can’t afford, and housing is sometimes an issue; but once again, these are mere plot points to be recovered from. Day-to-day working-class conditions don’t have a home in television narratives unless they can be obfuscated by easy solutions like accepting personal blame or making plans for higher education.

We get the class without the struggle.

Our working-class “choices” in television are either the pathologically poor of Shameless or the middle class with working-class elements. We get the effects of working-class living but no working-class conditions — or, more aptly, we get the class without the struggle. This is certainly not upper-class living any more than it is working-class surviving. Every character on television is a vessel for conflicts understood only through the lens of middle-class ideals. Morris had it wrong: it’s not that the middle class is dwindling at all — it’s the only thing TV has to offer us.

What we are confronted with here is an ideological problem. The images themselves may not be real, but their effects on viewers are very real indeed. Therefore, analysis of TV imagery should not be based on the virtual “concrete conditions” of the characters but on the concrete effects of these distorted images — of the ideological function of television. This is where we once again run into the limits of representation: representation will only ever be an image at a distance. This is ideology at work.

The ideology of “middle-classness” projects desirable images of people who can ignore concerns of rent and debt, job security, time lost to taking public transit (not to mention health concerns over such during a pandemic), etc. It perpetuates the old dreams of homeownership and finding lifelong careers so that one can settle down and start a family, asserting that these are the means to a happy life. Middle-classness is part and parcel of the dominant ideology today: individualism and competition. Being “middle class” means buying into the false belief that job insecurity and precarity are solely the individual’s responsibility to combat with hard work and better education, assuming, of course, that everyone has the same, “equal” access to all careers, financial freedom, healthcare, clean water, healthy food, and absence of police harassment and state violence.


A depoliticizing and deactivating ideology

This ideology is depoliticizing and deactivating. It attempts to overwrite any social, political, racial, and class issue as something individuals need to make up their own mind over, often resulting in a moderate outlook or action. Asad Haider makes the point (via Wendy Brown) that the “political agency” of the middle class “is supposed to characterize everyone in American society,” and Brown argues that this middle class is a “conservative identity” which refers to a time when “life was good.”3 Middle-class desires are only ever pointing back to a historical moment when things were supposedly good for everyone, a desire invoked in Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.”

To better understand the depoliticizing and deactivating function of middle-classness, let’s look at how some shows treat social issues. The Office, which initially had a narrative surrounding being disappointed with jobs and career paths, and hating one’s boss, soon inverted this disappointment into complacency or a “make the most of it” attitude toward the late capitalist era and business in general. One episode openly ridiculed warehouse workers for wanting to unionize and then buried all talk of it because of the risk it posed toward the “white collar” workers.

Parks and Recreation, a running joke about dysfunctional government, depicted many government employees as lazy, spending more time not working than doing their job, and taking advantage of the system. The show laughed at the people who showed up at public forums and city council meetings: whiners with nothing real to complain about, or creepy, borderline insane individuals.  The most “rational” characters are the cynical and politically downtrodden who believe that government cannot or will not change anything. Their acceptance of the social reality is what makes them “rational.” The overall lesson of the show is to humanize public administrators and to reduce our demands on them.

These shows nominally depict social issues but, more dangerously, they convey political non-urgency and neutrality. This is the case even in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a dramedy filled with social issues. It continues to address the weariness over police in only the politest terms, addresses feminism through a bourgeois lens à la Disney and Sheryl (“lean-in”) Sandberg, treats racism and police murder as individual problems, and gives bogus humanity to those just trying to uphold the law and keep it “clean” (taking the “few bad apples” argument as foundational).

The issues lose their politics in favor of moderate values.

Each of these shows revolves around an acceptance of the status quo while positioning major social issues as personal failures that must be confronted with new hope. Characters take safe harbor in moderate approaches, impelled by an urge to keep things the way they are. Social issues are brought up but are devoid of political content— that is to say, the issues lose their politics in favor of moderate values.


Making escapist ideology intolerable

Television has less interest in giving airtime to actual issues and more in pushing imagery that placates our anxieties around work and home life. No matter how pretty and attractive it may seem, this imagery is truly ugly and unbearable once we understand it and why the ruling class promotes it. As one of the best purveyors of the dominant ideology and one of the most deactivating weapons of the ruling classes, television acts as a passive force in our living rooms. But this force is not all-powerful. James Baldwin once said, “Force does not . . . reveal to the victim the strength of the adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness, even the panic of the adversary.”4 As we fight alongside the masses, we must counteract this force, the desire to identify with the fictional situations captured on TV — that is, we must critique middle-class ideology and imagery. As George Yancy said, “In a society that hides beneath the seduction of normalization, critique is undesirable and deemed dangerous.”

If both solidarity of the masses and critique are perceived at the same level of threat, then they are indispensable to one another. Perhaps by making this imagery unbearable and antagonizing, we may not only be able to re-activate the latent politics of so many but also open the way for more TV and films with positive class struggle content like Parasite and Sorry to Bother You, which have served as a reminder of both our real-life living conditions and how the ruling classes view those of us below.

This is our task today: to make the ideology behind escapism intolerable and the reality of the intolerable inescapable.  Turning television into the intolerable for the working and poor classes will only add to the panic of the adversary.

1. Jodi Dean, The Communist Horizon (Brooklyn: Verso, 2018).
2. Wesley Morris, “TV’s Dwindling Middle Class,” New York Times, April 27, 2016.
3. Asad Haider, Mistaken Identity (Brooklyn: Verso, 2018).
4. James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro (New York: Vintage International, 2017).
5. George Yancey, “The Perils of Being a Black Philosopher,” in Violence, edited by Brad Evans and Natasha Lennard (San Francisco: City Lights, 2018).
6. Baldwin, Am Not Your Negro.

Image: Ron Cogswell (CC BY 2.0).


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