How has Television Entertainment framed the Working Class? What factors are behind this?

“The lower classes smell” – George Orwell, p.112, The Road to Wigan Pier.

 

It is a common observation that ostensibly impartial news reports and decidedly partisan opinion leaders often shape a disingenuous and unflattering representation of the working class. Less considered is the way entertainment media – in this essay the primary focus will be on television – contributes to a prevalent framing of the aforementioned social class. Foremost, the objective of this essay is to describe the ways in which television entertainment presents, on the whole, the working classes as a simplistic entity, and to examine the stereotypes the industry perpetuates to serve its populist and commercial ends. The argument will thus present examples of popular fictional and non-fictional entertainment, broadcast in the UK and US, as indicators of two different but intertwined notions: 1) middle class monopolisation over the production and broadcasting of programming, and 2)  “[media] portrayals of class that justify class relations of modern capitalism” (Butsch, 2003, p.575). It is through these pervasive actions, engendered by the media, that a framing of the working class has emerged and been maintained to the social detriment of its subject. By reconciling certain examples from television, a predominant and distinctive medium of entertainment access, with relevant political academia, this essay endeavours to explain the media processes that preserve not just a depiction of the working class, but the corporeal status of the working class itself.

Firstly, an examination of the frames in which television entertainment presents the working class. Here are two oft-cited examples of programmes that feature working class participants or actors masquerading as working class people: The Jeremy Kyle Show and Little Britain. Both are broadcast in the UK. 

The former, superficially at least, is a reality show which deals with family and relationship issues in a television studio. The reality is, however, that it deals almost exclusively with the family and relationship issues of the working classes, or to risk using a contested term, the underclass. The participants are pitted against each other in an artificial situation, explained as, “…the process of decontextualisation of working class people such that they find themselves disorientated in a setting alien to their usual class-stamped milieu” (Weltman, 2008, p.3). As well as being asked to articulate themselves in a way which will invite inevitable ridicule, producing, “…a rather brutal form of entertainment that is based on derision of the lower-working-class population” (McKendrick, 2008, p.36). A brief note on this scenario:

“Reality TV objectifies class by detaching persons from the set of relations (working-class) that make up their experience in the world, to place them inside another set of relations. Objectification is accomplished through the technologies deployed (camera angles, lighting, mis-en-scene, music, etc), performances, speaking to camera; all of which constitute aural and visual evidence about the person and their value” (Skeggs, 2007, p.17)

This television entertainment form of media framing is unique in this sense, with the studio setting and filming techniques employed able to filter through a very particular representation of the working class participants, often to their disadvantage.

The expectation of the programme is to reinforce existing stereotypes perpetuated in other forms of mass media. In any case, it is certainly not to challenge these ideas. Participants are most frequently on social security benefits and are portrayed as feckless, welfare dependent, violent, and sometimes, criminal. This is reconcilable with the notion that, “…the urban underclass is often linked with various pathologies and antisocial behavior” (Clawson, 2000, p.60). The apparent display of these pathologies are rarely related to any concept of economic deprivation, rather, they are presented as innate attributes of a disfigured working class. The deindustrialisation of the economy is marginalised in favour of a discourse on moral failure. This is an exemplification of how, “…economic inequality, social class, and poverty are presented superficially or are rendered invisible by the mainstream media” (Bullock, 2001, p.242). Furthermore, “The show quite explicitly defends a rather conventional, even reified set of family values” (McKendrick, 2008, p.36). The entertainment derives from the audience’s (in the studio and at home) acceptance of orthodox, nuclear-orientated notions on family and the perceived inability of the working class participants to match these norms. 

As noted by Bullock in regard to equivalent programming in the US:

“Low-income persons are far more likely to be seen and heard on “real-life” programs such as afternoon talk shows (e.g., Ricki Lake, Jerry Springer) and reality-based crime programs (e.g., Cops) than as characters in fictional programs. Both types of programs, however, present the poor and working class in a distorted and negative manner” (2001, p.231).

Fictional depictions of the working class, though rarer (analysis of this later in the essay), still propagate sentiments of scorn and distaste towards the subject. In Little Britain, the character ‘Vicky Pollard’ is supposed to resemble a variant aspect of the working class: the chav (the US equivalent would perhaps be ‘white trash’). The popularity of the character has been such that the name is used in apparently serious social debate, belying the fact she is not real. Such seemingly specious references are indicative of the idea that, “Vicky Pollard is chav mum par excellence. Incoherent, “loud, white, excessive, drunk, fat, vulgar, disgusting” she embodies all the moral obsessions historically associated with young white working-class mothers in one iconic comic body” (Tyler, 2008, p.28). The attached misogyny and racialism accounted for, popular entertainment media has ably managed to feed into the prejudices of its audience, “Class-based disgust reactions work not only to give meaning to the figure of the chav, but more complexly to constitute a category of being—chav being” (Tyler, 2008, p.28). Caught in a delusional realm, this facet of the working class has been solidified into national consciousness as a subject of mockery. The audience is implored to laugh at them. Moreover, to channel Foucault, the chav has been continually problematised by entertainment media as, more implicitly, an issue to be crudely dealt with rather than to be meaningfully engaged.

A question that arises is why the working classes are portrayed in such a negative light by television media, if they are portrayed at all. Next is to analyse the production and broadcasting of entertainment programmes. As an example, in the US, “Popular television situation comedies such as Friends, dramas such as The West Wing, and serials such as Ally McBeal reinforce the normative power of young, predominantly White, middle-class professionals” (Bullock, 2001, p.231). The relative rarity of fictional depictions of the working class, comparable to middle class representations, can be understood from a basic empirical perspective. In Butsch’s studies of US situation comedies only 11% featured a working class protagonist:

The working class is not only underrepresented; the few men who are portrayed are buffoons. They are dumb, immature, irresponsible, or lacking in common sense. This is the character of the husbands in almost every sitcom depicting a blue-collar {white} male head of house, The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, All in the Family, and The Simpsons being the most famous examples” (2003, p.575).

The reasoning for this is plain: the large majority of mainstream television producers and broadcasters are middle class. The various pressures that are attached to the television industry, regarding commercial success and the lack of time and money allowed to achieve said success, exacerbates producers’ reliance on norms extrapolated from, “[growing] up in middle-class homes, with little direct experience of working-class life” (Butsch, 2003, p.579). The omission of honest depictions of working class life may not necessarily be intentional, rather, somewhat more innocuously; it may be an expected byproduct of processes that have been monopolised by middle class understandings and beliefs. The intentions are somewhat irrelevant however if the same structure of middle class ideals are perpetually reproduced, and working class ideals denigrated.

The predominant ideal of middle class life is one of capital. The possession of it is what defines their ascent from the working class, or at least, what distinguishes them from said class. Media broadcasters are in the main private, profit-driven companies and those which are state-owned are usually accompanied with a commercial arm. So as alluded to prior, the reproduction of capitalist ideals may indeed occur in entertainment programming via osmosis. This potential media framing seems to create a more ambivalent attitude however towards a homogenous working class entity. Indeed, entertainment programming seems to appeal to a rudimentary schism in the working class, “…aligning the ‘respectable’ working class with the (lower) middle class on the one hand, and setting aside the ‘rough’ working class on the other” (McKendrick, 2008, p.38). This is seen in makeover (but not property) programmes where the tone is, “…uncritically aspirational and addresses those sections of the working-class population who are attempting to achieve at least the outward signs of a more recognisably middle-class lifestyle” (McKendrick, 2008, p.34). The workmen (and they are mostly men), notably, are always working class. Yet to argue the recipients of these makeovers are presented as working class would be a misnomer. They are more the adopted middle class: the embracers of material, consumerist ideals.

Ever-developing media discourses on gender, sexuality, religion and race have become the subject of provocative documentaries with the BBC dedicating a series of programmes on the ‘white-working class’. This form of sectarianism, most prevalent in times of economic recession and burgeoning inequality, creates, “…increasingly racialised representations, scapegoating the most vulnerable sections of the working class, and so functioning to weaken potential for building unity” (Weltman, 2008, p.13). The woes of the working class, instigated largely by the processes of capital, are portrayed in this entertainment media as issues of difference and division within their class. This has become a fundamental part of media framing on the subject.

In conclusion, television entertainment is sometimes overlooked within media framing analysis as an important factor in shaping notions about class. With its level of viewership and popularity however, as well as the possession of unique visual techniques, this essay has sought to emphasise television entertainment’s effect on maintaining a crude and derogatory representation of the working class. By focusing on and reconstituting certain facets of the working class (seen in the obsession over chavs) and ignoring deep structural inequalities which help produce the attributes that are viewed so disdainfully, a perpetual cycle of reinforcement has occurred wherein cultural attitudes towards the working class are reproduced on television and then constituted by the working class itself. The reasons for this are multifaceted. The composite of the entertainment industry, like many other media institutions, is that of middle class producers and broadcasters. Their unfamiliarity with the working class, along with their aggressive familiarity of capital, manifests the conditions in which the working class has been framed. Ultimately, they feed the ubiquitous appetite of a prejudiced audience. Orwell’s four frightful words seem to neatly summarise this milieu.

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Published by

Joseph Owen

PhD, Carl Schmitt, Modernism and Sovereignty at University of Southampton

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