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.

Multiple Murders and the Media

Joanna Dennehy murdered three men and attempted to kill two others. She reacted to these acts in a way which would court inevitable media publicity. She helped manifest a narrative of violence that was not, despite its reality, realistic. It was an apparent reflection of what she understood as the media’s ideal approach to digestion and dissemination. The contrived declarations and provocative images resembled tropes from fiction. They would be desperately populist if they were for entertainment purposes.

Joseph Klapper (1960) suggested that mass communication acts as a reinforcement of predispositions rather than acting as a painter daubing over tabula rasa. In the case of multiple murderers a predisposition for such acts may very well exist but, as noted with the Dennehy case, the manner in which they display their criminality is often suited to a melodrama they’ve come to believe through the media and media entertainment. Dennehy may have always been inclined to become a murderer but her mode of killing, or rather the presentation, was heavily influenced by popular culture and the media’s desire for a satisfactory, albeit morbid, story-line.

In the event of any mass killing, voyeurism is not far behind. The media amplifies this human instinct. The implicit glorification of killers as deranged anti-heroes, with news items leading on the death toll and images of the killer in question projected to large audiences, is not overlooked by disturbed, self-mythologising individuals. Media practices may not create murderers. However, the saturation coverage of killers like Dennehy may very well create a milieu where multiple murders take place in a highly dramatised and mutually perpetuating manner. Innumerable references can be made to the widely-accessed new media which killers of the aforementioned ilk can utilise to propagate their performances.

To conclude, in a somewhat unsatisfactory manner, it is perhaps true the news media’s salivation towards the likes of Dennehy does in fact constitute her actions as for entertainment purposes. From what I can see, they certainly seem entertained.

Can Republican opposition to ‘Obamacare’ be adequately reconciled with their stated belief in promoting entrepreneurship?

Much of the political debate surrounding the ‘Obamacare’ legislation has focused on the potential disincentive it could offer to the US workforce. The financial assistance that the healthcare legislation provides is, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), likely to cause around 2.5 million Americans to decide against participating in the labour market. Republican opposition to the bill has eagerly alluded to these figures as proof of its effect on disincentivising work – that most treasured of meritocratic ideals – and stunting individual economic opportunity (and naturally, national economic recovery). Small businesses, Republicans argue, will suffer as employees possess more choice in whether to leave their occupation, hindering current entrepreneurship and dissuading prospective entrepreneurs.

But what of certain benefits that ‘Obamacare’ may induce in innovation? It is widely considered that entrepreneurs require a sufficient financial safety net in the process of setting up a business and this legislation, at least to some level, provides more robust support than what was a prior scenario of job uncertainty leading to workers with pre-existing conditions becoming left at risk of being uninsured. Those who are in state of “job lock” may very well feel more inclined to resign from their position, and in some cases, seek self-employment due to the assurance of an affordable healthcare plan. Moreover, allowing young workers to remain attached to their parents’ insurance until they are twenty-six may create an environment in which greater entrepreneurship is encouraged. The elderly, with access to Medicare, have been shown to be far more disposed in becoming entrepreneurs compared to those who are under sixty-five.

The CBO acknowledges that there are potential productivity benefits from freeing up the employment options which ‘Obamacare’ generates – although they are unable and unwilling to quantify it. If free-enterprise Republicans are willing to appreciate the open-ended possibilities of these effects then they may find something more closely aligned with their settled advocacy of entrepreneurship. Rather than maintaining a crude denunciation of the Obamacare effect on enterprise, the GOP could imaginably do worse than publicly consider its benefits in this regard. This is of course politically impossible. No less however does it make their stance ideologically inconsistent as well as inadequately reconciled with their supposed dogmatic faith in the American entrepreneurial spirit.

Silly Women Can’t Do Feminism Properly

Females constantly attempt to apply Feminist thinking to their unguarded musings. Why do they bother when it’s evidently too complex for them?

Being white, middle-class and male, I understand discrimination better than anyone. Only the other week, whilst on the hunt for Exo Terra Soft Pellets in a will-remain-anonymous Southampton Reptile Centre, I inquired as to why there was lady serving me behind the till, rather than a more knowledgeable, trust-worthy male. I inquired this precisely four inches away from her face. She slapped me, hard. Would this have happened if I was, say, a black Jew, or, more relevantly, a domestic pet? I highly doubt it. We all know who the persecuted minority is in this post-PC, rights-for-badgers age.

As such, one observes the current furore over Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines with a just-masturbated, tedious indifference. Uptight women crying their oestrogen tears all over everyone else’s fun. It’s Pankhurst all over again. But somehow less arousing. Anyhow, my current lover – the erstwhile ones are easy to forget – directed me towards an article defending the merits of the aforementioned ditty. She’s all for women and it’s all very cute. More importantly, I need to impress her. So I delve into this murky business with trepidation. I know nothing of popular music. Why would I? Have none of you cunts heard of Vivaldi?

What strikes me first is that Robin Thicke is thirty-six. Thirty-six. And he wants to liberate a young girl, as well as “talk about getting blasted”. He’s either Martin Luther King or a syphilitic old man. I can recommend him to a mental health clinic I used to frequent. So blah-blah let’s rush through the hand-wringing analysis: musically, it’s appallingly derivative (Marvin can thank his Dad that he doesn’t have to witness this), and lyrically it replicates what a Bonobo chimp can achieve on a lexigram. Thicke now claims it’s all about his long-term wife; his Dad defends him with the “it’s actually about female empowerment” line – a form of robust defence not seen since the Nuremburg Trials. They’re all obviously evil and mad. Nothing new to report.

But I’m making a broader point here (I think). I’m trying to remind myself. Yes, appropriating a benign-feminist, faux-libertarian perspective to justify this song’s existence: it’s not on. If one were to argue that a song affronts taste and that one doesn’t want to hear it that, sadly, isn’t commensurate with state repression in the former Soviet Union. Highfalutin metaphysical concepts of liberty and the individual are all well and good when applied necessarily, but in menial debate they seem to arise all too often. Frankly, sometimes, people need to be told what’s good for them.

Firstly, the song wasn’t written for his alleged wife. Was it now? No. His record company helped write it? Yes. Secondly, plenty of misogynistic pigs have wives. That’s one of the ways in which the porcine sub-species continues to reproduce. If you’re currently held in a stasis of disbelief, check the marital domestic violence figures. Misogyny, it is difficult to claim otherwise, is at the root of violence towards women. Thirdly, and this is enough now, a tepid appreciation of formal equality – equal pay and equal rights – is remarkably insufficient. One doffs their cap to Wollstonecraft, but things have moved on, one of those things being that amorphous nuisance known as patriarchy. A modern countenance is necessary, not a superficial understanding of the Suffragettes and a passing reference to something JS Mill once wrote. Fucking Mill.

Sexism, and to be distinguished, misogyny, is endemic in our society. Hurrah. You’ll find it in a microcosm at this very university. Women – we hate them. To not appreciate that the facets of our popular culture contribute to this – from a record, to a music video, to a public statement, to a speech in Parliament – is to be wilfully blind. Legislation does only so much, it is the subtleties in public attitudes and discourse that propagate subjugation. Only when you silly women realise it, will you begin to rectify the situation. And as a male, that suits me just fine.

Olympique Lyonnais May as Well Choose Acceptance Over Denial

In the wake of a new financial hegemony, Lyon will have to let the past go

The whistle thrice blown. Ephemeral silence. Then the inevitable cacophony of disenchantment. Boos tinged not with incredulous despair, much rather a grim acceptance. The Stade de Gerland, a setting of numerous erstwhile glories, now reconciling itself to a more pervasive notion of mediocrity. Nil-nil. Stade Rennais had left with a point. Olympique Lyonnais’ home support, admirably vocal throughout, can be spared any rose-tinted, grandeur delusion. The landscape has shifted beneath them.

In 2002, the club, shepherded up-top by the President-Director axis of Aulas and Lacombe, won Ligue 1 for the first time, playing with a joyful promiscuity that comes accustomed with most maiden victories. Seven years on, veteran libertines, they had an unheralded set of successive titles and were considered the archetype for profitable, high-achieving football clubs. Much has been written about their capacity for player development. They were superlative in the transfer market also. Mahamadou Diarra, a player currently without a club or a knee, was sold to Real Madrid for €26 million.

Lyon, without nearly the same levels of revenue as other leading European clubs, were always prone to punching above their weight, most notably in the latter stages of the Champions League, an almost-annual, gloriously graceful middle finger to the established elite. This year they lost in qualifying to someone resembling Carlos Vela. There are many reasons to be found in decline, and a decline is more keenly felt, or possibly accentuated to the point of obfuscation, with the rise of others. PSG and Monaco, two newer additions to the petro-millions super-clubs, a phenomenon one observes with an idiosyncratic mixture of intense shame and salivating sexual arousal, seem able to exacerbate each setback, however minor, of Lyon and below, via their alleged peerage.

The incomparable financial situation of such clubs can be illustrated through the tale of three thoroughbreds, two of which, Falcao and Cavani, were welcomed round for a combined €124 million, by Monaco and PSG respectively, and that of Bafetimbi Gomis, Lyon’s premium striker, who was unsuccessfully flogged to Newcastle over the summer, desperate as they were to slash the wage bill. Gomis remains, undoubtedly as much bemused by the milieu as his equine nature will allow. His far svelter colleague, perennial acolyte of the frustrating-but-brilliant cliché, Yoann Gourcouff, also dines heartily out of the meagre money pot. How Aulas regrets the small excesses that begun to creep in when the going was good. Now to contend with Hollande’s tax rise, coupled with declining television revenue. PSG will cope, Monaco won’t have to bother, Lyon will suffer.

Les Gones are not awful. They have retained some certainly capable young players and, though not a virtue in itself, are building a squad overwhelming composite of French nationals. Grenier, a mesmerising hybrid of poise, technique, vision and elasticised limbs, is brilliant. A player whom, when on the pitch, can be observed simply as being better than the other ones. Lucky to share the slice of turf in the centre of midfield is Gonalons, broader and weightier yet still technically adept, allows Grenier to unpick the lock whilst he commits assault. On the right, they possess Lacazette, quick and incisive. These three are the exemplars. Their defence is not without merit but often appears immobile, against Rennes they were inconvenienced often by the likes of Jonathan Pitroipa, a tiny hare of a man, who seemed to spend the majority of the first half suspicious of his feet.

Appropriate caveats aside, Lyon will have to accept French football’s realignment and smile politely. Their supporters, it feels, have begun to do so, however heart-rending in the glare of recent achievements. The club are certainly not pristine or celestial, but contextualised within the ominous juggernaut of financial unscrupulousness, their demise is somewhat saddening.