Diversity in Television, Part 3: Social Standing

Part of the process of writing this series is learning that not every TV show absolutely needs to be diverse in every way. Would it be nice? Sure. But ultimately, I’d be happy if several TV shows took the time to accurately reflect and portray who populates our world, or at least begin to include those groups that have been left out.

Social standing or classes provide an interesting peek into how television sees us. The overwhelming majority of shows tend to reflect a middle class or upper class lifestyle which is sadly not accurate. Part of the problem might be ignorance. If the people who are writing for television are living in middle to upper class neighborhoods, where are they going to draw their experience from?

Another problem might be interest. Who’s interested in seeing poverty? That doesn’t make people happy. Those of us who could help out our friends and neighbors might feel guilty because we aren’t doing anything. But just because it makes people uncomfortable doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing and discussing.

Betty and DanielOne of my favorite shows is Ugly Betty. It managed to be diverse in ethnicity, orientation, and class. In the very first episode Daniel Meade, a rich party boy, visits his assistant Betty’s house in Queens. It’s a jumble of mismatched furniture, old appliances, and hand-me-down clothing. While he can return to his loft in Soho, Betty tells him, she’s got to find a way to help pay rent and get her father’s heart medicine prescription filled.

Betty is poor. She struggles to survive while she fights to get the job she’s dreamed of in the magazine industry. Watching her deal with rich people and then go home and help provide for the family was something I could understand. I’m technically below the poverty line since I’m making less than twenty grand a year. I can pay my bills, but there isn’t much money for things like going to school to get a practical degree that could lead to a better paying job or going to the dentist or doctor for check-ups. I don’t have health insurance because I can’t afford it. If my apartment complex didn’t pay for internet and cable, I wouldn’t have access to either of those “commodities”.

And I’m one of the lucky ones. I managed to find a part-time job after I got laid off last year from a job I’ve worked for eight years. I’ve been able to keep paying all of my bills, and I haven’t had to join the line for food stamps (yet). I’m part of a co-op where I can work off my fee and get canned goods every week. For Christmas, my friends pooled their money and gave me a gift card so I didn’t have to worry about the necessities for a few months.

Being poor and watching shows like 2 Broke Girls isn’t as fun as you’d think. While making light of poverty can be a way to deal with the pressures that comes with it, ultimately it isn’t very helpful. Watching shows like Modern Family makes me feel like I’ve failed to secure The American Dream. I don’t have a house. I don’t have a family. I am not successful financially. What must it be like for people to grow up watching security and wealth and then be hit with the cold hard reality that most of us don’t ascend to that social standing?

I was watching All In The Family re-runs the other night. In one episode, Archie was obsessed with buying a bar and becoming the owner of a small business. Edith, however, knew they didn’t have money and didn’t want him to get a loan because it would mean a mortgage on the house. She told Archie about being a little girl and how a neighbor took a mortgage out on their home. They lost the house and became homeless. Edith has never forgotten it. She doesn’t want that to happen to her and Archie.

New Girl has addressed the problem of finding a job and being poor, but we see this against the backdrop of the gorgeous apartment that they inhabit. Jess gets fired from her teaching job and spends several episodes jobless, but this doesn’t stop her from wearing cute clothes or eating. Nick doesn’t have money (even making a reference to being “fill my gas tank up all the way” rich), but he manages to look good and have nice things.

The odd thing about shows like All In The Family, Cheers, New Girl, and other sitcoms about people “with no money” is that they are all relatively happy. In contrast, when you watch something like The Real Housewives, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or even Will and Grace, you see the lack of happiness. Just because people are rich doesn’t mean they’re happy. Or at least, that’s the myth we’ve been taught.

Studies show that most “lower income” families shown on TV are made to look happier than the upper-class families portrayed on screen. There are other myths purported as well, including the “anyone can get to the top” American Dream myth and the “if you don’t reach the top, no worries, it isn’t so great up here anyway” tall tale. I’m not sure how it holds up for those in the upper classes, but I can go ahead and debunk the ‘poor people are happier’ myth from personal experience.

When you’re poor, struggling to stretch the grocery and gas budget over an entire month is not conducive to happiness. It’s stressful. It makes me want to cry out of sheer frustration. When I see other people who are even worse off than me, I want to scream because I can do nothing to help. I have to make do with buying a friend a meal at a drive-thru occasionally or making a few more portions at dinner. I guess the myth could have some weight in that there are some poor people who will share what they have, and that we can be happier with something less than what rich people have. For example, I am less picky about what I eat. I’m less picky about what I wear and am grateful for the clothes other people give me because it means I can spend money on things like toilet paper and toothpaste.

I see the Kardashians on television and I pity them because they aren’t happy, but I am frustrated by the lack of appreciation they show for all that they have. Maybe being rich has its own stressors as well. Can you count on your friends? Are they there because you have money and can show them a good time? What about your spouse or your children or your extended family? Would they leave if you lost everything?

Ugly Betty even purports this myth as we see the Meades as an unhappy, dysfunctional family with too much money and no rules while the Suarez family, despite its troubles, are generally happy and eager to work together to solve their financial issues. I don’t know that there is a show I’ve seen that really gets it right when it comes to showing the true effect poverty has on individuals, and maybe that’s because we don’t want to see that?

I mean, if I’m poor, I may not want to watch poverty on television. It hits too close to home. It’s too real. Why would I want to watch reality when I can watch a fantasy about rich people and dream about what that would be like? Don’t I deserve a break from having to worry about the rent or finding another part-time job so that I can start saving up to go back to school in hopes of getting a better full time job with health insurance? Ignoring a problem won’t make it go away. There needs to be a way for us to see the reality and gain the tools to confront it, hopefully, together.

Showing the disparity between classes and social standing would be a good opportunity to show that the poor aren’t all the same and neither are the rich. There are philanthropists who do what they can to ensure people have what they need. There are poor people who are mean and stingy. There are also poor people who band together and are stronger than the poverty they fight each day, and there are rich people who think  homeless people are a nuisance without stopping to consider that the homeless aren’t all the same either.

I do have an idea about providing more diversity in social standing. Instead of just including a person struggling financially or someone losing their job or someone living on the street, I think it would be amazing if when we portrayed the hard times people have fallen on (we are still recovering from a recession after all), we provided an opportunity for people to help as well as show people where they can get help.

What if, at the end of an episode, TV shows had a screen where you could call a food bank to donate or volunteer or get food to feed yourself? What if there was information about national groups that provided food or helped secure jobs and medical treatment for those who can’t afford it? It would be nice if characters were involved in these sorts of things as well and showing us that there are many practical ways to help those around us no matter our social standing. This would bring us all together instead of pitting the groups against each other.

I might be expecting too much of television. I do think that TV is capable of more than people expect of it. A lot of us with access to a TV watch it several nights a week. We watch the news, games, and our favorite programs. We invite television into our homes. It’s an intimate form of storytelling while at the same time it brings us, the audience, together. There is an opportunity here to join one another and address a big issue in our society. I’d like to see that happen.

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone is a story nerd, particularly for the episodic stories told via the medium of television. When not parked in front of the TV, K.M. Cone can be found writing kooky urban fantasy on her personal site, attempting to learn German, or making a huge pot of soup for her friends, who are probably coming over to join her in her latest TV or animated film obsession.
K.M. Cone

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