How TV Stigmatizes the Working Class

Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class

Loretta Alper and Pepi Leistyna (2005)

Film Review

This documentary is based on a book by the same title by late linguistics professor and media critic Pepi Leistyna. Its primary focus concerns the role of TV programming in the stigma associated with working class identity.

Frank discussion of social class is largely taboo in US society. For the past five decades the corporate elite has aggressively promoted the myth that the US is a “classless” society – in much the same way they champion the myth of America’s “post-racial” society.

Even though 62% of the labor force has a “working class” job (these are 2005 numbers – eight years post-crash this percentage has substantially increased), Americans lucky enough to have full time minimum wage jobs persist in referring to themselves as “middle class.”

The commentators interviewed differ over the definition of working class. Does it refer to occupation, lifestyle, income or merely failure to have control or authority over the work you do? All agree the minimum wage service jobs which have replaced the high wage manufacturing jobs the neoliberals exported overseas are working class positions.

The also agree to the heavy influence of corporate advertisers in using TV programming to market consumption and a sanitized, suburban, middle class way of life.

Stigmatizing Working Class Families

As the cold war deepened and anti-communism and anti-union sentiment flourished, corporate media launched a frontal attack on any lingering sense of working class pride and solidarity. Ever since the early sixties, TV has consistently portrayed working class characters in a negative light. They typically play comic roles, in which the men especially display hopelessly bad taste, dysfunctional family values, low intelligence and poor self-discipline.

Class Dismissed illustrates with great clips of the Honeymooners, the Flintstones, the Simpsons and All in the Family. Typical messages these programs put across were that poverty is a lifestyle choice, that poor people don’t deserve better economic circumstances because they wouldn’t appreciate it and that working class men are incapable of serving as head of the household (their wives are always smarter and more self-disciplined).

Clips from “working class” reality shows, such as Jerry Springer, are even more illuminating. Guests are deliberately portrayed as white trash (behind the scenes producers refer to them as “trailer trash”). All are carefully coached to behave in extreme and flamboyant ways. In other words to reinforce the stereotype that working class people have no discipline or self-control and are essentially fat, sloppy and emotionally labile. The clear message is that middle class people who behave this way are screwed up – it’s totally normal when working class people do it.

TV Treatment of Minorities

The documentary also examines TV’s treatment of minorities and women. When black sitcoms first became popular in the 1980s, the format religiously showcased a sanitized middle class black lifestyle (eg the Cosby Show). Even shows set in the “ghetto” portrayed a comfortable middle class lifestyle. In addition to erasing the realities of black poverty, these programs also put out the message that ghettos aren’t that bad – thus there’s no need for affirmative action or welfare.

“Moving on up” was another common theme of early black sitcoms (eg the Jeffersons, Different Strokes and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air). A secondary theme was the need to rely on white people and rich blacks to help you move out of the ghetto.

The rise of cop shows in the eighties and nineties featured the stereotyped role of blacks as criminals. The goal here was to justify the growing prison system, in which the majority of inmates are African American and Latino, while simultaneously delivering the message that black poverty stems from the bad behavior of African Americans (and has nothing to do with capitalist structural problems, racism or white privilege).

The Link Between Gender Discrimination and Poverty

TV also consistently ignores the link between gender discrimination and working class status. Women of color always hold the worst, lowest paid jobs. This is never depicted as an economic necessity – but as a lifestyle choice or the result of poor choices or failure to take responsibility.

LIkewise, TV never realistically portrays the link between single motherhood and poverty (in 2005, 28% of single mother lived in poverty with an average income of $28,000). All the single mothers on TV are either middle class or temporarily down on their luck due to past mistakes.

Roseanne was a clear exception, owing to demands Rosanne Barr made on her producers to portray a strong feminist working class character. Barr battled constantly with her producers (ie she threatened to quit). Although she ultimately got her way, the Hollywood and tabloid press excoriated her for being difficult and demanding.

15 thoughts on “How TV Stigmatizes the Working Class

  1. This negative portraying of working class people applies to Australia just the same. The slightest criticism of the present Abbott government gets shot down by a good old fashioned ‘union bashing’ or referrals to ‘lefty rusted on labor workers,lazy latte sipping.


    • This video seems to be very interesting. I started watching it. I am going to finish watching it soon. Here just a few things I do remember from it so far. For instance, as soon as working class people achieve a higher standard of living, they do not see themselves as ‘working class’ any more. another statement is that if you are working class this is seen as a failure.
      There was apparently a period in America, where lower class people, where when lower class people started making demands to have a say in politics, they were immediately cursed as being ‘communist’.

      It is true, that a lot of our ideas about American way of life, have been formed by watching what the film industry created. These films were not only watched in America, but also in other countries. My experience goes back to what was shown in Germany in the post World War Two period. From the sixties on I became familiar with film material that was shown in Australia. As an Australian of German descent I became aware that American standard of living had increased tremendously. But Australians did not do too badly either, especially during the time of the Cold War. The big threat during those days seemed to be, that if workers did not achieve a higher standard of living along with the middle class, they would become dissatisfied and turn to communism!

      When jobs got lost in the post Cold War period, everything changed. It has already been pointed out in this video, that now a lot of the middle class has in fact become working class for only working class jobs are available to them. And often, even with full time employment, a worker is not able to adequately support a family. However these people do not see themselves as ‘working class’. Is it because if you call yourself ‘working class’ you admit to failure?


      • Yes, Auntie, I think that pretty well sums it up. Even people with part time minimum wage jobs call themselves “middle class” because the stigma of being working class is so painful. When no one will admit to being working class, any effort to organize working class people to give them a collective voice becomes extremely difficult if not impossible.


  2. bogan : (informal) an unfashionable person, usually of lower class (from WordWeb)

    I had to look this up on WordWeb. I think I’ve heard the words “daggy” and “unstylish” in this connection. Shabby and untidy!


  3. Lisa Henderson from the Department of Communication (University of Massachusetts-Amhurst) talks in the video about how gay people are depicted. And how the difference between two gay men stands out. One character is totally accepted by society whereas the other one just cannot be taken seriously.
    It must be very interesting to study how different attitudes in society develop. And how behaviour and language in different social groups differs and changes.


  4. On my first blog, I wrote on this issue, from the perspective of how working men, black, Hispanic or white, are portrayed as bumbling idiots whose wives have to continually help and attempt to fix. And Rosanne was one of the worst, not best! Her gargantuan husband is as helpless and whipped as any other sitcom male, and the other males, once again, are either weak and stupid or drunk and obnoxious.

    We have three generations of young men who believe they are not fit to be married or even living with a woman, nor do anything else right. And the shows that are on now are just as bad: Two and a half-men, for instance, where one male is a drunk womanizer, with no redeeming values whatsoever, and the other is a whipped to his x wife wimp! And then there is The Big Bang Theory, where any intelligent and educated man is portrayed as an effeminate nerd who is afraid of his own shadow. I could go on but I’ll stop here.

    A great deal of time is spent on what these shows do to keep women set in demeaning roles, and this is true, no doubt. But what they have done to the male image for boys and teenagers is a damn crime, in my book!

    They are all mind-control trash, as is most everything on the idiot box!


  5. Nearly every home has a TV, but, instead of providing positive programs for the betterment of society, production/programming managers at media companies air programs/products offering zero benefits. It’s understandable seeing who owns the media, but still a tremendous opportunity for creating a better world through mass communication remains untaken.


  6. I know the power of the Tv and media come to that, but the way it’s laid out here is… well shocking but very clear and easy to follow once you see it. Hope I can find the film to watch! Thanks for posting a real eye opener!


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