Modern Television Portrays Complex View Of The Middle Class

Aug 19, 2016
Originally published on August 19, 2016 5:33 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For our series The New Middle, we're asking what it means to be in the middle class in America today.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I think middle class is you can pay your bills comfortably. You're steady.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I mean, my sleeves only roll up so far.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, I always see it as someone who actually owns their own home.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah, being able to afford a place to live and pay your bills and enjoy life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I think we'll kind of destroy ourselves without the middle-classmen.

SHAPIRO: Today, we're looking at what the middle class looks like on television.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Early sitcoms advertise the middle class, a family, a home filled with consumer goods. They either had blue-collar jobs or white-collar careers.

SHAPIRO: So joining us to discuss what it looks like today on TV is our critic Eric Deggans. Hey, Eric.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hey, guys. How's it going?

CORNISH: So, Eric, before we get into the history, help us understand, like, what exactly are we talking about? What are the signifiers of middle class on television? Because you've said that it's a little bit of a scavenger hunt to figure out those clues.

DEGGANS: (Laughter) It really is because, you know, American television rarely directly talks about class. You have to look at things like what kind of house do the characters live in? What kind of jobs do they have? What are their aspirations in life? You know, if something happens to them like a car wreck or something that might cost a little money, is it a big issue in the story or is it something that they can deal with without, you know, much concern? And so judging whether or not a family or situation on television reflects the middle class involves a little bit of looking at details to see what environment is being created for these characters.

SHAPIRO: OK. So, Eric, when I think about early depictions of the middle class on TV, I imagine a show like "Leave It To Beaver," a little bit aspirational but also relatable sort of the, quote, unquote, "all American family."

DEGGANS: Exactly. I mean, in the '50s, in the '60s, you know, that kind of television was particularly escapist, so we saw the "Leave It To Beaver" household where, you know, dad wore a tie and jacket to dinner and, you know, mom had dinner ready at 6 p.m.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LEAVE IT TO BEAVER")

BARBARA BILLINGSLEY: (As June Cleaver) What's that?

HUGH BEAUMONT: (As Ward Cleaver) Brought you a little present.

BILLINGSLEY: (As June Cleaver) What is it?

BEAUMONT: (As Ward Cleaver) It's a crock of pickles.

(LAUGHTER)

BILLINGSLEY: (As June Cleaver) Ward, how are we ever going to use two quarts of pickles?

BEAUMONT: (As Ward Cleaver) Well, I guess we'll just have to go on a lot of picnics this summer.

DEGGANS: They lived in a suburban home, and they had a nice car. And they didn't seem to worry about money. And that continued through the '60s and even in the '70s with shows like "The Brady Bunch."

CORNISH: But once we get into the '70s, this is a time I associate with television that shows us a little bit more of the working class - right? - or at least characters who we've come to look at that way.

DEGGANS: Well, and it - what it showed, I think, was more realism, right? So along comes a producer like Norman Lear who created "All In The Family" and "Good Times," so we got to see a poor, black family in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD TIMES")

JA'NET DUBOIS: (As Willona Woods) She's behind three months in the rent. She just got a notice this morning. If she don't pay it all up by the end of this week, she's going to be evicted.

DEGGANS: And we saw a much more accurate depiction of their class status given the jobs they had and the neighborhoods they supposedly lived in.

SHAPIRO: I think of the same kind of thing when we look at the '80s and a show like "Roseanne" where the middle class is no longer this aspirational ideal. The middle class is like this gritty reality of struggles.

DEGGANS: Exactly. I mean, "Roseanne" was considered kind of revolutionary for its time because there weren't sitcoms like that on the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROSEANNE")

ROSEANNE BARR: (Roseanne Conner) Onay (ph) - that's the name brand.

(LAUGHTER)

BARR: (Roseanne Conner) We have to go for the generic, why it's nothing but second best for our family.

DEGGANS: And so we saw them again struggle with money. But when you think about "Friends" or "Frasier," there's no way they made enough money to live in the way they lived in New York City.

SHAPIRO: And there are so many shows like that from "Friends" to "Sex And The City" to "Modern Family" where it's like this might be labeled middle class, but it certainly does not show the signs of anything my friends would consider middle class today.

DEGGANS: I think the modus operandi of television in general is to show people living at a slightly higher socio-economic level than they would normally live if given the jobs that they have and also to not deal so much with worrying about what you're going to do with your next paycheck. Think about it. You know, a lot of television makes money through advertising, and advertising is trying to sell you things. So you don't necessarily want to have ads for that kind of stuff sandwiched next to stories that talk about people struggling to pay their bills.

SHAPIRO: So, Eric, to end where we began, if the 1950s version of aspirational television was "Leave It To Beaver" where the family lived a relatively modest life and the present-day version of aspirational television is a show like "Modern Family..."

CORNISH: Or "The Kardashians."

SHAPIRO: ...Or "The Kardashians" where it is a very expensive lifestyle, what does that tell us about where society stands today versus in the 1950s? I mean, are we seeing an ever-raising bar of what you should aspire to?

DEGGANS: Well, I guess the question is was the life that was depicted in "Leave It To Beaver" really that modest? We've always had television that has shown particularly white families living at a level that's a bit and maybe some would even say a lot beyond their financial means, given that they're supposed to be middle class - that we're really being shown upper-middle class lives and being told by television that it's middle class. And I think that's been happening since, you know, the '50s at least.

CORNISH: Eric Deggans is NPR's TV critic. Eric, thanks so much.

DEGGANS: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.