The Architecture of Stratification: Social Class and Inequality
Mass Media and Images of Social Class
The mass media play a significant role in shaping reality and in socialization. Thus they help to foster people's conceptions of class, wealth, and poverty. 1
The media tend to focus much of their favorable attention on the concerns of the wealthy and the privileged. Television air time is filled with advertisements for luxury cars, cruise vacations, diamond jewelry, and other things that only the well-to-do can hope to afford. If you take a peek at the "style" section of a major metropolitan newspaper, you'll likely find a focus on high-priced fashion, designer home décor, costly vacation spots, investment opportunities in foreign real estate, expensive restaurants, and etiquette for lavish, formal dinner parties.
The news media also devote a significant amount of broadcast time and print space to daily business news and stock market quotations, even though only about half of U.S. families own any stock at all. 2 On a recent radio news show, an investment broker told listeners that they should have two separate bank accounts: one for paying the bills and the other for "playing" the stock market. Notice how such advice assumes that people have extra cash in their savings to play with. Some cable television networks report exclusively on stock market issues. International news and trade agreements are reported in terms of their impact on the business world and wealthy investors, not on ordinary working people.
The media also regularly provide information on individuals who have achieved supersuccess. We receive regular reports about the multimillion-dollar contracts of professional athletes, film stars, and TV personalities. People magazine devotes an entire issue each year to a detailed description of the expensive gowns celebrities wear on Oscar night. Society pages and gossip columns keep those in the upper class informed of one another's doings, enticing the rest of us to admire their achievements.
If people come to believe that having such a lavish lifestyle is desirable, those who don't earn enough to support that lifestyle often feel compelled to borrow to buy their own "entry-level luxury car," suburban palace, designer clothes, top-of-the-line sporting goods, rent-a-maid, and so on. This sort of "affluence" is precarious, frequently maintained by going deeper into debt by using credit cards and borrowing. When people are seduced by media images of likable and attractive people surrounded by the accoutrements of upper-class life, it is all too easy to justify going into debt to purchase those things for yourself so you can "keep up with the Joneses."
The comfortable middle classes and the affluent upper classes have always been a mainstay of the entertainment media. Indeed, the society that is usually portrayed on television shows is considerably wealthier than the society in which we actually live.
Whether their lives are depicted with a hint of envy (as in The OC ) or playfully caricatured (as in the old sitcom Gilligan's Island ), the very wealthy have been a surefire hit among television viewers for decades. The HBO documentary Born Rich featured interviews by producer Jamie Johnson (heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals company fortune) of ten of his fellow wealthy inheritors. A few years ago, MTV aired the eight-episode Rich Girls , in which designer Tommy Hilfiger's daughter and a friend fought boredom with self-indulgent shopping trips.
Reality shows have jumped on the "If they're wealthy, people will watch" bandwagon. On NBC's I Want to be a Hilton, young contestants compete for the opportunity to live the glamorous lifestyle of "high society." The Apprentice tantalizes its contestants with glimpses of the exorbitantly wealthy lifestyle of its star, Donald Trump: helicopter rides, polo matches, visits to his luxury apartment. 3
Meanwhile, even though most working adults in the United States have manual, unskilled, or semiskilled jobs, poor and working-class people typically are depicted in minor roles. 4 A study of prime-time network television series between 1946 and 1990 found that in only 11% of the series were heads of households portrayed as working class—that is, holding occupations as blue-collar, clerical, or semiskilled service workers. Middle-class families were featured in 70% of the shows. 5
When working-class or poor people are featured, the depiction is often either unflattering or pitying. The blue-collar heads of households on prime-time television throughout the years have typically been portrayed as dumb, immature, or irresponsible buffoons. The Honeymooners, All in the Family, Married with Children, and The Simpsons are the most famous examples. Films such as Saturday Night Fever, Working Girl, Good Will Hunting, and 8 Mile portray working-class men as macho exhibitionists. 6 On confrontational television talk shows such as Jerry Springer and Judge Judy, the odd personal problems of working-class guests are displayed for the condescending amusement of viewers. The reality show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition depicts desperately needy families being "saved" with a new house designed and built by the show's affluent cast.
A reversal of this trend (but one that may be equally inaccurate) is the portrayal of poor and working-class people as noble and wealthy people as inherently evil. Films such as Down to Earth, Maid in Manhattan, Sweet Home Alabama, and Mr. Deeds depict working-class characters as heroic and wealthy characters as greedy, mean, corrupt, and small-minded.
When the news media turn their attention to the most destitute, the portrayals are often negative or stereotypical. For instance, local TV stations usually run human interest stories about the "less fortunate" in soup kitchens and homeless shelters during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Frequently the poor are portrayed in grouped, statistical terms, such as annual fluctuations in the numbers of people in poverty or on welfare. Such coverage ignores the individual suffering and personal indignities of poverty. The more detailed stories about poor people tend to focus on welfare cheats, drug addicts, street criminals, and aggressive panhandlers.
The mass media clearly shape how people think about one another and about the nature of society. By celebrating the lifestyles of the upper and middle classes, the media create the impression that the interests and worries of the well-off are, or should be, important to everyone. Consequently, class differences and conflicts are concealed or rendered irrelevant.
Yes, we're all concerned about economic issues. But whether that concern revolves around profit margins and stock dividends or around job security and the source of our next meal clearly depends on our class standing.
1 Mantsios, G. 1995. Media magic: Making class invisible. In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, class, and gender in the United States (3rd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.
2 National Center for Policy Analysis. 2000. Stock ownership is becoming widespread. www.ncpa.org/oped/bartlett/jan2400.html. Accessed July 31, 2003.
3Stanley, A. 2005. TV's Busby Berkeley moment. New York Times, January 30.
4Parenti, M. 1996. The make-believe media. In M. J. Carter (Ed.), Society and the media. New York: HarperCollins.
5 Butsch, R. 1995. Ralph, Fred, Archie, and Homer: Why television keeps recreating the white male working-class buffoon. In G. Dines & J. M. Humez (Eds.), Gender, race, and class in media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
6 Ehrenreich, B. 1995. The silenced majority: Why the average working person has disappeared from American media and culture. In G. Dines & J. M. Humez (Eds.), Gender, race, and class in media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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