Normalizing the Upper-Middle-Class in Movies and Television


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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52 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    E.D. will be accused of class warfare in 1… 2… 3…….Report

  2. Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

    I figgered the point of the 2 1/2 Men thing is that he’s rich but unhappy. One would think the schmaltz factor will pin the needle, that the best things in life are free and all that crap.

    As for the movies, really nice houses are more pleasant to look at for 2 hours. If I want to look at a crappy little house, I’ll just stay home and save the 12 bucks, buy a doily or something.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      I can’t say I agree. Plenty of really great films take place in humdrum houses and apartments. Think of Rear Window — almost the entire film is set in one apartment’s very ordinary living room. And it’s a masterpiece. Or take the fairly ordinary houses in Rebel Without a Cause and The Graduate.

      Luxurious places may have an advantage for some types of stories, but for each of these, I don’t think they would work as well.Report

      • Avatar Art Deco says:

        The occupations of the fathers were never stated (by design, one suspects), but all three principles in Rebel Without a Cause were from the upper ranks of the bourgeoisie. Two of the three families had a domestic more-or-less in residence and the third had a club membership.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          You’ve probably seen it a lot more recently than I have, so I’ll stand corrected. I didn’t recall their houses or lifestyles being anything special.Report

          • Avatar Art Deco says:

            1. The film was made in 1955 and reflected some of the consumption patterns of the time. The interior spaces of two of the three houses were not large, but they were being viewed with eyes of people whose habits had been built around the interior spaces of the Depression era and earlier. On the other hand, the families employed domestics, which is quite unusual if not rare today among the well-to-do.

            2. You will note that the interior of the Sal Mineo character’s house was handsome, and that his (divorced) mother was a woman of leisure (never seen, having left him in the care of a maid). You might also note that his personal bedroom was quite uncharacteristic of an (adolescent) son’s room, as if his mother had assigned him a guest room in the house ordinarily used by (female) visitors.

            3. The configuration of each household was also characteristic of people who had married and started their families during the Depression: two had only children and the third a family with two children about ten years apart in age.

            4. Characteristic of each household was one or another or parent having defaulted on an important component of the maternal or paternal vocation, and the (often failing) efforts of others in the household to perform these functions.Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

          Sure, but the portrayal of wealth in both Rebel and The Graduate was pretty negative.

          I think that Jason’s point still stands, though. Wealthy and beauty aren’t required for good television or film. Good acting, writing, and direction are. Without those you have crap. With them, it’s not nearly as important to have a bunch of gorgeous people in big houses.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

            My recollection of them both was that some families were wealthy, and some were not — and it was very clear which you were supposed to cheer for.

            But I’m honestly not sure I’m remembering Rebel correctly now.Report

      • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

        As I recall, Jimmy Stewart’s hovel looked into a very posh modern apartment. There was a point there.

        The other commentators got it, that nice looking houses are the visual default; modest homes are used to make a cultural or aesthetic point.Report

  3. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    These entertainments are, of course, fantasy. The people depicted in TV and the movies are also better-looking than people in real life. It’s more fun to imagine yourself as more attractive and more financially comfortable than you really are, so entertainments offering that fantasy tend to sell better than entertainments offering a fantasy life involving no sex, no beauty, and only ketchup sandwiches for lunch.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Sure, but the Goonies and ET and Super 8 are all fantasies also. Only, the fantasy is more interesting because it’s not all about wealth and beauty.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        Ah but Hollywood has settled into a lot more of their “paint by numbers” habits now than they did in the Goonies or ET days. Now ‘days they use upper middle class settings as a default because that pleases the audience more and also because it plays to their own biases.Report

  4. Avatar Art Deco says:

    The point is not that there aren’t upper-middle-class families or that there’s something wrong with being upper-middle-class. The point is that most people aren’t, and it’s sort of unrealistic, bordering on dishonest, to have so many films, and especially comedies, portraying people this way.

    Most people are not ‘middle class’ either, in the sense of the head of household being a salaried employee or proprietor without much accumulated wealth. That stratum is perhaps 25% of the total. Most people are wage earners (who are not commonly the subject of fiction in film or television).Report

    • Avatar patrick says:

      > Most people are wage earners (who are not
      > commonly the subject of fiction in film or
      > television).

      ‘Struth, right there.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      True, Art. But think back to some of the movies I list. They’ve got working class families, poorer families, on the edge of middle class and wage-earning class.Report

      • Avatar Scott says:


        And those working class families are fighting against their upper class oppressors, how noble! God forbid we normalize the view point of the bourgeois!Report

      • Avatar Art Deco says:

        I am afraid Molly Ringwald (Pretty in Pink) was just never going to cut it as a working-class character; outside her range as an actress. You might infer that Judd Nelson’s character in The Breakfast Club was meant to be a working class youth, but more saliently he was presented as a low-grade juvenile delinquent with a very bad attitude.

        Eric Stoltz did a much better job of presenting a character like that (though the class theme was done to death in that particular film).

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          more saliently he was presented as a low-grade juvenile delinquent with a very bad attitude.

          That none of the popular kids could stand and the vice-principal felt free to bully. The only one who had any sympathy for him was the custodian. From all of that, it was pretty clear he was lower-class than the school’s median.Report

          • Avatar Art Deco says:

            Been a while, but as far as I can recall, the Emilio Estevez character had contempt for him (and the Anthony Michael Hall character), which was presented as something taught at home. The Molly Ringwald character was intimidated by him (and eventually falls for him). The vice principal bullies him faux de mieux. He is difficult to manage and the two have a history.

            You can infer that his family is comparatively impecunious when he grills the Ringwald character as to whether or not she bought her earrings with earnings. He also gives a description of domestic fights (mother-father and father-son) which have rebukes hurled in very plain language. The father also smokes cigars, an unusual and fairly downmarket habit (in 1984, not ten years later).Report

  5. Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

    I think it’s a self-selection bias among creators and pressure from the studios.

    The truth is, outside of specific creators, the default family is an upper-middle-class when it comes to comedies/sitcoms. The Brady Bunch, Family Ties, Growing Pains, etc, etc. Only when a creator like a Roseanne, Norman Lear, or John Hughes _wants_ to make a show/movie about working class families does one get on the air. Now, obviously if one is successful, there will be copycats (see Grace Under Fire), but for the most part, once the successful show goes off the air, Hollywood will default back to upper-middle-class families with no real problem. See the shift from All in the Family to The Cosby Show and the shift from Roseanne to Home Improvement.

    Plus, when I’m talking about a self-selection bias, more and more, creators in Hollywood are becoming more-and-more a circular feeding frenzy where executive producers get their upper-middle-class/rich friends jobs in the industry who get their friends and families jobs and so on and so forth. For them, the upper-middle-class family is _normal._ Just like when you see those articles in the New York Times about how tough it is out there for a family making $250,000.Report

    • Avatar Art Deco says:

      I have a suspicion that word merchants very seldom come from common-and-garden social backgrounds. They are writing what they know. Sometimes it is done quite engagingly (think Whit Stillman movies).Report

  6. Avatar wardsmith says:

    You’ve just convinced me not to watch the “new” 2.5 men.

    Q: How much coke did Charlie Sheen consume?

    A: I don’t know but it was enough to kill two and a half men.Report

  7. Avatar Jonny Scrum-half says:

    John Hughes movies always struck me as portraying specifically upper-middle-class life in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago, like in the Home Alone movies and in Ferris Buehler’s Day Off. Actually, that’s one of the things that annoyed me about those movies.Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

      I was thinking more of stuff like Pretty in Pink, the Breakfast Club (which yes, had rich kids but didn’t ignore the existence of the middle-class), and such.

      But OK, Roseanne, Norman Lear, and some of John Hughes movies. 🙂Report

  8. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    I wonder how much of the 80s blue collar fantasy movies you’re talking about came out of the 70s Hollywood young upstarts. Spielberg and Lucas were a part of that generation- you should watch Spielberg’s Sugarland Express sometime- and really came just a little bit after guys like Cassavettes and Scorcese who were making movies that were intentionally really gritty and bordering on a sort of documentary-style. Check out A Woman Under the Influence sometime and compare it to how Spielberg depicts home life in a movie like E.T. Totally different genres but there’s plenty of similarities there. I think in a way that sort of cinema verite/social realist school is the soil that Spielberg came out of and, conversely, today’s filmmakers are rooted more in Indiana Jones and E.T.- in movies for children. It’s not that they’re not capturing something of those movies, but there’s a lot that just goes over their heads. And, you know, the 80s cinema took a very intentional turn away from realistic dramas for adults towards the kidee matinee- to the aesthetics of delight. American cinema was in a transitional state towards something like pure pop fantasy. Eventually, I think we’ll return to silent films. Dialogue is becoming superfluous.Report

  9. Avatar Trumwill says:

    Portrayals of rich people in teen movies and sitcoms were pretty uniformly negative, and that included the portrayal of upper-middle-class.

    Errr, the Cosby Show? As far as TV goes, it seems that it’s always been the case that the houses were on the large side. Especially when you consider how they so often put them in or around big cities.

    Which is not to say that I disagree with your thesis. I’m still mulling it over.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      What about Friends? None of them could begin to afford the apartments they lived in.Report

      • Avatar RTod says:

        My sister used to refer to Friends as the show about “six yuppies with highly improbable hair.”Report

      • Avatar Alan Scott says:

        That’s really about the reality of filming a multi-camera sitcom, though. Verisimilitude takes second place to practicality.

        I remember reading an interview with the creators of “How I Met Your Mother”, where they said that in creating the show, they wanted something that felt more real, and strongly felt that the characters wouldn’t have a regular table at the bar. But they had to abandon that because it would be to expensive to re-light the set for every different place they sat.

        It’s interesting that most of the “well off” examples are TV, while most of the “working class” examples are Movies. I wonder how much of that is just about the difference between how movie is filmed and how TV is filmed.Report

        • Avatar Will Truman says:

          Quite so. In the case of both apartments (like Friends) or houses (like Family Matters), it really hinders storytelling to have everyone in such cramped quarters. You need wide open spaces just for the cameras to move.

          Now, in some cases they could make it so that the show takes place where the characters would be able to afford such accommodations. But no, everything must take place in New York City (or sometimes LA or Chicago). That’s something of another subject.Report

          • Avatar RTod says:

            I think this is true, and why the class issue never occurs to me when I’m watching these shows.

            It’s like going to see a Neil Simon play that’s about a couple in a tiny New York apartment, but they have the whole stage as their living room. I don’t equate all that space to luxury; I assume it’s to give the actors space to work with and I’m supposed to know that the apartment is a small Manhattan one-bed while allowing for that, and so it becomes a non-issue without me even thinking about it.Report

  10. Avatar RTod says:

    Am I the only one that never notices where TV and movie people fit in to the spectrum unless they are at the extreme ends, or it’s brought up as a plot device?Report

  11. Avatar RTod says:


    Regarding the 2 1/2 men thingy, this is the first I’ve heard of the new “direction.” But without knowing anything other than what you have just posted (I have never seen the show), I’ll bet $20 that whatever class message there is will in fact be populist:

    The audience will learn that the rich guy may have had more money and education, but the working folk were much smarter and happier, and he will learn lessons only the good common folk can teach every week.Report

  12. Avatar Kolohe says:

    On the other hand, ‘reality’ tv.Report

  13. Avatar Sam MacDonald says:

    Yes. If we could only go back to my childhood, when there were accurate, realistic portrayals of the American middle class, such as the Jeffersons, Silver Spoons, Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Diff’Rent Strokes, Soap, Knot’s Landing, etc. Even better were the really accurate shows from the 50s. Remember that episode of Leave it to Beaver when Ward and Wally went to the ballpark to toss battteries at the Jewish guy?

    But seriously… I suppose you could point out a few shows from that era that did offer something more realistic (All in the Family, I suppose) but I think I could find current examples as well. Isn’t there that show with the fat people? Mike and Molly? I think the main dude is a cop. There was King of Queens. Lots of stuff on CMT, I think, like reruns of that Reba show. Maybe the problem isn’t television, but the choices you make when you hit the remote? I presume you COULD watch Reba reruns if a more “real America” portrayal is what you were after.

    What I am getting at is… what makes you think that things are worse? Just a hunch?

    And going back to Ward and Wally, was THAT a problem? To show families in an almost preternaturally blissful state of cohesion and existence? Or was that a good model for people to pursue?Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

      I hate to break it to you, but neither Mike & Molly, Reba, or even King of Queens have close to a realistic portrayal of modern America either.

      Yes, they give people ‘realistic’ jobs, but not a realistic lifestyle of what the results of those jobs would be.

      But, I generally agree with your premise. Outside of a few outliers (Roseanne, Norman Lear), television comedies focus on a upper-middle-class lifestye.Report

  14. Avatar Sam MacDonald says:

    “Yes, they give people ‘realistic’ jobs, but not a realistic lifestyle of what the results of those jobs would be.”

    But that’s true of portrayals of all economic classes. Oil executives in Dallas didn’t REALLY live like JR Ewing, and a real ER doesn’t really run like ER. Doogie Howser did not offer an accurate portrayal of the life of a child genius.

    All of the above would have made for really, really terrible television. And really terrible narrative. Nobody is going to make or watch a show about real rich people or real poor people. Even reality TV gets edited.Report

  15. A long time ago, Susan McWilliams wrote an essay for Front Porch Republic about class differences and teen culture. Comparing John Hughes movies with The OC, she wrote:

    We learn in that film, so emblematic of storylines of that era, that classroom politics entail class politics. But in the end, everyone attends the same public school.

    More recent teen popular culture has also focused on class, but with an important distinction: They are premised on the notion that rich kids and poor kids do not live in the same school districts, even if they live in the same region.

    I imagine there’s something different going on in each genre. There are plenty of great poor-girl-and-rich-guy romantic comedies because those stories always work best when at least one of the lovers has enough money to assure the viewer of the couple’s happily-ever-after.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      Maybe that’s indicative of actual differences.

      When John Hughes was in High School, did everybody go to the same one? What about when the writers of the OC went?

      What was going on during 90210? (I only watched the Gabby episodes.)Report

      • I realize Charlotte, Raleigh, and Roanoke are not representative of the rest of the country, but my parents went to high school during public school integration. There was a lot of turmoil in those years. By the time I got to high school, private schools and the end of busing had more or less sorted things out by class. So it’s plausible to me that my parents’ generation was less “geographically” divided than my own.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          That makes sense to me, too.

          John Hughes probably went to a school where there were both Blaines and Duckys.

          Someone who is likely to grow up to be a 2005 television producer probably only went to school with Blaines.

          God, I hated Blaine.Report

  16. Avatar dhex says:

    maybe the schools with rich and poor kids were just another example of hollywood fantasy?Report

    • Avatar Art Deco says:

      Suburban townships, small towns, and blocs of the countryside typically have both bourgeois families and wage-earning families but in varying proportions. You do not see much of the patriciate anywhere because this is a small demographic subset (~2% of the total) who often withdraw their children from the public schools.Report