Normalizing the Upper-Middle-Class in Movies and Television
Alyssa Rosenberg worries that the introduction of characters like Ashton Kutcher’s Walden Schmidt – the replacement for Charlie Sheen’s character on Two and a Half Men – could ‘normalize’ the very wealthy:
The thing that’s annoying about having a very rich character (it doesn’t sound from this description like Kutcher’s character will have lost his money in recession or anything) move in with friends or relatives is not that it’s implausibly wacky. It’s that it’s implausibly wacky in a way that makes a very rich character seem more like characters of low to moderate incomes. If it’s scandalous when Eric Schmidt, Google’s married CEO, is seen out with a woman not his wife, it would be profoundly and stock-price-affectingly odd if a billionaire just moved in with a chiropractor and his kid for kicks. I’m sure being a billionaire has its inconveniences, but needing to move home or in with roommates is not one of them. Given how much of our politics is devoted to the idea that the very rich are somehow put-up, or that they’re just like everyone else, when in fact their resources mean that they don’t have to face the same challenges and concerns as everyone else, this kind of fantasy may not be uniquely damaging, but it does reflect something pernicious.
Actually, I think something that’s far more troubling is the normalization of the upper-middle-class in film and television these days. Go back in time to a movie like E.T. or any number of films made in the 70’s and 80’s and the people in those films were pretty firmly middle class. They didn’t have big, perfect houses. They had middle-sized or even smallish houses. Portrayals of rich people in teen movies and sitcoms were pretty uniformly negative, and that included the portrayal of upper-middle-class. The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink or Heathers for a few examples.
Fast-forward to 2011. One of my favorite shows, Modern Family, features three connected families who are all very successful. Or look at pretty much every Diane Keaton movie made recently. Romantic comedies are some of the worst offenders. Think It’s Complicated or the Meet the Fockers trilogy. Teen comedies are even worse.
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.
Watching Super 8 recently really drove this home. Films like The Goonies and E.T. portrayed wealth and class through an entirely different lens, and one that I think has been lost from many modern films. Super 8 captured some of that old Goonies magic largely because it was a story about people who weren’t from upper-middle-class families with amazing kitchens and expensive, unremarkable cars.