Americans who love “Downton Abbey” and its penetrating observations on British class conflict are less comfortable with shows that highlight class differences in the U.S. This reflects an enduring American myth that we have a classless society.
Would that that were true. America has multiple social classes, and Americans are afflicted with considerable status anxiety. Although sociologists can’t agree on how many classes there are or how they are defined, there’s a general consensus that class and status somehow correlate to wealth, education, family background, and occupation.
For the sake of argument, let’s posit that there are least five American social classes: 1) the upper class (wealthy, with “good” family background); 2) the upper middle class (professional occupations with few financial concerns); 3) the actual middle class itself (white-collar, financially stable, but not secure); 4) lower middle class (no college education; also called “working class” if they work with their hands); and lower class (poor and uneducated.)
In the early days of television, the default class for most shows was the middle of the middle class. With a less stratified society in the ‘50s and ‘60s, viewers seemed satisfied watching ordinary bourgeois lifestyles on television. Most TV families lived in modest homes, with dads who seemed to have middle-management jobs. To the extent that TV portrayed class differences at all, they were mostly played for laughs, as with “The Beverly Hillbillies,” a show that skewered both the lower and upper classes and generated tremendous ratings.
Television today is more aspirational, and most TV characters have moved up the social ladder. The default class for most scripted shows now is the upper middle class: the world of fancy homes, spacious apartments, nice clothes and good taste. This is a world where no one worries deeply about the next paycheck or doctor bills. This is the world of doctors, lawyers, high-powered executives, unusually talented detectives, entrepreneurs, hipsters, and Presidents of the United States.
Scripted television once depicted a world that generally reflected society (assuming you weren’t black, Hispanic, gay or poor), but now functions mainly as a window into a world that many Americans can only dream about. There aren’t many contemporary TV shows about nurses, plumbers, factory workers or bus drivers. In other words, there aren’t many shows like “The Honeymooners,” “All in the Family,” “Roseanne,” or “Friday Night Lights.” Despite the occasional “Mike and Molly” or “Raising Hope,” viewers seem to prefer watching people who’ve got it made over those still trying to make it.
Of course there’s one enormous exception to this: the phenomenon known as reality TV. As the lower middle class has disappeared from scripted television, it has re-emerged on reality television.
Some reality shows celebrate American’s workers, especially guy-friendly shows about hard physical jobs such as crab fishing and truck hauling, or female-leaning shows that help people improve their fashion or home design skills. But more often than not, reality television exploits the lower classes. “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” “The Jersey Shore,” “Hoarders” and their ilk exist primarily to turn the rest of us into voyeurs of lifestyles we can barely imagine.
It’s this reputation for exploitation and voyeurism that makes the “respectable” classes avoid reality TV like the plague. They don’t mind watching it, but they sure don’t want to be on it. As Lisa Birnbach wrote in her book “True Prep,” a book ostensibly about preppies but really about the entire upper middle class, “No true preppy – whether she had a storied last name or not – would allow herself to be so exposed and to live at the mercy of TV producers and editors.”
The upper classes have worked hard to secure a measure of dignity and respectability that they don’t want to risk by letting camera crews into their lives. The middle classes seem to know instinctively that their lives are humdrum affairs – going to work, helping the kids with the homework, doing the chores -- and that the only way a reality show could make them interesting would be to manufacture and exploit drama.
Of course there are people with high net worths on reality TV, but as any society columnist can tell you, wealth and social status do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. Paul Fussell, in his book “Class,” makes it plain that people with the same income can be in dramatically different classes (he cites the example of a plumber and a professor living side by side in identical houses with identical incomes to demonstrate that money does not define class.) The people who appear on the “housewives,” “brides,” “bachelor” or Kardashian shows may think they are upper class -- but they rest of us know they are prole at heart.
Pity the social historians of the future trying to use today’s television shows to unravel the class distinctions of the early 21st century. They’ll see an idealized version of America on scripted programs and a dystopian version on reality shows. Will they realize that the truth lies somewhere in between?