class has been a neglected factor in research on American television
programs and audiences. Only a few studies specifically focus on
the portrayal of class in television programming though some additional
information can be gleaned from incidental remarks relevant to class
in studies on other topics. Class has seldom been considered in
audience research either, although media researchers from the British
cultural studies tradition, through their applications of ethnographic
audience research, have recently directed more attention to this
on class content has focused on drama programming. News, talk shows,
and most other genre remain unexamined. Several studies have examined
sex role portrayals in television commercials, but little exists
on the matter of class, except frequency counts of occupations used
in studies of gender. A wide range of writers, from television critics
to English professors to communications researchers have examined
the texts of single drama programs or of small numbers of drama
series, selected for their prominence in the television landscape.
Woven into the textual analysis of some of these analyses are remarks
on class, but only a few studies have concentrated on the class-related
messages of particular programs. In a 1977 Journal of Communication
article Lynn Berk argued that Archie Bunker exemplified the
equation of bigotry with working class stupidity, a stereotype no
longer applied to race but still acceptable in characterizing the
working class. Robert Sklar in his 1980 book, Prime Time America,
was more hopeful about two Gary Marshall shows of the mid-1970s,
when a number of working-class characters populated prime time.
The Fonz and Laverne and Shirley retained their dignity in their
everyday struggles against class biases. In a 1986 Cultural Anthropology
article George Lipsitz examined seven ethnic working class TV sitcoms
from the 1950s and found sentimental images of ethnic families combined
with themes promoting consumption.
textual studies focus on in-depth analysis of particular shows,
other researchers have compiled demographic portraits across all
television drama programming at a given point in time. They categorize
fictional characters by sex, race, age, occupations, and occasionally
the evaluative tone of these portrayals. Only a few of these studies
extend beyond occupation to discuss social class specifically. But
data on occupations can be used as a measure of the class distribution
of television characters.
Many such studies have been done since the 1950s. Collectively,
they provide a series of snapshots over time. The overall results
of studies from the 1950s to the 1980s have revealed a repeated
under-representation of blue collar and over-representation of white
collar characters. Professionals and managers predominate. Central
characters were even more likely than peripheral characters to be
upper-middle-class white males. The movement of working-class people
to the periphery of television's dramatic worlds produces what Gerbner
called "symbolic annihilation", i.e. they are invisible background
in the dominant cultural discourse. Over-representation of those
at the top or at least in the upper middle class, simultaneously
gives the impression that those not among these classes are deviant.
Textual criticism gives depth, demographic surveys, breadth to the
understanding of television. An approach which provides some aspects
of both metods is genre study, the close examination of many shows
within a given genre. Sitcoms, and particularly domestic sitcoms,
have been studied in this way. Ella Taylor's Prime Time Families
(1989) is a good example of this type of work. Only a small
number of such studies, however, address social class in more than
a cursory fashion. The most extensive genre studies of class are
Richard Butsch's "Class and Gender in Four Decades of Television
Situation Comedies" (in Critical Studies in Mass Communication)
and Butsch and Lynda Glennon's 1982 and 1983 essays in the Journal
of Broadcasting and the report on Television and Behavior.published
by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These studies
found remarkable consistencies in domestic situation comedies over
four decades, from 1946 to 1990. Working-class families were grossly
and persistently under-represented compared to their proportion
of the nation's population. For over half the forty years, there
was only one working-class series on the air, out of an average
of 14 domestic sitcoms broadcast annually. From 1955 to 1971 not
one new working-class domestic sitcom appeared. Middle-class families
headed by professional/managerial fathers predominated.
Butsch found that the portrayals themselves are strikingly persistent.
The prototypical working-class male is incompetent and ineffectual,
often a buffoon, well-intentioned but dumb. In almost all working-class
series, the male is flawed, some more than others: Ralph Kramden,
Fred Flintstone, Archie Bunker, Homer Simpson. He fails in his role
as a father and husband, is lovable but not respected. Heightening
this failure is the depiction of working-class wives as exceeding
the bounds of their feminine status, being more intelligent, rational,
and sensible than their husbands. In other words gender status is
inverted, with the head of house, whose occupation defines the families
social class, demeaned in the process. Class is coded in gendered
terms. Working-class men are de-masculinized by depicting them as
child-like; their wives act as mothers. Some writers fail to note
that these male buffoons are almost always working class. They miss
the message about class, and instead define it as a message about
gender. These results indicate the importance of accounting for
class along with gender.
In middle-class domestic situation comedies the male buffoon is
a rarity. When a character plays the fool it is the dizzy wife,
like Lucy Ricardo in I Love Lucy. In most middle-class series,
however, both parents are mature, sensible, and competent, especially
when there are children in the series. It is the children who provide
the antics and humor. They are, appropriately, child-like. Nor are
sex roles inverted in these series. The man is appropriately "manly,"
and the woman "womanly." The family as a whole represents an orderly,
well functioning unit, in contrast to the chaotic scenes in the
working class families. The predominance of middle-class series,
combined with persistently positive treatment, equated the middle-class
family with the American family ideal.
the middle-class ideal was an exaggerated display of affluence and
upward mobility. Maids and other household help were far more prevalent
than in the real world. Even working-class families were upwardly
mobile, moving to the suburbs or having the father promoted to foreman
or starting his own business.
his 1992 article "Social Mobility in Television Comedies" (Critical
Studies in Mass Communication), Lewis Freeman found that upward
mobility in sitcoms of 1990-1992 was achieved through self-sacrifice
and reliance, reinforcing the ethic of individualism which makes
each person responsible for his or her socio-economic status. Thus
one's status is an indicator of one's ability, character and moral
worth. However, as if to temper desires of the audience the economic
benefits of upward mobility were counter-balanced by the personal
consequences. The economic rewards disrupted relations with family
Thomas and Brian Callahan argue in "Allocating Happiness: TV Families
and Social Class" (Journal of Communication ) that portrayals
in the late 1970s showed working class families who were sympathetic
and supportive of each other and the characters generally "good"
people. The middle class was portrayed this way too, but less so.
Both contrast to portrayals of the rich who were often depicted
as unsympathetic and unsupportive of each other, and as "bad" or
unhappy people. The contrasts between classes convey the moral that
money does not buy happiness.
has class been considered a variable in research seeking to identify
specific effects resulting from television viewing. This research
tradition has concentrated on generalizations about psychological
processes rather than on group differences. In a major bibliography
of almost 3,000 studies of audience behavior only seven articles
on television effects and thirteen on use patterns examined class
differences. Joseph Klapper's classic summary of effects research,
The Effects of Mass Communication (1960) did not even mention
class as a factor. The few studies that have considered class found
that there were no class differences in children's susceptibility
to violence on television, in contrast to the usual stereotype of
working class children being more likely to be led into such behavior.
of family television use patterns have looked more broadly at people's
behavior with the television set. But even in these class is often
peripheral. Books on television audiences seldom include social
class as a topic in their indexes. One traditional research technique,
however, has been to distinguish class differences in television
use, usually with an evaluative preference for the patterns established
in "higher" classes. Ira Glick and Sidney Levy's Living with
Television (1962) firmly established the tradition from their
1950s market surveys. The working-class family tended to use TV
as a continuing background, with children and parents doing other
things while the TV was on. They did not plan viewing, but watched
whatever was available at the time they had to watch. They were
defined as indiscriminate users, the term suggesting an unhealthy
habit. Middle-class families tended to turn on the TV for a specific
program and then turn it off. They planned a schedule of activities,
including when and what to watch on television. The middle-class
pattern was defined as intellectually superior and as approved child-rearing
practice. Other researchers adopted this description of working
class viewers, confirming popular critics prejudices about the working
class, and favoring of the middle class. Recent family communication
research has continued to distinguish these class differences, but
has avoided the evaluative tone.
within the 1950s and 1960s sociological literature on working-class
lifestyle are a few ethnographic observations on working-class uses
of and responses to television. These have confirmed the working-class
pattern of using the TV as filler and background to family interaction.
They also revealed distinctive responses to program content. Working-class
men preferred shows featuring a character sympathetic to working-class
values. They identified with working-class types even when those
types were written as peripheral characters or villains. They contradicted
the notion of working-class viewers as passive and gullible.
results are consistent with effects research which indicated that
audiences tend to reject as unrealistic television portrayals that
they can compare to their own experience. Thus working-class viewers
would not be likely to accept stereotypic portrayals of their class
such as described above. Indirect evidence suggests that working-class
viewers tended to perceive Archie Bunker as winning arguments with
his college-educated son-in-law. In a recent study of soap operas
and their viewers (Remote Control: Television Audiences and Cultural
Power ) working-class women viewers of daytime serials rejected
the affluent long suffering heroines in favor of villainesses who
transgressed feminine norms and thus cast off middle class respectability.
researchers have given more attention to class [e.g. Piepe]. Cultural
studies in particular has popularized the methods of talking with
working-class viewers about their reactions to television. Studies
of British working-class viewers have painted a more complicated
picture of working class viewing than popular stereotypes, encouraged
by the portrayals of class on television, would suggest. As with
the earlier American studies, working people construct their own
alternative readings of television programs.
wide range of studies over decades provide consistent evidence that
working-class viewers are not the passive dupes with their eyes
glued to the screen, that popular television criticism has concocted.
Nor are they the bumbling, ineffectual clowns often constructed
in television comedies. Rather, they use television to their advantage,
and interpret content to suit their own needs and interests.
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also Family on Television;
Gender and Television;