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The Middle Class Goes to the Movies

posted: 4.21.11 by Jack Solomon

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Due to a long history of painful racial conflict, Americans are well aware of the racial dynamics of their culture. Thanks to efforts of feminism many, if not most, Americans are now aware of the dynamics of gender within their culture. But because of a fundamental ideology grounded in individualism and social mobility, Americans can get quite fuzzy-minded when it comes to the class dynamics in their culture, and so educating students about the complex operations of social class is one of our most important tasks in the teaching of cultural studies.

It isn’t that Americans don’t know that there are different social classes in this country; the problem is that they are generally unable to analyze how social class functions here. Generally lacking the traditional signifiers of social class that still apply in the Old World (certain accents, tastes, postures, and even physical features), Americans tend to equate personal wealth with social status. While socioeconomically it is indeed true that one’s bank account determines ones social caste, when it comes to culture things get more complicated.

This complication is particularly evident within popular culture. That is, in an America that is increasingly run by a socioeconomic upper class (many of whose members got there through their success in the entertainment industry), it is still the point of view of the middle class that dominates popular cultural story telling. From this middle-class perspective, working-class characters are either condescended to (they are commonly depicted in popular culture as unattractive, uncouth, comic, criminal, dependent, or some combination thereof) or celebrated for rising out of the class of their birth. The idea that a working-class person might be proud of his or her social status rarely, if ever, appears in the story. Cinderella can sweep out the cinders, but she’s supposed to want to get that prince. Imagine a retelling of the story in which the Cinderella figure in, say, Pretty Woman denounces the society that enables the prince to be a prince and demands a new tax structure that would even things out.

The middle-class attitude toward the prince (that is, the upper classes) is a bit more complicated. On one hand, thanks to America’s cherished belief in social mobility (as most commonly expressed in the American Dream), the middle-class view of upper-class status is one of fascination and aspiration (which is one reason why middle-class voters vote for upper-class tax cuts even when it means that they will not get the Social Security or Medicare benefits that their own taxes have paid for).  But on the other hand, the middle class feels morally superior to the upper classes, which is why shows that feature upper-class characters—like Dallas and Arrested Development—emphasize the moral inferiority of their upper-class characters. Commonly, the plot of any entertainment that features upper-class characters demands that they be “improved” somehow by a character who is lower on the socioeconomic totem pole (as indeed happens in Pretty Woman), and who is herself (or himself) rewarded by being raised socially for bringing the upper-class character into the middle-class moral range.

Which takes me to the recent remake of Arthur. A signifier of Hollywood’s addiction to sequels, remakes, and adaptations in an era of movie making governed more by the marketing department than by creative, Arthur is a classic example of the middle-class view of the upper classes. They are brutal and arrogant (as is Arthur’s prospective father-in-law), but also charming and fascinatingly able to live lives of nonstop pleasure and irresponsibility (as is Arthur). But of course there must be a lower-class character who will not only thwart the brutal upper-class characters but who will also redeem the charming upper-class rascal as well, and be rewarded for it in the end by getting in on the loot.

So it really doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about Dudley Moore’s Arthur or Russell Brand’s. In the end it is the same middle-class point of view that is signified. Can you imagine an ending in which Arthur’s shenanigan’s prompt someone to launch a political movement that would restore equity to America’s inheritance laws, rendering Arthur’s entire predicament moot?

Neither can I, but that is the movie I’d like to see.

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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