The Dignity of Working Class Life

“The Master said, “A true gentleman is one who has set his heart upon the Way. A fellow who is ashamed merely of shabby clothing or modest meals is not even worth conversing with.” (Analects 4.9)” ― Confucius

When I look at popular culture today, I’m constantly amazed at how little poverty and working class life is included. It’s as if it doesn’t exist.

Frankie and her adopted sons
Frankie and her adopted sons

I’m watching Grace and Frankie. What’s not to like? It has gay husbands running off together. Black adopted children, and a black boyfriend for Frankie. Oh, and perhaps most significantly, the two stars are women in their 6th and 7th generations. And there’s drug addiction and childbirth and women struggling with dry vaginas. Which are all handled with the élan of the well born, well led life of the lawyerly class. Divorce conflicts occur over who gets the mansions, and who gets the beach house. In San Diego. It hits all the important topics, except poverty.

When I think of the series I watch, they almost all involve rich and powerful people who have problems with dinner parties and affairs with presidents. Mainstream cinema is pretty much the same.

In the fifties one of the top shows was The Honeymooners. It would certainly get no points for its social progressiveness, but when I watched it as a child I recognized my own working class family, and the dignity of the struggle. The same with I Love Lucy. Yes, there were the brushes with fame, but there were the little apartments and the money problems- the struggle that was just a part of life, not the star of the show.

honeymooners

lucy

By the 70’s, working class life became politicized and problematic. The Bunkers struggled with the head of the family who was anything but dignified. Being working class implied racism and intolerance. Archie Bunker is a punch line.

Archie Bunker
Archie Bunker

Roseanne is the last hit show I remember that really dignified the working class. The poverty and struggles made sense and all the characters contributed to the family economy when necessary.

roseanne

I don’t think it is coincidence that as working class life has become the fate of failures and not a path upwards for the children of farmers and industrial workers, we see fewer of them portrayed in media. Roseanne was a factory worker and her sister a waitress. Archie Bunker worked in a loading dock. Ralph Cramden, of the Honeymooners was a bus driver, who used to go bowling with his friend, Ed Norton. Lucy and Ethel are working in a chocolate factory in the above photo, and also do a turn stomping grapes. These fates weren’t embarrassments, they were life as the majority of people knew it in the post WWII days. Those were optimistic times, when, as history now shows, working class families could strive for a better living for their children, when the economic boom allowed for that sort of thinking.

The paucity of working class heroes in the media and in song reflects the reality of our society. We/they are an embarrassment. After having risen through the economy for some generations, too many people are backsliding, or at least stagnating. The blended/merged family on Grace and Frankie represents progress and aspiration. It is the Horatio Alger story for the 10%.

10 thoughts on “The Dignity of Working Class Life

  1. Wonderful post on how mainstream media reflects our opinion of the working class. Reading your post, I thought about the shows that I watch: The Fall, House of Cards, The Office… All of these don’t have working class as protagonists; a senior investigative officer, a president and his wife, a bunch of rather eccentric office denizens… even Friends, which I watch as a guilty pleasure, shows Rachel and Monica as waitresses, but not before they got into their higher-status jobs. It was a temporary thing for them. You’re so right in your post. It’s an interesting observation, how we just don’t mention the working class in our collective mind as a society anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it reflects the consumer society where we are all supposed to aspire to the trappings of middle and upper middle class life, as well as the reality of the precarious position today of the working class. Thanks for the long and thoughtful post.

      Liked by 1 person

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