I feel like my class about gender and diversity in the media was pretty much designed to piss me off. It already earned itself a blog update a few weeks ago when we examined the injustice of people who choose to dress a certain way being stereotyped as people who like to dress that way, but last week this class really ground the shit out of my gears with a video about the fundamental racism, sexism, and elitism of television. I was so upset I nearly interrupted my riveting coverage of the BCS trip to talk about it, which I’m sure would’ve upset both of my readers.
From the outset, I suppose I knew this video and I weren’t going to be friends. I love television. On the list of things I love, I’d rate it slightly above chipotle mayonnaise and just behind the Batmobile, if that gives you any idea of how enthusiastic I am about the medium. I want to make television for a living, so imagine how I felt when I went to class and was shown a video that basically told me television hates women, minorities, and poor people as much as Mel Gibson does.
The gist of the video, Class Dismissed, which you can watch here on YouTube if you’re white and want to feel bad about it, is that television has historically misrepresented the working class in order to make everyone feel better about the sharp class divide in this country.
Working class people, the video alleges, are portrayed as boorish and stupid, while minorities are depicted in whitewashed circumstances that makes their problems seem simple and funny. The corporations buying ad time on TV apparently mandated these setups in order to minimize society’s problems with jokes so that people will keep buying their stuff.
Working class fathers like Homer Simpson, Archie Bunker, and Al Bundy are, according to the video, comically stupid so that America can laugh away the struggles of working class life, while real working class people will enjoy their representation and not instigate class warfare.
Likewise, poor black people are shown to be happy and live comfortably on shows like What’s Happening so that people will write off the problems of black poverty, while affluent black people like the ones on The Jeffersons are just there to show white people that black people are fine and we can stop worrying about inequality. Likewise, more accurate depictions of black poverty and drug use like those seen on hourlong dramas supposedly stereotype blacks as criminal savages.
It’s tough to know where to begin on a topic like this, but I guess I’ll just say what’s obvious: Everyone involved with Class Dismissed is wrong, and they probably don’t watch that much TV, either. I won’t say they’re stupid, though, because it takes a fair amount of tact to cobble together a few dozen out of context clips from classic television shows and then formulate a bullshit thesis around them. So in that regard, good job, guys!
Working class fathers aren’t portrayed as stupid and dysfunctional to make us feel better about poor people; they’re portrayed as stupid and dysfunctional because stupid people are funny, and comedy generally revolves around funny things happening. I really can’t imagine it being more complicated than that – if you’re writing a comedy about a working class family, it makes sense that the head of the household would be the one who fucks up the most. It makes it easy to up the stakes before the commercials because the father is usually in the position to do the most damage and create the most conflict with his shenanigans.
Furthermore, if you look at the working class fathers they show, like Homer Simpson or Archie Bunker, you’ll start to realize that while they’re not particularly intelligent, that doesn’t make them bad people. Homer loves his wife and kids and frequently makes sacrifices to do what’s best for them. Yes, Archie Bunker was an ignorant racist, but he also overcame his prejudices to give a eulogy at funeral for a Jewish friend and attempt to thwart a cross burning by a local Klan chapter.*
*Al Bundy is pretty soundly terrible, but that’s just because Married… With Children was an awful fucking show.
How do you like that, Class Dismissed? Did you stop a cross burning recently? Because the lynchpin of your black helicopter elitist conspiracy theory did. I guess that’s the part of the evil conspiracy where major corporations attempt to show that racism is bad.
As far as minorities are concerned, I don’t know what the Class Dismissed people are looking for. Poor black people being happy and not dealing with drugs and crime was racist, and rich black people was also racist, and poor black people being sad and dealing with drugs and crime was racist.
By this standard, the only non-racist representation of black people would be a comedy set in a housing project where all of the characters were sad crack addicts, but all of the crack usage would be played completely straight. Is that the kind of show you want to watch, Class Dismissed? It doesn’t whitewash poverty, and I guarantee you it’ll won’t make anybody feel good. The Crackheads, they’d call it.
What the producers of Class Dismissed don’t or refuse to understand is that you can’t go into a 22 minute three camera sitcom and expect to see something groundbreaking and beautiful that will fundamentally redefine the social structure of Western Civilization. That’s not because television can’t make people think, because it can, and does very often; it’s because an episodic series can’t give you an answer to a question that big.
The characters have to come back and have problems next week, which doesn’t work if in the previous episode they achieved total enlightenment, discovered the true meaning of Christmas, and learned some neat facts about fire safety too.
However, should anybody involved with Class Dismissed read this update, do please tell me how I can make a living being pointlessly outraged, because I would love to get in on that.
Truman Capps would also like to point out that Arrested Development was all about stupid, dysfunctional, greedy rich white people, and nobody in the video mentioned that show.