My wife and I have started watching a new show called Parenthood, (very loosely) based on the <a href="1989 movie of the same name. The television version is set in Berkeley though clearly some alternate reality Berkeley who’s had its progressive-liberal claws removed and it looked like the pilot, at least, was actually filmed here in the Bay Area, so it’s local connection was an immediate hook. I find myself wanting to like the show more than I actually do. It’s leaning toward being good, but hasn’t quite gotten there yet.
Sarah Braverman, the Diane Wiest character, played here by former Gilmore Girls mom Lauren Graham, has an interesting story line. She’s clearly being written as the plucky, down on your luck, possibly working-class character in juxtaposition to her upper-middle class siblings and parents. Her sister is a high-powered attorney and one of her brothers seems to own his own business. Her other brother (the Tom Hulce character from the film) seems to be a screw-up, but he also lives on a houseboat, has a wealthy girlfriend, and works in a recording studio. Unlike his movie character, I don’t see him getting thrown out of a moving car in front of his parent’s house any time soon.
Sarah, on the other hand, never went to college. She’d been a bartender in Fresno before leaving her alcoholic husband and taking her two teenaged kids with her back to Berkeley where they have to live with her parents while she looks for a new job. In last week’s episode, she enrolls her kids in the local high school; but because of some transcript or bureaucratic mix-up, her daughter is being forced to repeat the 10th grade.
When the mom finds out, she goes to the principal’s office to plead her daughter’s case. Now, this show is a mellow-drama, so this scene is full of heavy-handed music and platitudes while the mom bravely holds back tears and the principal wear a stern yet compassionate expression. In one of the subsequent scenes, we see the principal taking the daughter out of her class, ostensibly escorting her to the 11th grade. Mom won.
It’s scenes like this that I think can be extremely useful when talking about notions of privilege and, somewhat more importantly here, class. While I was watching this scene, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “What the hell?” How is this fair? How is it fair that this kid gets to shuck the rules while some other kid who’s worked just as hard but falls victim to the same red-tape nonsense doesn’t get advanced? The only difference is that the mom came in with a pretty flimsy sob-story about how all her kid needs is “a chance.”
I’m fully aware of the fact that this is just a television show. And I’m fully aware of the fact that it was written not be an illustrative example of how privilege operates but was, instead, written to advance the overall narrative of the story. So this is not a literary critique. Whatever merits the narrative of this particular show have are really not under discussion here. Rather, what I’m suggesting is that we can use moments of fiction, television, etc., as example to demonstrate how privilege operates. That is, when a person’s brute force of will can get the system to make exceptions for her, she’s got privilege. A kind of privilege she’s probably not aware of, and a kind of privilege that other people who, for whatever reasons (lack of access, education, social connections, or personal confidence) don’t have. For a real world example, I give you these guys.
What’s interesting to me in this particular show is, again, that she’s being written as the working class character. I’m not sure why the writers and producers decided to write her character this way. I can only assume that it’s because the rest of the characters are all ridiculously well-off and that they live in Berkeley Berkeley the heart of arugula-eating liberal elites. I can only imagine that someone sitting at the producers/writers table said, “Hey, you know what we need? We need a down-on-your-luck character that so-called ‘real Americans’ can relate to or this show’s going nowhere, fast.”
(This might be the reason they cast Craig T. Nelson as the Jason Robards character. Mr. Nelson, after all, is an active critic of a progressive agenda and could be seen sympathetically by less liberal viewers. But his character on the show seems schizophrenic. He’s written as the family’s conservative, “man’s man,” patriarch. But what the hell is this guy doing in Berkeley? He should be living in Danville. Sorry. Bay Area inside joke.)
Now, Sarah’s been written as a single mom, an unemployed bartender, driving a cheap car and living with her parents till she’s “back on her feet.” So her character seems right on track to embody the all-too familiar Horatio Alger myth of picking herself up by her bootstraps, not needing anyone’s help to overcomer her temporary and completely fixable problem of poverty. In short, she seems awfully “working class.” But I’d argue that despite her current dire financial situation, she’s still as solidly upper-middle class as the rest of her family.
The thing about class in this country is that if and when folks do talk about it, we tend to talk about it in as limited terms as we do race and racism. When we talk about racism, we make the mistake of personalizing it, of assuming that if everyone were just color blind, racism would go away which ignores the larger systemic and social policy aspects of institutionalized racism. We make a similar mistake in the way we talk about class. We assume that class is little more than a reflection of how much money we’ve got in the bank, and if we could increase our earning potential, we could ascend the class hierarchy and all would right with the world.
But socioeconomic class, like ethnicity or gender or any other marker of identity, is not so easily reducible. It is not a single, essentialist trait to which we can point and say, “aha, that’s class!” Instead, socioeconomic class is a collection of cultural markers that are certainly related to one’s bank account but also extend into other social and cultural areas. Particularly one’s family.
Sarah, I’d argue, is not working-class poor precisely because her family comes from some means and lives in the hills of Berkeley. Yes, she’s down on her luck. But when she’s down on her luck, she’s got the safety net of a family who is willing to take her in, to take care of her, welcome her back with a big dinner wherein her father will toast to her as his “angel.” Real poor folks, when they’re down on their luck, have no such luxury. Real poor folks, when they’re down on their luck, end up homeless.
Because she’s not actually working class, Sarah can relocate to a part of the country with an extremely high cost of living and send her kids to one of the state’s better public high schools. Her kids, despite whatever temporary set-backs they may have because of her mother’s current state of unemployment, will still be exposed to opportunities most poor folks will never be exposed to, thus increasing the likelihood that they will be able to go to college, get good jobs, put some money in the bank, accumulate wealth, and remain, solidly, upper-middle class just like their mother and her parents before them.
And just like we do with race and racism, we individualize this conversation. The mother’s problems are a temporary, fixable problem, suggesting that poverty is, like the Horatio Alger myth, something overcome easily with a little hard work and determination. And just like conversations of institutional racism that ignore social policy issues, conversations about class that treat it as an individual problem overlook how social policy laws create systems that disadvantage the poor and make it damn near impossible for someone to overcome real living-under-an-overpass poverty.
But, of course, at the end of the day (and not to be too depressing about this) there’s very little to be done about poverty in America. The fact of the matter is that we live in a capitalist system. And capitalism depends on a class-based work force. Without class, with a class of wealthy elites able to buy cheap goods produced by working class laborers as the producers of those cheap goods, capitalism collapses. This is not a individual, pick yourself up by your boot straps, problem. This is a systemic problem that goes well beyond any one individual and effects all of us.
That’s the conversation that needs to happen. Obviously, not in a prime-time family melodrama. Prime-time, family melodramas are not the place to debate the merits of capitalist economic systems. So. Thank god for the Internet!