Stay Away from the Stable Boy: Class Distinction in the Media

In recent years, many studies reflect the growing gap between the rich and the poor. As the country’s economy falls further and further into recession, the more important it becomes to take the plight of the poor into consideration. When the country as a whole recovers, those unfortunate enough to get caught in the fallout are much less likely to recover. The rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer, is a popular clichÃ?© of our times and a reflection of the rising concern in socioeconomic considerations.

For the purposes of this discussion, members of the high class are characterized as affluent, educated individuals. Middle or working class includes those individuals who depend upon future earnings to sustain themselves, regardless of education, or current economic status.

Due to the rising numbers of working class families, and the common practice of corporate downsizing in the US, it is necessary for us to examine their representation in popular culture. Media and popular culture paint a misleading picture of class in which the only difference between the rich and the poor is the right opportunity, however, such portrayals of class, as will be examined in this essay portray the largest part of the country’s population as inferior to those with money and power.

Method of Analysis
“Mass media represent important channels for cultural expression.” They provide rationalizations of the world around us, and spread “symbols and images that describe and explain how and why” it works (Shah & Tucker, 405). It is important to examine these symbols and images because they illustrate and influence our perceptions of reality regarding the world we live in. Ideological criticism “seeks to understand the ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and values underlying what we see and hear on television” (Ono, 272).

Using this method, the critic may examine the implicit values being passed on to the viewer through not only what is said, but many times what is implied. It is through this quest to the real world with its representations on television that the critic “realizes that television does not always, if ever, fully represent what humans experience in the everyday world beyond television” (Ono, 272). Thus, Karl Marx’s theory that “ideology is false consciousness because the collective and individual consciousness of the lower classes (the proletariat), especially, does not spring naturally from their social experiences – from living and working with others like themselves,” becomes realized in representations of lower class in popular culture.

According to Marx, lower class ideology is handed to them by the higher class (the bourgeoisie), and exists in relation to it (Gronebeck & Sillars, 261). Using this approach, I will examine the popular soap opera, Young and The Restless to discuss its representation of the working class.

Legitimization of Text
For nearly thirty years Young and the Restless has been one of the highest rated shows in daytime television, with millions of viewers. The show has been honored with over seventy awards, and nominated for over two thousand Emmys. The significance of such a show as an analytical text lies in its representation of class, and its longevity. In the development of the storylines examined in this analysis, the show systematically created a hierarchy of power relational to social class, and created an influential yet distorted perception of class.

Of further consideration, is the longevity of the show, which dictates that such perceptions are not only formed, but also sustained. According to Michael Porter, “more series are using story arcs, wherein a story is introduced one week, and develops over several episodes before it comes to a conclusion,” which makes these representations of class available to an even larger audience (141). To explore these issues further, I will analyze an episode of Young and the Restless that aired on KGAN, channel 2, the CBS affiliate in Cedar Rapids, IA, on October 29, 2002.

Young and the Restless is a daytime drama centered around two main families, the Newmans and the Abbots (for further information on characters see the table below), who are arch enemies, both personally and in business. The show encompasses many facets of daily life for the rich and powerful, and is in keeping with the nature of the soap opera genre. Familial and corporate drama make up the world of the Young and the Restless.

The storyline that will be examined in this essay deals with the infidelity of Sharon Newman with Diego Gutierrez, and the impact it has on her family. When Sharon couldn’t take the guilt any longer, she confessed her indiscretion to her husband, who promptly moved out of the house. However, this is far from the reaction of Sharon in a past storyline where Nicholas was unfaithful. The discrepancy is possibly the result of differing methods of dealing by men and women, but more probably it has to do with the fact that Nicholas’s affair was with someone of similar social standing.

Introducing Characters
Victor — CEO and founder of Newman Enterprises, a global conglomerate
Nikki — Victor’s wife, and board member at Jabot Cosmetics, Newman Enterprises’ biggest corporate rival
Victoria — Victor and Nikki’s daughter, an executive at Newman
Nicholas (Nick) — Victoria’s brother, also an executive at Newman
Sharon — Nicholas’s wife and the mother of their two children
Diego — Former stable hand at the Newman ranch, who became romantically involved with Victoria

References to working class inferiority abound in the show, creating an environment where audience perceptions of class may be distorted. Verbal cues are used to cast a shadow of inferiority over the working class characters. In scenes such as one between Victor and Nikki where Diego is referred to as the stable “boy,” not the stable hand etc. This reference suggests that because Diego is from a working class background, he cannot be a man.

In another scene involving Diego and Victoria, they are discussing finding an apartment, and Diego insists that it must be inexpensive enough for him to afford, to which Victoria responds, rather flippantly, “okay so we’ll find a place between the Taj Ma Hall and the homeless shelter.” This scene is telling because Diego isn’t able to command even the respect of his own girlfriend, who is incidentally of a higher social status, so how is he to command respect from the audience.

Yet another scene in the episode portrays a meeting between Victor and Diego in the motel room after Victoria has left for work. Victor offers to pay Diego $100,000 to leave town and never contact his daughter again, which Diego refuses. During the course of the conversation, Victor addresses Diego as “son,” his tone of voice suggests it is not in an endearing sense of the term, on three separate occasions.

Also during this scene, Victor tells Diego that he is only interested in getting him [Diego] away from his daughter, but if he [Diego] happens to do something good in the process, “so much the better.” Further, during the course of the conversation, Victor references Diego as a drifter, day laborer, and not having a penny to his name. These references to Diego again suggest that Diego is not deserving of the title of man, nor is he in any position to command respect.

These statements and Victor’s blatant disrespect (displayed using tone of voice, camera techniques, as well as body language) also portray Diego as incapable of determining what is “good” on his own, as someone in need of guidance, a “leader,” if you will. By such a portrayal, the audience is left with a sense of working class inferiority, and high class superiority.

In every scene where a man, especially Victor, and a woman of equal social standing are pictured together, the man is shot at an upward angle suggesting that he commands respect from and holds power to the audience, and the woman is shot at a downward angle portraying her in a subservient, less powerful role in the scene.

The opposite is true when a working class man and a high class woman are together in a shot, effectively inferioritizing the working class male character, while portraying the female character in a more powerful, more masculine role for the duration of the shot. This places working class men in a subservient position not only to the high class men on the show, but also to women of that status, suggesting that the working class characters are inferior and do not warrant respect from the audience.

Of further consideration is the performance and tone of the characters in these scenes. While Victor is speaking to or about Diego, his tone reveals contempt and disgust, while at any other time; his voice would exhibit only normal inflection. When Victor visits Diego, he enters the motel room uninvited, and begins talking. Victor speaks with a disrespectful and authoritative tone, and closes his body by crossing his arms during the conversation. Later, Victor takes it upon himself to sit down uninvited. His [Victor’s] seated position does nothing to change his authoritative tone, or the power he commands from the audience.

Americans tend to identify themselves as a classless society; however, this is a ruse in the face of popular culture, and representations of class in the media. Defining characteristics of class can be found in many popular shows and in other media forms. These characteristics are often presented as inferior to and from the vantage point of the higher class, which illustrates Marx’s theory that the consciousness of the lower class is not created as a result of individual or collective experience; rather it is created and legitimized by the higher class. In defining working class in such a way, a hierarchy of social class is created and represented by popular culture, one that puts lower class at the bottom of the scale with regard to authority and power.

In outlining the relationship between the media and socioeconomic status in the US, I have exemplified the symbolic resources employed by popular culture to reinforce the relationship between media representations of class and popular perception, and illustrated the prejudices caused by such resources. Further, such analysis has illustrated the distorted perception of lower class as inferior and hopefully taken a step to change those perceptions.

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