Media is powerful. It is a cliche at this point, but as consumers, we learn a lot from what we see on our screens. Entertainment media shapes our culture, influences our dialogue, provokes and inspires. It also has the power to grant representation to different groups of people over others.
For a while now, audiences have made it clear that they want to see characters in movies and television that are not white, straight or comfortably middle class. Audiences are celebrating – and giving their attention to shows that are class-conscious, and represent the working class as a legitimate grounds for a compelling, believable narrative.
In the 1970s and 1980s, poignant sitcoms about working class families were all the rage. “All in the Family,” for example, was funny and entertaining, but also provided relevant social commentary of the times through the eyes of the Bunker family, making ends meet in Queens. Viewers saw the Bunkers go through all the motions of a stereotypical sitcom, but also were introduced to topics like race relations, sexuality, immigration, politics and more.
In the ‘80s, Roseanne Barr’s eponymous sitcom gave representation to the working class through her sharp wit and relatably flawed portrait of an American family. The parents in “Roseanne” did not go to college and worked blue collar jobs, but they loved one another and their three kids through the day-to-day inconveniences of working and aging. All of these shows, save for “The Simpsons,” fizzled out and were taken off the air.
What has followed in the past 20 years has been an unfortunate stereotype of life in America that features mostly young, white people living in big cities they are able to afford, somehow, even though they do not seem to work. Middle class families have taken over the media’s image of what it is to live in America. This is not the reality. In 2015, the Pew Research Center reported that less than half of Americans are in the middle class – the other 50 percent either live in an upper or lower class households.
However, two current shows are taking on representation of the lower-class, inlcuding the Golden Globe award-winning show “Atlanta,” and the already completed seven seasons of “Shameless.”
When Donald Glover’s FX series, “Atlanta,” won the award for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy, it was a win for representation in a few different ways. The show follows working-class, black characters in the Southern suburbs. The lead character, Earn, is always persevering to keep money in his pocket. The narrative follows the anxieties of being poor – a refreshing, honest take on America’s working class. While television shows about this demographic are not necessarily nonexistent in what films and shows have been coming out lately, audiences can recognize when shows are portraying the truth about living life paycheck-to-paycheck.
Then, “Shameless,” a show adapted for American television after a successful 11-season run in Great Britain, transcends this cultural-divide in its realistic, yet quirky portrayal of poverty. It is a blend of both tragedy and comedy, and follows the Gallagher family. The Gallaghers are poor: daughter Fiona has been left to raise her five siblings after her alcoholic father Frank abandons them. The show’s producer John Wells says the upcoming eighth season will feature issues unique to “Trump’s America:” specifically with the presence of anti-immigration raids in the show’s setting – the South Side of Chicago.
Shows like “Atlanta” and “Shameless” give American viewers a chance to reflect on how they are being represented in what they are sitting down to watch. While we might find ourselves polarized in the current American political climate, shows that give representation to the many faces and experiences of the people give viewers a chance to sympathize and find understanding.