The Poor Have Become Invisible

- By K. Morgan Southwood

One of the most disturbing changes in television media that it has been my misfortune to observe during the duration of my admittedly brief life has been the gradual omission of poor and working-class issues from mainstream television fare. Certainly there are other profound and disturbing trends-the blatant and unapologetic meshing of news journalism, entertainment, and commercialism a la The O'Reiley Factor, Keith Obermann News Countdown, and CNN Entertainment News, for instance. The expulsion of the working class from entertainment sitcom programming is a somewhat more subtle but no less frightening tendency that exemplifies the cultural and economic values of the new 21st-Century America.

The average American, according to most studies, watches about five hours of television a day. Most of that is entertainment fare-sports, sitcoms, reality series, game shows, and the like. Television is the new opiate of the masses. It's free or relatively affordable, universally accessible, and hugely beloved by both the corporate powers that be and the vast majority of the population. Television is the number-1 recreational pastime in this country. Most people would no longer stop watching television than they would go outside without clothes on. And while it pains me to state the obvious, what is presented on television is largely representative of our culture as the Corporate Media would like it to be, and would like the population to think of it. And that, much more than ever before, is a country where the poor are working class are invisible.

To put it succinctly, there are no poor people on entertainment television anymore.

It wasn't always this way, friends and neighbors-I haven't been around a long time, but even I remember when it was different. When I was a child there were shows like Laverne and Shirley, Sanford and Son, Diffrn't Strokes, etc. The characters of Bewitched were middle-class but talked regularly of 'office life' and the need for household frugality. Ricky in I Love Lucy complained about busting heavies at the office. Roseanne, the most realistic and serious of the lot, dealt with issues like unemployment, welfare, workers' oppression, domestic abuse and teen pregnancy. There were a host of other sitcoms that featured characters from the working class. Most of them were silly and corny, but the fact remains that they dealt with and represented average Americans.

All of that is gone now.

The average entertainment sitcom now portrays characters almost exclusively from the upper middle class. Sure, there have been 'gritty' primetime dramas like ER and NYPD Blue, but the vast majority of televisions shows no longer feature even occasional working-class characters. Generally work is seldom mentioned at all, and when it is, its harsh realities are almost never the topic. When was the last time you saw a factory worker, a gas station attendant, a barkeep, a nurse, a janitor, a mechanic, a WalMart clerk, a waitress, or an elementary-school teacher in a leading roll? Instead you find judges, Washington politicians, lawyers, stockbrokers, radio personalities, surgeons, and premier journalists. The closest thing to a working-class show on television these days is the cartoon series The Simpsons. South Park also gets in a few good cynical class-conscious barbs, as does the cartoon King of the Hill. The cartoon venue is very relevant here-the characters are all cartoons, so funny as they are, the implication is that they're not real, so it's okay to laugh at their trials and tribulations. It's okay to laugh at the poor, everyone…they're not really real anyway. Talk Shows like the very popular Jerry Springer Show routinely feature poor guests, put on national display as items of laughter and contempt, their rotting teeth and poor grammar easy to lampoon.

So we've got sitcoms dealing with the upper middle-class and a host of gameshows and Reality TV series worshipping wealth. Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, the gameshow asks, the answer being obvious-everyone, that's who! MTV's series Rich Girls follows the generally insipid and obtuse daughters of wealthy families around as they shop for new dresses to wear to the Hamptons. Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?, The Simple Life, and Rich Kids all follow this sycophantic trend.

If one watches television media with a critical eye, the message is obvious-America is a land of affluent and comfortable people, Americans want fluff entertainment, Americans want to be rich because to be rich is to be happy, Americans are in love with the wealthy because the wealthy are inherently superior even when they are not. Consuming will make you happy. Wealth is proof of your importance. Bemoaning your working-class plights in life is trashy and unproductive and nobody cares anyway, because nobody cares about you.

The poor and working class are gone from entertainment, just as their troubles and realities are absent from the political venue. But they are there under the surface, oh yes-there are migrant Mexican farm workers with aching backs and bad teeth who harvested the apples used in Martha Stewart's artistic Thanksgiving centerpiece. The Persian Rugs and tablecloths used in Trading Places and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy were sewn by workers that went blind making them. Someone with calluses on her hands made the dresses worn by Paris Hilton, and a fourteen-year-old Sri Lankan girl labored in a sweatshop for pennies to make the $140 sneakers worn by the crew of Making the Video. The houses featured in The Hamptons were cleaned by maids without health insurance who mopped the floors on their hands and knees.

The working class is there, and it quietly keeps the world turning, as it always has. But in modern America, it has become invisible, and its problems with it. When was the last time you heard a Federal politician with some power talk about wiping out child malnutrition and poverty, health care for all citizens, the lack of affordable housing, the fact that college education has become more and more inaccessible? Eliminating poverty is the last thing on our government's mind. Raising the standard of living is also never discussed. Things haven't been this bad for the working poor and even college-educated proletarians since the Great Depression. And nobody with any real influence is talking about it.

And when a society stops trying to improve itself, when it stops working for the greater good of all its people, that society is dying. History has proven that time and time again.

Friends and neighbors, America is on the chopping block. Morgan Southwood is a senior majoring in Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno. She can be e-mailed at

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