Wealthy vs. Poor and Television
Contemporary Social Issues
September 30, 2009
By: Danny Day
This essay has been created to fulfill the week one individual assignment for the course ‘Contemporary Social Issues’ with William Penn University. The parameters of the assignment are to write a two page essay after watching two television shows. The shows must represent minorities and/or individuals that are wealthy and poor. In the essay, I must draw conclusions on how the characters are portrayed and evaluate how realistic the portrayal is. Finally, I must gauge the effects of these characters on the social classes they represent.
For the purpose of this paper, I have chosen to analyze the television shows ‘Malcolm In The Middle’ and ‘Frasier’. The first depicts a poor family while the second depicts a wealthy one.
The depiction of the poor and the wealthy, on television, can sometimes leave a bitter taste in my mouth. Some programs associate behaviors and moral standards with levels of wealth which can create a very negative stigma for those in said class. Two examples are ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ and ‘Frasier’. Both shows are successful sitcoms which I find entertaining. Why then, does a closer look into the message they send make me feel uneasy?
Let us begin with a short explanation of both programs. First ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ portrays life in a poor family. The family consists of a husband and wife with four children. The main character is Malcolm. His story is one of a child prodigy raised in a poor and dysfunctional family. He, his brothers, and his father constantly get into mischief and live in fear of the working mother, who is portrayed as overbearing and a ruthless matriarch.
‘Frasier’ depicts a wealthy family. The main character, Frasier Crane, Is a psychologist who practices over the radio, taking calls and offering advice. He lives with his father, an ex police officer, once shot in the line of duty. His brother, Niles, is a psychologist as well. The three main characters are at constant odds, whether it is a feud between brothers over which caviar to take to a party, who is the best psychologist, or the favorite son, the brothers explore their psychological issues on the screen. The father, a man who prefers watching a game and having a beer, is at constant odds with the “Well To Do” lifestyle of his sons. In the end, the most sound advice regularly comes from the average Joe of a father rather than the uppity and well educated psychologists.
The two shows are similar in several ways. Both programs present people bound by their wealth status. They share comedic representation of human error, faulty judgment, and effects of a wealth class system gone wrong. There is a bond between members of each family which gives the message “we are all in this together”. The victories of all characters come from acceptance of the self and the human bond in times of difficulty, especially between family members.
All in all, the two cater to multiple audience while portraying a fantasy life. They sound harmless enough to this point, then we start comparing the differences. In the differences we can see unfair representation of people’s social standing on both sides. These representations connect with the audience because, as Americans, we are programmed to give much ownership to our social standing and financial positions.
‘Malcolm in the Middle’ repetitively presents the boy genius making a conscious decision to rebel, commit illegal acts, and explain away bad decisions as succumbs to the pressures of being raised poor. The mother and father are represented, in most episodes, as neglectful of their children. Often the parents are resentful of the children’s mere existence. Acts of violence by Malcolm and his brothers are often excused or justified by the chaotic life which surrounds them. The portrayal of poor people is very harmful as, time after time, the sitcom feeds us propaganda that all poor people, even a genius, choose to do wrong.
On the opposing view, ‘Frasier’ depicts wealthy people as being human and making mistakes as a human trait rather than a choice. Frasier often finds himself in hopeless situations on accident and although they are very intelligent, are portrayed as having very little common sense. The program unfairly portrays wealthy people as callous toward the lower classes. Grown, educated, wealthy adults squabble like pubescent children. Only their retired, not so wealthy and uneducated father can make sense of it all. After all, he might not have a degree, he does have common sense.
Both shows have entertainment value because they connect with our human attempt to be understood. There are many truths revealed through both programs. These truth makes the viewer’s mind click with a feeling of “wow, they get me” or “yep, the truth is finally told”. The problem is, the instances are highly dramatized for effect and represent extreme situations and angles on situations. If all wealthy people were like Frasier and Niles, all poor people like Malcolm and his family, and old people all acted like Frasier’s father, the world might not ever recover. The characterization of an issue is used symbolically in many programs to help the viewer relate. This can become potentially harmful when the characterization intends to define the character or situation through separation or showing how it differs from everything else and connection to extreme traits and situations used to simplify the characters definition. Examples can be found everywhere in television throughout history. Speedy Gonzales and his Mexican hat, Tonto and his incorrect grammar, The Siamese cats in a Disney film singing “I am Siamese if you please” are all examples of harmful depictions and stereotypes.
I conclude with the suggestion the media is only half to blame. The mindset of Americans, when it comes to ownership of actions and standing, leaves little room for sociological analysis or solutions to societies problems. I am still entertained by such television shows. I am, however, more aware the significance of their messages. I guess I just can’t help owning some things and feeling like another disturbed character on television “gets me”.