Popular culture has managed to seep into the curriculum at many
universities. Using the lens of television, movies, billboards, and the
other media methods that sell us dreams and nightmares and distort our
realities, some professors are able to lead students through study and
discussion about values, politics, economics, and social issues in our
The syllabus for one of these “popular culture” classes moved me to
consider the ways we view income through a popular lens. There is a
great gulf between the popular portrayal of income, work, and
occupational status and the reality. To be sure, prime-time television
is hardly a barometer of the socio-economic status of American workers.
Still, it is illustrative to review prime-time programs from a
In pursuit of drama, or even humor, what kind of characters are used
to make a point? Are they contemporary or historical, physicians or
nurses? Who are the people who occupy the fantasies and leisure time of
millions of our fellow citizens? What does a writer’s selection of
these people, these fantasies say about the distance between popular
images and our reality?
I am confronted by these questions as I look at the income data
released in a recent Census report. The September 1997 release of Money
Income in the United States: 1996 (P60-197, U.S. Government Printing
Office, Washington, D.C.) reported a 1.2 percent increase in household
income between 1995 and 1996, good news given the wage stagnation that
so many workers have experienced in the past year.
Of course this good news might be contrasted with the 24 percent
growth in the stock market in 1996; even after the late October
“adjustment” in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1997, stock prices
had risen 11 percent, while wage increases still falter.
Indeed, much was made of the fact that per capita income grew for
almost all of the race/ethnic origin groups the Census classifies.
White income grew by 1.8 percent, African American income by 5.2
percent, and Hispanic income 4.9 percent. Less was made of the fact
that White per capita income, at $19,181, is almost double that of
Blacks ($11,899) and Hispanics ($10,048).
Prime-time television seems oblivious to these income differences,
or to matters of income, in general. While more prime-time programs are
set in the workplace, these are workplaces that contrast sharply with
the reality. Workers wander in and out of the workplace, mill around
their desks and in and out of conversations, have time to conduct
affairs during work hours, and seem to have scant concerns about money.
The hardest work seems to be done by physicians, nurses, health support
staff, attorneys, and police officers, a group that is hardly typical
of the overall work force.
Too many television characters have an easy opulence about them.
Although it is rarely spoken, they imply that money simply doesn’t
Perhaps I’m quibbling in the name of reality – primetime television
would be dreary if it focused on balancing checkbooks, finding child
care, and extending the life of a broken-down car. Still it is
illustrative to note how few of our nation’s full-time workers earn
enough to have access to the lifestyles often portrayed on television.
For all of television’s depiction of progress by race and gender,
the numbers tell quite a different story. Just a handful of Americans
earn top incomes, and women and people of color are woefully
underrepresented among them.
Too many earners have low and moderate incomes. The majority (53
percent) of women who work full time, for example, have incomes under
$25,000. Among African American women, 60 percent have incomes below
$25,000; and among Hispanic women, that number rises to 70 percent.
Many of these women are household heads and their earnings are the sole
support of their families. The concerns of these workers aren’t as
attractive to prime-time fantasy writers as are the lifestyles of the
rich and famous.
Contemporary prime-time television more closely reflects the
nation’s economic reality than it did just a decade ago, when popular
prime-time programs focused on tycoons and oil barons, not doctors and
The expansion of the top three network hegemony of ABC, NBC, and CBS
to include Fox and UPN has given a younger, “cooler,” and more diverse
spin to prime time. Further, the popularity of blue-collar protagonists
like Roseanne Barr has made the factory or diner a more acceptable
setting for a sitcom.
When the Fox and UPN networks are excluded, though, the portrayal of
African Americans in the workplace and as earners is skewed and
distorted. I’m not necessarily advocating taking the 28 percent of the
African American population that is poor and making them the fodder for
situation comedies. But I’m thinking that shows like the excellent but
short-lived Frank’s Place, which was produced by Tim Reid, showed both
the diversity and the reality of the African American experience.
Television, I realize, is not reality. But when the study of
television – via classes on popular culture – seeps into the
curriculum, I think it is useful to examine not only the values
embraced in these prime-time shows, but also the implicit message we
get about income, earning, and occupation. If one spends an evening or
a week consuming primetime fare, one walks away with the sense that
almost everybody is earning a cushy living and money doesn’t matter.
The data, however, tell a very different story. So should the popular culture curriculum.
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