2 years ago
For quite some time now, I’ve been silently harbouring a theory about the role of modern film and literature in aiding in the suppression of today’s ambition, and it now seems I may just have been right.
And that’s because a recent piece of research by ‘proper’ academics (rather than a Handyman/blogger in Springwood making it all up in his head) arrived at a very similar conclusion, albeit with a somewhat very different intention.
It appears that researchers from Duke University in North Carolina looked into 32 children’s films, many of them from our old friend Disney. They put the characters into different classes based on their jobs. At the top are the upper class characters – royalty, chief executives and celebrities, and then there’s the working class who have jobs like soldiers, sailors, miners and chimney sweeps. The lowest category was that of the jobless poor.
Anyway, the report writers argued that the movie depictions of working-class people are quite unrealistic where nearly all “perceive their jobs as invigorating, fun”. In Mary Poppins for example, Bert sings that “as a sweep you’re as lucky as can be”. The study says: “Bert, like other characters, frame working-class jobs as devoid of any difficulties.”
It’s argued too that many children’s films “suggest that social class inequality is somewhat benign, as those at the bottom of the class ladder suffer little, lead relatively stable lives, and experience many advantages”. Meanwhile the upper-class and wealthy lifestyles are more often the ones depicted as more unsatisfactory and under greater threat.
“Working-class lives in children’s films are also often portrayed as so much fun that rich people will voluntarily descend the class ladder to come and join them”, the researchers say. Poor people are also portrayed as happier too – Like in The Sound Of Music for example, where humble former nun Maria has to teach her upper class employer how to even love his children.
The study concludes that, overall, children’s films make poverty and class distinctions seem “legitimate by erasing, downplaying, and even sanitising their effects – by portraying poverty and inequality as benign”.
It adds that this “erases, downplays or sanitises poverty and class inequality, implying that poverty and inequality are not particularly problematic as few people actually suffer from them”.
Now while I suspect the report writers were coming at this from a purely societal angle – that film, is making it more likely that the poor will continue to suffer because it glosses over any of the problems they experience. I also prefer to look at it from the individual’s viewpoint.
For example, if, as a child, you’re being fed the impression that the poor are the happy ones, the wise ones and the virtuous ones, then why on earth would you ever make any form of effort to rise out of your poverty to aspire to something which is apparently worse on all these measures?
And that’s not just happiness, wisdom and virtue.
If you think about all film, theatre and literature – not just that aimed at children - the poor are invariably presented as the nice ones in contrast to the nasty or evil rich. Can you think of a single example where the reverse is the case?
I can’t, and I don’t expect that this is going to change anytime soon, (who the heck wants to see rich people enjoying themselves and the poor living in misery… where’s the drama in that?) but once you become conscious of it, it does cause you to question how you might have been influenced throughout your lifetime, albeit if only on a subliminal level.
The truth I’m afraid, is that the poor are not the happy or wise or virtuous or compassionate or nice… and neither are the rich. All these characteristics (and their polar opposites) are to be found across all socio-economic groups to varying degrees.
Certainly ‘niceness’ seems to be something that’s pretty evenly spread, irrespective of any income or wealth. And you don’t necessarily have to be poor to display wisdom, virtue or compassion for others either.
But what about happiness?
Well while it’s true that money doesn’t buy you happiness, it doesn’t buy you misery either. The notion that wealthy people are miserable is an attractive one to the people who don’t want to make the effort to rise above the crowd... But it’s a myth – and a myth often supported and perpetuated by film and literature.
If you’re happy without money, you will be at least as happy with it – but what if you’re poor and miserable?
Well as the great Spike Milligan once famously said…
“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.”
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