Tag Archives: working-class stereotypes

Talking with the Press about the Working Class

Over the last three months, I have done interviews with and provided assistance to dozens of national and international reporters about various working-class issues, including the American Dream, manufacturing, education, the recession, displaced workers, local and international trade, and, of course, white working-class voting patterns.  A few weeks ago, George Packer, staff reporter for The New Yorker, was a visiting scholar at the Center for Working-Class Studies, doing research on book project, and he spoke as part of our annual lecture series. So, obviously, I have been thinking a lot about journalists and reporting on the working class.

Packer titled his lecture, Do Journalist Care About the Working Class? His response was basically, “No!” He argued that the American public is more concerned about celebrity and success stories that often reinforce the American Dream.  While job loss affects people of all classes these days, readers seem more interested in stories about hedge fund managers losing half their fortune than in profiles of manufacturing or service workers losing their jobs.  In part, these attitudes reflect the confusion most Americans have about class.   When asked the open-ended question, “what class do you belong to,” most Americans say they are middle class.  But if given four options — lower, working, middle, and upper class — about 45% choose working class, and about the same percentage identify themselves as middle class.

Packer also points out that hard-nosed, urban, ethnic, and street-smart reporters like Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, or Mike Barnacle, many of whom had working-class roots, have been replaced by metro journalists, most with college degrees, who identify themselves as professionals and spend most of their time with people like themselves. Packer quotes Pulitizer Prize winning columnist, Connie Schultz, who has noted that, especially in big cities, reporters have increasingly become privileged by their professional education, social connections, and access to internships and have become a “self-perpetuating” class. As a result, journalists don’t have contacts among the working class or much sense of working-class life and culture. Add to this unsympathetic editors who are more interested in selling upscale readership to advertisers, and journalists these days have natural hesitancy to pursue working-class stories. Put differently, as I heard as a panelist at a Society of Professional Journalists Conference say, there is a high degree of self-censorship among journalists themselves.

In the end, Packer suggested that the recession and the centrality of white working-class voting in electoral politics have made the working class more interesting to some newspapers. I can attest to that, but if my recent interviews are any indication, reporters are generally confused about who is working class, and they don’t understand the political and economic views of the working class.

Most journalists covering electoral politics define the working class as those without a college education. That definition is widely used, not only by reporters but also by some scholars and political analysts, in part because it’s easy to measure. I caution reporters that if they use this definition, then the working class seems to be shrinking as more people attend college.  While some commentators have suggested that this shift makes the working class less important politically, I argue that this is simply a statistical shift.  These days, many working-class people have at least some college education, and the working class continues to matter in American politics. In part because of that, I try to help journalists understand why class is not just a matter of education.  It also has to do with occupation, income, wealth, and – among the hardest aspects to measure – culture.

At the same time, I remind reporters that class is not the only identity that might affect how people view political candidates and issues.  For example, white working-class men might well view economic and policy issues differently from white working-class women or black working-class men. I also try to help journalists understand that the working-class varies politically by region and state, in part because other issues, like race and types of employment, shape working-class cultures.  When we add religious affiliations and social values, things become even more complicated, but that’s the point.  I want to encourage reporters to get beyond their assumptions and stereotypes when they write about working-class voters and issues.

Journalists often ask me to explain why the working class supports Republicans, a pattern that seems to go against their own economic interests. It’s true that a majority of white working-class voters has only supported a Democrat in a presidential election once in the last 50 years, voting for Johnson in 1964, so this isn’t a new phenomenon.  We can’t even tie it to the so-called “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s. A number of historians and political scientists have studied this trend, but rather than focus on theories about why the working class votes for Republicans, I point out that the trend is shifting. White working-class support for Republicans has been dropping in the northeast, the Great Lakes region, and the far west, and it will probably drop further  — because of Republican policy formulations.  For example, Republicans want to cut the deficit by slashing entitlements, but many working-class voters believe that such cuts would have a disproportionate impact on them.  While the Republicans put down the Occupy movement, many in the working class, both conservatives and liberals, support its economic and social populism and agree with its claims about injustice, unfairness, and inequality.

Packer is right, both that today’s journalists don’t really understand the working class and that the economy and the election mean that reporters will have to cover the working class anyway.   One of the goals of the Center for Working-Class Studies is to help journalists do a better job of telling working-class stories.  I think we’ve had some influence, largely because we take the time to do more than answer a few questions.  We meet with reporters, help them make contact with other sources, take them around Youngstown, and discuss what they hear from area workers and what the statistics about employment, class identity, and political perspectives really mean.

We all complain about and critique media coverage of class issues.  If we want the media to do a better job, more of us need to be willing to talk with journalists. When the phone rings and reporter asks you to comment on how the recession is affecting the working class, or why white working-class people support certain candidates, or how working-class students will be affected by interest rates on college loans, don’t duck.  Take the time to not only answer the question but also, when necessary, challenge the reporter’s assumptions and help him or her understand the working class more fully.  Think of it as teachable moment.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Calling All Stooges: Slapstick and the Working Class

The Farrelly brothers’ new film version of The Three Stooges opened in theaters 10 days ago to thumps and slaps by the critics. Many of the critics seem to really like the pseudo-violence, the bonky sound effects, and the topical stupidity of The Three Stooges, and they hoped that the movie would deliver satisfying Stoogification to hardcore fans everywhere.

With the return of the Stooges, it is worth revisiting a great, but largely forgotten example of television slapstick.  The ABC series about two slapdash carpenters, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, debuted fifty years ago, in September of 1962, and, after a rough start it won its time slot against another very popular show, Route 66. Sadly, it was canceled after one season, but happily, this spring, we can now enjoy the series on a beautifully curated 3-DVD set from Jim Benson, host of the blog and radio show TVTimeMachine.

I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster features two carpenters who are also best friends: a bachelor named Arch Fenster (Marty Ingels), and his married friend, Harry Dickens (John Astin). At least half of the scenes take place at work, where the two friends compete for promotions, run into doors, and fall into vats of concrete. Most of the rest is set at the home of Dickens and his pretty wife Kate (Emmaline Henry), where the duo try to install a garbage disposal, patch holes in the drywall, and fix the kitchen cabinets, usually unsuccessfully.

The home remodeling theme is based on creator and producer Leonard Stern’s experience with his own house, when carpenters accidentally bricked a ladder inside the chimney. Stern was a long-time staff writer for The Jackie Gleason Show and, later, The Honeymooners. He also won an Emmy for writing on The Phil Silvers Show. By 1960 he was ready to strike out on his own.

The show was originally called The Workers, but ABC executives made Stern change it, afraid that if it went into daily syndication it might be called “The Daily Worker.” It is remarkable indeed that Stern was able to get a show featuring working-class characters on television in the 1960s. In the early days of television (1948-1956) there were a handful of working-class families featured in network sitcoms (The Life of Riley, I Remember Mama, The Goldbergs, Life with Luigi, The Honeymooners and Duffy’s Tavern), but by the late 1950s most sitcoms featured suburban families who were decidedly middle class.

Stern’s carpenter comedy earned him the best critical reviews of his career. Life magazine declared it a “surprise success” about “of all people—carpenters.” After one season, though, I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster was just starting to beat out its time slot competition.  The TV critic Harvey Pack loved the show, and campaigned for it to be saved.  In the end it was canceled, but it retained many loyal fans.

It is not news to readers of this blog that workers, and especially working men, almost always look stupid, silly, fat, bumbling, poorly dressed, and unappealing on network television—no matter what era is under discussion. No one has argued this more forcefully than Pepi Leistyna, whose scathing documentary, Class Dismissed: How TV Frames the Working Class, shows how cartoonish and buffoonish the representations of working-class TV characters have been, from riveter Chester A. Riley, bus driver Ralph Kramden, sewer worker Ed Norton, dock worker Archie Bunker, to nuclear plant worker Homer Simpson.

Dickens and Fenster fit the pattern. In the pilot episode, Fenster makes some carpentry errors that cause Dickens to run into a door and fall onto his backside. In an episode called “The Joke,” Dickens takes off his safety hat and two heavy items fall on his head. Fenster is also clumsy and hapless. He’s a professional carpenter, but somehow he can’t fix Mrs. Dickens’s garbage disposal or the magnet on her kitchen cupboards.

But the Class Dismissed critique overlooks the fact that many of these working-class shows, came from the slapstick or “burlesque” comedy tradition that has its roots in working-class culture. Burlesque comedy started in seedy strip joints in the 1920s as filler between the strip acts. It was often performed by a comedy team, a “straight man” and a “second banana,” who took turns ridiculing each other and/or the audience. Burlesque humor was full of sexual innuendo, malapropisms, insults, and loads of physical comedy.

When burlesque migrated to television in the 1950s, it continued the tradition of lampooning working-class characters.  Television comedies like Abbott and Costello, Amos n Andy, The Honeymooners, and The Phil Silvers Show featured stock lowbrow characters (gangsters, hoodlums, con-men, spiritualists, gypsies, corrupt landlords, intimidating bosses, pesky in-laws, and corrupt politicians), lowbrow activities (horse racing, boxing, card playing, counterfeiting, contests, insurance schemes, peddling phony medical cures and hypnotism), and lowbrow settings (bars, taverns, pool halls, fraternal lodges, soda shops, pizza joints, urban apartments, diners, and nightclubs). These shows were the polar opposite of those sweet suburban sitcoms where the conflicts were usually resolved when Ward Cleaver doled out a minor punishment to the “Beave.”

I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster followed many of the conventions of lowbrow television comedy, but it also had some important differences that made the show interesting. For one thing, Fenster and Dickens dressed in a way that hinted at a subtle class difference between the two men. Arch Fenster always wore overalls loaded down with tools, while Dickens often wore a jaunty army jacket over a black turtleneck. Dickens was more uptight, and, hence, the straight man. He dressed and acted more “middle class.” Ironically, or, perhaps, pointedly, he was usually the one to buckle under pressure. When he was trying to get the job of foreman, he didn’t have the courage to ask his boss. Fenster had to do it for him. In a later episode, when Dickens was selected to read for a television commercial, he fainted, and Fenster had to take over for him, again. Most of the time, the “middle class” Dickens had to be rescued by the more “working class” Fenster, and, thus it was usually the “middle class” Dickens who was the biggest butt of the jokes.

The truth is that many television shows featuring working-class figures set them against some kind of authority—a boss, a landlord, or a friend with more power and prestige. The humor employed by I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, and even today in the Farrelly brothers’ updated Three Stooges, has its roots in the American immigrant, turn-of-the-last-century working class. Peter Farrelly called the three stooges “working-class, blue collar, down-on-their-luck guys.” Slapstick humor is working-class humor. As Rob King has argued in his history of the Keystone Film Company, slapstick can reduce “authority to absurdity.”

Of course, in real life the working class today is getting walloped as never before in U.S. history, and it is anything but funny. Easing the pain of the cuts and bruises from the beating the working class is taking in our current culture will be more difficult, to be sure. But if you want to travel back in time to a moment of possibility when the working class could make fun of the middle class, if you want to laugh your tushie off like my eight year old son and I did when we were watching I’m Dickens, He’s Fenster, order the three DVD set. These crazy carpenters and their critique of authority have offered me a few good belly laughs and some genuine relief from the depressing political and economic roller coaster that is our current moment.

Or, as Curly once said: “Is this work in competent hands?” “Coitainly—we’re all incompetent!”

Kathy M. Newman

Chavs and the Working Class

A great new book has appeared recently about the working class in the UK. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by Owen Jones, has received a lot of well-deserved attention. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘chav’ has become a catch-all term of abuse for either the working class or elements of the working class. The term itself is not especially new and has a variety of roots. Whatever its origins, the label is one that is now used interchangeably with prole, feral underclass, scum, hooligan, the poor, or those who live in public housing. It captures dress codes, social and moral attitudes, child rearing practices, and even the way people stand on the sidewalk. What links all of these caricatures is that this is a way of talking about the white working class. Indeed many critical commentators, Owen included, have argued that the whiteness of those labelled chav is central to its use and therefore represents the last form of acceptable discrimination allowed in ‘polite’ society. The denigration of the white working class can be seen in a variety of cultural texts, from newspaper opinion pieces through publications such as The Little Book of Chavs and television comedies to a host of truly vicious websites that incite hate against the working class. Type in ‘chav’ to a search engine of your choice, but be prepared!

This breadth of coverage is important in understanding why this label has become so widespread and pernicious for debates about the working class. The heavily classed term chav is — rather ironically — inextricably linked to the rhetorical rise of the idea of classlessness, the notion that we are all middle class now. Essentially the term serves several roles.   It has become shorthand for the new underclass while simultaneously placing the respectable working class somewhere in the middle of society alongside the bulk of ‘us’ or ‘we’. At the same time it allows those who use the phrase to demonize those in the underclass simply for being there. Chav, therefore becomes an ideological and moral way of categorizing the poor – portraying them as unfit parents, workshy and generally feckless. Jones quotes a stream of right wing pundits who are horrified at this new working clas,s such as Carole Malone, who wrote in a piece about council estate (local authority housing) dwellers: “People who’d never had jobs, never wanted one, people who expected the state to fund every illegitimate child they had-not to mention their drink, drugs and smoking habits … [Their] houses looked like pigsties-dog crap on the floor (trust me, I’ve seen it), putrid carpets, piles of clothes and unwashed dishes everywhere.”

The second related function of the term is that it encourages people not to identify themselves as working class. This has obvious parallels with what Jack Metzgar calls the “class vernacular” of the US, which assumes that the great bulk of the population occupy an imaginary middle class that stretches from multimillionaires down to those struggling to get by.

Jones’s book and a wider and growing critical commentary are beginning to call out this class hatred and discrimination for what it really is. In the process, we are seeing a growing willingness to explore the undoubtedly profound changes in working-class life and culture over the last thirty years. One of the most telling points Jones makes is that the working class has gone from being respected –and at times even feared — for the political and economic clout it once possessed to a position where they are derided and at times feared as almost representing a different species.

At the heart of this shift have been the changes in the economy over the decades, especially the collapse of many industries that once supplied jobs to both the skilled and unskilled working class. Worklessness, or more properly precarious employment, is at the root of this problem. Access to good steady jobs acts as a wedge dividing working-class people and their communities. The rhetoric of chavs widens this divide by pushing some to identify with the ‘nice’ middle rather than the ‘rough’ working class. To work, ironically, takes you out of the working class!

Of course this development is not entirely new.  The divide between the ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ (hard living and steady living) working class is as old as industrialization – indeed some historians have seen those labels as more insightful that working and middle class categories. What is new is that this contemporary manifestation of working-class division occurs at a time of massive and growing economic inequality where the super rich are enjoying unprecedented increases in their wealth, and London has become the most unequal city anywhere in the developed world. The label chav helps to hide growing inequality within society by focusing attention – and blame — on those at the bottom. Labelling some of the weakest and most vulnerable in society in this way portrays economic inequality as a question of individual morality responsibility rather than as a wider question that society at large needs to address.

The hope in all this is that books like Jones’s provide a powerful and growing counter narrative to the unthinking use of terms like chav. What is striking is the way those of us interested in working-class issues are collectively drawing on and contributing to debates that show the real nature of economic and social inequality that is too often ignored by politicians and tabloid opinion formers. It shows us that to fully understand class we have to see how it operates on economic, social, and cultural levels. In doing this kind of work, we can perhaps start to recognize the shared humanity and value in working-class community and in turn challenge powerful myths about class more generally.

Tim Strangleman

Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the  textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods