A couple of weeks after the South Korean film Parasite won both Best Foreign Film and Best Picture, Donald Trump went on what the Washington Post called a “nationalistic cultural” rant about the film’s awards. He was upset that a movie made in Asia, in Korean, was named the best film in the U.S. The Democratic National Committee responded by pointing out that Parasite revealed “how oblivious the ultrarich are about the struggles of the working class,” a jab at Trump’s supposed populism. The DNC also noted that watching it would have required Trump to read subtitles for two hours, a point the film’s distributor echoed, tweeting that this was understandable because the President “can’t read.”
Trump’s response might have been intended to encourage xenophobia among his base, but it also reflects an important theme of Parasite that most reviews have ignored: elite anxiety about the working class. That anxiety has surfaced in the many studies and reports over the last decade that have tried to make sense of the seemingly exotic, incomprehensible working class of middle America.
Scholars and journalists have spent time in working-class communities, interviewed hundreds of working-class people, and reviewed studies by experts about how economics, politics, and social patterns influence each other. They’ve produced dozens of books and articles, and readers have embraced these works, searching for some explanation of a culture that seems to be gaining power. Writers and readers alike genuinely want to understand the working class, whose life experiences and worldviews seem so foreign.
Of course, the questions we ask don’t just shape what we choose to investigate or read. They also reflect our perspectives. Along with their curiosity, many in the elite also view working-class people with contempt and even fear. They worry about the political and social changes that seem to be rooted in working-class resentment. Brexit threatens the British economy, and Trumpism seems to be destroying American democracy. White supremacists have killed more than two dozen people, most of them Black or Latinx, in shootings in malls or houses of worship. Where did all this working-class resentment come from?
Both Parasite and Joker, another award-winning 2019 film, reflect those anxieties. Joker shows how a lifetime of abuse and disdain transforms a vulnerable working-class boy into a gleeful incarnation of evil whose followers take to the streets, setting fires and rioting in clown masks. In Parasite, a working-class family’s initially amusing insinuation into a wealthy family’s household takes a turn to violence.
Reviews of the two films have been decidedly different. Some critics were put off by Joker’s gratuitous violence, while others dismissed it as no more than “pernicious garbage,” a “miserabilist manifesto,” or a “descent into madness.” Fans posting on sites like IMDb found the film more appealing. One described Joker as a film about how “an average man” beset by “mockery, bullying, neglect” and “daily life pressures” can go mad. In contrast, reviewers described the multiple Oscar-winning Parasite as a “class warfare thriller,” driven by a screenplay that is “doggedly on-point in its themes of class resentment and economic warfare.” While Parasite takes on class more overtly, both films reflect the recent interest in – and anxiety about – working-class resentment.
In different ways and to different extents, both reveal how economic inequality translates into cultural conflict. In Joker, Arthur Fleck’s madness is fueled by cuts to the public health system, so he can no longer afford the medications that keep his mental health problems in check, but also by the contempt of mainstream society, represented by a late-night TV show host who makes Arthur’s truly awful attempt at stand-up comedy the butt of repeated jokes. At first, Arthur is excited by the attention from someone he idolizes, but by the time he appears on the TV show and admits to having committed an infamous murder, he fully understands that he is the object of disdain. The wealthy Thomas Wayne expresses that contempt explicitly earlier in the film: “Those of us who have made something of our lives will look at those that haven’t as nothing but clowns.”
Parasite offers its own view into the struggles of working-class daily life, without the overlay of mental illness. Early scenes show how the Kim family scrapes by in their sub-basement apartment on low-wage piece-work, reduced to crouching next to the toilet to access public Wi-Fi. Their elite businessman boss insists that workers remain respectful and avoid “crossing the line,” and he complains that the workers smell like “old radishes.” But while his disdain may be less nasty than Thomas Wayne’s, both films make clear that the elite have no idea what workers’ lives are like. Instead, they view the working class as inferior, unpleasant, and problematic.
While these films make a point of showing us the world through working-class eyes, they also highlight elite anxiety about class. The clown agency where Arthur Fleck works seems innocent enough early in Joker, but after he kills three stock brokers on the subway, that mask takes on a more sinister meaning. Once masked, workers all look alike – a move that makes tangible the lack of attention to differences or individuality in the way employers often view the workforce. Workers’ seemingly happy faces and the apparent acceptance of demeaning working conditions and low wages mask their anger and resentment. They wear masks that, as Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote over a century ago in his powerful poem about how African Americans navigate white society, “grin and lie.” As professional middle-class readers encounter working-class individuals in books like Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s Tightrope or Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland, they are probably becoming ever more aware of how much struggle and anger lies behind the masks that workers put on.
Bosses may view workers with contempt, but as Parasite suggests, the working class is much savvier about their bosses than the bosses are about them. The workers understand that it’s easy for rich people to be nice, because “money works like an iron, smoothing out the creases of life.” The bosses, however, are completely taken in by the working-class family’s performances of expertise and experience. The wealthy couple complain about their newly-hired chauffeur’s body odor, but they don’t question his credentials. And, of course, they have never noticed the guy secretly living in their basement.
These films reassure elite viewers that working-class people are likely to take their anger out on each other, often before they take aim at those who look down on them from above. Both films feature violence among workers. Early in Joker, Arthur is beaten up by a group of Black teenagers, young men who probably share his class position. His first act of violence is shooting the wealthy jerks on the subway, but he also murders two of his co-workers, men who have failed to demonstrate anything like class solidarity. For all of Parasite’s attention to class conflict, it major conflict is among workers, pitting the first housekeeper and her husband against the family of interlopers. After a very brief gesture toward solidarity, as the two families trade pleas for mercy and understanding, their interactions turn violent. They battle for the limited power they can grasp in a house where neither truly reigns. Their conflict continues until one finally realizes that his real enemy is the head of the wealthy family.
In a period marked by economic inequality and social divides, these films show both sides of the class war. By presenting working-class characters whose experiences seem extreme, either because of mental health or abject poverty, they invite viewers to empathize but perhaps not identify with the working class. By highlighting elite contempt for the working class, they reinforce F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lesson that the rich are different from you and me. But they also make visible the anxieties that not only the very wealthy but many in the professional middle class feel about the working class – a group whose experiences and views seem not only foreign but also potentially dangerous.
Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Georgetown University