A recent crop of TV shows — Maid, Succession, Squid Game — have demonstrated that being rich doesn’t lead to happiness. Family, friendship, and other aspects of life are more important. If the world of the rich is filled with misery and loneliness, these shows seem to ask, then why not stay poor and happy?
Representations of unhappy rich people aren’t new. Think about the rich villains in soap operas like Dallas and Dynasty in the US, or on a less super-rich scale, but very wealthy compared to everyone else, the ‘big house’ owners and the factory bosses in UK soaps such as Emmerdale and Coronation Street, and even the boss of Lassiter’s Hotel in Australian soap Neighbours. All mean, all unhappy. We also see rich people with murderous urges and terrible secrets in British crime shows such as Midsomer Murders and hapless and down on their luck types in sitcoms like Schitt’s Creek, who struggle with downward mobility but eventually realise that there is more to life than money.
In the Netflix drama Maid, the central character, Alex, cleans the houses of rich people. The show is based on a memoir by Stephanie Land who worked as a cleaner to put herself through college and wrote about the people she cleaned for. While the adaptation doesn’t focus so much on the actual cleaning or the clients, one does feature. Regina is a lawyer who lives in a stunning house with water views, but who is thoroughly miserable. Her husband leaves her, and she is lonely and alone with a new baby. Her sadness makes her unpleasant, and initially she treats Alex poorly. But the two eventually form a friendship, and Alex helps her settle into parenthood and provides a sympathetic ear. Yet while Alex accepts Regina’s help when she needs legal representation, she does not want the emptiness of Regina’s existence.
The HBO family saga Succession is another portrayal of unhappy rich people. Its dysfunctional family are constantly scheming over who has control of the family empire. No one trusts each other, nor are they enjoying life despite their wealth. Even the aesthetic of the show is designed to make being a billionaire seem unappealing, with rather cold and unhomely sets.
The Korean horror show Squid Game mostly focuses on its poor and desperate contestants as they compete in deadly games to try to win a huge cash prize. But it becomes clear that rich people behind the scenes have set up the games to bring some excitement to their lives. The identity of the game’s creator is not revealed until the end of the series, but it clearly suggests that money is corrupting. The rich turn to brutality to amuse themselves, but poor people (as represented by the main character Seong Gi-hun) have the upper moral hand.
Do these shows lead audiences to feel sorry for the rich characters? Maybe not so much in Squid Game due to its brutality (although it might still be possible, due to the twist that means all is not as it seems and sympathies might have grown unwittingly). Some viewers might feel sorry for Succession’s Roy family as the offspring of media magnate Logan Roy appear starved of any parental affection. Maid does invite us to pity Regina.
What is the effect of such depictions? Do stories about unfulfilled rich people encourage working-class audiences to feel relieved that they don’t have to suffer the miseries that come with too much money?
While money might not necessarily guarantee happiness, many working-class people would say that it sure does help. It’s hard to enjoy life when money is tight, and financial hardship causes tensions within households. Not knowing if the rent can be paid, or how the car will get repaired, or whether the kids can have new shoes means a constant sense of worry and dread that undermines health and general wellbeing. And research shows links between poverty and depression – something that many who have experienced poverty would attest to. These series may make wealth look like a source of misery, but many working-class people would love some financial security.
Maid does the best job of making this clear. For Alex, poverty is definitely not better than being rich. It isn’t just that Regina is a sad and lonely wealthy person, suggesting that Alex would not be more content if she had Regina’s lifestyle. We also see that Alex’s happiness improves when she has somewhere decent to live and some money in her pocket. What Alex needs is some financial security to allow her to achieve her aspirations (to go to college) and to be safe. Maid demonstrates that poverty is bad, being aspirational is good, and poor people need not be envious of the rich.
Shows like this might remind working-class people that owning a media empire or living in a massive country estate isn’t the secret to happiness. But trying to convince viewers that being wealthy only brings misery deflects criticism of the super-rich. It hides the reality that wealth is being hoarded by a small number of people. If wealth was properly distributed then these extremes would not exist. It’s common to hear people say that they’d rather be poor and happy than rich and miserable. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney