Pop Culture And The Working Class, Cont.

Leslie Knope, working class hero?

Will Wilkinson thinks we do better than we think at depicting working people in popular culture:

This sort of thickheadedness is possible only if one has missed that the composition of the working class hasn’t changed since “All in the Family”. “Reality” shows aside (but how about Mike Rowe’s “Dirty Jobs”?), the top televised fiction programmes are police procedurals like NCIS and CSI and so forth. Cops are labour, right? My favourite network show at present is “Parks and Recreation”, which is a workplace comedy about government employees. Public-sector workers are workers, basically indistinguishable for bricklayers and teamsters, right? Which I guess means that David Foster Wallace’s unfinished, posthumously-published novel about IRS employees, “The Pale King”, is a piece of literature about “the lives of working people”. Or if office jobs aren’t Steinbeck enough, try novelist William T. Vollmann’s recent work of literary non-fiction “Imperial”, which gets intimate with the way we live now if we work illegally on farms in California or in Mexican maquiladoras. One of my favourite recent graphic novels is Benjamin Percy and Danica Novgorodoff’s “Refresh, Refresh”, an adaptation of Mr Percy’s stunning 2005 Paris Review story of the same name, about working class teens and their fathers at war in Iraq. It’s not even hard to point to someone “who makes art out of working-class lives by refusing to prettify them”, if one actually pays attention to contemporary literature, film, and TV.

Thinking about this and my debate with Josh Eidelson from back in July, I think there’s a definitional problem. It’s true that we have a lot of mass pop culture (I’m thinking mainly television and movies here, since books are, unfortunately, mostly niche phenomena these days) about the work lives of working-class people. What we don’t have a lot of is pop culture depictions of what it’s like to be not just working-class but poor inside the office and outside of it. We’re good at lampooning the deadening nature of low-level white collar jobs, but less good at looking at what it’s like to get benefits or deal with scheduling a parent-teacher conference around shift work. I remain unconvinced that there’s a big underserved audience for the latter kind of show, but I think it’s a differential difference that’s worth acknowledging. We’re into working-class shows if we can admire the work itself, or laugh sympathetically with the characters as a way to ease our own pain, but our pop culture is less engaged with the less conventionally heroic aspects of being poor.