What Has Television Taught You About Social Class?

What Has Television Taught You About Social Class?

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Has television given you an education about how people of different social classes live their lives? Or have you learned to be wary of the way shows portray real life?

In the Opinion essay “Everything I Know About Elite America I Learned From ‘Fresh Prince’ and ‘West Wing,’” Rob Henderson writes about the role television has played in his life over the years, beginning in his youth:

At first, I thought class was about money. “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” taught me that it wasn’t.

I started off in what most people think of as America’s lower class. I was given up for adoption when I was 3; I spent the next four years in seven foster homes. When I was 7, I was adopted and subsequently settled in Red Bluff, Calif., a working-class town, population 13,147, median household income $27,029. Two years later, my adoptive parents got divorced; after that, my adoptive father severed ties.

When I was 15, I got my first job, as a dishwasher at a pizza restaurant, and on breaks, all my conversations with co-workers eventually turned to the topic of money. We would fantasize about what we would do if we suddenly had it: vacations, cars. In high school, we’d hear rumors that so-and-so was rich, because their parents had a second house or a boat. We all thought that money was the important thing: If you had it, you were “rich” — which for us was indistinguishable from “elite.” If you didn’t, you weren’t.

This was true, to an extent. But it wasn’t the whole story. How did I learn it wasn’t? From television.

Mr. Henderson explains how television shaped his values, calling it “a constant and lifeline”:

Today I’m a Ph.D. student at Cambridge University. As someone who has had to navigate a long journey through a variety of social milieus — first foster care and my hometown, then the military, then Yale — television has been a constant and lifeline. It’s been both entertainment and social guide, teaching me the language and the ways of thinking I needed to move fluidly, more or less, from one environment to another.

Along the way, I’ve learned about the complicated ways that class interacts with taste, and what different social classes view as desirable. What I’ve come to realize, as I reflect on different influences in my life, is that the television I’ve watched has made me a different person than I would otherwise have been; choices I’ve made have been guided to a large degree by what TV has taught me about what constitutes a good life. Looking back, I can see that my decisions stemmed from a set of values — but whose? I thought I was building the life I desired, using fictional stories as a road map. Now I wonder how these stories shaped what I desired all along.

The essay concludes:

In the show “Mad Men,” the rags-to-riches protagonist Don Draper also watches movies and television to help blend into the world of New York’s upper class. It works well enough, but even so, he can’t quite smooth all his rough edges: In one episode, for example, Roger Sterling, Don’s boss, invites himself over to the Drapers’ house for dinner. After a few drinks, Roger says to Don, “By the way you drop your G’s every once in a while, I always thought you were raised on a farm.” Don, visibly uncomfortable, changes the subject.

For me, too, watching television took me only so far. I still didn’t quite fit in when I finally went to Yale. Though I didn’t drop my G’s, people on campus were fluent in a language I still could not speak. I remember being bewildered the first time I heard another student describe a joke I’d made as “gendered,” for instance — I’d never heard that word before.

But going to Yale also meant I no longer needed television to learn how to fit in among elites — I could learn from them in real life.

Recently, I was at an academic program in Washington, D.C. There, for the first time in my life, a stranger mistook me for having come from a wealthy background. “I’m not rich,” I said. “I just watch a lot of TV.” I said it as a joke, but it really wasn’t. My “bingeing to belong” approach wasn’t foolproof, but it helped. TV helped me to understand people who were worlds away from how I grew up. It gave me an understanding of the ingredients of social mobility. What I can’t quite disentangle is whether it taught me how to get what I had always wanted or taught me what to want.

Students, read the entire essay, then tell us:

  • Mr. Henderson intuits that his values were shaped by television shows. To what degree does this also describe your experience? How has TV shaped the way you see the world?

  • What shows have given you insight into different social classes, communities or cultures? Can you recall ever drawing upon what you saw on TV to help you navigate a situation in real life? If you were writing a similar essay about your own life, what shows would you include?

  • Mr. Henderson explores how TV helped him learn about people who were worlds away from how he grew up. But does television ever get it wrong? Does it ever promote stereotypes, inaccurately portray communities or gloss over important social issues? What shows come to mind when you think of TV’s distortions, exaggerations and unreliability? Why?

  • The Op-Ed doesn’t mention any reality shows, like “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” “The Bachelor” or “Survivor.” How would you say reality TV relates to the essay’s theme? Is reality TV ever instructive? Or, despite the name, is it often less realistic than other types of TV shows?

  • Mr. Henderson concludes his essay with this line about television: “What I can’t quite disentangle is whether it taught me how to get what I had always wanted or taught me what to want.” What does this line mean to you? How, if at all, might it relate to your life?

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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.