Ms. Geek Speaks: The Woes of the White Working Class?

Earlier this month (June), as I was trying to finish work for the courses I was taking, I noticed a comment by Matt Zoller Seitz, the famous MZS on Twitter which led me to read the highly problematic opinion piece by author Joan C. Williams entitled “With Roseanne Barr Gone, Will the US Working-Class be Erased from TV?”

The subhead clarified this essay’s intent (although some may think the intent was promotion of Williams’ book which I have not read and do not intend to order): “The message of this whole sorry episode is not that we need to stop listening to the white working class. The real lesson is that we need to start.”

According to Williams, we have been ignoring a crucial fact: “Cancellation deprives American television of one of the only sympathetic depictions of white working-class life in the past half century – in other words, since television began.”

Williams cites Richard Butsch who wrote “Ralph, Fred, Archie and Homer: Why Television Keeps Re-Creating the White Man Working Class Buffoon.” He cite that the pattern persists over four decades because in 262 domestic situation comedies as diverse as “I Love Lucy, to “The Brady Bunch” and “All in the Family” and even “The Simpsons,”  “In only 11 percent of the series were heads of the house portrayed as working class, that is, holding occupations as blue-collar, clerical, or unskilled or semiskilled workers.”

Yet according to Merriam-Webster, working class is “the class of people who earn money by doing usually physical work and who are not rich or powerful.”

The Cambridge Dictionary defines working class as “the group of people in society who use physical skills in their jobs and are usually paid by the hour.”

The Business Dictionary defines the working class as a “Socioeconomic class consisting of individuals that are paid an hourly wage and considered to be lower-middle class. Typically these individuals work blue-collar jobs such as manufacturing, retail sales, or food service. Also called lower class.”

Now blue collar is defined as “Refers to employees whose job entails (largely or entirely) physical labor, such as in a factory or workshop. For a piece of work to be termed blue collar, it should be directly related to the output generated by the firm, and its end result should be identifiable or tangible. Historically, in the West, manual workers wore blue shirt collars but clerical workers wore white. See also white collar.

Collins Dictionary defines this way: “The working class or the working classes are the group of people in a society who do not own much property, who have low social status, and who do jobs that involve using physical skills rather than intellectual skills.”

One problem you can see already is that with the increase of technology, there are fewer jobs that require manual labor. There is, according to HR in Asia, another term: “grey-collar workers.” This term includes agribusiness, healthcare, child care, protective services, military, security, food preparation, high tech technicians and skilled trade technicians. So here is where police and military personnel would go.

Williams, a law professor, had previously argued that we need to redefine what is working class in her article for Time Magazine, “We Need to Redefine What ‘Working Class’ Means” because lack of college degree doesn’t define it since it would include Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg and income might define it either.

The definitions, however, seem to have a male bias and do not include jobs that would be traditionally done by female workers which would require less physical labor. Those would be “pink collar” jobs.

There are other problems: Butsch, in the chapter he wrote on “Class and Gender through Seven Decades of American Television Sitcoms” for the book “Media and Class: TV, Film and Digital Culture,” is looking at only sitcoms. It is not clear from Williams’ first paragraph that she is looking back at the past, meaning 20th century, half century which would put us in the 1950s, and not the “past half century” as in 50 years or five decades.

Williams’ also calls “Black-ish” a “contemporary remake” of “The Cosby Show from the 1980s, but that’s too facile. In “The Cosby Show,” the father was a physician. In “Black-ish,” the father is an ad campaign person and it is the wife who is the doctor. The father here isn’t the all-knowing and he often consults with his co-workers.

Williams’ calls out that the blue-collar husbands are “buffoons,” citing Archie Bunker, but forgets that his wife, Edith, was also a dim bulb. “I Love Lucy” the husband, played by Desi Arnaz who might be considered white Latino, was not as clownish as his wife.

There was also “Everyone Love Raymond” where Ray Barone was not working class, but was the buffoon. In “Modern Family,” none of the male figures are working class and yet all of the characters are “buffoons” at one time.

And the TV series, “Roseanne” is not about her husband Dan. The center of the story is the wife, Roseanne, played by Roseanne Barr. They are a working class family, but don’t they own their own house? That’s not something typical for many lower class families.

Williams doesn’t really tell us why the cancellation of “Roseanne” tells us we need to start listening to the “white working class.” It isn’t clear what Williams means by the “deindustrialized midwest” because “Roseanne” isn’t “Green Acres” and I don’t recall this being a semi-rural setting. Williams mentions the “rotting factories” and “dying towns” in a “rust-belt revolt” and how Trump outrages “the coastal elites” but that neglects that Trump did not win the popular vote and that Trump himself is a coastal elite. Why shouldn’t the networks listen to the popular vote?

Williams has not shown that sitcoms are the valid means for bringing audiences to network TV at a time when reality shows are cheaper to produce. But ABC  had “The Middle” and still has “The Goldbergs” and “Speechless.” The white working class hasn’t exactly vanished from ABC. “The Middle” is about a lower middle class family in Indiana and just ended with a possible spin-off in the works. “Speechless” is about a family who move into an upscale part of town they can barely afford for the sake of their eldest son who has celebral palsy. The father is a baggage handler that that should qualify him as blue collar, working class and the family is white.

In “The Goldbergs,” the father runs his father-in-law’s furniture business, but while they can pass for white, the show might not be considered white because the writer was born to a Jewish family and the Goldberg family is Jewish. And then is the father working class as a manager? Dan Connor began his own motorcycle repair shop in Season 4. Although that fails, Roseanne goes one to own her own restaurant, the Landford Lunch Box.

NBC has “Superstore” which has a Latina (America Ferrera) as a lead, but Ben Feldman plays the white Jonah Simms. Feldman was raised Jewish so that might not fit Williams’ criteria of white working class. And the cast includes a Filipino-American (Nico Santos) and a biracial American (Nichole Bloom).

Before the beginning of television, even before cotton became king in the Deep South and plantations were run under the cruelty of black slavery, the working class in North America wasn’t solely White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. The Americas were “discovered” by Portugal, and the Spanish and the Portuguese had colonies here before the British. Spain was the first European power to colonize the Americas.

As a Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, the evidence of Spanish heritage is all around Williams. In 2000, Latinos were 32 percent of the California population and in 2016, Latinos are the largest ethnic minority with 18 percent of the total US population (African Americans are the largest racial minority with 13 percent). Minorities have always had to watch TV programming and been asked to empathize with characters who do not look like themselves. Why can’t the white working class families to do the same?

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