Channel Surfing: Roseanne Meets Archie
By Kim Kelly
Well before Trump ascended to office in 2016, media pundits on both sides of the mainstream political aisle struggled to understand the politics and culture of the elusive “working-class” voter. They have often leaned heavily on outdated stereotypes and classist profiling, and whether it is Fox News or CNN, their use of the term “working class” paints a very specific picture: white, male, blue collar, conservative, or politically disaffected. However, theirs is an image that does not accurately reflect the real face of America’s working people. Those in search of more accurate representation can occasionally find it on the scripted side of things, and more specifically in family-oriented sitcoms. These irreverent, heart-warming programs offer a potent, and in some ways unparalleled, platform for satirizing the conditions of American working-class life. Since the high water mark of All in the Family, many sitcoms starring working-class characters and families have failed in this regard, while only a handful have managed to examine and critique the impact of increasingly precarious work lives on increasingly diverse workers and their families. Despite efforts over the past several years by major television networks to skew toward more conservative characters and storylines in an effort to appeal to an imagined ideal working-class viewer, these more diverse offerings have done the most compelling job of showing the American working class as it actually is now. Those who have focused on the struggles facing immigrant workers, single-parent families, and low-wage workers in particular have painted an accurate portrait of modern working life in this country, challenging the status quo while keeping the laugh track rolling.
Television has been the premiere American pop culture delivery system since it first supplanted the wireless radio as both the pinnacle of home entertainment and a cherished staple of working-class life. And, if we are to understand the category of “working class” to describe those workers who exercise little to no control over the content and pace of their work1 and thus comprise the majority of those employed, then this is an extremely diverse group. As such, the U.S. working class is now predominantly made up of women and people of color and exerts much of its labor in industries such as health care, agriculture, education, retail, and food service. Only a third are engaged in traditional manufacturing jobs, and the online publication CityLab estimates that the working class will be majority people of color by 2032.