Where did all the poor people go, or my problem with Grace and Frankie and why I still love Roseanne

In the 1970s network TV comedies showcased a variety of different classes. The Jeffersons was about an African American family who had made the journey from lower middle class to upper class. All in the Family portrayed the lifestyle of the white working class. Mary Tyler Moore showed a middle-class world. In each of these shows, the class basis for the characters was portrayed in a realistic manner and became a part of the show. Mary’s apartment was small, and she was careful with money. Archie and Edith didn’t have any new furniture, and they never traveled. What you saw made sense.

Something happened during the 1980s, and from that point to now a realistic depiction of class in sitcoms has disappeared. Modern Family is about three related family groups who all lead an upper middle class existence. Set in Southern California, each of the homes shown would sell for several million dollars. Two Broke Girls purports to show the struggles of two young women in New York City (one of the most expensive places to live), but their clothes, hair styles and living situation belie that.

There was a show, once upon a time, that put class front and center. Roseanne was about a family that started out as working class and ended up as working poor. During the nine-year run of the show (1988 – 1997) the Connor family steadily slid down the economic ladder. Roseanne and Dan Connor both lost jobs as factories closed and opportunities for blue collar work decreased. The impact was felt on their kids: Becky Connor, portrayed as a goal-oriented good student, realized that despite her hard work and solid grades she wouldn’t be able to go to college. The kids were not being driven to sports and lessons because those activities did not fit in the family budget. Roseanne lost a tooth, and because the family was too poor for good health care, had to just deal with it.

I am not writing this to show off my knowledge of TV. This stuff is important. The reality is wealth inequality is getting larger and larger, but you don’t see that on TV. Shows meant to portray people in low paying jobs gloss over the difficulties and indignities. Everyone is gorgeous and healthy looking, but that’s not what it’s like to be working poor. The reality of poverty is felt more strongly by women of all ages. Younger women are more likely than men to be left raising children without economic support from the other parent. Older women end up struggling in retirement due to years of being paid less.

I started thinking about this while watching season three of Grace and Frankie. I have a love-hate relationship with this show. The two women who are the focus of the show are, to my mind, fabulously wealthy. Becoming divorced after 40 years hasn’t made any difference to their income. The clothes worn by both women are expensive. They live in a multimillion-dollar beach house artfully furnished, and not once has there ever been a moment where they have concerns over their financial future. When a bank will not lend them money to start a business, the money is quickly found. I do not have easy access to 85,000 dollars, and I bet few people do.

Lily Tomlin’s Frankie is a child-woman who has never had to undertake adult responsibilities. Frankie’s stubborn dogmatism would be a lot more interesting if she was ever in a situation where she didn’t have wealth and privilege on her side to lessen the impact of her actions. Her outspokenness comes with no risk. She reminds me of the upper class “radicals” I’ve known who were adamant in stating that money was not important. That is an easy statement to make when you have always had enough to pay rent and buy food.

The show purports to cover many of the issues facing older women, but these two get to sit in a gorgeous, always clean kitchen and spend hours discussing their problems. How much better this show would be if things weren’t so easy for them. If their emotional struggles took place in a world where they couldn’t spend long afternoons sitting on the beach because they were working two low paying jobs. I would love to see a show where one of them had have a tooth pulled because they didn’t have the money for dental work, and then had to deal with looking in the mirror and seeing a gap-toothed smile. What about scripts focusing on when to go to the doctor and when not to, with them juggling bills as they try to pay their share of an urgent care visit.

I realize it is not fair to ask a single TV show to make up for a generation of false portrayals of class, but Grace and Frankie purports to deal with issues facing older women. Unfortunately, women over 60 have pretty much disappeared from TV (except as patients or victims), so the stakes are much higher for any show that has them front and center. I could accept them as upper class recent divorcees if there were some reality added in. Maybe they could have a single friend who was struggling on a fixed income. Instead of meeting handsome and interesting men through online dating, what about finding that men their age only want to date 35-year olds.

Despite all this, I do enjoy the show. The chemistry between Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda is great. I realize that I am putting too much pressure on a single show to be all things, and that is not fair. But you know what else is not fair? That as income inequality soars to new levels in this country and the middle class is being eroded, there is not a single TV show that shows the impact of that. That when the number of children living in poverty is increasing, and that when women continue to be paid less, TV continues to show a world where people working minimum wage jobs have all their teeth and no money problems.


She’s Back…

My world fell apart five years ago and I used words to create a life raft. My husband was diagnosed with a terminal disease and died six weeks later. Every day was worse than the day before. Seeing words on the computer screen was the only way I could process what was happening. The day after he died I sat with my morning coffee and wondered what the hell I was going to do. I started this blog.

I used writing to work my way through the obstacle course of grief. Nothing else was as helpful. The online support group I joined was made up of people mourning the end of decades-long relationships. We were married seven years; I knew how to call a plumber and pay bills. I saw a grief counsellor who said you could get what you wanted in life by wishing, and told me a story about his new car. I never went back.

Writing helped. I published my first few tentative posts and was amazed to see responses. Some were from people going through the same tough journey as me. I read their blogs and realized that while this was a solo trip, I was not the only one making it. I kept writing. A lot of my time at work during those first few months was spent writing (I can say that now that I am retired).

Eventually the active grief ended, but it never fully stopped. I was a new person, different from who I had been before all of this happened. I started writing about other things. The blog was renamed to show my expanded focus. I spent the second anniversary of Rick’s death rereading old blog posts from those first months. It was hard to get through; none of the rawness and pain was hidden.

This August will mark the fifth anniversary of Rick’s death. He was five years older than me; on my birthday this year, I will be the same age he reached, and soon after I will be older than he ever was. So much in my life has changed. I have new interests that take up much of my time, and new friends he never knew. I retired last year. Some of the people we both knew and loved died. I wonder where my life would be had he lived.

I stopped writing for a while; a while that lasted over a year. Just as I was feeling ready to emotionally move forward, my brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died shortly after, and I fell back into grieving. There was little to say that I had not said earlier, and there was nothing else that seemed worth talking about.

Now, though, I am ready to go back to the discipline of putting thoughts to paper in a coherent and meaningful way (or at least, that is the goal). I hope there is someone out there interested in reading this, but if not, I will still be here, trying to make some sense out of myself and the world.

Why the GOP is Going Nuts

The two major parties change focus every 40 years or so, but this election year it seems the Republicans may end up self-destructing.  This may appear to be coming out of nowhere, but the current campaign season and the rise of Donald Trump can be tracked back to calculated decisions made decades ago.  To get a better picture of what’s going on now in 2016,  I’ll start back all the way back in the 1880s when Reconstruction ended. From that period through to about 1968, the US could be considered as having had a 3-party system with the Republicans, southern Democrats and northern Democrats existing as distinctly different entities.

The Republican Party started in the late 1850s as an abolitionist party with a strong Northern base among Yankee-born believers in the mid-19th century’s triumvirate of progressive issues: abolishing slavery, establishing prohibition, and providing the vote for women.  These causes don’t seem intrinsically linked to us, but they were to people in the 19th century.  Inherent in their viewpoint was the idea that small towns and farms were the most valid part of the America, and that the common man (interpreted as middle class people with a solid WASP lineage) were the best Americans. The less palatable side of these beliefs were a desire to preserve that America from the vast number of immigrants coming from countries and cultures that were believed to be incapable of assimilation (mostly Irish and Italian during the 1880s).   During Reconstruction southern blacks were granted the right to vote, and they voted solidly Republican.

Democrats were lukewarm on the Civil War, and the Democratic Party stood in opposition of attempts to provide freed slaves with equal rights during Reconstruction.  When federal troops were removed from the South in 1877, the GOP went with them.  The South would be Democratic from that point forward through to the 1950s.  The Southern Democratic Party was the party of segregation and State’s rights.  Southern Democratic legislators prevented the passage of federal anti-lynching laws and did everything in their power to ensure that blacks remained in as abject a position as possible. 

That was in the South.  In the North, the Democratic Party had a very different face.  Immigrants streamed into the US and mostly settled in Northern cities.  Republicans were, by and large, appalled at what they considered a mass influx of inferior races, religions and cultures.  The Democratic Party rolled out the welcome mat and created the concept of machine politics.  Every northern city had a well-established system of neighborhood leaders and bosses who handed out jobs, helped people with problems, and ensured that all the voters made it to the polls.   

The Progressive movement started in the 1890s with a reboot of many of the same issues that started the Republican party.  Progressives wanted votes for women, often supported prohibition, and were vehemently opposed to the machine politics that had taken over most Northern cities.  Entwined in these goals were some nativist concerns.  One of the arguments in favor of women’s suffrage was that native-born American  women’s votes (in reality, they meant white Protestant) could counteract the votes of non-native immigrant men.  A part of the desire to make municipal governments corruption free was to break the hold of the mostly Democratic urban machines that ran cities. 

Progressives had strong roots in the Republican Party, even though they would participate in third party movements  (TR with the Bull Moose Party, Bob La Follette with the Socialists).  This continued through the 1920s up until Teddy’s cousin FDR was elected President in 1932. For the first time, it was a Democrat who was looking to enact major progressive reforms, and his Republican opponents that were in opposition.  In addition, FDR made some attempts to challenge the racist base of the party in the South.  Still, the voting blocs remained mostly the same.  Northern white ethnics and Southern whites voted Democratic; WASPs voted Republican.  Former progressives were mostly voting Republican, but would vote for FDR in the presidential election. 

The first cracks appeared in 1948 when the Democratic Party formally supported integration and Truman integrated the armed forces.  This was viewed as apostate by the Southern Democrats, and many of them formally split off to form a new, entirely race-based party called the Dixiecrats. While not long-lived, the result was that some elected members of the US House and Senate switched their party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.  The age where the Democratic Party was the only group for Southern whites was starting to end.  Over the next 20 years Southern white support for the Democratic Party steadily eroded.  It was Lyndon Johnson, a white Southerner and a Democrat, who worked hard to get the voting rights act of 1965 passed.  For the first time since 1877 Southern blacks were able to vote in large numbers, and they voted as Democrats.

Party alliances in the North underwent an equally major transition.  The flood of European immigration stopped after WWI, and the supposedly unassimilable hordes assimilated.  The Democrats stayed with them, becoming the party that supported unions and represented the working man and woman. Then, during the 1960s, civil rights protests in Northern cities targeted jobs and housing at the same time the urban manufacturing age was ending.  Blue collar workers – the children and grandchildren of immigrants – were in labor unions that were staunchly Democratic, and often just as staunchly against admitting blacks.  Factories started shutting down and the solidly working class blue-collar Democrats began feeling left out of their party’s concerns.     

In a calculated bid to appeal to Northern white blue collar voters and Southern whites, the GOP began to play up racial issues. The movement was small and mostly covert in the 1960s, but slowly become more openly race-based.  Nixon appealed to the “Silent Majority”; those white working class folks, often union members, who felt their world was crumbling.  Ronald Reagan talked about “welfare queens” driving Cadillac cars and George HW Bush made a point of mentioning a criminal with the decidedly black sounding name of “Willy Horton”.  By the 1990s, there was no doubt that the GOP, once the party of abolition, was solidly and assuredly the party where racists could feel most at home.    

Along with the racists, the GOP opened their doors to other groups.  Starting in the 1990s, evangelicals were welcomed with open arms.  Anti-federalists advocates were invited in.  By the early 2000s the GOP has become a case study for cognitive dissonance, with about the only unifying theme being a deep and pervasive anger at anyone perceived as being different. Party leaders have spent the last few years in an increasingly more difficult dance to keep control over the crazies they invited in.  This year, they finally lost control.  But make no mistake about it; they laid the framework and created the situation they now find themselves in. 

W. E. B. Du Bois was right

“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line”, said W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903. He was sadly correct, and I sincerely hope that his prophecy for the 20th century is not repeated in the 21st.  

There’s an assumption of guilt-by-nature applied to any crime involving an African American suspect that doesn’t exist for whites.  White college students rampaging after a football game are criticized for drinking too much and partying too hard, but they are not called thugs or animals.  When white teens are accused of crimes, there is a call to look for the reasons why; were there mental health issues, or family problems?  When black teens are accused of crimes, they are viewed as hardened criminals beyond any hope of redemption.

Despite the vast predominance of mass shooters being young, white males, there is no presumption of a common thread of race linking each new event.  Conservative radio hosts do not take to the airwaves discussing their ideas on the failure of white families to instill decent values in their sons, nor do Fox News hosts bring in white guests who are expected to apologize for the actions of their fellow whites.  Instead, each case is reviewed and debated on its merits.  Mental health issues are raised, as are concerns over the bad influences that can come from outside influences such as movies, music or video games. 

Contrast that to incidents where the alleged perpetrators are people of color.  Reviewing the comments section of local online news sources bears this out.  Crime reports showing pictures of African American suspects will garner far more comments than the exact same story would have had the picture been of a white suspect.  Comments will focus on the “obvious” connection between the suspect’s race and their crime.  Many will contain base racial stereotypes and slurs.

Different standards of review are not just reserved for people accused of committing crimes.  I’ve spent close to 30 years working in professional office environments that have included small and large companies, privately held, corporate and government.  In every situation I’ve encountered people who were, frankly, incompetent. It’s a fact of life; not everyone succeeds at every job.  When a person of color or a woman fails, the prevailing wisdom is that they were hired for token reasons, and that of course they weren’t as good as anyone else.  I’ve never yet heard anyone suggest that maybe the white guy who failed was hired because he looked just like everyone doing the hiring, not because he had the needed experience, and so of course that’s why he failed.

It’s sad and depressing and I don’t know how we can move forward.  I don’t have any ideas for solutions or any hope that it will get better.  I hope I’m wrong, but I fear that in 2103 Du Bois’s words will have been as prophetic for the 21st century as they were for the 20th .