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.