For quite some time now, I’ve had a theory about the role of film and literature in suppressing ambition, and it seems I could have been right. Because a recent piece of research by proper academics (rather than a bloke from Rotherham making it all up in his head) arrived at a very similar conclusion, albeit with a very different intention.
Researchers from Duke University in North Carolina looked at 32 children’s films, many of them from Disney, They put the characters into classes based on their job. At the top are upper class characters – royalty, chief executives and celebrities, and then there’s the working class who have jobs like soldiers, sailors, miners and chimney sweeps. The lowest category is the jobless poor.
The report writers argue that the depictions of working-class people are unrealistic. Nearly all “perceive their jobs as invigorating, fun”. In Mary Poppins, for example, Bert sings that “as a sweep you’re as lucky as can be”. The study says: “Bert, like other characters, frames working-class jobs as devoid of difficulties.”
It’s argued that many children’s films “suggest that social class inequality is benign, as those at the bottom of the class ladder suffer little, lead relatively stable lives, and experience many advantages”. Upper-class and wealthy lifestyles are often the ones depicted as under more unsatisfactory and under threat.
Working-class lives in children’s films are often portrayed as so much fun that rich people will voluntarily descend the class ladder to join them, the researchers say. Poor people are portrayed as happier too – in The Sound Of Music, for example, humble former nun Maria teaches her upper class employer how to love his children.
The study concludes that, overall, children’s films make poverty and class distinctions seem “legitimate by erasing, downplaying, and sanitising their effects – by portraying poverty and inequality as benign”.
It adds that this “erases, downplays or sanitises poverty and class inequality, implying that poverty and inequality are not particularly problematic as few people suffer from them”.
Now I suspect the report writers were coming at this from a societal angle – that film is making it more likely that the poor will continue to suffer because glosses over the problems they experience. But I prefer to look at it from the individuals viewpoint.
If, as a child, you’re being fed the impression that the poor are the happy ones, the wise ones and the virtuous ones, why on earth would you make the effort to rise out of poverty to something which is apparently worse on all these measures? And it’s not just happiness, wisdom and virtue.
If you think about all film, theatre and literature – not just that aimed at children – the poor are invariably presented as the nice ones in contrast to the nasty or evil rich. Can you think of a single example where the reverse is the case? I can’t.
I don’t expect that this is going to change anytime soon, (who the heck wants to see rich people enjoying themselves and the poor living in misery…where’s the drama in that?) but once you become conscious of it, it does cause you to question how you might have been influenced throughout your lifetime, albeit on a subliminal level.
The truth is that the poor are not happy or wise or virtuous or compassionate or nice…and neither are the rich. All those characteristics (and their polar opposites) are to be found across all socio-economic groups to varying degrees.
Certainly ‘niceness’ seems to be something that’s pretty evenly spread, irrespective of income or wealth. And you don’t have to be poor to display wisdom, virtue or compassion for others either. But what about happiness?
Well while it’s true that money doesn’t buy you happiness, it doesn’t buy you misery either. The notion that wealthy people are miserable is an attractive one to people who don’t want to make the effort to rise above the crowd.. But it’s a myth – and a myth supported and perpetuated by film and literature. If you’re happy without money, you will be at least as happy with it – but what if you’re poor and miserable?
Well as the great Spike Milligan once famously said…
“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.”
I suspect Spike had a better grip on the reality of the situation than most.