The Great Film Fantasy

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.

10 thoughts on “The Great Film Fantasy

  1. Mike

    I can’t remember who, but someone quite well known, once said “Money may not buy me happiness, but at least it would buy me a better class of misery.”

  2. Meurig

    If, money doesn’t make you happy it will make you comfortable;
    if your not comfortable with money, give it away!
    That will make you happy!

  3. Roy Aylmer

    Not quite with you on this one John.
    If you look at our classic literature such as Dickens the “Great Expectations” experience is what every one desires to help them climb the ladder of success.
    If you look at British TV especially The Soaps; everyone seems to revel in misery and depression trying to make everyone else’s life more wretched, whatever class they are from.
    The US Soaps on the other hand seems to be every man for himself climbing the money tree, regardless of how many people they must trample on.

  4. Barbara Jago

    From my experience, the good old days were a figment of imagination. If anyone tried to do well or did well in my neighborhood, they were mocked and outcast. Poverty creates cruelty and hard hearts. Not saying the rich are not cruel or hard hearted, just that the notion that the poor all helped each other was simply not true.

  5. Anne marie

    I believe its all intentional programming to make the poor Feel happier with their lot, and the rich could Subjugate the poor into believing they cannot get out of being poor, Luckily We are all being Educated now and the belief should be that anyone can choose to make good when they can. (although I don,t think our prime minister wants the poor to do well.) But of course poor children with Poor parents (or not caring parents) Sometimes fight back , Ecouragement is all that is needed. But I know how hard it is to fight back from nothing. Their should be no stigma attached to anyone who has only a little money (poor) Children these days need feeding Knowledge from very very good Teachers and sometimes they are hard to find.

  6. Rosemary

    Perhaps Walt knew who would buy more tickets. Might as well make the subject matter tempting.

    Oh and by the way, for anyone else, who found the email addresses dead yesterday; it’s Post 1,000,000 letters officE.

  7. Brian

    James Cameron made over $200m USD making a film “Titanic” portraying how wonderful it is to be poor and awful to be rich. Biggest Hypocrite ever


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