The primary aim of this study is to further the in-depth research conducted on this subject and its relation to overall character portrayal and audience impact. It is well documented and researched that media has the capability to wield profound power in altering public perceptions and opinion. These perceptions and opinions, in turn, can lead to policies and actions that can have potentially significant social implications. With the advent of the digital age and the Internet, the role of mass media has become especially important and influential. In light of this fact, identifying and evaluating the media’s portrayal of social issues may be more valuable than ever before. The following analysis incorporates results from similar literature as it relates to this report’s findings.
Even when there is an oversample of television episodes displaying characteristics of lower income lifestyles, television programs do not include these storylines in a meaningful manner:
In a similar study, Conrad-Perez et al. found that only 22% of their sample episodes referred to homelessness or housing insecurity in some way and that, of this already small percentage of representation, a character experiencing homelessness did not contribute a single line of dialogue in one of every three episodes in which they appeared. This furthers the Power of POP report’s inability to identify significant character dependence on social services or any other major indicators of financial instability. With nearly 70% of low-income adults reporting “a great deal” of concern about hunger and homelessness, this is an egregious void in storytelling.
More unsettling, this study uncovered a prevailing depiction of houseless characters as outsiders to the social world of the shows that include them—only gaining contact with members of the main cast through unexpected encounters. Therein, people experiencing houselessness in popular television programs are more frequently “seen” or “spoken for” rather than “heard from.” These incomplete portrayals only further marginalize the houseless in reality.
Societal hierarchy has bearing on the amount of representation devoted to each income range:
Depictions of characters represented within this study illuminated the class divide in who receives quality screen time. We can expect circumstances of low-wage existence, like falling behind on bills or not having adequate housing or food, to be completely absent from a protagonist’s experience. The majority of the episodes in this study reveal a dependence on depicting lifestyles of upper-middle to higher income workers such as police commissioners, pharmaceutical scientists, police investigators, surgeons, and aerospace engineers. This is a capitalist approach of depicting those who do well under a free market economy as aspirational and, therefore, worthy of the most screen time. Lower income consumers further the dominance of this reasoning when they fall into the allure of what could be set in front of them. As noted in their 2016 study,
Likewise, if the poor connect with the non-poor—outside of the workspace or social networks—they do so mainly through representations—circulating on television, online, on billboards, etc. Of course, their interest in the reality of the affluent, like the Kardashian family, is significantly higher than the prosperous class’ interest in the social reality (sic) shows about the dispossessed—such as Here Comes Honey Boo, The Wire, or Shameless. The inequality in media access aside, representations play a pivotal role in our construction and understanding of class matters.
What, then, could be gained by depicting class distinctions in ways that help the audience to better articulate the growing wealth divide? How could a structural lens help viewers deconstruct narratives about their own struggles with financial barriers?
Current depictions of class perpetuate the status quo rather than propose an alternative because those behind the depictions benefit from this system:
Class is about the unequal distribution of wealth and income—stratification—just as it is about the acquisition of prestige and cultural capital. It is ordered hierarchically. The norm in capitalist societies is defined by wealth and prestige, which positions those who lack either one or both at the “bottom” and subjects them to discrimination, stigmatization, and all forms of violence—real, symbolic, and otherwise. The “Other” of class is not only economically and politically excluded, but also socially excluded and silenced just as surely as its Black, female, disabled, or queer counterparts with which it often overlaps.
Bearing this framework in mind, it is of small wonder that poor characters are underrepresented on screen because their middle-class showmakers and writers are often unqualified to portray poverty. The experience and worldview of the poor are never fully intelligible to outsiders; Jones insists: “pauperism … resists representation.” In other words, the economic subaltern cannot speak. Those who speak on behalf of lower income individuals without having shared the lifestyle run the risk of misrepresenting or othering low-income subjects.
It is for these reasons and those featured throughout this study that we recommend adding writers who have had prolonged experience with poverty into the writers’ room, giving them the opportunity to spearhead stories of their own. This would enrich the television-scape with nuanced portrayals of low-income characters in established shows while also offering us stories centered on these characters from their iteration. By adding these multifaceted portrayals to media, the audience will gain additional opportunities to interrogate their misconceptions about how financial strife affects the most marginalized, in addition to an understanding of structural inequality.
The connection that audiences maintain through frequent viewership creates space for narrative shift:
Parasocial relationships are affective bonds audiences foster with media characters and celebrities that last beyond episodic exposure. These relationships mirror real-life social relationships, but are unique in that they lack reciprocity. Much like real-life social relationships, individuals are more likely to report parasocial relationships with characters they perceive to be similar to themselves. Even as early as kindergarten, people become attuned to parasocial relationships between themselves and their favorite characters—namely, those for whom they develop feelings of comfort, safety, trust, and relation in shared real-world circumstances.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, face-to-face socialization became heavily restricted, leading to an uptick in the intensity of parasocial closeness for those who experienced a decrease in their face-to-face social engagement. Within one study conducted during this period, even participants with strong ties to their close friends experienced significant growth in their parasocial relationships, suggesting that favorite media personae complemented rather than compensated social relationships.
Hence, the importance of parasocial relationships that audience members sustain with their favorite television characters not only has a bearing in their social lives but also in the impact of changing audience perspectives. For instance, one study conducted in 2020 found that participants who developed an affinity for gay characters in Six Feet Under significantly improved their attitudes toward white gay men after viewing the series over 5 weeks.
In a joint report on frequent television viewers of the 2018–2019 season by Define American and the Norman Lear Center, regular viewers of Superstore who felt a level of friendship with the character of Mateo were more likely to support an increase in immigrants coming to the United States. This association was particularly pronounced among those who had little to no real-life contact with immigrants. Displaying an attachment to regular immigrant characters can compensate for the absence of real-life contact with immigrants. This could reduce support for restrictive immigration policies across the board.
White resentment toward the progress of BIPOC communities is rooted in racism directly tied to perceived racial status in a changing population:
Studies have shown that white resentment toward BIPOC communities gained significant growth after the election of Barack Obama as president and the perceived change in racial hierarchy. In fact, one study found that white people withdraw support for welfare programs—which disproportionately aid white people—when they perceive these programs to primarily benefit people from marginalized backgrounds. Hence, showrunners hoping to influence this particular audience would have had a vested interest in low income characters being portrayed on television, as we found in our sample of the 2017–2018 TV season, remaining majority white for ongoing seasons of television. This may indeed answer why we did not find significant representation of BIPOC families of limited financial means in our study.
23 Happer, C., & Philo, G. (2013). The role of the media in the construction of public belief and social change. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 1(1), 321-336.
24 Conrad-Pérez, D., Chattoo, C. B., Coskuntuncel, A., & Young, L. (2021). Voiceless Victims and Charity Saviors: How US Entertainment TV Portrays Homelessness and Housing Insecurity in a Time of Crisis. International Journal of Communication, 15, 22.
25 Lemke, S. (2016) The Nation: American Exceptionalism in Our Time. In: Inequality, Poverty and Precarity in Contemporary American Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
26 Lemke, S. (2016) The Nation: American Exceptionalism in Our Time. In: Inequality, Poverty and Precarity in Contemporary American Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
27 Jones, G. (2009). Hungers: The Problem of Poverty in U.S. Literature, 1840–1945.
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29 Brunick, K. L., Putnam, M. M., McGarry, L. E., Richards, M. N., & Calvert, S. L. (2016). Children’s future parasocial relationships with media characters: The age of intelligent characters. Journal of Children and Media, 10(2), 181-190.
30 Bond, B. J. (2021). Social and parasocial relationships during COVID-19 social distancing. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 02654075211019129.
31 Bond, B. J. (2021). The development and influence of parasocial relationships with television characters: A longitudinal experimental test of prejudice reduction through parasocial contact. Communication Research, 48(4), 573-593.
33 Wetts, R., & Willer, R. (2018). Privilege on the precipice: Perceived racial status threats lead White Americans to oppose welfare programs. Social Forces, 97(2), 793-822.