The television analysis in this report is based on content analysis of 105 randomly sampled television episodes from popular television shows aired on broadcast, cable, and streaming services divided into 70 episodes reflect-ing the gamut of shows available during the Fall 2017 to Spring 2018 season and an additional 35 episodes reflecting low-wage workers from this same period.
For the purpose of this study, popular television shows were defined as shows that attracted a large general audience when originally aired on broadcast and cable networks in the United States and/or shows that were ranked high on Parrot Analytics’—the singular source compiling international demand for streaming plat-forms—The Global Television Demand Report: Full Year 2018. In an effort to better capture these emergent consumer habits, our population of popular television shows was generated using a combination of traditional rating metrics from consumer habits research firm Nielsen and viewership measurements compiled in the Global Television Demand Report.
After compiling a sample reflective of the most in-demand shows, we utilized the Microsoft Excel function RANDBETWEEN to select the first 40 episodes. To remain consistent in the manner of sample selection within the Power of POP series, we made use of Research Randomizer, an online random sampling tool, to generate a random number sequence to the remaining episodes for in-depth content analysis.
The 105 episodes included in our random sample include 44 comedies, 15 action shows, 16 dramas, 14 crime shows, six comedy-dramas, three science-fiction shows, two mysteries, two horror-dramas, one action drama, one reality television show, and one comedic crime drama. Forty-one shows aired on broadcast television (CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CW), two were aired on cable television (AMC and Showtime), and 11 originally aired on streaming services (Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, Hulu, and Netflix).
Part of the overall sample includes 35 episodes selected based on the marketing of certain shows portraying the experiences of low-wage to working-class characters. A brief list of these shows was compiled, and the randomizer tool mentioned above selected episodes from the following programs: Bob’s Burgers, Mom, On My Block, Orange Is the New Black, Roseanne, Shameless, Sneaky Pete, Speechless, Superior Donuts, Superstore, and The Middle.
CODING & TERMINOLOGY
To ensure inter-coder reliability, the coding team created and then trained using a project codebook (see Appendix I), which established guidelines for the specific episodic and character variables to be analyzed. The codebook includes 12 episode variables, including genre, tone, and depiction of low-income lifestyle, and 27 character variables used to identify the likely income of a character. To ensure more accurate character counts per episode, we made use of both coder notes and IMDb databases. In the coding of episodes, a low-income character was defined as any person working in a position whose pay fell within Pew Research Center’s definition for low-wage work (below or at $40,100 per year). Middle-income characters were defined as those who made between $41,000 and $120,400 per year, and high-income characters earned more than $120,400 per year. Using Glassdoor, coders used character job roles and location to define their yearly income expectancy.
In addition to the wage observation, the following qualitative criteria were used to identify characters working for low wages:
An explicit reference was made to a character’s low-income or working-class status in the context of the show or storyline.
Particular social markers were used by show creators to implicitly signify low-income characters. Signifiers identified include poor or insufficient housing, food insecurity or scar-city, lack of social safety net when confronting money insecurity, and dependence on social programs.
The goal of this research is to provide insights into patterns of representation in popular television shows and the potential use of these representations to mobilize audiences. As such, this research makes use of both qualitative and quantitative content analysis methods. However, because of the relatively small sample size compared to the overall population, it is important to note limitations in the generalizability of our research findings. In future studies, we aim to analyze a larger sample size, including a survey of the impact of these representations on the directly impacted.
Because streaming platforms are constantly changing contracts and provision of different TV series, we are only able to document the streaming services utilized in our development of the study. For instance, while Superior Donuts may be available on the Paramount Network in 2021, we notated usage of Amazon Prime to gain access to the episode during the timeline of our study within the codebook.
Episodes included in this study were the result of random selection, which means background information about show premise or characters was not strictly observed. Therefore, some of the information collected may miss de-tails that only long-time consumers of a program would know. Where possible, the coders relied on search engines for each program to clarify details like job titles during the season, utilizing fan encyclopedia websites when necessary. All levels of education not stipulated on the screen were instead determined by minimum job requirements
With the median U.S. household income in 2017 being $62,626 and more than 50% of the U.S. population falling below or at this income, we hypothesized that a significant amount of television episodes would reflect this level of income distribution. However, in our analysis of more than 100 randomly selected TV episodes from the 2017–2018 season, we found that the lower brackets of income were underrepresented in favor of overrepresentation of middle to upper-middle income households.
While there was an abundance of representation for middle-income individuals within our sample (indeed, most characters in this study represent this social stratum at 54%), we found that most of the characters from our sample fell on the higher side of the middle-class range, which includes those making incomes from $41K to $120K.
Within the select sample of 35 episodes specifically centered on low- and lower-middle wage workers, characters held a range of low-paying job roles, including handyman, health inspector, mechanic, speech aide, bail bondsperson, server, and big box store associate. A not insignificant amount of the job roles captured had a pattern of being elevated in pay based on the minimum level of education required to fill the job role. However, investigator and detective pay, in particular, seemed to have no cumulative tie to higher education requirements and was the most consistent job role within the dataset to be ascribed a level of pay within the $100K+ pay range.
No significant disparity among income level was found within demographics. Actors with perceived male – Assigned Male at Birth (AMAB) – or female gender assignment at birth (AFAB) had near equal representation within each income level. AFAB characters made up approximately 42% of the characters studied, whereas AMAB represent 54%. With a ratio of 3:4 where for every three AFAB characters there are four AMAB characters, representation is relatively constant across the board. That is not to say that the ±6% of characters are not indicative for change in this area. Within an entire sample of more than 1,200 codes, there are only two examples of gender nonbinary characters and there is still much to be done on better inclusion of AFAB characters as a whole.
Relative to income representation, 10% of AFAB characters qualified as low income to AMAB’s 11%. Middle income has a greater difference in gender disparity, with AFAB characters yielding on 21% to AMAB characters 31%. Parity for high-income characters shows AFAB characters make up 10% of these characters, while AMAB characters represent 13% of those observed.
Similar relationships can be found in racial representation within the study, with the caveat that there was absolutely no representation of Indigenous American or Native characters within the episodes watched. White characters make up the majority of character representation, consisting of 65% of characters in the study. Meanwhile, Asian (5%), Black (16%), Hispanic (6%), and Other (6%) occupy significantly less space within the shows sampled. For additional details about this dynamic and the level of representation within key vs. recurring roles, please see Breaking Down Portrayed Income.
9 Explore this in greater detail within, “Breaking Down Portrayed Income,” of this report.
10 Explore this in greater detail within, “Breaking Down Portrayed Income,” of this report.
11 Explore this in greater detail within, “Breaking Down Portrayed Income,” of this report.
12 These terms used to best encapsulate gender nonbinary individuals and those with undisclosed gender designation and reflect the ways genders exist beyond binary observation.
13 The 4% not accounted for here represent missing data within the dataset.
14 At least none of the characters identified themselves as such.
This section provides an overview of the dominant genres, storylines, and themes associated with low-income characters and the lifestyles of characters making low wages more broadly. As the graph below attests, character representation among those making this level of income is not widely covered in most genres. One genre does reign supreme, however, dominating representation of low-wage workers and their strife. That genre? Comedy.
As a quote attributed to Mindy Greenstein goes: “Comedy is not the opposite of darkness, but its natural bedfellow. Pain makes laughter necessary; laughter makes pain tolerable.”
This concept seems to generate a great deal of steam within the television industry, as each of the shows focused on characters receiving low income within this study fall under the comedy genre—51 out of the 105 episodes in this sample are some form of comedy. Even the grittier, cross-genre (i.e., critically listed as comedy-dramas) shows like On My Block, Orange Is the New Black, and Shameless make sure to include the absurd and darkly comedic sides of their stories in each episode. For instance, in the Shameless episode “A Gallagher Pedicure,” Debbie Gallagher suffers a foot injury while training as a welder. Because she is a student without healthcare coverage and used to less ethical work-arounds to major issues in her life, she asks her middle school–aged brother to ply off the dead toes as she has no means to afford the surgery the doctor told her she needed.
In fact, most of the examples we found of characters confronting an issue without enough money to cover a direct need centered around medical care. On the “Health Fund” episode of Superstore, the health concerns of various staff members are confronted when Mateo discusses his inability to see a doctor for his ear infection due to a lack of health coverage and his undocumented status. He, too, resorts to using nonmedical means of recovery, despite the mutual aid fund concept that floats around during the episode. The episode ends by touching upon the real-world similarity to Walmart’s infamous canned food drive for its own employees by having Mateo’s co-workers chip in one hundred dollars for a cure. Yet even this show of goodwill is twisted when he announces that he will instead use it to purchase a bag, possibly highlighting the fickleness of capitalistic interest versus self-care, as one hundred dollars is likely to cover more expense for a low-end designer bag than it ever would in the costs of healthcare coverage.
THEME: BROKE CULTURE
Comparative experiences between keeping up appearances and satisfying an actual need is yet another storyline that occurs in many of the episodes that cover low- or low-middle income characters. Episodes “Please Don’t Feed the Hecks” and “Thanksgiving IX” of The Middle show the upwardly mobile Hecks family working through their moments of “brokeness” despite generating enough household income to have sent two of their children to college. In “Please Don’t Feed the Hecks,” Sue, a sophomore in college, and her best friend/roommate Lexie are forced to live in Lexie’s car for a few nights due to the people they’d sublet their apartment to during the summer renting their place out as an Airbnb. They are stymied from booting the Airbnb renter out themselves because Sue is conflicted about getting into the good graces of the professor who is renting their place. By the end of the episode, they are back in their apartment and their brief experience with houselessness is little more than an anecdote.
The Hecks family continues to show that their proximity to being broke is relative in the “Thanksgiving IX” of The Middle. At the beginning of this episode the father, Mike, disputes a charge that he later finds out was his wife treating herself to a coffee. When the company shuts down usage of the card because of the claim, the family trip to a relative’s house for the holiday is put into turmoil. They run out of gas on the drive to the relative’s house and have no cash or other means to pay for or borrow the money they need to return to the road without the credit card they usually rely on. It is by their daughter Sue’s ethically unclear ingenuity to take money from the water fountain of a nearby mall that they are able to get on the road again.
Outside of these circumstances, we ran into no storylines centered around characters struggling for an immediate need. As with the cases exemplified by The Middle, being broke is often related to the level of means available to any character at any given period of time rather than a fear of having actual utilities or other needs cut off. In fact, we found few episodes even mentioned a concern for food or shelter. When adjusting for the household income, we find that each parent—Frankie and Mike—bring in around $65,000 annually, which is later upgraded when Mike receives a promotion toward the end of the series, now making $74,975—an estimate we deduced from Glassdoor averages for this job title in the character’s home location. This is in addition to knowledge that they could afford sending their first child to college and business school and sell ownership in a family business to pay for their second child’s college tuition. Their first child, Axl, is able to depend on the safety net of his family such that while he lives with his parents, he goes from making $41,600 as a bus driver in episode 2 of their final season to $49,463 as an entry-level plumbing supply salesperson in episode 21. Not only does he have the safety net of living with his parents—albeit in cramped circumstances—but he also is able to pursue work in his field of choice within his first 6 months out of school without fear of being houseless or unable to pay for necessities.
The fact that the Hecks family still sees themselves as broke despite showing all indication of maintaining a lifestyle commiserate with their cost of living bears questioning of the concept of “brokeness” and who truly meets it.
As discourse around wages and how people find themselves on the various rungs of the class ladder persist in society, many of the stories in our study that followed characters living within the low to low-middle rungs tend to explain why their pay does or does not reflect their actual “worth” as humans.
For the Gallagher family of Shameless, they are making the best of a hopeless situation as children of a conman and an addict living in a home falling apart in South Side, Chicago. The siblings often endure dehumanizing situations that limit their self-worth, such as an instance in “Gallagher Pedicure” where Debbie Gallagher waits in a dingy basement line with her toddler in tow to pick up a mismatched box of food at a local food pantry. They also resort to crafty means because they have learned not to trust in good from the world yet strive to remain good at heart so that they are at least morally superior to their unscrupulous father. Similar to their real-world counterparts, the Gallaghers hold distaste for the wealthy while also striving to become financially successful themselves—a great irony of morality under a capitalist system.
In Mom, the mother and daughter relationship between the series’ main protagonists, Bonnie and Christy, presents as a narrative around rehabilitation both in health and life with Christy learning to forgive and understand her mother’s transgressions as an addict during her childhood. The mishaps and adventures that the two go on serve to “heal” the rift between them and show that anyone is worthy of a comeback, even if that comeback isn’t under the most ideal of circumstances.
The issue with these sorts of tales is that they frame these primarily white families as falling upon hard times or having drawn a bad lot in life to now depend on low-income options. Comparatively in Superstore, their cast members, with a fairly representative spread of BIPOC characters, don’t get a lot of exposition for how they ended up in low-wage jobs. Even this show provides reasoning for why one of its white characters, Jonah, works at Superstore, buying into this thematic framing that is rooted in the comfort of intrinsically linking race and class.
THEME: OTHERING AND VOYEURISM
While it is the nature of capitalist society to treat engagement or watching of the affluent as stoking ambition within people with lower levels of income, the opposite, the rich having a level of fascination in consuming the experience of people from lower classes, is downright voyeuristic. In season 8 of Shameless, we see Carl Gallagher get entangled in a relationship with a young addict, who we later learn is from a well-to-do family and pulled herself into the Gallagher’s orbit because she is enticed by their lower-class struggle to survive. This character’s journey is reflective of the phenomenon of “slumming drama,” wherein the rich become interested in, and even sexually attracted to, the poor. It is also a blatant usage of the culture of poverty narrative, which insists on presenting issues faced by low-income characters as personal rather than structural developments.
The rich sense that the poor have something they lack—bodily strength, excitement, unrestrained sex, or a simple authentic life—and want to possess it. Presented in a sensationalist mode, slumming dramas elicit a titillating reading or viewing experience.
Not only does the exploitative nature of these relationships harm lower income people, but it also furthers their victimization. Yet, it is a practice that has remained somewhat acceptable in popular society as it plays into the “culture of poverty” narrative that has influenced social scientific research for decades and has informed both politicians’ (predominantly Republicans’) and the public’s understanding of poverty. This concept posits that living in persistent poverty results in the formation of a specific culture that, passed on over generations, produces attitudes and values that yield to dysfunctional behavior.
Ironically, with the people behind the camera of these television programs coming from circumstances completely unlike their low-income characters, they also ask the audience to view these characters in a voyeuristic, judgmental lens—without their consent.
THEME: PERSONAL FAILURE PREVAILS, NOT STRUCTURAL EXPLOITATION
Indeed, prevailing narratives of individualism determining one’s lot in life (i.e., every person having the ability to pull themselves out of abject circumstances into a more favorable lifestyle) lead to findings in the Power of POP study looking much like those of Conrad et al., wherein individual causes of homelessness are attributed to individual or group decisions, actions, or behaviors, including criminal behavior, mental illness, substance use, distability, or failure to meet bills. There were very few instances where characters living within these circumstances ever aligned their issue with a systemic shortcoming or oversight, sparing the sarcastic and inauthentic Frank Gallagher of Shameless or the “Health Fund” episode of Superstore, which relies on the audience to pick up on the dysfunction of the health insurance industry.
This bias stems from the “culture of poverty” frame, which blames the individual for failing to obtain a better life, consequently shifting the blame of addressing the problem of poverty on the individual. This approach furthers a centuries-old binary of “the deserving” and “the undeserving” poor, which is equally rooted within white American racist attitudes that insist Black people are naturally inferior. With a focus on the failings of the individual, this narrative emphasizes personal inadequacies including addiction, laziness, or “making the wrong choices” or “bad decisions.” By instigating a separatist culture, those with influence and power are exonerated from responsibility for discriminatory laws and institutions.
This furthers an argument for the use of charity to maintain the status quo of systemic behavior among the classes. In fact, the television episodes in the Conrad-Perez et al. study found 44% of the resolutions presented to counter homelessness centered on charity—going so far as to present charity as the solution to institutional issues for characters like a disabled veteran and a runaway foster child. The fact that the charitable solutions found for both of these cases were only stopgap measures makes clear that charities are often not organized to change the structural conditions upon which homelessness rest. Nevertheless, this frame went unchallenged, instead opting to pull on the heartstrings of viewers who want to see the main characters as heroes, not perpetrators of bad systemic practices. Centering storytelling directly on houseless characters could instead use their brushes with charity to highlight the many stopgap measures that persist within these systems without providing long-term solutions to eradicating poverty.
16 Gandal, K. (2007). Gandal’s Class Representation in Modern Fiction and Film.
17 Lewis, O. (1959). Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty.
18 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.
19 Lemke, S. (2016) The Nation: American Exceptionalism in Our Time. In: Inequality, Poverty and Precarity in Contemporary American Culture. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
In the 2017–2018 season of television, character representation across race and ethnicity skews overwhelmingly white. This disproportionate sample means that each level of income holds double-digit percentage rates of white representation, whereas their BIPOC peers remain 8% or less in any income representation. The greatest distribution of income representation by race/ethnicity occurs at the middle-income tier—with white characters making up 37%, Black characters 8%, Hispanic 3%, and Asian and Other at 2% each. This is unsurprising, given the wide range of income this designation covers.
The overwhelming whiteness of the 2017–2018 TV season means that all calculations of race and income for this study are more likely to represent white characters and households. White characters out-ratio Black characters such that we see 4 white characters for every 1 Black character, 11 white characters to every Hispanic character, 13 white characters to every 1 Asian character, and 14 white characters to every character included in the “Other” category—which typically identifies persons of mixed ethnicity or race. There is, in fact, no representation at all in the entire sample of Native/Indigenous characters, an extremely excessive oversight on behalf of casting in Hollywood.
Approximately 75% of all characters included in this sample were part of the main cast of their respective shows, while 23% of the sample filled either recurring or guest spots. Much of the same race/ethnicity breakdowns remain the same in this breakdown, with 52% of key characters being white to 15% recurring, 12% key Black characters to 4% recurring, 5% key Hispanic characters to 1% recurring, 4% key Asian characters to 1% recurring, and equal amounts of characters representing key and recurring roles for those categorized as Other at 4% each. Here the overrepresentation of white characters stands without overrepresentation of any other race in either key or recurring roles. As far as income, key characters represent 18% of low-income characters to recurring characters’ 3%, 39% of middle-income characters to 13%, and 17% of low-income characters to 6% of high-income characters. To better encapsulate the circumstances these characters represented, we conducted an analysis of characters representing recurrent or low wage–bearing professions by their local or regional wage representation via Glassdoor. This includes common roles that place characters within the upper-middle income range of pay—such as investigators and detectives—as well as families of three or more living on lower middle to low incomes.
The spread of income presented in the table must be further scrutinized by the number of people in each household who also generate income as well as cost of living per locality. What we overwhelmingly found is that those with higher salaries tended to live in households with partners who generate similar income or on their own, leaving them free to afford cost of living in the cities they inhabit. For example, Rainbow Johnson from Black-ish not only generates high income as a physician, but she also is also married to a senior advertisement executive who helps their family of five children, two retired grandparents, and two working adults to pay for college, private school, and a lifestyle befitting the suburbs of Los Angeles. This representation is in direct juxtaposition to the DiMeo family in Speechless, who get by on the single income of the father, Jimmy DiMeo, and any disability aid that supports one of the three kids, JJ, who has cerebral palsy.
This is significant not only for offering a snapshot of the general spread of income representation and why outliers like the Johnson family influence the sample’s observed income by race, but also because studies indicate that many lower-middle to low-income families are simply one economic emergency away from being impoverished—with 45% of families having resources no more than twice the poverty threshold.
Indeed, observations from hunger experts like Josh Gwin of Marion Polk Food Share shows that people who are only one missed utility bill away from hunger or eviction often depend on social services like food drives, which bears questioning of the ways income have been calculated by scholar and the general public alike given inflation, stagnant wages, and increases to the cost of living throughout the United States. If someone who is considered middle income by current estimates is only one debt away from facing denial of food or shelter, is the income bracket underestimating poverty?
In terms of this report’s sample, while we found the levels of income tied to racial representation as a whole, we would like to note that the only key BIPOC character of The Big Bang Theory, Raj Koothrappali, works in a field that pays significantly less than his fellow scientists, at $60,056 to his peers’ income upwards of $90,000. While he is shown to be supported by his parents, who bring in significant wealth, this was an observance of significant difference by race within one show included in the sample.
While the above observations sum up the report sample, they do not represent the reality or scope of racial disparity in economic opportunities. In a 2021 Urban Institute report, two-thirds of white children were estimated to be born into advantageous circumstances, while only one in five Black children and one in three Hispanic children are born into advantageous circumstances. This study further projected that 50% of all children born into disadvantaged circumstances versus more than 66% of those born into advantaged circumstances are on track toward healthy development and economic security at age 30. This disparity in reaching economic stability by 30 is further stratified by race, where 58% of white children from disadvantaged circumstances are on track but only 37% of Black, non-Hispanic and 50% of Hispanic children from similar circumstances meet this projection. With structural economic and social stakeholders like residential segregation, unequal access to educational opportunities, and unequal treatment by law enforcement contributing to this ongoing disparity, the 2017–2018 season severely misrepresents reality.
Not even in our select sample of shows depicting low-income characters did we find representation of a low-income BIPOC family to help us exemplify the above finding. Thus, there is a void in scripted television for this arena of representation.
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.
28 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.
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.
If you are creating messages about economic justice issues in your advocacy work…
Know that many of your audiences are viewing incomplete and unbalanced portrayals of people with low incomes. And there are almost no portrayals of people experiencing poverty. The narratives available to audiences reveal few solutions to economic instability or poverty. At the same time, audiences are seeing that most people’s basic needs are being met with a few scattered examples of true need. It is therefore important to start communications about economic justice with some context and big-picture thinking. Without doing so, we risk our solutions seeming unnecessary or even just strange.
Fill in the gaps by providing a larger vision of what the world could look like if we had real solutions in place. Show how that world would better align with your audience’s core values. They are not seeing much of this type of expansive thinking in current TV, so we can step in and provide this big picture thinking, embracing themes like abundance, community, shared responsibility, and opportunity for all.
Frame the problem systemically. It is important to link personal stories to widespread problems, point to the systemic cause, and then move to the systemic solution. Fictional portrayals of any issue are almost always going to focus on an individual character. Watching those portrayals, as well as typical media coverage, can lead audiences to a very individualistic mindset that assumes if the problem is with the individual, so is the solution. By expanding audience’s understanding of the problem and linking a character’s challenge to the many other people experiencing that challenge, we can move them to understand the systemic solutions better.
Center solutions. None of the shows we sampled portrayed systemic solutions, such as how safety net programs can alleviate economic instability, how unions protect workers, or how paid family and medical leave make it possible for families to provide for their children. Leveraging storylines can help to spotlight problems, but economic justice communicators will need to bring the solutions to the table. When solutions are left out, audiences are likely to fall into the trap of thinking that poverty, income disparities, and other barriers to economic justice are inevitable.
If you want to leverage popular television to highlight economic justice issues…
Use storylines and characters to make a point. While they are few and far between—so much so that many did not show up in our sample—some portrayals of economic injustice and solutions to it do exist. Later seasons of Superstore focused on issues such as paid family and medical leave, healthcare expenses, and labor organizing, for instance. Talking about these issues through the lens of popular TV offers an opportunity to showcase solutions in a more interesting and unexpected way than fact sheets or tweets about legislation can.
It’s also true that centering popular characters’ experiences can help build an emotional understanding and connection to your issue. Research has shown that we develop parasocial relationships with characters we regularly watch on television, identifying them (in our brains) as friends of sorts. So, talking to some audiences about the economic experiences of Amy from Superstore, for instance, could help them see those experiences in a new light and likely with more empathy. As with any individual storytelling, however, doing this needs to be balanced with other kinds of stories that broaden the focus so that audiences aren’t just focused on that individual’s plight, strengths, and weaknesses.
Highlight shows that showcase themes like community care, abundance, and even joy, in addition to those that provide portrayals of economic injustice. While more recent releases such as Netflix’s Maid and Squid Game provide some of the low-income character representation we would like to see more of, audience appreciation for Ted Lasso—a show equally about rich people and being a person who cares for others—shows that audiences are primed for more representation of community care. By building upon the abundance narrative over scarcity, creators can build worlds that show how communities support their own with love, care, and joy, bringing this positive energy into their advocacy for a better life for everyone. ABC’s upcoming television show Abbott Elementary appears to be a potential example of what the integration of community care, Black joy, and advocacy for better financial support can look like on television.
Monitor shows that offer opportunities to spark conversation about income inequality or instability. To keep up with opportunities to leverage relevant plotlines, formally select a few shows that appeal to your target audience and follow them. Watching whole episodes is not even necessary as there are many recaps available online on sites such as Vulture, EW online, and ShowSnob.
Choose your timing carefully. On the one hand, things move quickly online and issues come in and out of focus at a rapid pace. It is typically a good idea to respond within a 48-hour window for simple social media engagement and within a week for more detailed media pieces. On the other hand, social media engagement with television content spikes significantly at certain points within a show’s schedule. For series that consistently engage in narratives about poverty and economic instability, look for opportunities such as premieres and finales. Significant episodes and major award shows also draw significant audiences. Use these moments to live tweet, host a Twitter chat, or host an online watch party.
If you want to influence portrayals of income instability and poverty…
Give positive reinforcement for good portrayals. This could be as simple as encouraging fans to thank show writers and networks for an authentic character or storyline via social media. Or, you could create an award to the networks or individuals using their platforms to tell compelling stories about people with low incomes or that promote a social justice narrative. Positive reinforcement is a good place to start to both encourage good storytelling and lay the foundation for relationships with creators.
Create your own hashtags or memes to draw attention to representations. For example, #StarringJohnCho memes went viral as people photoshopped John Cho into famous movie posters that starred white male actors, creatively criticizing the lack of diversity in Hollywood. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was started by April Reign to raise the same issue and sparked a national debate that resulted in changes in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Engage progressive fandoms. Find the online communities of popular shows where fans are already gathering to talk about them. Create toolkits or messaging guides around a particular series to spark fan engagement.
Encourage networks to engage with and hire people who have experienced economic instability. We need more stories centered on low-income characters written by people who have lived through poverty for prolonged periods. This is particularly true for houseless representation and should be a component for any creative work related to this issue, whether it is a television program or advocacy campaign. Directly affected writers can bring their lived experiences to light in a way that helps us move from a voyeuristic, socially distanced interaction to one of better relatability and nuanced understanding. After all, if the producers and writers of Modern Family and Maid can bring their personal issues into scriptwriting, why can the same not become true for character portrayals unseen in other recent television shows?
Build relationships with script writers, producers, and show runners. Introduce script writers, producers, and show runners to stories that not only are personal and compelling but also are diverse and affirmative and more fully depict the experience of people living in economic instability. Note that to be effective, this strategy may require more significant long-term investments in both time and resources.
If you want to add positive portrayals to the mix…
Rewrite shows or plots to show how they could tell a fuller story of economic insecurity and what we can all do about it. You can use social media to spread your ideas about what popular TV could look like in this regard. To do this, put yourself in the shoes of a Hollywood writer who wanted to ethically depict characters experiencing poverty and imagine what they would come up with. You can also engage in a “what if?” exercise online, inviting your audience to help fill in how a show could depict the low-income experience more realistically and compassionately. Or suggest a whole new TV show that would accurately show the causes and solutions to poverty.
Partner with artists and creatives to tell new stories about economic instability and poverty. Artists should be included in strategic conversations early because their perspectives often lead to out-of-the-box innovations. Just like graphic designers, researchers, or anyone else with a specialized skillset you wouldn’t ask to work for free, keep in mind that artists should also be paid. Consider budgeting ahead of time to be able to include their talents.
Produce your own content. Creating your own content is now more accessible than ever. Creatives with limited resources are making use of content-sharing platforms like YouTube, TikTok, and SoundCloud and crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter to launch independent projects and tell otherwise untold stories. Videos, web series, and podcasts are within reach, although we recommend partnering with a creative that is skilled at storytelling in your chosen format to maximize the impact.
If you want to help audiences become educated consumers of entertainment and other media…
Organize watch parties and discussion groups. Assemble around helpful, harmful, and nuanced portrayals.
Provide guides. Develop study guides and curricula that help support young people to become more educated consumers of entertainment and other media.
Make your organization a resource. Offer cultural critiques of select shows on a regular basis. Pitch yourself as a resource to media who cover pop culture and are interested in how portrayals interact with real-life experiences.
This code book is designed to assist in the process of coding and analyzing television shows for the portrayal of character income and lifestyle parallels. The media content analysis will analyze the content of 105 television episodes randomly sampled from 53 popular television series. Our content analysis will focus on the frequency of inclusion and trends in the representation of characters across perceived income. Our analysis will also focus on storylines associated with low-income characters and income disparity more broadly.
Character income should be coded in instances when explicit references are made that identify a character’s income (through scripted dialogue or search engine) and also in instances when more implicit social/cultural markers are used to designate issues primarily faced by those with a low income (i.e. poor housing, food insecurity or scarcity, lack of safety net for financial straits or survival, and dependence on social programs).
The following character profiles were developed to showcase the depth of portrayal necessary to frame the hardships of living on a low wage. As stated in the report, none of these characters fully portray the level of hardship faced by most people living in the United States under similar incomes. We have chosen these characters for their accessible yet under-developed storylines, which serve as entry to better, fuller portrayals in the future. The blank template is for consumer use in embarking on a similar analysis of the characters they watch on TV.
We believe that ending poverty is within our reach, and that we have both the power and responsibility to do so. Unfortunately, persistent economic hardship is a pervasive, complicated issue with roots that grow deep into the fabric of our country, driven by a history of racism, classism, and gender inequality. All of this can make talking about poverty very difficult.
This is why we partnered with Amplifier to create We Can Thrive Together: Visioning Economic Justice for All, an Economic Justice discussion guide that includes ten original works of art by Alex Albadree, Noa Denmon, and Rommy Torrico. These materials are open source, to be used by activists, cultural strategists, teachers, and youth across the country in a rising movement for Economic Justice. Amplifier has also developed four distinct lesson plans on Economic Justice, which will be distributed to 15,000 teachers across the country for their 2021 virtual curricula. (If you are interested in these lesson plans, please see the bottom of this page)
We Can Thrive Together: Visioning Economic Justice for All is designed to start a conversation about what Economic Justice looks like and how to achieve it. It is also a call to action.
Advocates have long understood the centrality of storytelling to building power, as well as winning both short term victories and long-term systemic change. Both research and lived experience consistently show that stories and language play a significant role in shaping our views of the world and, ultimately, the policies we support. These “big stories” or “narratives” about the world around us can either be a wind in our face, making advances in social justice extremely difficult or impossible, or they can be the wind in our sails, propelling us forward to victories and new frontiers of liberation.
Over the last several years, many social justice leaders have begun to actively engage in strategies designed to shift, counter, or replace prevailing narratives about social issues, the economy, our history, and other stories that shape and influence culture and policy.
But exactly how does narrative shift success happen? Are there key factors which organizers can learn and replicate? Or are they a mixture of luck and strategy?
The Opportunity Agenda is a social justice communications lab dedicated to helping movement leaders use their ideas to improve our world. We conducted a six-part study to look closely at a range of key narrative shifts over the past 70 years to answer those questions.
In Shifting the Narrative, our research and work set out to identify essential and replicable elements of past successful narrative change efforts by engaging in deep research of thousands of documents, and interviewing a diverse cadre of leaders who played a critical role in making those shifts happen, as well as academics and journalists.i
To this end, we chose the following six examples to study, from long-term efforts that resulted in shifts to both cultural thinking and policy, to shorter-term, focused campaigns. For most, we studied efforts that resulted in social justice wins or improvements. In one case, our examination of narratives related a governmental role in supporting economic justice, we looked at how the prevailing narrative shifted against us:
1. Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty. Shifting public understanding of the role of innocence in a campaign to eventually end the use of the death penalty.
2. Narrative Shift: From the War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It.” Examining the conservative response to New Deal programs enacted to eliminate persistent poverty.
3. Documentary Film and The Blackfish Effect. Exploring the role of a documentary film in public perception of the treatment and ethics of keeping animals in captivity.
4. Sexual Violence, The #MeToo Movement, and Narrative Shift. Studying the recently amplified campaign designed to bring attention to long-standing issues of sexual harassment and assault.
5. Gun Politics and Narrative Shift. Tracking the long-term narrative-shift effort to enact gun control measures.
6. Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling. Moving from the “bad apple cop” to examining systemic racism.
At The Opportunity Agenda, we define narrative as a Big Story, rooted in shared values and common themes, that influences how audiences process information and make decisions. Narratives are conveyed not only in political and policy discourse, but also in news media, in popular culture, on social media, and at dinner tables across communities.
Here are key lessons learned or reinforced by Shifting the Narrative followed by the specific studies which best illustrate each lesson:
Narrative shift transcends messaging shifts and take longer. Narratives are not shortterm, single-audience-focused messages, but rather larger stories that often transcend any one campaign for policy change. Importantly, narratives shape the way audiences understand the context in which campaigns for policy change take place.For instance, in the case of the shift in public perceptions of gun control efforts in Virginia, the narrative challenge was not overcoming a lack of public support for gun control policies. In this case, most of the public supported gun control legislation but that public support was not resulting in policy change. The barrier to victory was the narrative that the National Rifle Association (NRA) was a credible and insurmountable obstacle to any such legislation. In the context of that narrative, efforts to pass gun control legislation died on the vine despite having public support. By intentionally undermining the credibility of the NRA by telling stories of mismanagement and incompetence over time, while also running pro-gun control candidates who won in the region, Virginia activists were able to weaken the prevailing narrative of the NRA being all powerful. The shift helped gun control supporters to see that Goliath could be defeated and energized them to introduce and pass legislation.Case Studies to Reference: Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty; Narrative Shift: From the War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It; Gun Politics and Narrative Shift; Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling.
Narrative shift efforts are difficult to evaluate. Because narratives happen over long periods of time and may not be focused on one specific outcome, evaluating the causality between a successful narrative shift and the strategies designed to shift it, can be particularly challenging. Over the long-term, changes in storytelling and language happen amidst an ever-changing landscape of environmental factors like political developments, economic trends, demographic shifts, cultural developments, and so on. Under these circumstances, narrative shift strategies are constantly affecting, and being affected by, the world around them. Because of this, pinpointing the precise moments in time when narrative shifts have happened is nearly impossible.Also complicating evaluation efforts is the fact that the field of narrative strategy research is relatively new. Therefore most, if not all, of the leaders we interviewed did not necessarily consider themselves to be engaged in a “narrative strategy” at the outset of their work. Narratives can often outwardly appear static for many years and then can appear to suddenly shift over a short period of time. This can make it difficult for people to observe the change they are making in the moment or to know precisely which activities are serving as the catalyst for change as they happen. Additionally, the effects of campaigns for social change often intersect with one another across issue areas. Because of this, social change leaders who are working in one issue area may inadvertently be playing a significant role in shifting narratives in areas they are not setting out to impact.Case studies to reference: Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty; Narrative Shift: From the War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It; Gun Politics and Narrative Shift.
We must tell our own affirmative story, not just react to bad, dominant narratives. The investment in long-term thinking is crucial to any movement’s engagement in narrative shift. With this mindset, the challenge of shorter-term setbacks or unexpected headlines becomes how to build them into our own affirmative narrative, not how to deal with each individually. The latter often results in the outlay of significant time and resources to play a scattered defensive role instead of using each moment to bolster our longterm, affirmative story. In the case of the death penalty, advocates found themselves on the defensive throughout the 1980’s as media coverage about, and thus the public’s fear of, crime increased and intensified. Activists were primarily engaged in a series of legal fights, generating legal arguments, and gathering data as their strategy to challenge the death penalty. Advocates then realized that regardless of the number of court cases won, they had no hope of ending the death penalty amid a dominant narrative of increased crime and fear – they had a narrative problem on their hands. If activists could not get public opinion on their side, proponents of the death penalty would find new ways to pass laws enshrining the policy despite the mounting individual legal victories. By moving to a pro-active narrative strategy focused activists’ efforts on racial disparities and unfairness in its application, advocates were able to increase the public’s unease with the death penalty more than the previous strategy of amassing a string of court cases did.Case Studies to Reference: Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty; Sexual Violence, The #MeToo Movement, and Narrative Shift; Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling.
Social justice narratives must not shy from discussions of race. If those of us committed to social justice, fairness and true opportunity do not talk about race, we cede that conversation to the other side. For example, for a long time, advocates working on antipoverty policies did not address the racialization of poverty in a unified way, leaving the opponents of public benefits nearly unchallenged to use race in their drive to “end welfare as we know it.” While people did call out the “welfare queen” trope, it successfully persisted nonetheless without a directed, purposeful conversations about the historic and systemic causes of poverty and racial disparities in income and wealth. But those working on criminal justice reform – in the cases of racial profiling and the death penalty – realized they had to clearly discuss racial biases and disparities. If they did not, the myth of “Black criminality” would continue to successfully dominate conversations and meaningful, equitable reform would be out of reach.Case Studies to Reference: Narrative Shift and the Death Penalty; Narrative Shift and the Campaign to End Racial Profiling; Narrative Shift: From the War on Poverty to “Ending Welfare as We Know It”
There are approaches that those seeking to engage in narrative change strategies for justice can adopt to smooth the way for success.
First, narrative work takes long-term investment and a commitment to collaboration. Projects seeking to popularize a slogan or secure only an isolated policy win can be a part of a narrative strategy, but only if they are developed and executed in collaboration with other projects that build toward shared narrative goals. This means that spaces for those engaging in narrative work to collaborate and strategize are a much needed, and yet currently rare, resource.
Second, the development of frameworks and evaluation strategies that utilize well-defined benchmarks will be important contributions to the future of the field. The more that social justice communicators can agree on what comprises a narrative, and where we think we can see success along the path, the better we will be able to craft successful and collaborative narrative change strategies.
That said, while a shared agreement of form and definitions among those expressly inhabiting the young and growing field of narrative strategy are important, it is also crucial that a broad range of people can see themselves as part of any strategy. In the cases we studied, many people were engaging in narrative strategy who would never call it that. Our terms and approaches need to be accessible to people who do not see themselves as “narrative strategists,” or “communications experts.” We should find ways to make the case for the practical importance of narrative strategy to attract key collaborators and be effective in crafting strategies with them, while avoiding a reliance on jargon, formulas, or unwieldy definitions.
Finally, we need to tell the stories we want to tell rather than chasing behind current prevailing narratives just to argue with or shift them. By analyzing their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses, and then telling their own, affirmative story, we saw a wide range of advocates reshape the prevailing narrative in ways that put their goals and policies for justice on stronger ground. Using long range, affirmative narrative strategies, we can weaken the power of antijustice narratives and propel our campaigns toward victory.