What did you learn about social class from television?


U.S. high school students can get free digital access to the New York Times through September 2021.

Has television given you any education on how people of different social classes live their lives? Or have you learned to be wary of the way the shows describe real life?

In the opinion piece “Everything I Know About Elite America I Learned From ‘Fresh Prince’ and ‘West Wing’,” Rob Henderson writes about the role television has played in his life over the years. years, since his youth:

At first I thought the class was all about the money. “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” taught me that was not the case.

I started out in what most people consider America’s lower class. I was given up for adoption at the age of 3; I spent the next four years in seven foster homes. When I was 7, I was adopted and then moved to Red Bluff, Calif., A working-class town, 13,147 residents, median household income $ 27,029. Two years later, my adoptive parents divorced; after that my adoptive father broke ties.

When I was 15, I got my first job, as a dishwasher in a pizzeria, and during breaks all my conversations with coworkers ended up revolving around the topic of money. We would fantasize about what we would do if we suddenly had it: vacations, cars. In high school, rumors were heard that so-and-so was rich, because his parents had a second home or a boat. We all thought money was the important thing: if you had it, you were “rich” – which to us was indistinguishable from the “elite”. If you haven’t, you haven’t.

It was true, to some extent. But that was not the whole story. How did I find out that it wasn’t? From television.

Mr Henderson explains how television has shaped its values, calling it “constant and lifeline”:

Today, I am a doctoral student. student at the University of Cambridge. As someone who has had to travel a long way through a variety of social settings – first host families and my hometown, then the military, then Yale – television has been a constant and lifeline. rescue. It was both entertainment and a social guide, teaching me the language and the ways of thinking I needed to move more or less smoothly from one environment to another.

Along the way, I learned about the complicated ways class interacts with taste and what different social classes consider desirable. What I realized, reflecting on the different influences in my life, is that the television I watched made me a different person than I would have been otherwise; the choices I made were guided to a large extent by what I learned from television about what constitutes a good life. Looking back, I can see that my decisions stem from a set of values ​​- but from whom? I thought I was building the life I wanted, using fictional stories as a road map. Now I wonder how these stories shaped what I wanted from the start.

The essay concludes:

On the show “Mad Men”, the protagonist of misery to wealth, Don Draper, also watches movies and television to blend in with the upper class world of New York. It works well enough, but even so, it can’t quite smooth out all of its rough edges: in one episode, for example, Roger Sterling, Don’s boss, comes over to the Drapers for dinner. After a few drinks Roger said to Don, “By the way, you drop your G’s every now and then, I always thought you were raised on a farm.” Don, visibly uncomfortable, changes the subject.

For me too, watching television has not gotten me far. I still didn’t quite fit in when I finally went to Yale. While I didn’t drop my G’s, people on campus were fluent in a language I still didn’t speak. I remember being stunned the first time I heard another student describe a joke I made as “gender”, for example – I had never heard that word before.

But going to Yale also meant that I no longer needed television to learn how to fit in with the elites – I could learn from them in real life.

Recently, I was in a university program in Washington, DC There, for the first time in my life, a foreigner took me for from a wealthy background. – I’m not rich, I say. “I just watch TV a lot.” I said it as a joke, but it really wasn’t. My approach to “the frenzy of belonging” was not foolproof, but it did help. Television helped me understand people who were far from how I grew up. It allowed me to understand the ingredients of social mobility. What I can’t really disentangle is whether it taught me how to get what I had always wanted or taught me what I wanted.

Students, read the entire essay, then tell us:

  • Mr. Henderson has an intuition that his values ​​were shaped by television shows. How well does that describe your experience as well? How has television shaped the way you see the world?

  • What shows have given you insight into different social classes, communities or cultures? Do you remember ever using what you saw on TV to help you navigate a real-life situation? If you were to write a similar essay on your own life, what shows would you include?

  • Mr. Henderson explores how television helped him discover people who were in worlds far removed from how he grew up. But is television ever wrong? Does it sometimes promote stereotypes, misrepresent communities, or obscure important social issues? What shows come to mind when you think about the distortions, exaggerations, and unreliability of television? Why?

  • The Op-Ed does not mention any reality TV shows, such as “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”, “The Bachelor” or “Survivor”. How would you say reality TV relates to the theme of the essay? Is reality TV ever instructive? Or, despite its name, is it often less realistic than other types of TV shows?

  • Mr. Henderson concludes his essay with this line on television: “What I can’t really disentangle is whether it taught me how to get what I had always wanted or taught me what I wanted. . What does this line mean to you? How, if any, might this relate to your life?

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Students 13 and over in the US and UK, and 16 and over elsewhere, are welcome to comment. All comments are moderated by The Learning Network staff, but remember that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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