America and Depictions of the Poor

In the film, Idiocracy, director Mike Judge attempts to satirize the stupidity of American politics, and this is a respectable thing to do. However, one of the problems of the movie is that it, like many other movies before it, reduces the everyday American to backwards, uncultured idiots. What the hell, USA?

The stereotypes propagated by media, mostly corporate, consistently repeat many well known truisms about poor White Americans. The rural southerners are xenophobic, ignorant, zealously religious, and loud. They all play country music, paint everything in the Confederate battle flag, and drive pickup trucks. What’s worse is that the endless attempts at educating these people by sane and compassionate others are largely ineffective, leading to the obvious conclusion that these people are incapable of doing anything other than terrorizing minorities and being nuisances to the rest of us. It’s inevitable that intelligent and competent people have to act as shepherds to these poor sods.

This leads to the point of this discussion: one of the most prevalent problems for the mainstream American Left’s current brand of liberalism is that it is often conflated with cultural elitism. It’s not hard to see why. An example that would illustrate the absurdity of the stereotypes in “liberal” media, such as Judge’s work, would be to look across the pond at media marginalization of the poor in the UK. In British media, contempt for the poor takes the form of the “chav”, not unlike the “redneck” or “trailer trash” stereotypes in the US. Especially in the early days of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), shows that glamorized nineteenth century upper-class life were all the rage; one in the present can imagine dozens of Downton Abbey copycats on every day as a comparison. Servants, maids, the poor, etc, were often viewed with contempt. In the US, while the conservatism isn’t as blatant and explicit (a silver lining for the British in a dark cloud of classist oppression), one could argue that America lacks in a positive vision of its poor; a version of Britain’s East Enders or Coronation Street, or films such as A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, or Kes, all in the uniquely British tradition of what is known as kitchen sink realism, are few and far between in mainstream media in the US. That being said, there are examples from which to work from. Films such as numerous adaptations of The Death of a Salesman, and The Grapes of Wrath are quite powerful in contrast to the silly shows like One Tree Hill, Friday Night Lights, or Modern Family. These kinds of programs can give a more nuanced look at poverty in any country. Even British kitchen sink realism largely stems from Italian neorealism. Americans can do better than Larry the Cable Guy when it comes to addressing poverty outside of the metropolitan coasts.

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