The media is the main source of information for most Americans. In her essay, “Framing class” Kendall argues that “the media not only a mirror of the society, but it also shapes it and helps create cultural perceptions” (Kendall 210). In situations where the only source of information is the media, information can be framed to put weight on some ideological perspectives to direct people’s attention to them while ignoring others and the people believe it. A good example is the representation of wealth and poverty in America. Television shows that focus on the rich and famous and their lifestyle draw a lot of attention and end up distorting the perception of social inequality. I agree with Kendall that America’s view of social inequality has been distorted by this misinterpretation of wealth and poverty by the media.
The media criticizes the lifestyles of the rich and famous but at the same time glorify their wealth and material possessions. Admissions to private clubs have been given great importance in reality television shows, and members are portrayed as important for belonging to these elite clubs. Non-members are left estranged by the fact that they remain outside the walls of such clubs for life (Kendall 1). The result is that many people criticize the life of the extremely wealthy but at the same time desire such lifestyles, they would rather not be in the lower working class. The implied social privileges of such clubs make members of the middle and lower-class desire to be part of them. Such clubs promote social exclusion, a pattern that has contributed to the increasing levels of social inequality. The media’s praise for these lifestyles only increases the public desire for such lives. However, people do not realize that this information has been reviewed and filtered to provide a distorted view of exactly what the media wants them to see.
Social organizations of those in the upper class perpetrate larger social inequalities (Kendall 173). More so, the media does not tell the public that an elite club is among the social organizations that perpetrate social inequality. Social capitalism evident among members of private clubs illustrates the effects of social inclusion and exclusion on societal issues such as economic growth and social inequality. The upper class has created a virtual world for themselves by maintaining ruling class cohesive groups characterized by reciprocal benefits (Kendall 3). Trust is valued in such groups, and business deals are made among the individuals in the elite clubs. The excluded middle class are not let in and are not included in such deals that are vital for economic growth. Despite knowing how such exclusion perpetuates social inequality, the media portrays members from such affluent social groups as examples of success by showcasing their private jets, yachts, world travel, and opulent homes.
The framing is done in the selection and presentation of entertainment shows on television. According to Gitlin (251), framing is the use of set principles to select, emphasize and present a set of theories about what exists, what happens, and what matters. When watching television shows, the theories that guided the creators of the show influence the viewer consciously and subconsciously (Kendall 12). The creators portray a symbolic representation of the society in these programs rather than the real representation. As the general public indulges in this entertainment, they get carried away and start relating to the characters and the events depicted. The viewers are emotionally linked to people they do not know and have never met. The popular series, “Grey’s Anatomy” is a good example. Most people began relating to the characters as real doctors, and some were even inspired to study medicine by the women on the series. This goes to show how excessive consumption of framed media content can lead to a blurring of the line between fact and fiction.
Reality show creators use the same framing technique to distort the perception of social inequality. An example is the Real Housewives Franchise which documents the lives of affluent housewives throughout the United States. The first show was based in Orange County, but the show’s success led to the creation of spinoffs in up to eight cities. These women do not need to work because they have sufficient economic resources at their disposal. The show emphasizes the glittering lifestyles of the wealthy women, how they spend their money and the social events they attend. Nonetheless, viewers belong to the middle and lower class and struggle with earning a stable income for their families. The show’s success indicates that these viewers admire the lifestyle being portrayed and would like to have a similar one.
The portrayal of the rich and their daily lives affects the behavior of the viewers, their thinking and their spending habits. This change in behavior leads to idolizing of wealth and power displayed over the awareness of the respective class realities is forgotten. The lack of awareness alters the way people think about themselves. People desire such lifestyles and associate it with success. More so, the media bombards society with a distorted representation of the reality which foresters this unhealthy ideology (Kendall 11). As such, many people have resulted to behaving like the rich and copying their lifestyle as portrayed by the media. At the same time, the gap between the haves and have-nots has increased. The reality is that these shows display social inequality in society. However, societal perceptions have been altered, the awareness of this inequality fades away and what is left is deep criticism for the lifestyles portrayed while desiring the same.
There are six dominant framing techniques that the media uses to influence people’s perception of the rich (Kendall 29). In the consensus frame, the media portrays the rich as similar to everyone else. Then there is the admiration frame where the rich are portrayed as generous and caring when they are visualized taking part in charity events. The emulation frame portrays the rich as an image of what the American dream should be like, and the public should emulate them for this reason. The price-tag frame portrays the rich as materialistic people who spend their money on expensive things and care for nothing or anyone. The sour-grapes technique portrays the rich as unhappy people with dysfunctional people. The last is the bad-apple technique which sends the message that some rich people are just evil. These frames foster an environment that conditions people to admire the rich while hating them at the same time. The public believes that they can relate to the rich while, in essence, they cannot relate with them in reality. It is just but an illusory image created by the media using frames to distort their view of social inequalities.
The frequent usage of terms such as “working class” and “upper middle class” by the media contribute to social inequality by limiting social mobility. Such terms are derived from the social classes by Gilbert & Dennis (134). The classes divide Americans into six social groups which have emerged due to the growing levels of social inequality. Economic, political, and status factors are used as variables in this classification. The economic variables consider a person’s wealth, their income and occupation. The status variable takes into consideration association, the level of prestige and socialization. Political variable considers how powerful and class-conscious an individual is.
The media uses these variables to form the perception of the public about the members of the different social classes (Kendall 14). Prestige, a status variable is used to determine how much honor a person should be given. The people a person associates with determine their position in the social class and this is directly linked to socialization. The perception the media creates is that the higher the prestige, the higher the social class. The common observation in the media is that people should associate with those in their class. If a person from the upper class gets involved with another from a lower class in an institution such as marriage, the media will blow it out of proportion and analyze every bit of it. This view promotes social inequality because people start thinking it is unusual for individuals from different social classes to mix.
Social inequality is also imprinted in the minds of children nowadays. Cases of bullying in schools due to the opinion that one belongs to a different social class are rampant. Children grow up with a cultural belief that they should not mix with those from a lower class if they are from the upper social class. In the society around them, the rich and famous get all the attention while the poor get attention only when a national disaster occurs (Kendall 15). Their view of social inequality is distorted right from an early age. Television news, shows and printed material all point to status, economic position, and political power as important factors in socializing and association. This is what the public consumes as the reality and, therefore, adjust their behavior to match it. As such, these are ways in which the media mirrors society and influences perception and behavior.
The media paints a fictional image of class in an attempt to maintain the status quo and drive profits. The recipient of the news or entertainment shows by the media romanticizes the rich while scorning the poor. In displaying the rich as the epitome of the American dream, the status quo is maintained as a distinction between the rich and the poor is created. The rich flaunt their wealth, and the society deems it acceptable because the media has distorted the view on social classes. In this regard, attention is diverted from issues of poverty as everyone is trying to emulate the rich. The upper-class create the standards for consumer habits for products they produce and sell. The result is the rich get richer while the lower class get into debt trying to match a consumer culture they cannot afford.
When the poor are being driven into debt trying to match lifestyles of the rich, the media portrays them as inept (Kendall 22). They are only shown in the bad light, and there is no question about the origin of these problems. The media is controlled by the rich and, therefore, attempts to maintain the status quo and drive profits to take precedence. The distorted view of social inequality in America works to the benefit of the upper class. Those belonging to the lower classes cannot realize this because the media has distorted it and formed a culture where they desire to be rich as well.
The media shapes societal perceptions and distorts the view of social inequality. The media has such a great influence on the society; therefore, it is difficult for Americans to differentiate lies from the truth and to recognize that the adoration of material possession serves to distort their view of social inequality. Some Americans depend on media as the only source of news. What they are not aware of is that such news is framed to push an agenda. When television shows and news reach the consumer, they have been reviewed and edited to push particular agendas. The framing of such content has distorted the view of social classes. Many Americans desire to emulate the lifestyles of the rich and famous. They desire to purchase things they cannot truly afford because no one wants to be considered in the lower class. Everyone would like to belong in the upper class because the lower working class has become the butt of all jokes. The contribution of honest working-class citizens has been degraded, and they have been labeled as incompetent due to their lack of material possessions. What this achieves is a hypocritical society where the wealthy are criticized by the poor while in reality, the poor want to have their lifestyle.
Gilbert, Dennis L. The American class structure in an age of growing inequality. Sage Publications, 2017, pp. 122-147.
Gitlin, Todd. “Primetime ideology: The hegemonic process in television entertainment.” Social Problems 26.3 (1979): 251-266.
Kendall, Diana. Members only: Elite clubs and the process of exclusion. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008, pp 1-157.
Kendall, Diana Elizabeth. Framing class: Media representations of wealth and poverty in America. Rowman & Littlefield, 2011, pp. 1-230.