This article was originally posted on the Career Guidance for Social Justice site on 1st March. I’m adding it here in case you missed it, but it is well worth subscribing to the Career Guidance for Social Justice site as well.
I’ve been watching the excellent show Superstore on Netflix over the last few weeks. In many ways it is a standard US sitcom full of slapstick, larger than life characters and improbable situations. What lifts it above a lot of other shows like it, is that it accords a level of dignity and empathy to working class characters, is highly critical of corporations and actively explores forms of resistance including labour unions and political activism.
It is well worth a watch and should reward readers of this site who are interested in representations of working life, career and politics.
What do TV characters earn?
Watching this show made me think of how few shows are based around working class characters, or even people in the lower half of the income distribution. So, I thought that I would review my Netflix viewing over the last few months and see where the main characters in the shows that I’ve been watching fitted in.
This isn’t an easy exercise as television transports us across the world and into the past and future. But, as this is just for fun, I thought that it would be interesting to slot people into where they relatively might fit in the social and economic hierarchy if they were living in the UK in 2021.
To start with I looked up the income distribution in the UK and put together a table breaking it down by deciles. I used UK government statistics to do this. There are some problems with these figures as they probably miss out some people at the bottom and the top, but they are useful as a rough guide. Also, income is only a part of the story when we are looking at wealth.
I then used Indeed and the salary calculator to make an estimate of what the main character in each show earns. There is a lot of guess work in this, but hopefully you get the point. Many of the characters undergo some social and income mobility as part of their dramatic arc, but I’ve tried to guess the salary point where they spend most of their time. I’ve left out the ones that are mainly based on criminal activities as they were a bit difficult to categorise.
|Top 1%||>£175,000||Bridgerton, Bojack Horseman, What/If, The Windsors, House of Cards, The Umbrella Academy, Borgen|
|Top 10%||£54,900||45 RPM, Call my agent, You, me, her, Greyzone|
|£33,600||Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Master of None|
|£28,400||Parks and Recreation, Friday Night Dinner|
|£18,600||Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt|
So, what do we learn from doing this?
- I clearly watch too much TV. But, come on, I’ve been locked down for a year.
- The income distribution was a bit different from what I thought. In general, I would have guessed that the top 10% as a bit higher and that this would stretch the rest up a bit.
- There is a clear preference for TV shows about people higher up the income scale. But, there are also some that focus on those lower down.
- Most of the characters in these shows live beyond their means. Either they are running up huge debts or the TV is not a faithful representation of reality.
A role for careers education?
This kind of reflection on the labour market and income positions of the people we see on the TV might be useful as a bit of career learning. It could be a good starting point for researching the labour market and thinking about how the characters we see and aspire to be sustain their lifestyles, fashion choices and so on. But it might also be useful in helping people to think about how realistically TV represents life and work. We need to try and resist the unrealistic expectations that are foisted onto us and learn to be more critical.
In a way it is the shows that dodge these issues that are worse than those that simply celebrate excess. We all know that the people in Bridgerton are rich. That is the point of the show. But, shows like Friends which grant everyone access to the good life regardless of what they do are far more pernicious. These shows diminish the centrality of work and career and present wealth as a lifestyle choice rather than the outcome of education, work and social and economic advantage.
Careers education should be encouraging people to think about these things and arming them with tools to deconstruct the simulacra of reality that are dancing on the screen in front of them.
Thought provoking piece. Yes agreed, TV trivialises the centrality of work and the realities of class portraying consumption and lifestyle as a matter of choice except for obvious cases like Bridgeton which gorges in the lives of the privileged but makes plain that lifestyle in this case is preordained by hereditary principles. (Incidentally, in my view, the show’s makers lamely attempt to expiate their celebration of the ruling class with their excruciating efforts of wokeness via the show’s casting.)
I’ve just spent an agonising few weeks at my wife & son’s insistence of watching Suits. At least that portrays top law firms and merchant bankers all taking from the same corrupt trough yet at the same time the hidden curriculum of the script is to evoke admiration and envy of those lifestyles and to convince us that the heroes of the cast involved in that pernicious world are ok because, after all – shock horror – they are human and occasionally capable of kindness and sometimes suffer the odd broken heart. So they are just like us, don’t you know, and therefore everything else that they do and (crucially) who they serve is ok too.
Back to the issue of Careers Education: TV shows most certainly are influential to young people in shaping their careers thoughts and aspirations. Representation of the disadvantaged are important. I know your post is about the representation of those lower down the income scale in totality but I’d just like to say that when it comes to some shows gamely attempting to represent race (& gender), it sometimes seems to me a pernicious smokescreen to gain acceptance of the socio-economic world we live in where the status quo’s dirty deeds are hidden except where they are caricatured as carried out only by cardboard cut-out baddies who are an exception to the rule.
I know I’ve gone wildly off topic into much more political waters and the issues I’m alluding to are beyond the scope of that nice rectangular box in the corner of our living rooms. Just as it has proven to be beyond the charades of our Parliamentarians.
I’m off to watch Superstore next week…after the last dredges of the last couple of episodes of those nice people from Suits. As stated, the makers have shown remarkably well that the goodies and the baddies are all human, so it’s ever such an appealing show.
I think that’s the intention.
Hi John! Good to hear from you.
I agree with a lot of what you said. I’ve managed to avoid Suits so far and will continue to do so!