The Harm of Hollywood Stereotypes Surrounding the Poor
In entertainment media such as movies and television, Hollywood presents the heroes or protagonists of their stories as wealthy, high class or well-educated with glamorous lifestyles. Conversely, the villains or antagonists in film and television are portrayed as uneducated, incapable, lazy, and poor. Hollywood further alienates the poor by pitting the two classes against each other- the affluent and attractive hero on one end of the spectrum and our impoverished, dirty, evil villain on the other. Film makers show poor characters exist only to be saved by the protagonist, just to further the character development of our hero, and making them more likeable to the viewer. Hollywood paints people suffering through poverty as lecherous and without virtue, their only chance to improve their situation is to be rescued by someone of a higher status or class, creating an environment of prejudice- based on inaccurate fabrications- against the poor.
Hollywood creates bigotry towards the poor by portraying them as helpless people who don’t contribute to society, and oftentimes are criminals. Stephen Pimpare, historian and author of “What movies tell us about poverty”, claims that “When they are not monsters, poor people on film are often irredeemable and irresponsible” (Pimpare). In “Trading Places”, we see a poor African American man named Billy Ray Valentine, played by Eddie Murphy, panhandling while pretending to be a disabled veteran. It is only when Billy is swept from the streets by two wealthy brothers that his character grows overnight- somehow, Billy becomes an investment genius. He is no longer interested in wild parties or the questionable friendships he had before he found this wealth. Meanwhile, the upstanding investment banker Louis Winthorpe, played by Dan Aykroyd, loses his job and becomes poor and destitute- without his wealth he has no choice but to commit crimes and rely on the aid of a prostitute to save him from living on the street. When either character is shown to be poor, they make terrible decisions and commit crimes. Instantly, the class hierarchy and virtue of these two characters is flipped- based only on the contents of their bank accounts and class.
The glamor and virtue that is freely given to wealthy characters is hardly granted to roles involving the less fortunate. Political scientist, academic historian and cultural critic Michael Parenti, in his essay “Class and Virtue”, presents a similar argument to Pimpare. Parenti presents the idea that Hollywood trains audiences to root for those of higher class and ignore the privilege they are granted. Their lives are glamorous, exciting, and painted in a positive light. Film makers seem to want the audience to believe that being rich is the only route to a virtuous lifestyle. “The entertainment media present working people not only as unlettered and uncouth, but also as less desirable and less moral than other people. Conversely, virtue is more likely to be ascribed to those characters whose speech and appearance are soundly middle- or upper-middle class” (Parenti 362). The glamorization of the wealthy and the demonization of the poor in movies leads to discrimination: being average; working class or, God-forbid- poor, is displayed as an avenue to an unvirtuous life, you could be the ‘bad guy’ if you don’t make a certain amount of money or live a certain way.
Hollywood portrayal of the poor in entertainment is not only harmful, in many cases it is a distortion from reality. Co-authors Thomas Halper and Douglas Muzzio- both esteemed professors of political science at Baruch College- discuss the validity of the representation of the poor in film. “What is missing, oddly, is a focus on increasing socioeconomic inequality and decreasing socioeconomic mobility Horatio Alger's tales of rags to riches and James Truslow Adams’ American dream- these cliches may have retained some popular authority, but scholars had demonstrated that the ongoing real-world trajectory, especially for men and especially for African Americans. Movie makers did not feed off academics.” (Halper and Muzzio). Film makers stick to the tried-and-true cliches to fill the seats, fostering an ideal that it is simple- with a little hard work and virtue- to become wealthy overnight. The methods Hollywood takes to avert showing more realistic accounts of poverty in America creates a false sense of what poverty is truly like, squandering the opportunity, to be replaced with feel-good, unrealistic pictures. The problem with these stereotypes in movies is that audiences will assume that it’s easy to escape a life of poverty. Those who are genuinely poor simply aren’t trying hard enough, while the reality is that it is extremely difficult to escape the socioeconomic inequality of poverty.
Often used as a device to further the character development of the protagonist, the less fortunate are shown to be helpless and forgettable. In the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day”, featuring Bill Murray as cynical TV weatherman Phil Connors relives the same day- Groundhog Day- over and over. During some of the many visits Phil takes back to February second, he runs into the same dirty, old homeless man every day- often ignoring him completely. “...poor people are objects, not subjects: They are the means to someone else’s end. It’s one way old doctrines show themselves, counseling us to aid the poor because it’s a way to achieve our own salvation” (Pimpare), eventually, Connors attempts to help the homeless man, taking him to dinner and to the hospital- just trying to find the right way to escape the endless Groundhog Day cycle. We see Murray’s character obsess over saving the man's life- giving him CPR and barging into his hospital room after his death. The big problem- the homeless man doesn’t ever have even a single line of dialogue- he exists only to show cynical Phil Connors growing into a person with a heart- just by bothering with a bum that he would have ordinarily ignored completely.
In most cases, the portrayal of the poor who rely on government assistance are shown to be extremely lazy, incapable and uneducated. Even movies that have potential to paint the poverty-stricken as hard working will commonly fall victim to the cliché of a poor and lazy family. Winner of Best-Picture at the Academy Awards in 2005, “Million Dollar Baby” is a fantastic movie. ‘Maggie’, played by actress Hillary Swank, is shown to have extreme courage and perseverance in her goal of becoming a boxer. Growing up in working-class Missouri, she beats the odds and becomes a champion with hard work and dedication. Of course, with typical Hollywood cliches surrounding the poor- it can't stop with a positive portrait of someone escaping a life of poverty. “The undeserving poor, on the other hand, have through their own vices -- sloth, improvidence, dishonesty -- brought about their own suffering. Their demands for aid, it is said, merely demonstrate their blindness to the causes of their own downfall. What they really need -- though they would never concede it -- is not money (which cannot solve their problem but only briefly ameliorate it) but virtue (which alone can transform them into productive members of the community). The undeserving poor deserve little, perhaps just enough to sustain life, perhaps not even that” (Halper and Muzzio). Maggie's mother, an example of ‘undeserving poor’- a welfare recipient living in a trailer, desperate to continue collecting her checks- is outraged when Maggie tries to use her new wealth to purchase a house for her, demanding cash instead. Her family- who are completely unnecessary to the film- only show up when needing a handout or trying to take Maggie’s assets when she is paralyzed. Movies following this stigma often “...purport to care about its characters but nonetheless trafficks in the ugliest stereotypes about welfare recipients (laziness and criminality among them)” (Pimpare). Maggie’s family is a classic and unfortunate example of a stereotypical and harmful Hollywood portrayal of the poor who rely on government assistance.
Hollywood sticks to its typical glamorous portrait of the ‘virtuous’ upper-class to sell tickets while dragging the poor through the mud. In usual fashion, the way the underprivileged are shown in entertainment media creates harmful, frequent false stereotypes against those who are already suffering. Helpless, lazy, and lacking virtuous traits, underclass characters are rarely shown to be anything but a framing device for the main character- who are normally wealthy, of a higher class or level of education. It is important to show an accurate depiction of poverty for audiences to have compassion and understanding for people who have typically not had the advantages others get freely.
Stephen Pimpare. What movies tell us about poverty. Washington Post, The. 2017, 8AD. Accessed May 3, 2021. http://search.ebscohost.com.bucks.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bwh&AN=wapo.bbf31b48-8844-11e7-a94f-3139abce39f5&site=ehost-live
Halper, Thomas, and Douglas Muzzio. “Menace II Society? Urban Poverty and Underclass Narratives in American Movies.” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, 2013. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com.bucks.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2017307515&site=ehost-live.
Kennedy, Randall. “Blind Spot.”Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, edited by Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, 9thed., Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018, pp. 550-552.
© 2022 Daniel