/ tv

Class & Classism on TV: The Suburban Bubble

The Suburban Bubble

The Bubble

This post is about stories of affluence and suburbia, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But before we talk about Buffy, we need to make a quick stop at 30 Rock:

On 30 Rock, the “Handsome Bubble” is introduced to explain Jon Hamm’s character: a man who is so handsome that no one can never tell him he is bad at anything. (Including surgery, his profession.) He’s terrible and stupid, and everybody around him knows he’s terrible and stupid, but they can’t reveal that to him, because he is so handsome.

If you’ve ever heard people talk about white privilege, or class privilege, etc., what they’re talking about is almost exactly the same as the handsome bubble. Privilege’s primary function[1] is to insulate those who have it from reality. It places them in a bubble that reinforces their self-image and assures them that the benefits they receive because of it are not just things they are entitled to, but part of the natural order of the world.

People who are told to check their privilege often think they have been accused of a moral failing (the sin of prejudice) or of performing some specific act of overt oppression. This is often true, but privilege is fundamentally an epistemological failing rather than a moral one.[2] Privilege deprives its beneficiaries of an accurate image of the world even as it elevates their status within it.

I once heard the following as an explanation of Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness:

White people live in the white world, while black people live in both the white world and the real world.

The essence of privilege is that it excuses one from living in reality; conversely, the lack of privilege dooms one to dwell in the world as it is while simultaneously forcing one to accommodate the delusional perceptions of those who are in the bubble.

Suburban stories

I opened with that explanation because I want to defuse a certain response that I’ve often gotten when I criticize shows like Buffy: the “that’s what it’s about” defense. It’s the idea that, because a given show happens to be set in a certain context, it is thus excused from criticism for being exclusionary if the setting happens to be be homogenous[3].

I’ve heard this about Buffy’s suburbia; I’ve heard it about movies that fail the Bechdel test because they’re set in male-dominated contexts like the military or organized crime; and of course it was prominently deployed in defense of the whiteness of Lena Dunham’s Girls. It’s even been used to defend the demographics of Game of Thrones[4], a series set entirely in a magical fantasy land of zombies and dragons.

There are a number of problems with this line of defense. For example:

  • Defenders are often incorrect in identifying the environments depicted as homogenous in real life
  • Creators choose to tell a story in a setting that is exclusionary
  • Publishers/networks/audiences indulge, support, and endorse that choice
  • Artistic license does not exempt creators and publishers from ethical culpability
  • The subjective variability of taste does not exempt audiences from ethical culpability for what they consume
  • Growing up in the suburbs and “writing what you know” does not excuse a story that is lily-white and free of poors.
  • Not to mention that writers are expected to have, you know, imaginations and the ability to do research.

But let us grant for now that it is totally okay to keep on telling stories by and for the most overserved demographics. I mean, I don’t actually want a ban on stories about white people.[5]

But if what you’re doing is writing “what you know,” and what you know is privilege, then here’s the thing: you may be stuck in a bubble. And that doesn’t just make you a privileged douchebag: it actually makes you a worse writer.

Writing inside the bubble

My complaint about Buffy is not just that it is set in a suburb, or even that it is almost exclusively about affluent white people. It is that it is a show that is written from inside the bubble of suburban privilege.

Writers who are stuck inside the bubble of their privilege cannot even effectively “write what they know” because they don’t really know it, or themselves. Their perception of their world and their place in it is warped to begin with.

One of the most celebrated arcs on Buffy is the one in which Buffy’s mom dies and so she has to get a job. This is also one of the most problematic arcs on Buffy and perfectly demonstrates the suburban bubble in which Whedon and co. wrote the show. The story of Joyce Summers’s death is frequently lauded specifically for its shift toward realism and darker material, but the Doublemeat Palace is actually the peak of Buffy’s disconnectedness from class realities.

Buffy’s trying to support herself, and Dawn, and maintain a pretty big house…by flipping burgers? This is fundamentally untenable, even for someone working full-time, which I don’t think she was at any point.

The show sets this up first as a way to (pretend to) introduce Buffy to the realities of work and adult responsibilities and second to establish that Buffy has to learn to rely on her friends (i.e., letting Giles pay for everything). The second basically wipes out the first; the ultimate lesson is: “We have to enter the world, but we can always depend on our support network to sustain us,” which is the most bubble-tacular nonsense.

What would actually happen in Buffy’s situation? She’d almost certainly have to move. She’d either move in with Giles, so that he could support her, or she would have to move somewhere cheaper, likely in a whole different zip code. Her lifestyle would change, her worldview would change. Reality would intrude.

The fact that it does not shows that even if we grant Buffy the right to not tell the stories of poor or working class or non-white people, and even if we grant that the show can tell just suburban stories because “that’s what it’s about,” the writing is still fundamentally broken and distorted by privilege.

Anya

One of the most seemingly anomalous aspects of Buffy, when I view it uncritically, is that Anya invariably seems like the least white character. (Despite being portrayed by a maximally white person and written by some of the whitest writers in the business.)

It took me a while to figure out the source of this weird intuition. I’m pretty sure it’s this:

The writers think Anya’s demon naiveté sets human foibles in relief. The results read to me as calling out the affluent white norms of the other characters. This is a happy accident resulting from their assumption that the affluent white experience is human experience.

So, some of the show’s best writing is actually a side effect of the writers’ epic privilege. With Anya, these privilege-bubble d-bags shot the moon.

It’s superficially extra-funny that the character who is most greed-motivated is actually a (tiny) break in the show’s monolithic classism. But of course, a big part of the class bubble is that how money works in day to day life fades to the background. People who have enough money don’t need to think about it 24/7. Privilege frees them from having to understand the way it shapes everyone’s day to day and moment to moment existence.

Where are the poors?

Another hallmark of class bubble writing is the absence of stories that touch on the experience of poor or working class people. No lived environment is devoid of lower-class people, because rich people do not clean toilets or pick up garbage for a living. Nor do they flip burgers, Buffy notwithstanding.

The lives of actual affluent people depend upon the labor of poor and working class people. There is no inherent narrative reason why those people should not be represented in the environments in which they work—when shows exclude them, it is not because writers are “writing what they know,” but because they are writing what they misunderstand: their own lives.

Good alternatives: Veronica Mars

For an example of a much less awful depiction along actually similar lines, see Veronica Mars. Veronica Mars is still a stylized and simplified class landscape, which is primarily still about affluent people (indeed, many of the main characters are much more well-off than Buffy’s characters), but which is not written entirely from within a class bubble.

It works because it

  • depicts people of multiple class backgrounds (poor, working, middle class, rich as fuck)
  • gives people of all of those backgrounds decent characterization, goals, self-determination, and inner lives
  • builds its world based on the ways that the classes interact and conflict

Veronica Mars is no less about suburbia than Buffy was; indeed, it is freed to more completely and effectively tell stories about suburban affluence because its worldview is not stunted by suburban illusions.

There’s nothing especially radical or transgressive about Veronica Mars; for all that the movie opened by establishing Neptune as the site of the coming class war, the show doesn’t have a strong political tone. It’s just a detective story, a sterling example of California noir.[6]

The reason it succeeds is not that it has an axe to grind against the rich, but simply that it sees people in a class context that is just complex enough to feel like a complete world. It should not be considered a paragon of progressive storytelling, but it should be the baseline for solid tv writing—when in fact it is the rare exception to the rule of hollywood’s class cluelessness.

Bad Alternatives: Switched at Birth

Unfortunately, it’s very possible to tell a story that includes class diversity but is still utterly entrenched in the bubble.

Switched at Birth is a show that attempts to do what Veronica Mars does and fails miserably. It sets up families in two different socioeconomic and ethnic contexts, and brings them together. But its perspective is consistently with the rich, white family, and its narrative choices constantly reinforce this by:

  • Positioning the poor family as the locus of bad decision making, danger, etc.
  • Construing the destinies and desires of poor characters in terms of what rich characters’ money can do for them

For another recent example of the former, see Finding Carter, which was a major disappointment for me, because it had a promising start. It told stories of suburban affluence, but it did not fail to make them feel strange and specific, rather than universalizing them.

And yet, when the writers felt it was time to introduce a dramatic act of violence, they had one of the two non-rich characters shoot the other one. A hallmark of bubble writing is that the ill-considered acts of affluent youth are comical indiscretions, and if the affluent wind up in Serious Situations involving drugs or violence, it’s typically as a result of across-the-tracks relationships.

(This is both classist and unrealistic. Remember: rich kids can afford way more guns and drugs. They are insulated from the consequences of their bad choices, but they are not insulated from the stpuidity that leads to bad choices; on the contrary, they are given far more ways to do harm to themselves and others, because of their greater means.)

For the second point, another epic recent example is Devious Maids. This is a series whose whole purpose is to tell the story of working-class people, and yet it inevitably does so by constructing their ambitions, their romantic prospects, and basically their whole lives, around the money of their employers.

Update

@NYPinTA points out that the mortgage aspect in Buffy is addressed in the story:

Fair enough; I should probably have rewatched the relevant episodes before writing this. As with the OUAT post, I found myself dreading the idea so much that I decided to go by my recollections from my last rewatch a year or two ago.

For what it's worth, I don't think I'd change my reading at all because of this; mortgage or not, in any coherent economic universe, that job does not sustain that lifestyle.


  1. If ascribing agency/telology to abstract phenomena makes you uncomfortable, you can read “effect” here instead.  ↩

  2. It would be more complete to say that it is an epistemological failing first, and a moral one second.  ↩

  3. Or, more accurately, if the creators and audience experience the setting as homogenous.  ↩

  4. By GRRM FFS  ↩

  5. Well, I’ve heard worse ideas. Maybe a two-year moratorium?  ↩

  6. Well, California noir does actually imply a degree of class and political awareness. For another good recent example, see Terriers.  ↩