Despite Ronald Reagan’s paranoid fantasies of welfare queens driving Cadillacs, the poor of today’s America face very real oppression, perhaps most accurately characterized as a class war. I stress the term “accurately,” as the most satisfying comparison would be to a magic show/robbery hybrid, wherein the magician pulls a rabbit from your crotch while secretly stealing your wallet and kidney. I’m guessing here, I haven’t seen many magic shows. Of course, to address the history of the upper-class business types suppressing the working class in America (or as we call them politely, the middle class) would be beyond the scope of this article. This sort of established mindset is implemented in American society to undermine the working class rising above the upper classes. There is nowhere better to look than reality television for examples of the gross demonstration of just how atrocious the class structure, dare I say class war, in America has become.
The CEO of CBS, Les Moonves, earned $54 million in 2014. Now he’s primed to make even more money with his new reality show The Briefcase. It features working-class Americans who are struggling financially, and it highlights their hardships. It shows families in extreme instances of debt but is very careful not to call them “poor families.” The show instead casts them as unintentionally miserable, suffering from what is seen as a streak of bad luck. The generous producers at CBS pit two families against each other, giving each $101,000. Each is shown the other family’s streak of bad luck, their story, home, and conditions of living (whether they have health insurance, for example). What neither family knows is that the producers have given both families a briefcase with $101,000. Throughout this show, the families compete to see which family can be less greedy. It seems like some sort of rouse to separate the greedy (poor) from the giving (working-class).)
There is inevitably a lot of crying, anxious sentiment, and most disgustingly, the placement of guilt on the families for even having the option to not share their fortune with the other family. The tension of the show arises when these families have to make a choice, a sacrifice, to choose between feeding their children, paying their bills, or helping another family that is struggling with the same kind of troubles. But how the hell did we get to talking about the tension on a reality television show being starving children? Is this really where we are?
The sick thing about the show, other than the premise, is that on May 28, 2015, 6.8 million viewers tuned in to watch working-class Americans be exploited. 6.8 million Americans derived pleasure from watching two families who were overcome by debt prove themselves worthy of coming out of it. At the same time, Les Moonves’ salary will likely increase because of the show’s popularity. As Margaret Lyons put it in Vulture last month, “ … can we get a new Les Miz going or something because oh my God, fuck everything.” People who tune into this show are looking for entertainment. Poor people are struggling to pay bills, and 6.8 million Americans love it.
In the show, it’s clear that both families feel the very real guilt of being poor in America. Upper class CEO types like Moonves would like working class families to believe that they are poor because of chance or even choice, that they could work their way out of it. The reality of the situation is that people like Moonves systematically oppress working-class Americans by imposing higher taxes and encouraging a market unregulated by government whenever they can, while they put high premiums on things like insurance. This narrative of the working-class struggle isn’t new, and it is fucked up that this is not a new type of show — it’s just an offensively obvious example.
We might recall ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover. This show had us all crying, watching hard-working families get renovated homes for their often handicapped children, year-long endorsements by Tyson chicken to feed those children, and a vacation they couldn’t afford otherwise. Sounds great, right? Like The Briefcase, the show exploited people’s socio-economic conditions in order to provide the instant gratification of entertainment. This unique feel- good- for- watching- it quality made the show an extreme success.
But after the camera crew loaded the equipment back into the truck, and host Ty Pennington had left the town, the families who were already struggling to pay their mortgage on a two-bedroom house were now looking at massive utility bills for a six-bedroom house equipped with state-of-the-art electronics. This led a good deal of the families on the show to sell the homes to pay their bills. ABC’s producers didn’t care about the long-term effects of this instant charity, because they would never have to see them again. How could they be blamed for giving working-class Americans a second chance with a new home? Because THAT would be ridiculous, right?
Such paralyzing altruistic endeavors in reality television provide a new way to look at American class warfare. Rich CEO types like Moonves have seen a way not only to exploit working-class Americans by denying them basic living conditions, they also exploit their condition of being poor.