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Representation of Class
DOUGLAS KELLNER and JEFF SHARE
University of California, Los Angeles, USA
Media, power, and ideology
Amid the struggles for bourgeois democracy in Europe during the 1848 revolutions,
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1978) developed a critical approach to ideology.
According to Marx and Engels, ideologies arise out of “dominant material relations
therefore, the ideas of its dominance” (Durham & Kellner, 2005, p. 44). For Marx, the
emerging dominant class was the bourgeoisie and its dominant ideas legitimated a
capitalist market system with its ideas of free self-regulating markets, competition, and
individualism, ideas that remain dominant in capitalist societies today.
Ideologies have social dimensions and are not simply individual perspectives that
compete on a level playing eld (Ferguson, 2004; Kelly & Brandes, 2001; Orlowski,
2006). Durham and Kellner (2005) explain that studying ideology encourages “readers
to perceive that all cultural texts have distinct biases, interests, and embedded values,
reproducing the point of view of their producers and oen the values of the dominant
social groups” (p. xiv). By examining their ideological assumptions, students can
learn to question what they consider “normal” or “common sense.” Stuart Hall (2003)
explains that dominant ideologies shape our notions of what seems “normal” and
“tend to disappear from view into the taken for granted ‘naturalised’ world of common
sense” (p. 90). “Common sense” is only so because ideas and texts have been produced
and disseminated through a dominant frame of thought expressed in powerful
master-narratives, oen conveyed through media, schools, government, religion, and
Building upon Marx, from the 1930s through the 1960s, researchers at the Frankfurt
Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School, i.e., Adorno, Benjamin, Habermas,
Horkheimer, and Marcuse) saw the rise of popular culture through media as a process
involving ideological message transmission vis-à-vis the culture industries, whereby
lm, radio, newspapers, and other organs of communication and culture transmit the
dominant ideas of their society. ey used critical social theory to analyze how popu-
lar culture and the new tools of communication technology perpetuated ideology and
social control. e Frankfurt group immigrated to New York in 1934 as refugees from
fascism in Germany, where they experienced how the Nazis used lm, radio, and other
media to transmit their totalitarian ideology (Kellner, 1989, 1995). Additionally, the
German theorists studied Soviet Communism, examining how the Soviet state used
the media to transmit dominant communist ideologies. While in the United States,
e International Encyclopedia of Media Literacy. Renee Hobbs and Paul Mihailidis (General Editors),
Gianna Cappello, Maria Ranieri, and Benjamin evenin (Associate Editors).
© 2019 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2019 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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2REPRESENTATION OF CLASS
they concluded that US popular culture and media transmitted dominant American
and capitalist ideologies.
Frankfurt School theorists assumed that the audience is passive in its reception of
England, who advanced a more complex understanding of the active role audiences
play in negotiating meanings. is group at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural
Studies at the University of Birmingham (the Birmingham School created in 1964, i.e.,
Williams, Hoggart, and Hall) began to emphasize the role of the audience as active,
rather than passive, in media reception (or consumption). Moreover, as women and
scholars of color, including McRobbie and Gilroy, joined the group in the 1980s, they
urged that the concept of ideology be expanded to include representations of gender,
race, and sexuality because media representations included sexist, racist, and heterosex-
ist (homophobic) images and narratives that reproduce ideologies of patriarchal, racist,
and heterosexist domination (Kellner 1995, 2010). e Birmingham scholars also rec-
ognized that individuals experience and interpret media from their own class, gender,
racial, and other positions, and can potentially resist and oppose classist, sexist, and
racist ideologies. While the image of the media audience as consumer became pervasive
following the rise of audience theory studies, scholars have since heavily criticized the
eld for discounting the heterogeneous ways in which viewers/listeners/users read, con-
sume, or integrate media meaning into their lives (Buckingham, 1993, 1996; Gauntlett
& Hill, 1999).
Representations of class
less society whereeveryoneisinthemiddle class. And yet a dominant ideology proclaims
that with hard work (and education) anyone can move up the socioeconomic ladder
and achieve their dreams and highest aspirations. To be sure, many people through
education in the United States have been able to advance themselves, but not everyone.
e gaps between dierent classes and the tremendous inequality between the rich and
poor make it extremely dicult, if not impossible, for many to leave poverty and to gain
wealth and a more privileged class status.
Whereas European societies have traditionally been organized around class and its
conguration, constraints, and social relations are visible and well known to all in the
society, in the United States, class is hard to see. Indeed, class is almost invisible unless
if you know where to look and what to look for. Social class is heavily coded, with spe-
cic words and images connoting many notions and oen triggering decit thinking
within the poor and working class, and belief in class supremacy in the upper classes.
Many words have class connotations, like welfare, white trash, homeless, and beggar,
whichholdnegativeconnotations.ereismuchdecit thinking (Valencia, 1997) about
blamed for being poor in terms of decits of education, job training, and opportunities
to better themselves which are a product of social organization and not inherent and
inherited traits of human nature.
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REPRESENTATION OF CLASS 3
In England, spoken accent haslongbeenamarkerforclass,asinthemovieMy Fair
Lady, and good teeth can mark class in images and discourses in the United States.
For example, a December 1, 1997, issue of Newsweek magazine manipulated a photo on
their cover to make a woman’s teeth look better. e Newsweek cover photo shows Bobbi
McCaughey, mother of septuplets with straight teeth. e same week, Time magazine
ran a similar photo without manipulating the mother’s teeth. e Photoshopping of the
mother’s teeth seems to suggest that Newsweek did not want a woman on their cover
who looked poor, and provided a normative image of the “proper” American that subtly
inscribes class markers.
Critical media literacy makes one aware of how images in media construct mark-
ers, hierarchies, and relations of class in contemporary US society. Class intersects with
gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and other markers of identity, and the con-
cept of intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991) indicates how these identity markers intersect
and are co-constructed. For instance, every media narrative that portrays class also has
the dimension of gender, race, and sexuality, so a critical media literacy that critiques
racism, sexism, and homophobia also critiques classism. at is, media images por-
tray positive, negative, or sometimes ambiguous images and messages about certain
social classes, for example, perhaps, denigrating working classes and celebrating the
rich or middle class. Yet just as criticizing biased representations of class is an impor-
tant dimension of critical media literacy (hereaer CML), so too is explicating and
validating media texts that present positive images of the working class, women, peo-
ple of color, LGBTQIA individuals, and others who are oen represented negatively in
mainstream media. As the concept of intersectionality suggests, these representations
oen overlap and intersect, thus oering complex and productive examinations in the
On the whole, dominant media such as lm and television oen celebrate the rich
and powerful while presenting negative representations of poor and working people.
Traditionally, US television has focused oen on middle- and upper-class families, and
professionals like doctors, lawyers, or corporate executives, while tending to ignore
working-class life and poor people. Having studied TV portrayals of class on US prime
time sitcoms for over four decades, Butsch (2003) reports persistent patterns of under-
representation of working-class occupations and negative stereotypes of working-class
men. Butsch asserts that these representations work well to “justify class relations of
modern capitalism” (p. 575). To be sure, some TV series, such as e Honeymooners,
All in the Family,Sanford and Son,Roseanne,Shameless, Superstore,andOne Day at
ways, as do some contemporary Hollywood lms. While the growth of cable networks
and the Internet has depicted more diversity, the majority of representations still val-
orize the wealthy at the expense of the working class and poor. Although the entire
media landscape should never be overly simplied as monolithic and one-dimensional
in its portrayal of social class issues, it continues to favor a model of economic success
grounded in dogged individualism detached from larger social structures or commu-
nities of subjugation, mutual support, and struggle.
In the contemporary moment, the 2011 Occupy Movement foregrounded the class
divide between the 1% and the 99%, and class division and inequality has entered public
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4REPRESENTATION OF CLASS
discourse. In addition, Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign for president created a powerful
social movement focusing on the gap between rich and poor, the haves and have-nots,
and the need for dramatic political change and action to address class and other forms
of inequality in the United States.
Courses in CML can analyze a variety of ways in which the media represent, for
example, gentrication as a positive thing, and poverty as a negative condition. CML
can discuss how capitalism constructs class and divides societies into working classes
and property-owning classes, with a vast middle class in-between. CML guides us to
engage a political system that oen operates in the interests of the wealthier classes,
any but the most minimal social welfare programs.
CML also should engage class, the environment, and health and environmental
justice, showing how living and working conditions aect poor people far more than
wealthier groups, making environmental justice an issue of class. Naomi Klein (2014)
writes about environmental justice in her book is Changes Everything: Capitalism
vs the Climate, bringing together discussion of class, environment, capitalism, and
economic and environmental crisis and oppression.
In short, a CML approach to teaching questions the connections between power and
information, class and education. In a capitalist society, this requires posing questions
that challenge social class and unpack the economic structures that are oen taken for
granted. Critical pedagogues such as Apple (2004), Freire (2010), Giroux (2004), and
hooks (2010) address inequities of class in education. While a dominant ideology holds
that class is disappearing in contemporary US society, in fact class distinctions are grow-
ing. Hence, while ideologues of contemporary society claim that great inequalities of
class have been overcome, this is simply false, as scholars such as Atkinson (2010) and
Piketty (2014) have maintained.
In When Hope is Subversive, Giroux (2004) argues, “Market values replace social
values. Power has become disconnected from issues of equity, social justice, and civic
responsibility” (p. 62). In the struggle for democracy amidst educational and political
crises, Giroux (2004) suggests that hope must be maintained. e inverse of dispos-
ability is “secular immortality” (Hirschman, 1990), which abounds in popular maga-
zines, and depicts how the narrative of the entrepreneurial moguls “built something
from nothing” (p. 35). According to Hirschman (1990), “secular immortality” occurs
when “those whose lives and possessions are celebrated and ultimately immortalized in
our culture are those believed to have worked industriously, channeled their personal
resources in eective and productive ways, and constructed some form of notable mate-
rial monument to symbolize those eorts” (p. 39). To illustrate this point, Hirschman
identies Lee Iacocca, Donald Trump, and Ross Perot as three icons of wealth who
embody the Horatio Alger myth. Indeed, for many decades the Horatio Alger myth
of rising from rags to riches has been replayed in literature and diverse media, com-
prising a key element of dominant American ideology. is trope tends to promote a
decit perspective of the poor and homeless as people who fail due to their own laziness
or ineptitude, regardless of the institutions and systems that create the unequal playing
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REPRESENTATION OF CLASS 5
e challenge to critically understand media texts, as well as the power to create and dis-
seminate alternative messages and ultimately engage in text production, is the essence
of CML. Commercial media in the United States too oen tell stories that celebrate
lifestyles of overconsumption and wealth while neglecting narratives of the working
class and poor. When media address issues of class, they typically denigrate the poor as
dangerous or lazy, ignoring the social structures and institutions that perpetuate social
and economic disparity. Class divisions and structural inequalities have long been pow-
erful systems organizing society and controlling people’s lives. Since enormous transna-
tional corporations control so much of the information and entertainment, the stories
they tell about class need to be deconstructed, analyzed, challenged, and reconstructed.
audiences about our understandings of socioeconomics that CML must address issues
of class and the ways it intersects with all aspects of our lives.
SEE ALSO: Awareness;CriticalPedagogy;CriticaleoryAppliedtoMediaLiteracy;
ieml0045 Educommunication; Learning about Materialism and Consumer Culture; Media Liter-
acy and Social Activism; Political Economy
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Je Share has worked as a photojournalist, elementary school teacher, and curriculum
designer and trainer. He is currently a faculty advisor in the Teacher Education Pro-
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and Create Media.
Douglas Kellner is George Kneller Chair in the Philosophy of Education at Univer-
sity of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and is author of many books on social theory,
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Please note that the abstract and keywords will not be included in the printed book,
but are required for the online presentation of this book which will be published on
Wiley’s own online publishing platform.
add them now.
e abstract should be a short paragraph of between 50 and 150 words in length and
is entry explores the need for a critical examination of class in media representa-
tions and the use of critical media literacy as a tool to analyze and create alternative
representations about class. Since critiques of socioeconomic structures and systems
in the United States are so rarely explored in commercial US media, while media oen
ative that educators guide students to question representations of class in media and the
intersectionality of class in all aspects of life and society.
class; critical media literacy; cultural studies; ideology; media education; politics of rep-
resentation; race; socioeconomic status