Popular media, in whatever form it takes, is an incredible resource to analyze the aspirations and goals of a society. It serves as a mirror for its intended audience to look into and can offer a glimpse through a window into another world for those whom it’s not directly aimed at.
For Rob Henderson, this reflection was done through television. He spent his early life shuffling between foster homes, eventually joined the military, went to Yale, and is now a doctoral student at Cambridge University. He was able to directly experience the vast differences between social classes in the United States and beyond. This perspective is invaluable.
Like many people, he initially thought that social class was dependent on money. But, “‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ taught me that it wasn’t,” he posits. This insight into the differences between monetary wealth and “cultural capital,” as Elizabeth Currid-Halkett discusses, shows that each broadly defined social class has its own set of values that are often reflected in the popular media. The fictional stories that Henderson refers to are perhaps less fictional than they might at first seem.
Early on, I thought of television as a window into another world. I would watch it to escape the one I was in, and to learn more about others. Later, though, it became more like a mirror. The more I saw, the more I learned what I wanted; the shows I chose to watch, in turn, reflected my desire to build a better life for myself, and I took my cues from them on how to construct it. Either stay like this, I thought, as I gazed at the TV, or try to live like that.Rob Henderson
In fact, both Henderson and Currid-Halkett have discussed similar themes in the past.
Strangely enough, as we ascend that ladder, we encounter a fork—it seems that the “elite” definition becomes bifurcated by wealth and education. Currid-Halkett attributes this to the idea of “cultural capital,” which is a separate form of wealth than monetary capital. This is where education plays a significant role.
Paul Fussell argues that the criteria we use to define the tiers of the social hierarchy are in fact indicative of our social class. For people near the bottom, social class is defined by money — in this regard, I was right in line with my peers when I was growing up. The middle class, though, doesn’t just value money; equally important is education.Rob Henderson
“Everything I Know About Elite America I Learned From ‘Fresh Prince’ and ‘West Wing,’” by Rob Henderson, October 10, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/10/opinion/sunday/television-culture.html