Like any other form of bigotry, it’s easy for classism to seep into our stories. Some of the signs of classism are similar to other types of bigotry, such as spreading stereotypes about poor people. But unlike most other areas of marginalization, no one is inherently impoverished, and no one wants to be. That means that in addition to reducing stigma, we should watch for tropes that help income inequality flourish. Start by searching your work for these five classist patterns.
1. Homeless People Are Treated as Novelties
In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the Canting Crew are a group of beggars that embody stereotypes of homeless people for humor. They are incredibly smelly and dirty, and they accept money in return for not following people around or showing up at parties. In an astounding dose of albeism, one of these characters has a “thinking brain dog” and “physical schizophrenia,” another has “multiple personalities,” and a third constantly wears a duck on his head.
While the Canting Crew is an exaggerated version, it’s not so different from the nonsensical bearded guy who wanders the city streets engaging in wacky hijinks during your favorite movie or TV show. Regardless of where it’s found, these stereotypes are used to dismiss homeless people as novelties rather than show them as human beings that have been pushed out of their homes.
When a homeless character does have agency and emphasis in the story, it’s usually as part of some feel-good narrative about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. This is because people find it comforting to believe that chronic homelessness only happens to those who’ve done something wrong. But it’s the strength of a society’s social safety net that determines whether people become homeless, not personal vice. Many people are only one medical crisis, one firing, one rent increase, or one pandemic away from being out on the street.
Plus, homeless people aren’t all older white guys. They are a diverse group that includes many people of color, young people, queer people, disabled people, and women. In the United States, 30% of homeless people are homeless with another family member, and many homeless people either have jobs or work sporadically.
What to do instead
It’s great to put homeless people in your stories. They are frequently erased or ignored, and storytellers can help. Just make them people and not gimmicks. Start your research by listening to stories about real homeless people. Then if you’re planning on giving your character a disability or disease like addiction, please do separate research on that and treat it sensitively.
2. Poor Heroes Have Expensive Lifestyles
We’ve all seen sporadically employed heroes go home to expensive digs. Jessica Jones lives in Manhattan and, like any noir PI, struggles to get paid. Yet somehow she has an apartment that would cost several thousand a month all to herself. Angel does his unpaid rescue work in Los Angeles and gets an entire hotel for his operation. In the recent Picard show, Raffi complains about being poor but lives in an appealing future rustic home in a scenic park.
Sometimes popular stories come with explanations for how the hero can afford to live where they do. For instance, in the Daredevil Netflix show, supposedly Matt Murdock got his gorgeous apartment at a discount because of glowing billboards right outside the windows. But even when these explanations are realistic, storytellers are still choosing to carve out an exception that lets characters live beyond the means of real people in their income bracket.
These unrealistic depictions encourage inequality from two different angles. First, they deny the reality of high housing prices and insufficient wages in many cities. It’s easier to ignore how unaffordable housing is when the lower-income people in our stories all have plenty of space and privacy. Second, they deny meaningful representation to lower-income people. People who share a small apartment with several roommates or, *gasp*, live in their parent’s basement deserve to see that lifestyle in their stories.
What to do instead
If you want a relatable protagonist who has trouble making ends meet in a big city, make the rest of their lifestyle match that. Having to share a home with parents or roommates will make your protagonist more relatable and give you more opportunities for conflict. Now the protagonist might have to hide their secret identity from the people they live with.
If your character is a typical noir PI, you make their office a converted walk-in closet, put their desk in the boiler room, or force them to welcome their suspicious clients into their home. If a spacious home is a must, characters can instead live in a far-flung suburb and have a lengthy commute.
3. Minions Are Killed Without Thought
The CW’s Arrow is all about a masked vigilante going after the rich and powerful who can’t be brought to justice any other way. But while our hero is happy to give his actual targets second chances, he makes little effort to avoid killing their hired goons. These goons aren’t good people by any means, but they’re responsible for a lot less suffering than their bosses, who get to live.
This is a surprisingly common trope across genres. If it’s not superheroes mowing down the villain’s goons, it’s fantasy warriors cutting through a horde of helmeted enemies, only to stop at the first baddie with a name and a royal title. It’s easy to fall into this trap because minions are often minor or unnamed characters, so we don’t pay as much attention to them. But even background characters should be treated like their lives mean something.
Not only that, but lower-level antagonists are rarely rich people with evil plans. They’re usually middle- to low-income people who engage in crime for money. While hoarding excess money is greedy, getting some money is what enables people to eat. In a country without a sufficient safety net, people might accept a shady job to pay medical bills or get their kids through school. Lower-level workers of any type have much less freedom over their vocation than the people on top. If any killing will be featured, heroes should be sparing minions while offing the big bad.
It’s especially troublesome when heroes focus on petty criminals because it encourages the over-policing of impoverished neighborhoods, particularly Black ones. How about instead of beating all those robbers up, heroes promote programs to reduce crime by giving people better opportunities?
What to do instead
First, if you want your heroes to destroy low-level enemies that show up in superior numbers, think carefully about what those enemies are and what messages you might send. It will also help if you’re realistic about how that enemy behaves. Neither people nor wild animals will attack an enemy that is slaughtering them. Once it’s clear the group is no match for the hero, they will naturally run away. If you want low-level antagonists the hero can cut down mindlessly, use robots or a supernatural monster.
If your hero captures minions instead of killing them, you can use that to further the plot. Maybe the hero discovers the minion was being blackmailed by the villain. Once the hero takes care of the blackmail, the minion tells the hero where the secret lair is.
Last, think through how lethal the hero’s attacks are. You may not have time to clarify how every minion lives, so if your hero throws a minion off a three-story building, that will look like murder.
4. Lower-Class People Are Mocked
In The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, the Gelfling are the richer ruling class, whereas the poor Podlings are styled to resemble peasants. When Brea, a Gelfling protagonist, is caught being disobedient, her punishment is to bathe Podlings. Not any particular Podlings, just the ones who happen to live in a nearby village. The show depicts these Podlings as averse to bathing and happy to roll around in the dirt all day. The Gelfling literally have to catch them, force them into the water, and scrub them down. Podlings are smaller than Gelflings, so the writers clearly thought it would be funny if they behaved like children.
While this may be an extreme example, it is common for fantasy stories to have commoners that are dirty, have rotting teeth, and carry lice. Characters following the dirty peasant stereotype are always happily oblivious to their current state, not trying to make the best out of the limited options of their means and time period.
In modern Earth settings, mocking lower-class people often means focusing on low-wage workers. Take season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which Buffy gets a job at a fast food joint. The entire point of this job arc is how demeaning it is that Buffy has to work there. The other workers are humorously depicted as either dispirited drones or company tools. And like the Podlings, the show also emphasizes the uncleanliness of being a fast food worker. In one humorous scene, a vampire decides he doesn’t want to bite Buffy because she smells like fast food.
Other toxic stereotypes used to make lower-class people into jokes include crude language or behavior, having “too many” children, and being unintelligent. The United States has “hick” or “white trash” stereotypes that are often used to depict low-income white people. However, because people of color are disproportionately lower income, any negative class-based stereotypes also impact them a great deal. In particular, the “too many children” stereotype encourages attacks on women of color.
What to do instead
Depicting poor characters is great, but avoid making them lazy, dirty, crude, ignorant, or unintelligent. Even if your character never got a college degree, that doesn’t mean they don’t know anything. Maybe they don’t know much about Shakespeare, but they know a lot about fixing cars. Conversely, your character who didn’t attend college might love quoting Shakespeare. If your character has a job that makes them dirty, show how they carefully wash up afterward. Low-income characters can be funny, but stereotypes about low-income people shouldn’t be used to make them the butt of jokes.
5. The Masses Are Threatening
Left on its own, income inequality naturally gets worse over time. This is simply because the rich have the most power to promote their own interests, and their interests include amassing more wealth at the expense of others. Only one thing can keep this in check: the masses. Since the poor always outnumber the rich, collective action of various kinds is what keeps income inequality from spiraling out of control.
Collective action includes grassroots organizing, mass protests, worker’s unions, and democratic institutions. Along with that, the press has always been critical in telling the masses what the powerful few have been doing, so that the powerful can be held responsible when they do bad things.
Yet some stories choose to vilify collective action or the public in general. My Hero Academia insists the public has turned against the obviously glorified heroes of the show, apparently egged on by a media that is eager to smear them. In Spider-Man: Far From Home, the villains are a group of disgruntled former employees who decide to play tricks on the entire world instead of asking for fair wages like most employee groups do.
When collective action is villainized in a story like this, it is almost always in service to portraying the wealthy and privileged as the victims of the unreasonable and ignorant masses. But the wealthy don’t need protecting. They can hire an army of lawyers and fund political campaigns. Portraying them as victims only weakens the few checks on their power that exist.
What to do instead
Antagonistic groups can be great fun, but think critically about what parallels they have in real life. Unions, elected bodies, or the general public shouldn’t be vilified. White supremacists are natural villains but shouldn’t be glorified even a little, which limits their effectiveness as a fictional threat. However, it’s fine to invent some shadow cult or target a group that has a lot of privilege, such as a golf club.
The only way to create a realistic narrative where the public acts as an antagonist to your heroes is to make your heroes marginalized, and that has to be treated very sensitively. It’s not worth doing unless that’s something you’re passionate about depicting.
When thinking about classism, keep in mind that it intersects heavily with other forms of oppression, such as racism and ableism. Racist policies designed to punish people of color destroy social safety nets that everyone, but especially marginalized people, needs. Wealthy oligarchs spread bigotry to build a following they can use to amass more wealth. The dismissal of low-income people continues because many of those people have additional traits that society stigmatizes, erases, or ignores.
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