The Middle-Class in Film

The middle-class, traditionally thought of as: polite and educated, or — depending on your point of view — conventional and status obsessed. It’s something of a cliché in Hollywood films to have affluent, middle-class characters (owning attractive homes or metropolitan apartments, surrounded by desirable possessions, and living aspirational lifestyles) holding down well paid or high status jobs, being part of a functional family unit, a shiny new car parked outside — the ‘comfortable’ middle-class life. But, there’s an alternative take on this ‘idealised’ lifestyle — its superficiality, and how it fails to address deep emotional needs, or questions. The characters are caught up in an arms race: keeping up with the neighbours, wearing the right dress, driving the right car, putting the kids in the right school, living in a decent neighbourhood — sending the right signals out into the world. The struggle to ‘look the part’ can take precedence over happiness or meaning.

The complications and stresses of modern life are putting the family under pressure. The solution is usually to go on holiday, to have a break, to regroup and come up with a new strategy. In National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) the father hopes to spend more time with his wife and family by taking them on a fun holiday, which he hopes will provide a bonding experience, and in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) the father hopes to give his family a traditional Christmas, like the ones he enjoyed when he was a child. While in RV (2006) a father attempts to give his family the vacation they demand (within his limited financial budget), while keeping his demanding boss happy. In these stories the stress of ‘looking the part’ and keeping the family satisfied is taking its toll. In Jingle All the Way (1996) the father will go to any lengths to get his son a Turbo-Man action figure for Christmas (to give his son the Christmas his more affluent neighbour can provide). The answer in all these stories is not luxury holidays, recreating the fantasy of an old fashioned Christmas, or giving material gifts; it’s connecting with people, spending time with family, and expressing emotional affection.

The middle-class life is ‘comfy’, because the main characters have things under control — until a threat appears. The threat story involves a direct challenge to a character or their family. Suddenly, the hard won and maintained middle-class lifestyle is in danger. In Date Night a couple have their quiet, suburban life turned upside-down because of mistaken identity. This brings their comfortable life into the dangerous world of organised crime, but they’re able to adapt and use their initiative to survive. This reaffirms their bonds and makes them appreciate one another. The home invasion is another threat scenario. In Home Alone (1990), a middle class child is left to defend the family house against (working class) burglars. In Pacific Heights (1990) an enterprising young couple (renting out apartments in their attractive property) battle a psychotic conman who forces himself into their life. How can a nice, polite middle-class couple — who play by the rules — protect themselves from a disturbed madman who will go to any length to steal everything they have?

Another plot involving a threat to the middle-class lifestyle is the unwelcome gate-crasher, or the invited ‘plus one’; these outsiders fail to conform to social expectations, or they are not what they first appear to be. They either bring enlightenment, or introduce danger. In a celebratory, fun, comedy, a troubled, difficult or ‘alternative lifestyle’ character (working class, non-materialist, etc) brings enlightenment. In a dark story, with a warning, they are revealed to be psychologically manipulative, mentally unstable, or a criminal. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) the middle-class desire to be pleasant, to appear liberal, to fit into the status quo, is tested when the daughter brings her black boyfriend home to her white family: his entrance into their lives reveals the prejudice of the parents and their wider social circle. In Fatal Attraction (1987) a man’s foolish sexual indiscretion results in his family being threatened by an obsessive psycho. In Crazy Stupid Love (2005) a disillusioned dad befriends a serial womaniser, only to discover that his new friend is dating his daughter. In Sex Lies and Videotape (1989) a college friend turns up with a dangerous interest in exposing the truth (a counterpoint to his own repressed, inner demons). In Pretty Woman (1990) a successful business man initiates a romantic relationship with a sex worker, and in Uncle Buck (1989) a lazy relative looks after two children, giving them a different kind of education (from the selfish materialism they’re used to): teaching them how to stand up for what’s right and to have empathy for others. In The Door In the Floor (2004) an intern provides the catalyst for the truth to emerge about a family tragedy that has marked two people. And in Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) a yuppie business man is forced to share his life on the road with an irritating loser. In these stories genuine threats are vanquished, and false threats (like the slob in Planes, Trains and Automobiles) create situations where personal development and moral learning can occur.

Sexual desire, and keeping up appearances, are the two main character motivations in The Beguiled (1971); set during the American Civil War, when a wounded enemy soldier convalesces at a private girl’s school. The women have to balance their sexual desire, with their need to have an honest man around who can maintain the school and it’s farm — and yet they must not to appear improper in any way, or to give succour to an enemy combatant. A reoccurring dilemma for middle class characters is the tension between maintaining the appearance of decent behaviour — conformity — and the lies that invariably result in covering up the truth. These lies bring psychological penalties, and emotional anxiety. In Carry On Up the Khyber (1968) the British ‘stiff upper lip’ (maintaining decorum, and duty before personal freedom) is humoured when a black tie dinner takes place during a dangerous invasion, and the officers and ladies ignore the devastation and death taking place around them.

In other war scenarios, traditional middle class values — like conformity and civilised behaviour — come to the fore. In Ice Cold in Alex (1958) a German is allowed to become a prisoner of war, instead of being handed over to the Military Police to be shot as a spy. In Play Dirty (1969) a middle class British Army officer struggles to control a rag-tag band of working class soldiers under his command. In The Sea Wolves (1980) a group of retied expatriates plan a covert mission to blow up a German ship; proving that they have the mettle to participate in a deadly war. But in The Three Feathers (1939, 1977) a man suffers after being accused of cowardice — breaking the middle-class conformity of patriotism. While in The Bridge over the River Kwai (1957) a British Army officer, who needs a sense of purpose to regain his self-respect, loses a wider perspective on his military responsibilities. And, in the TV series Dad’s Army (1968 - 1977) a pompous middle class bank manager leads a minor Home Guard troop in a small town, believing himself to be a important Army commander.

Where there’s a middle-class need to conform — there will be transgressions. These transgressions occur when people behave in a disgraceful manner unbecoming of their class, committing morally shocking and unacceptable acts. In The Graduate (1968) a university graduate idles his time away, and then has an affair with an older woman from his parent’s social group. Finally, he falls in love with the older woman’s daughter. His behaviour breaks a number of middle class taboos: laziness, not being enterprising, lacking ambition, and violating sexual norms (having a sordid affair with a married woman, who is also a family friend), and then running away with a women (who already has a fiancé with good career prospects). In Belle de Jour (1967) sexual repression and deviancy force a woman to behave in a morally questionable manner, while maintaining the appearance of being a respectable wife. Dogtooth (2009), Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and The Ice Storm (1997) explore the price of deviant sexual behaviour, sexual freedom and experimentation, power and status.

If there isn’t something strange going on within the family — it could be happening next door. This is the strange neighbours plot. It begins with the main character noticing something unusual happening next-door; their suspicions escalate into a larger conspiracy theory, which may or may not turn out to be genuine. In Rear Window (1954), and Disturbia (2007) the central characters believe that a murder has taken place, in The ‘Burbs (1989) weirdos have moved into the neighbourhood, and in Arlington Road (1999) an apparently ordinary dad who lives in the neighbourhood turns out to be a murderous terrorist.

In the mid-twentieth century, notions of what constituted normal middle class behaviour began to change with new attitudes about racial equality (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), and individualism (The Graduate); in marked contrast to the social conformity earlier times. By the 1980s a new breed of middle class kid had arrived on the block; he zealously embraced capitalism, and understood how to turn every challenge to his advantage. He had an appreciation of the finest things in life: expensive Hi-Fi equipment, European sports cars, and drugs. In Risky Business (1983) a middle class teenager outsmarts working class gangsters, playing organised crime at its own game, and winning the love of a beautiful sex worker. This new breed of middle class hero made their own rules and, through the power of their charisma, were able to turn convention on its head. In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) a student manages to have an adventure, and beat the system.

Not everyone can be a winner. The anti-hero is usually unable to fit in with middle class expectations, and defined by a sense of failure. In Sideways (2004) the two central characters don’t measure up in any way, and are painfully aware of their own shortcomings. One of the characters marries a woman from an affluent family who can give him respectability, and financial security, while the other finds a woman who he can help him define himself in his own way. In Withnail and I (1987) the central characters enjoy a slack, drug and alcohol dominated life. At some point they will have to reconcile themselves with their destructive lifestyles, but the story told here explores their friendship, and the comedy of their denial: their perception of themselves as struggling (but incredibly talented) actors, when they are, in reality, lazy wasters.

There are times when middle-class characters can only learn or develop as people if they venture outside of the comfort of their middle-class world — to learn what life means from working-class characters, or by leading a different lifestyle. This is the swap plot, when a character swaps his or her role or takes on a new role (a workaholic dad becomes a stay at home father looking after the kids, an executive works on the factory floor, etc). The swap deemphasises the material aspects of his or her life and emphasises moral learning: becoming a better human being. In New in Town (2009) an uptight, corporate manager experiences the consequences of her managerial decisions, and in Trading Places (1983) a pampered financial trader is forced into destitution (to see if he has what it takes to bounce back) and an impoverished con artist takes his place. They learn from their new roles, and from one another, eventually working together to defeat the manipulative ‘old money’ who have played games with their lives.

Sometimes the veneer of normality cannot be maintained. In Lord of the Flies (1968) English schoolboys must survive on an island after a plane crash, gradually their civilised, middle-class manners disappear, and they return to the ‘law of the jungle’. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) explores the breakdown of a marriage, and American Beauty (1999) examines family disintegration and the search for personal meaning. In The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) the hypocrisy and ironies of middle class life are exposed using a surreal narrative. Lolita (1962) is a story with two tragedies: a home invasion by a monster on a single mother, and her daughter (perpetuated by a monster that appears middle class, and trustworthy). In American Psycho (2000) an affluent, narcissistic businessman — who looks the part — is a serial killer. And in Breaking Bad (2008) a high school chemistry teacher, with cancer, turns to illegally producing and selling drugs, in order to provide for his family (another take on the polite middle class person who has what it takes to outsmart organised criminals).

In traditional stories the middle-class hero is disrupted from his ordinary and respectable life by events. Doctor Zhivago (1965) tells the story of a doctor and his romantic pursuits as he survives the Russian Revolution. In North by Northwest (1959) an advertising executive becomes embroiled in a spy conspiracy. In Bridge of Spies (2015) a quietly spoken but persistent lawyer ensures justice for a Soviet spy and the return of both a captured US air pilot, and a student; and in All the President’s Men (1976) two journalists take on the system to uncover a major scoop about political corruption and presidential misdealing.

Today, with upward — and downward — social mobility, the advent of new and emerging employment sectors (especially in the technology and communications sectors), the reduction in traditional manufacturing and industry, and with wider access to university education, there has been a blurring of differentiation between working-class and middle-class jobs. In addition, contemporary consumer and pop culture has helped change how the middle-class see themselves: where identity is defined by material ownership and consumer aspiration. The social conformity of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (published in 1813), has long gone, but it is nonetheless a world where people still have the same dreams: being socially accepted, playing a constructive role, and deserving love. In Seconds (1966) the protagonist gets to live a second life, to live out his middle class dream, but even this is revealed to be superficial and empty, because meaning and value was already present in his first life — he just couldn’t find it.

The post-World War Two climate brought increasing affluence, and the advent of the mass consumer market. The resulting culture placed greater emphasis on individual fulfilment and personal happiness over traditional notions of duty and social responsibility. A new consensus has emerged where representations of the middle-class in film tend to support a tolerant liberalism: racial equality, sexual freedom, alternative lifestyles, and single parent families. It’s a world where the top priority is just getting along with one another, and figuring out how to be happy. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) the backdrop of sexual antics is really a distraction from the main character motivation: finding themselves. And in Before Midnight (2013) the characters reflect on what really matters: the pleasures and challenges of holding down a marriage, and keeping a family together.