Culture
2:39 am
Tue August 5, 2014

From 'Good Times' To 'Honey Boo Boo': Who Is Poor On TV?

Originally published on Tue August 5, 2014 9:47 am

Like it or not, television has the power to shape our perceptions of the world. So what do sitcoms, dramas and reality TV say about poor people?

In life and on TV, "poor" is relative. Take breakfast: For Honey Boo Boo's family, it's microwaved sausage and pancake sandwiches; for children in The Wire's Baltimore ghetto, it's a juice box and a bag of chips before school; and on Good Times, set in the Chicago projects back in the 1970s, it was a healthier choice: oatmeal.

"If you're poor, it goes a long way — and it's pretty cheap," laughs Bern Nadette Stanis, who played Thelma Evans on Good Times.

Good Times debuted in 1974, in the midst of a recession. Many people were struggling, and for a time it was one of the highest-rated shows on TV — but Good Times also drew criticism for giving the impression that being poor isn't so bad, as long as there's love.

But Stanis says that, based on her personal experience, that's true. "I too was raised in the projects in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the Brownsville neighborhood. I lived in a two-bedroom apartment with my mom and dad and five children, so there were seven of us, but we also were rich in education and in love," says Stanis.

Good Times also tackled some of the bad times facing poor communities, like drug addiction and gangs. Norman Lear, who co-produced the show, says that above all, they wanted to make people laugh — but they also wanted story lines that resonated. Before the 1970s, he adds, TV pretty much ignored poor people.

"The biggest subjects in television comedy were 'The roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner,' or 'Mom dented the car and how do the kids and mom keep dad from finding out,' " says Lear. "There were no political problems. There was no poverty. That was the total message, wall to wall, floor to ceiling."

There's a lot of debate about TV's depiction of poverty. Do audiences empathize with the poor people they see or look down on them?

Take one of the most recognized — and reviled — of today's reality TV shows: TLC's Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. The Thompson family is overweight, crude and obsessed with child beauty pageants. One critic in The Washington Times called Honey Boo Boo's family "stupid, lazy and hopeless." Another, in Salon, said it's an example of reality TV's "endless carnival of the impoverished-on-display."

But journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz — who covers education for NBC — disagrees with the charge that the family is exploited. "I see them being very playful with each other and being unapologetic about their circumstances," she says.

David Simon, on the other hand, thinks reality TV shows cater to stereotypes. "I can't get a handle on anything that's human," says the creator of shows including HBO's The Wire and Treme.

Simon says his shows try to explore the human condition and create characters who live in poverty but still have distinct personalities, relationships and dreams. For example, in The Wire, set in Baltimore, a member of a drug crew looks after several children in the projects where they live.

"We were about the America that got left behind," says Simon. "We were saying something legitimate about that portion of the country that doesn't have a lot of television shows made about it."

The Wire was critically acclaimed and nominated for numerous awards, and was used at Harvard in a course on "urban inequality," but was never a ratings winner. Simon believes most Americans aren't interested in watching TV shows where the main characters are poor.

"They want to watch shiny, pretty people," he says. "There are currencies in television, and the two main currencies are sex and violence. The third one is laughs. And to the extent that poor people can suit those currencies, great."

Sex and laughs are the currencies on the CBS sitcom 2 Broke Girls. The main characters are two beauties: Max, who's been poor her whole life, and Caroline, who's newly poor now that her Bernie Madoff-type dad is in jail. They end up waitresses at the same Brooklyn diner.

As unlikely as that might seem, Nona Willis Aronowitz says it rings true in this post-recession world. "In previous decades we might have said, 'One is rich, one is poor, and never the twain shall meet.' Now one is broke and one is poor, and they're in the same job."

The most talked-about TV show depicting poverty right now is the gritty comedy-drama Shameless on Showtime. The show focuses on six unruly white siblings on the South Side of Chicago who are pretty much raising themselves. They party, clip and even steal coupons, scam and — mostly — survive. They also have to deal with their deadbeat dad, an alcoholic who's often passed out.

Like many TV shows about poor people that have come before it, the fictional Gallaghers of Shameless often use humor as a coping mechanism. Norman Lear says that's fine, so long as the poor characters are the ones making the jokes. "The human condition is sufficiently foolish to find comedy anywhere. People smile through their lives," he says.

Lear should know — he grew up in the Depression.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we report on the image of poverty.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Being poor is tough enough. But what the public thinks of you when you're poor can make it worse. Listen to a few country songs and you'll quickly come across lyrics about characters who feel scorned.

INSKEEP: Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty. And over those 50 years, television has played a big role in shaping what Americans perceive about those without much money to their names. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this look at who's poor on TV.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Poor is a relative term - in life and on TV. Take breakfast.

(SOUNDBITE OF REALITY TV SHOW, "HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO")

ALANA THOMPSON: Big girls like to eat, honey.

BLAIR: Honey Boo Boo likes to microwave.

(SOUNDBITE OF REALITY TV SHOW, "HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO")

THOMPSON: Sausage and pancakes mixed together, uh-huh.

BLAIR: For a child in the Baltimore ghetto on "The Wire," breakfast was a juice box and a bag of chips.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WIRE")

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: (As Avon Barksdale) No man, he ain't getting no two. Come on man, quit being greedy. Take your chip.

BLAIR: In the 1970s, in the Chicago projects on "Good Times" it was healthier.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD TIMES")

JIMMIE WALKER: (As James "J.J." Evans, Jr.) You try some of that oatmeal. If you make it through the bowl, then I'll try some.

BLAIR: J.J.'s sister Thelma made the oatmeal. She was played by Bern Nadette Stanis.

BERN NADETTE STANIS: (As Thelma Evans) If you poor, it goes a long way and it's pretty cheap.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV THEME SONG, "GOOD TIMES")

JIM GILSTRAP AND BLINKY WILLIAMS: (Singing) Temporary layoffs, good times. Easy credit rip-offs, good times. Scratching and survivng.

BLAIR: Even though it was a comedy, "Good Times" did tackle some of the bad times facing poor communities, like drug addiction and gangs. Esther Rolle played the mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD TIMES")

ESTHER ROLLE: Controlling those kids is up to the parents.

(APPLAUSE)

ROLLE: Now we wouldn't have any gangs if parents took responsibility for their own kids.

BLAIR: "Good Times" was one of the highest rated shows on TV in the mid-1970s, but it was also criticized for giving the impression that being poor isn't so bad as long as there's love. But Bern Nadette Stanis says that's true.

STANIS: I too was raised in the projects in Brooklyn and Brownsville. And I lived in a two bedroom apartment with my mom and dad and five children. So it was seven of us. But we also were very rich in education and in love.

BLAIR: "Good Times" went on the air in the midst of a recession - many people were struggling. Norman Lear, who coproduced "Good Times" says above all, they wanted to make people laugh. But they also wanted storylines that resonated. He says before the 1970s, TV pretty much ignored poor people.

NORMAN LEAR: The biggest subjects in television comedy were the the roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner, or mom dented the car and how do the kids and mom keep dad from finding out? There were no political problems, there was no poverty. That was the total message wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling.

BLAIR: There's a lot of debate about the subject of entertainment TV's depiction of poverty. Do audiences empathize with the poor people they see or look down on them? Take one of the most recognized and reviled of today's reality TV shows - "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" on TLC.

(SOUNDBITE OF REALITY TV SHOW, "HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO")

JUNE SHANNON: The Redneck Games - it's an annual event here in Georgia. It's all about Southern pride, similar to the Olympics. But with a lot of missing teeth and a lot of butt cracks showing.

BLAIR: Overweight, crude, obsessed with child beauty pageants - one critic in the Washington Times called Honey Boo-Boo's family stupid, lazy and hopeless. Another in Salon said it's an example of reality TV's endless carnival of the impoverished on display. But journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz, who covers education for NBC, disagrees with the charges that the family is exploited.

NONA WILLIS ARONOWITZ: I see them being very playful with each other and being very unapologetic about their circumstances.

DAVID SIMON: I hate reality TV. I can't get a handle on anything that's human.

BLAIR: David Simon thinks reality TV caters to stereotypes. He says he tries to explore the human condition with his TV shows. Simon's HBO credits include "Treme," set in post-Katrina New Orleans. And before "The Wire," set in Baltimore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAY DOWN IN THE HOLE")

TOM WAITS: (Singing) If you walk through the garden, you better watch your back.

BLAIR: David Simon says he wanted to show these characters living in poverty as individuals with distinct personalities, relationships and dreams. A member of a drug crew, for example, looks after several children in the abandoned row house where they live.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WIRE")

HARRIS: (As Avon Barksdale) Come on, get up. It's a school day, y'all are going to be late. Let's go, get to school.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 1: Got off of me.

HARRIS: (As Avon Barksdale) Go, get up. Come on, man.

SIMON: We were about the America that got left behind. We were saying something legitimate about that portion of the country that doesn't have a lot of television shows made about them.

BLAIR: "The Wire" was critically acclaimed. It was used at Harvard in a course on urban inequality. But "The Wire" was never a ratings winner. David Simon believes most Americans aren't interested in watching TV shows where the main characters are poor.

SIMON: You know, they want to watch shiny, pretty people, you know, there's currencies in television and the two main currencies are sex and violence and then the third on is laughs. And to the extent that poor people can suit those currencies, great.

BLAIR: Sex and laughs are the currencies on the CBS sitcom "2 Broke Girls." Two beauties - Max, who's been poor her whole life, and Caroline, who's newly poor now that her Bernie Madoff type dad is in jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TWO BROKE GIRLS")

KAT DENNINGS: (As Max Black) The guy who ripped off the entire city is your father.

BETH BEHRS: (As Caroline Channing) He told us we were having a good year.

(LAUGHTER)

BLAIR: Now they're waitresses together at the same Brooklyn diner. In this post-recession world, it rings true, says Nona Willis Aronowitz.

ARONOWITZ: In previous decades, we might've said one is rich, one is poor and never the twain shall meet. Now, one is broke and one is poor and they're in the same job.

BLAIR: The most talked about TV show depicting poverty right now is the gritty comedy drama "Shameless" on Showtime.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV THEME SONG, "SHAMELESS")

BLAIR: Six unruly white siblings on the south side of Chicago are pretty much raising themselves. They party, clip and even steal coupons, scam and mostly survive. They also have to deal with their deadbeat dad, an alcoholic who's often passed out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHAMELESS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 2: I'm going to call Kev and he's going to help me find a park bench somewhere far, far away to dump him.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: He's dying.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 2: No, he's killing himself - there's a difference.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I can take care of him.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS 2: No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: Yes.

BLAIR: The Gallagher's are barely scraping by. And like many TV shows about poor people that have come before it, there's humor in the way they cope. Norman Lear says that's fine, so long as the poor characters are the ones making the jokes.

LEAR: The human condition is sufficiently to find comedy anywhere. People smile through their lives.

BLAIR: Norman Lear should know - he grew up during the depression. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.