Sex, Drugs, and Family Conflict Appeals More to Elites Than to Ordinary Moviegoers
Prestige television and the people who produce and consume it
We are now nearly 3 weeks out from the publication of my debut book Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class. It will be available on February 20.
Please preorder now:
Audible (I narrated the audiobook myself)
Why are there so few happy families on prestige television?
As I’ve written before, I’ve watched a lot of it. Spoilers ahead.
The fourth season of The Sopranos portrays the collapse of Tony and Carmela’s marriage. The fight in the finale between them showcases the immense talent of the actors.
Lots of prestige TV shows portray crumbling marriages.
In FX’s (hugely underrated) The Shield, Vic and Corrine go through a separation in the second season. I suspect part of this is because the actress who plays Corrine is married in real life to the show runner Shawn Ryan.
Even in the first season, Vic and Corrine rarely show affection for one another. Perhaps Ryan didn’t want his wife to get too close to the star of the show. Interestingly, Vic is often shown hooking up with a female colleague. Part of this, of course, is to show that Vic is not a good guy, despite his claims to be a family man. Another reason is to indicate his interest in women.
And other great shows, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Affair, and Mad Men depict their stars divorcing. Sometimes more than once.
Hollywood often portrays marriage as a trap. Stagnant and dull.
But when you look at the upper class in my beloved home state of California, they are far more likely than average to be married. For example, the marriage rate for college-educated parents in California is 20 percentage points higher than for non-college graduates.
Among the richest zip codes in Los Angeles, between 50 and 70 percent of households are married. Many of the people living in these areas are Hollywood executives and creative types working in show business.
In contrast, in the poorest areas, less than 15 percent of households are married.
Sixty-eight percent of Californians with a college degree say that it is personally important for them to have their own kids within marriage.
But eighty-five percent of Californians with a college degree say that family diversity, “where kids grow up in different kinds of families,” should be publicly celebrated.
My best friends in high school:
1 raised by his grandmother because his mom was an addict and his father was in prison
2 raised by single moms; one of whom had a new boyfriend living in their apartment every other month
1 raised by his dad who was married and divorced 5 times before we graduated high school
And me, raised in a variety of turbulent situations
According to my fellow Californians—the affluent ones—these different arrangements should be celebrated. The richest Californians say these environments should be praised for my friends and me. Meanwhile, they privately make very different choices about how they raise their own kids.
Luxury beliefs are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while inflicting costs on the lower classes.
Does entertainment have to contain sex to appeal to audiences?
In his fascinating book “Story” — which The Last Psychiatrist has called a “textbook of psychoanalysis” — Robert McKee discusses what he terms “The Law of Conflict”:
“When a protagonist steps out of the Inciting Incident, he enters a world governed by the Law of Conflict. To wit: Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict. Put another way, conflict is to storytelling what sound is to music…The music of story is conflict…when stories lack conflict, the writer is forced into ‘table dusting.’”
McKee wrote that conflict is key to keep a story going. But do stories have to involve sexual conflict to sell?
Research has found, for example, that there is no relationship between box office receipts and sexual content. But there is a significant correlation between sexual content in a film and the number of Oscar nominations and awards received. Interestingly, another study found that while sexual content predicted lower box office success, it had no overall effect on award nominations, suggesting viewers really don’t like it while critics and tastemakers are indifferent to it. Though even here, sexual content did not predict Oscar nominations, it was slightly positively correlated with likelihood of Golden Globe nominations. Moreover, while depictions of smoking and drug and alcohol use predicted lower box office success, such depictions predicted an increased likelihood of both Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. Finally, while tense family scenes had no effect on box office sales, they predicted an increased likelihood of award nominations.
The general picture is that in movies, sexual content, substance abuse, and scenes depicting family turmoil seem to appeal more to elites than to ordinary people.
One of the most successful sitcoms from my childhood, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, portrayed a happy family. I wrote about Uncle Phil didn’t have a mistress. Aunt Viv wasn’t hooking up with her TA. I wrote about Fresh Prince, among other shows, at length here. Interestingly, sitcoms, typically geared more toward regular people than elites, often depict happy marriages.
Modern Family is one notable recent example. But why are such families typically represented only in situation comedies? Maybe the thinking is that it’s only okay to present happy families in a humorous way.
In Mad Men, ad executive Don Draper says the idea that “sex sells” is a way for uncreative corporate types to fool themselves into thinking they understand how the psychology of advertising works.
Peggy Olson: “Sex sells.”
Don Draper: “Says who? Just so you know, the people who talk that way think that monkeys can do this…You are the product. You—feeling something. That's what sells. Not sex.”
This is true. But Mad Men contains lot of sex, which bolstered its appeal to its audience, which was disproportionately educated and affluent. Attractive people smoking and drinking and having sex with strangers appeals more to the upper classes than the lower classes.
Conflict in a story can take many forms, but sexual content, family antagonism, and heavy substance use are especially appealing to affluent viewers.
You can read more about social class, pop culture, and elite duplicity in Troubled, my forthcoming book. Preorder here:
Audible (I narrated the audiobook myself)