Political Animal


April 28, 2012 1:30 PM “The Forgotten Man”: the Great Recession in Popular Culture

By Kathleen Geier

We are now several years into what has been one of the deepest, most sustained, and catastrophic economic downturns in U.S. history. One notable feature of this downturn is how relatively infrequently our current hard times are finding representation in popular culture. Oh, there have been a smattering of pop culture creations that at least make an attempt to respond to the ongoing economic crisis. Some of the newer sitcoms, like HBO’s Girls and CBS’s 2 Broke Girls, nod toward their protagonists’ economic anxieties and downsized opportunities and expectations. The occasional mainstream Hollywood movie like Michael Clayton presents a bleak and depressing portrait of the depredations of corporate America. And as Katha Pollitt has noted, novelist Suzanne Collins’ riveting Hunger Games trilogy can be read as “a savage satire of late capitalism: in a dystopian future version of North America called Panem, the 1 percent rule through brute force, starvation, technological wizardry and constant surveillance.”

But for the most part, it’s downright eerie how little of the intense economic suffering that so many are experiencing is finding expression in novels, films, television, music, and the like. (Though by all means feel free to point out stuff I’ve missed in the comments). I’m a gigantic fan of classic Hollywood movies, and I’m struck by the fact that, even amongst the abundance of fluff and escapist fair that Hollywood produced in the 1930s, filmmakers then frequently and directly acknowledged the role of the Great Depression on people’s lives, in a way that films and television don’t often do today.

Of course there are many good reasons for this. The impact of the Great Depression was far more severe, and programs like unemployment insurance, food stamps, and Social Security, which have done a great deal to alleviate the harshness of the current economic downtown, did not yet exist. Even so, there seems today to be a greater disconnect between the economic struggles people are currently facing and the degree to which our culture acknowledges these struggles, and gives voice and visibility to the people experiencing them.

This cultural disconnect struck me especially hard when I recently attended a screening of one of my favorite films, Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933. It’s one of the masterpieces of the classic Hollywood era, and trust me, it’s not until you see it on the big screen that you can fully appreciate the force of the Busby Berkeley’s demented genius. The “We’re in the Money” production number that opens the movie, with that gloriously lunatic moment in which Ginger Rogers start singing the lyrics in pig Latin, has long been referenced as an iconic moment of pure Hollywood escapism. But even that song had lyrics that acknowledge an economic reality principle: “And when we see the landlord/We’ll look that guy right in the eye.”

Most striking of all is the song that culminates the film, the “Remember My Forgotten Man” number. Smack dab at the tail end of this fizzy, fruit cocktail of a movie comes an unexpectedly powerful, achingly earnest, ballad urging the audience to remember the “forgotten man” — all those hard-working, once proud veterans, farmers, and laborers who have fallen on economic hard times. It’s social consciousness in the best Warner Brothers 1930s style, a moment of genuine, we’re-all-in-this-together solidarity. There’s even a smidgeon of racial diversity, when an African-American woman sings a verse of the song.

Take a moment like that, and contrast it with the way contemporary pop culture by and large erases and marginalizes the huge number of unemployed, underemployed, or otherwise economically struggling Americans. It speaks volumes about the insularity and out-of-touchness of our contemporary cultural elites.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee


  • Big River Bandido on April 28, 2012 3:16 PM:

    In a way, it's hardly fair to contrast today's "pop culture" with the 1930s, when we had one. TV and movies, for all their hype, capture a smaller and smaller audience every year, and I don't need to point out that the recording/music industry is experiencing an implosion that can only be described as catastrophic.

    "Entertainment" today is the thinnest of "escapes", and has been for well over a decade. "Seinfeld" and "Friends" (two shows that never caught on among non-white audiences, I might add) were based on humor about trivial nothingness. But they were rather substantive shows compared to today's "reality teevee" (i.e. no writers or creativity needed).

    In short, today's "popular media" don't address "pop culture" at all. The "creators" of it are stuck in a bubble of unreality — which, combined with the evisceration of arts education in this country for the last 30 years, is why fewer and fewer people even bother to pay attention anymore. Hollywood is completely remote from the lives of "real people", and it shows in the crap it puts out.

  • buddy66 on April 28, 2012 3:32 PM:

    Point taken, but I grew up 75 years ago in a hooverville without indoor plumbing or central heating and there were times when we were REALLY hungry; there were no Wal*Mart fatsos back in the day, no obesity on the breadlines. There has always been a hidden America of poverty, even in the otherwise best of times, although we have not yet equaled the lows of the 1930s. Alas, I think we probably will. Twentieth century capitalism is sputtering to an epic fail, and the party's almost over.

  • TerryS on April 28, 2012 3:51 PM:

    99% of "Pop Culture" is corporate created mass media
    designed to get us hooked and watching the product
    placement and commercial breaks.

    Corporations have no interest is portraying economic
    distress unless it involves a lot of gun-fire and violence.

  • Six on April 28, 2012 4:42 PM:

    Busby Berkeley was a bold man for his time. One of his other movies, Footlight Parade, took on the growing power of censorship in Hollywood as a subplot, mocking it and exposing its inherent hypocrisy.

    It's fascinating to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same. That moment when Joan Blondell turned back the man's collar to show his service award to the policeman...wow.

    Could you even imagine such a number being produced today?

  • Rick B on April 28, 2012 4:45 PM:

    @Big River Bandido seems to have a lot of the problem. Add to that today the studios making films make primarily blockbuster attempts that will cover much of their cost in the international market. The independent films that might take up the slack and do real stories about real or semi-real people don't get the distribution or reviews that would make them profitable.

    And TV? It effectively died in the writer's strike about a decade ago. Remember how suddenly the crap-but-cheap-to-produce "reality TV" shows appeared? Cable? Costs too much to buy. Nothing on it anyway.

    @buddy66 - Yep. LBJ's anti-poverty programs were remarkably successful in lowering poverty, but they didn't eliminate it. Then the conservatives under Reagan took after them with a meat axe and lies-lies-lies. Today the absence of healthy food to eat is concealed under globs of McDonald's cheap junk. My neighborhood has seen real supermarkets pulling out leaving convenience stores and liquor stored mixed with used car lots ("We tote the note - at super high interest and we try to get you to miss payment so we can repossess the car for resale") and check-cashing/Payday-loan shops. The poor are seen as fields to be plowed for money by the financial predators.

    Non-nutritious but cheap fat, sugar and fried foods have replaced true famine. The best meal you can buy is a 7-11 hot dog with chili and cheese topped with onions and relish as the vegetable course.

    @TerryS The gun-fire, explosions and violence sell well to third world markets who don't need to follow the dialog very closely. As you say, it is carefully crafted corporate junk food designed by focus group criteria to extract the greatest total revenue. There's really as little reflection of real America as possible.

    Fortunately I'm not cynical.

  • Anonymous on April 28, 2012 6:04 PM:

    Not every big star is ignoring working people.

    Watch Bruce Springsteen's new song, "Jack of All Trades" on YouTube. It's a simple song, but it captures all the emotions of a struggling working class man -- frustration, hope, despair, pride, shame, anger . . . Plus it finishes with a solo by Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine.

    It's one of Springsteen's best.

  • John B. on April 28, 2012 7:31 PM:

    Up in the Air (2009; IMDB link here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1193138/) did a good job, I think, of showing the effects of layoffs on, even, middle-management types--the idea that, whereas in previous recessions administrators were pretty much immune from downturns, this time around they got the ax, too. But this is the only film I can think of that addresses this recession.

  • FridayNext on April 28, 2012 7:59 PM:

    There was also Margin Call about the 2008 financial collapse. Company Men about a company downsizing. Winters Bone could be lumped in there, but the problems in Appalachia pre-date the current ugliness. There is a Bobcat Goldthwait joint coming out this summer called God Bless America, that has the theme of the decline of American written all over it, but whether it comments directly on the economic down turn, I have no idea.

    Also, though Breaking Bad technically starts before the 2008 downturn, it definitely taps into middle class anxieties of living on the financial edge with one Dr's visit between getting by and collapse.

    Since you mention Hunger Games, I have also heard Walking Dead explained as a metaphor 21st Century capitalism. Also, but Repo Men and The Island are two other Sci-Fi films that contrast the 1% with the rest of us in similarly broad strokes.

    There have been some documentaries. Inside Job springs to mind.

    Also, while Jack Abramoff, Bernie Madoff, and Enron happened well before 2008, the movies about them came out AFTER 2008. I think it is fair to consider them in this group. I think history will look back at these three episodes as harbingers, or possibly more, of the recent downturn.

  • JEA on April 28, 2012 8:14 PM:

    Upbeat musicals and comedies dominated the 30s; Shirley Temple was the biggest star of the era.

    It waasn't until later that movies like "Grapes of Wrath" were made.

    Perhaps people watching TV and movies want escape a lot more than they want reality, and Hollywood understands that.

  • matt w on April 28, 2012 9:47 PM:

    Bridesmaids. It looks like a movie about a woman whose life collapses when she seems to be losing her best friend to marriage (and a rival best friend), but it's really a movie about a woman whose life collapses when the business she's always dreamed of opening fails in the recession.

  • Roddy McCorley on April 28, 2012 10:51 PM:

    Whatever the faults of the studio system, the moguls knew how to connect with their audiences. So they understood that acknowledging and reflecting the world those audiences lived in was good for business. Also, they made a lot more movies - hundreds as opposed to the perhaps dozens that get made by the major studios today. That meant a wider range of movies would get made, which increased the chances of the sort of subject matter that you cite being touched upon. You could take a chance (sort of) knowing that the rest of the slate would ameliorate the loss. (In fact, some of the more lavish spectacles of the era fell into that category, at least initially.)

    Last and certainly not least, unlike today the movies made under the studio system were exactly that - movies. They were not part of a synergistic cross-platform marketing strategy. Movies today aren't really movies - they're commercials for the DVD release, at the very least. That's if they're not commercials for the toy line, the fruit snacks, the soundtrack album, and every other goddam thing.

    That's not to say that there aren't filmmakers today working out of passion and real vision - clearly there are - or that the studio system was wonderful - clearly it wasn't. But art and commerce had a different relationship 70 or 80 years ago. And if it didn't exactly favor art - does it ever? - it at least coexisted with art a bit more comfortably.

  • Werewolf on April 28, 2012 10:54 PM:

    "Homeland Refugee" by The Flatlanders.

  • Barry R on April 28, 2012 11:21 PM:

    I agree with you about 'Golddiggers of 1933' - one of the great ones, but not just for the production numbers -- also for the opportunity you get to learn a bit about what life was like during the Depression. Think about the 'We're in the Money' number - first, from the lyrics, their idea of being "in the money" is never seeing a "headline about a breadline", and "when the landlord comes you can look that guy right in the eye". So their idea of being in the money was not being rich (apparently too extreme to be possible), but just escaping poverty. Second, consider how that number ended -- when they're in the middle of singing and dancing about being in the money, the Sheriff comes in and shuts the show down because they hadn't paid their bills. Also, watch what happens in the non-production numbers. There is of course a lot of silliness. But consider that the female leads clearly hadn't paid their rent in ages, are reduced to stealing milk from the neighbors, and, when they hear that there might be another show coming out and need to send someone to meet the producer, the three of them didn't have a dress to wear between them (presumably having been pawned). Despite this, the movie has tons of fun it, as they manage to put on a show despite the long odds.

  • c u n d gulag on April 29, 2012 6:06 AM:

    Hey, what happened to my comment from yesterday?

    It was clean! :-)

  • Deb S on April 29, 2012 7:31 AM:

    What about The Driver? The main character is nameless, everyone is poor or else a manipulator operating on the other side of law and order, the emotional environment is bleak, relentless, and painfully un-ironic. Seems to me to capture the state of affairs in this country perfectly.

  • Deb S on April 29, 2012 7:47 AM:

    I'd like to add that the idea of 'the forgotten man' has been quite subverted in this era. If you are poor, ill, unemployed, struggling, the general and accepted attitude is that you probably deserve your bad fortune. You certainly don't deserve government help, you freeloader. The real 'forgotten man' is the One Percenter who's the job-creator, the wealth-maker, the poor guy who works 24-7 on the 99%'s behalf and then finds himself (it's almost always a him) being flagellated by the envious poor for his well-earned reward.

    With the exception of journalists such as Katharine Boo and local reporters who don't get national exposure, very very few media writers/reporters deal in depth with regular Americans -- save to satirize them in juvenile ways or add to their ignorance by failing to produce meaningful reporting on the economic issues of the day. But we get routine hagiography and unquestioning acceptance of the High and the Mighty all the time in the media.

  • Skip on April 29, 2012 9:32 AM:

    "this fizzy, fruit cocktail of a movie"

    I LOVE that line...

  • Shokai on April 29, 2012 11:47 AM:

    Another year of this and we're gonna end do this to each other: http://youtu.be/cJxmmbMsns8

  • Procopius on April 29, 2012 12:05 PM:

    I've noticed the lack of awareness. Where are the Youtube videos of homeless shelters and soup kitchens? I was born right at the end of the Depression, but I remember growing up as a kid hearing things like, "Why don't you stay for supper? We can always add a little water to the soup." I've been thinking that this time there isn't nearly as much real, shared suffering. The New Deal and War On Poverty programs protected the plutocrats this time, but by insisting on sweeping those away, I think they're setting up a future that is a lot more like the 1930s. You have to remember that back then there was real fear among the rich that there could be a violent revolution. This time, not yet. They're clearly relying on the pervasive surveillance their building to prevent people from threatening their rule, That and the militarization of the police. Why else would the police department of Little Rock need a medium tank? I was thinking "The Treasure of the Sierra Madres" was made earlier, but I just looked it up and it wasn't made until 1948. Still, the story is about Americans GOING TO MEXICO TO LOOK FOR WORK!!! That's how bad thins were in the 1930s

  • Nelson on April 29, 2012 2:23 PM:

    One of the biggest reason is that that the US entertainment biz has been haliburtonized and now the majority (almost 90 percent)of it is controlled by multi-national entertainment companies.

    And, like all good mnc they excel at profit overseas and less taxes paid here. So to keep it that way any protest or gasps "popular entertainment" about them being job killing, tax doging corporations sure as rain ain't going to get pushed out by them.

    Just look at the Census data on imports/exports. It will show that the USA is on track to become a net importer of music. That's pretty sad considering US Made Music used to be 80 percent of the music released world wide.

    PS Feel free to entertain our economy to death or start supporting US MADE MUSIC.

  • ECON on April 29, 2012 3:27 PM:

    A Czech film director during the democratic Havel regime noted that the mainstream media was totally ignored by the people because they knew it was lies and propaganda by the all powerful state. He noted that it is too bad that western countries calling themselves democratic are not recognizing the lies and propaganda in mass media and their governments and corporations. As a foreigner to USA, there is an infinite evidence that the country is being amused to death while little consciousness of the real political economy and the lie of "exceptionalism".

  • Branch Isole on April 30, 2012 7:00 AM:

    Perhaps the definition of "Popular Culture" is too limiting as described by this article. There is a plethora of "Pop Cuture" commenting going on, beyond the movie industry(in which most companies are wholly or partially owned, or off-shoots of corporations).

    There is an abundance of cross cultural and cross demographic real-time, relevant expression taking place in literature, specifically in the world of poetry for example.

    Oh, right, then the participant hawould have to do something, like read.