Nowadays any attempt to consider social group identity means that social class cannot be avoided for long (Weltman, 2008). Indeed, class is one of the few concepts that we are able to recognise, understand and employ in every context (Biressi et al, 2013). Social class refers to divisions in society that are ultimately based on economic and social status. As social class is an issue that is so rampant in society and is “lived, formed and challenged” everyday (Scharff, 2008:332), it is therefore clear that the media holds an extreme importance in its construction to audiences. Thus, it is paramount that the constructions of social group identities such as class being portrayed via key media channels are analysed thoroughly. This essay will outline the construction of working-class groups on TV in their position in contrast to their peers in university institutions. In order to do this fully, various topics will be considered such as elitism based on social capital, working class stigma, the concept of habitus dislocation (Baxter & Britton, 2001; Lehmann, 2007b) and imposter syndrome. In order to fully answer the question of how the media constructs social class, this essay will use a semiotic approach to a critical discourse analysis and look to the BBC drama ‘Normal People’ to explain how these issues mentioned are presented through the main characters of Connell and Marianne and how these constructions exemplify the existence of the middle/working-class divide evident in contemporary university institutions.
Lehmann (2009:633) notes that class remains “a factor that profoundly shapes individuals lives, their experiences and their identities.” Therefore, it is no surprise that many entertainment channels have taken to express social class through portrayals of characters who hold positions of middle and working class. Hence, this duplication of real-life issues therefore ultimately concretises the evident divisions that are shown every day. This is particularly true regarding the prominence of class in the BBC drama ‘Normal People.’ Adapted from the best-selling book, ‘Normal People’ tells the story of Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron; two students trying to find one another through the struggles of social and class divides. Connell’s mother is employed as the cleaner for the upper-middle class Sheridan family; thus we are reminded constantly of the class divisions between the two protagonists. However, whilst the issue of class is undoubtedly existent throughout based on this, the struggles of class divisions are projected when the main characters move to Dublin for University at the overwhelmingly middle-class Trinity College. From this point, class divisions are easily observed and very reminiscent of real life working and middle-class detachments in multiple ways.
A main way in which this is shown is through the representation of elitism in the contrast between middle and working-class students in the social capital that they hold and the consequent lack of relatability that working-class students feel as a result. Social class and its link to cultural and social capital can be best understood as being “formed through material conditions and economic (in)securities…shaped by early disadvantage or natal privilege” (Biressi et al, 2012:1). This suggests that based on a middle-class privilege, working-class people do not have the “right kind of knowledge or taste” (Lawler, 2005b:797) and that middle-class individuals have greater access to become a subject of value, ultimately positioning working-class groups as foundationally “’other’ to middle-class existence” (Lawler, 2005a, p:431) as a result.
This construction of working/middle-class divisions based on social capital is evident within ‘Normal People.’ For example, by analysing the use of clothing within the programme, we see a stark contrast between what Connell wears at university and what outfits his peers are wearing. Connell’s fellow students are all well put-together, wearing “plum chinos and waxed jackets” (Field, 2019) whereas he is seen wearing jeans, t-shirts and tracksuit bottoms and always wearing a backpack, which one student calls “very 90’s” in a patronising tone in order to make a judgement towards him. Biressi et al (2013:18) highlights that “the language of social class continues to be drawn on to label and judge others.” Furthermore, Lawler (2005a) notes that in constructions of working-class identities through mass media, bodies – in “their appearance, their bearing and their adornment” are central in positioning working-class groups lower than their middle-class counterparts in the cultural hierarchy of society. This analysis is clear within the construction of class in ‘Normal People’ and ultimately emphasises the reality in the way in which working class people are often “devalued relative to middle-class identities” (Weltman, 2008:3) and are often viewed by the elite middle-upper class as “little more than personae in a bourgeois drama” (Lawler, 2005a:442). This construction of working-class and its social distinction against middle-class behaviours is further highlighted by the student housing shown. Marianne’s house is inherited from her aunt and the level of quality in the cosy and luxurious furniture along with the warm lighting that cascades through the house undoubtedly symbolises a detachment from the small bed in the shared room Connell’s shared hosing arrangement, described by one character as “brutal.” Ultimately, further aiding in the construction of the middle/working class division that exists at university simply through a distinct difference in material resources (Lawler, 2005a).
Class inequalities in university, however, cannot be concluded as “simply a matter of economic inequality but also as circulating through symbolic and cultural forms” (Lawler, 2005b:797). Therefore, it is important to note that “lower social class is a potential stigma” (Goffman, 1961:145) in which individuals might want to escape from by accumulating ever-important cultural capital to “transcend their status boundaries” (ibid:333). The circumvention of this stigma often presents itself through mass media as lower-class individuals are shown concealing their class group. Ultimately, therefore, allowing for working-class to be often “viewed as a process of becoming” (Weltman, 2008:2), a complex entry into middle-class existence. This stigma that follows working-class students and their desire to evade it in order to bridge the gap between themselves and their middle-upper-class peers most frequently means that people, in attempts to avoid feelings of inadequacy (Aries et al, 2005), involve themselves in typically middle-class activities. Often when settling into university, working-class students will change how they dress and change their dialect or accent, overall adopting new “identities that are more associated with the more elite social classes” (Granfield, 1991:339). Whilst seemingly a negative ideology to change ones existence to fit in, for working-class students, concealment and the changing of identity allows them to “better participate in the culture of eminence that exists with schooling institutions” (ibid:340) and allows them to reap rewards as a result. Thus, highlighting the existence of class divisions within universities and the subsequent impact that it can have on working class-individuals in the fleeing from their own class group.
This concept is prevalent within ‘Normal People’. When Connell and Marianne are at school, Connell is the popular, GAA player who thrives in the mix of class backgrounds whereas Marianne is the cultural outsider. However, when placed in the environment of the predominantly middle-classness of Trinity College, Connell is undoubtedly faced with the stigma surrounding his social class. This is presented early in his college career when following his response of being from Sligo, he is told “yeah, I can see that.” This shows the stigma that surrounds him as a member of the social class and underlines what Biressi et al (2013:1) believe in their statement that class is shaped by “classed judgement of others.” Moreover, the constructions of working-class individuals and their attempts to disassociate with their class is also clear in multiple instances throughout. Whilst Connell is undoubtedly smart, it is through Marianne that he makes the decision to go to Trinity and study English – something abnormal from someone of his social status. Furthermore, whilst at university Connell engages in various typically middle-class activities such as “art galleries, holidays and casual bottles of wine followed by casual political debates” (McCaughey, 2020). Furthermore, Connell eventually secures a scholarship that gives him excess money and allows him to travel around Europe. However, the response from another middle-class character Jamie, in his patronising mockery of how much the scholarship has “changed everything for him” also shows that whilst it is possible for working-class students to adapt their lifestyles and levels of capital to enhance their status, social class, predominantly for working-class groups, is something “in the very core of your being” (Kuhn, 1995:98). Therefore, the construction of class through ‘Normal People’ irrefutably highlights evidence of the existence of lower-class stigma and its existence in university institutions.
Consistent with the constructions of the reality of lower-class groups feeling a level of stigma in middle-class institutions, Bourdieu’s (1977) concept of habitus is relevant. The concept of habitus is explained in that our class level is ingrained in our habits, skills, and dispositions. However, in noting that groups, particularly when portrayed through the media, are likely to have a desire to change this, it overall presents “class as a dynamic rather than static” (Scharff, 2008:332) trait. As although habitus is a product of our early life experience, it is continually “modified by individuals’ encounters with the outside world” (Reay et al, 2009:1105). Therefore, it is often represented that when working-class students move to university and are exposed to vast numbers of people in different social classes, they consequently get a taste for the life of the social elites. As a result, they appear to face a challenge in managing tensions “between social mobility, class loyalty and class betrayal” (Lehmann, 2007:632). Ultimately, introducing the problem of habitus dislocation (ibid). Baxter & Britton (2001:99) note that habitus dislocation is described as “a dislocation between an old and newly developing habitus which are ranked hierarchically and carry connotations of inferiority and superiority.” Therefore, representing an inner conflict within working-class identity in that by adopting a new way of life, working-class people find it harder to relate to their old lifestyle, leaving them disconnected with society.
This issue of habitus dislocation is thoroughly explored through Connell’s college experience in ‘Normal People’. When moving from being part of the popular group in school to a new world at university, his position in the social hierarchy switches significantly and he becomes acutely aware of his social class position in the “rarefield air of the university” (Till, 2019). Furthermore, in a juxtaposition to Marianne’s ability to gravitate towards her new life, Connell finds it a lot more difficult to adjust and simultaneously loses his ability to relate to his life in Sligo. As a result, we see Connell continuously struggle with shyness, anxiety, and depression. We explicitly see his thoughts on the dislocation that he is in whilst talking to a mental health counsellor where he highlights “I just felt like I left Caricklea thinking I could have a different life. But I hate it here and now I can never go back there again.” Through this dialogue, we see that as a member of the working-class community and in his time spent surrounded by middle-upper class individuals, whilst he is not enjoying his new life at university, he feels that he can no longer fit in at home either and therefore feels extremely disconnected to society around him.
As a result of the clear construction of working-class habitus dislocation through the mass media. Another element that is often portrayed alongside of this is the concept of working-class individuals often feeling a strong sense of imposter syndrome amongst their middle-upper class peers. Imposter syndrome refers to feelings of “not belonging, out-of-placeness and the conviction that one’s competence, success and likeability are fundamentally fraudulent” (Breeze, 2018:195). Imposter syndrome and its constructed connection with the working-class students on television is rooted in the “mis(recognition) of the working-class as being of lesser value” and as “particularly suited to specific forms of labour” (Lyle, 2008:320). Therefore, as access to university, both in reality and in television portrayals continues to be constrained by social class (Lehmann, 2007b), the importance of its inclusion in connection with the construction of social group identity is irrefutable. Furthermore, it has been noted that whilst working-class students in their entry into their chosen middle-class establishments is deserved, these students continue to feel like outsiders which ultimately makes succeeding particularly difficult based on the fear of being discovered as incompetent (Senett & Cobb, 1973), thus further highlighting the need for media representation.
The issue of imposter syndrome is dealt with in multiple ways through Connell’s university experience in ‘Normal People’, primarily in the contrast between himself and Marianne. Marianne’s place at Trinity was inevitable and was barely noted in the programme, however Connell’s decision to go to Trinity is a surprise to many. For example, when talking with Rachel’s parents, he is met with shock when they find out his plans to study at such a highly respected university because to them only people of high status could have aspirations like that. Furthermore, Connell’s first few days of university is the prominent theme of a number of episodes and his first time on campus is shown with a soundtrack of climactic orchestral music – signifying the importance of that moment. These examples set the character of Connell up for the forthcoming construction of his class leading him to feelings of imposter syndrome, as it is evident how bizarre it is for someone like him to be there. The contrast between Connell and his course-mates also highlights his feelings of imposter syndrome. Whilst he easily matches, and in some cases surpasses them in academic ability, his inability to connect with them renders him lonely and questioning of his adequacy. We see him struggle with this in a seminar environment where course-mates are speaking eloquently about literature and Connell evidently feels out of his depth, simply stating that he agrees with what everyone else has said. The most explicit example of Connell’s feelings of imposter syndrome however are shown through his relationship with Marianne, highlighting that “class matters both inside and outside the walls of the university” (Fleming et al, 2017:150). It is obvious that Connell questions his self-worth in relation to the divisions between his and Marianne’s class, as shown by his explicit statement that he is “out of [her] social class”. This illuminates the construction of his working-class based imposter syndrome as whilst it is clear that him and Marianne have a connection deeper than societies class restrictions, his imposter syndrome is prolific in his mind. Overall, emphasising that class is inextricably bound to our existence.
In conclusion, it is clear that it is no longer the experts or social elites who control our knowledge about the world, but instead it is largely the representations established and presented by the media (Biressi et al, 2013). Furthermore, whilst it has been argued that we, as a society, are beyond class, it is clear that class remains an ongoing social process that we cannot escape. As a result, the constructions of class on televised media are increasingly important. By studying the constructions of working-class and the apparent division between itself and middle-class in ‘Normal People’, we see a number of important themes. Furthermore, by looking to the codes connoted by Connell in his portrayal of working-class, we see areas that are wholly reminiscent of reality and how university institutions have become a “mechanism of class stratification” (Soares, 2007:182). Thus, whilst it could be argued that television does not provide scope for representation of social group identity, with shows similar to ‘Normal People’ being released more frequently, it is evident that constructions of social class on TV can undoubtedly teach audiences vital information and challenge the “boundaries between entertainment, politics and education” (Biressi et al, 2013:74).