The upper class in America is one of three primary categories of socio-economic class. In this tripartite structure, the upper class is situated at the top of the social ladder, with middle and lower classes below it. Class relations in America, however, are far more complicated and nuanced than this simple structure suggests.

Media depictions of the upper class typically encompass a wide variety of class identities, from the very wealthy to the upper middle class. In fact these class categories overlap and get conflated in media representations, often losing meaning and relevance to the socio-economic conditions of real people.

There is not one single representation of the upper class in American media. Depending on the genre (movie, television, news, documentary), the historical period, the production context (mainstream or independent), and the story being told, there may be a multitude or range of representations. At the same time, even with all these representations, there are some common stereotypes and conventions we can see if we pay close attention to the patterns in what we’re viewing. Historically, the upper class has been portrayed as…

… sophisticated, well-educated, well-dressed, well-mannered, well-spoken, rich, privileged…

These stereotypes and conventions may not reflect our reality or any reality we personally know or recognize. In fact, they simply may be common shorthand used by those working behind-the-scenes doing the writing, directing, producing, casting, set design, costuming, hair and makeup.

If we can start to see patterns, even in the smallest details of someone’s dress, where they live, what they do for work, how they speak, we can begin to understand how representations create meaning, perpetuate ideologies, and potentially reinforce stereotypes.

dig now

Begin by making a list of the types of upper class representations you can think of in American media. Also, look at the examples and resources on this site tagged “upper class.” Then, consider:

  • What types of representations are these?
  • Are the characters stereotypical or complex?
  • If they are stereotypical, what kinds of stereotypes do you notice?
  • Are upper class men and women represented differently than their counterparts in other classes? If so, how?
  • Are there differences in the way upper class individuals of various races and ethnicities are represented? If so, what are the differences? How do they manifest?
  • Are the stereotypes of upper class individuals based on how they look? What they say? How they speak? What they do for work? Where they live?
  • Are they protagonists or antagonists? Heroes or villains?