Representing social classes in films on television and in cinema in English-speaking countries
University of Rennes 2, France - 10-11 October 2013
An international conference organised by Rennes 2 University (Research unit ACE - EA 1796, 3L.AM - EA n°4335 and HCTI) on
Thursday 10th and Friday 11th October 2013.
Confirmed keynote speakers:
Jonathan Bignell, Professor of Television and Film, University of Reading, UK
Richard Butsch, Professor of Sociology & American Studies, Rider University, New Jersey, US
Michael T Martin, Professor of American Studies, Communication and Culture, Indiana University, Bloomington, US
Andy Medhurst, Senior Lecturer in Media, Film and Cultural Studies, University of Sussex, UK
On becoming Prime Minister in 1990, John Major promised to build a “genuinely classless society”. This aspiration sounds all the more daunting and surprising since the British have always appeared so obsessed with class. The notion of social class is now defined not only by someone’s occupation and the expression of their social status in language for instance, but also by their lifestyle, their social connections and their habits of cultural consumption (Bourdieu’s notion of habitus). The recent advent of David Cameron and Nick Clegg at the head of the government has been described as the “return of the toffs”, as both leaders hail from upper class families and have attended prestigious public schools and universities. Conversely, journalists and sociologists have documented the emergence of a new social category called the “chavs”, loud, aggressive working class youth. Unsurprisingly, both television and cinema films bear witness to this enduring fascination for class distinctions: from the lasting popular success of television series such as Upstairs, Downstairs (LWT, 1971-1975, updated in 2010 by the BBC) or the multi-award-winning Downton Abbey (ITV, 2010) to the character of Vicky Pollard in Little Britain (BBC, 2003-06), from the nostalgic indulgence of heritage films to the scathing criticisms of films following Ken Loach’s social realism, films have shaped and challenged stereotypes that articulate the ideological discourse on class.
In stark contrast to the British class system, other English-speaking countries are geared towards a classless society. In the United States, the American dream and the myth of the self-made man hold the promise of an open society where people have the same opportunity to climb the social ladder. As a tremendous dream machine that has also permitted spectacular social achievements, Hollywood nourishes and sustains the myth of an open society while generally eschewing realistic representation of working class living conditions. Some films do take into account workers’ issues. Nevertheless, images of the middle class have prevailed along with racial and political discourses that contribute to marginalizing other classes - be they the ruling dynasties or the underclass. Indeed, cinema and television dramas more often than not mirror the mainstream ideology by extolling the virtues of the middle class, their social aspirations and their conservative values. However, archetypal figures of success have also been parodied or subverted in films produced in times of economic crises or by minority filmmakers.
The aim of the conference is to explore representations of social classes in fiction and non-fiction cinema and television films made in English-speaking countries. Our purpose is to study how films document a social reality that in return seeps into their narrative, how they contribute to building a collective and stereotypical representation of social groups, or how they question and undermine these representations.
Possible topics include, but are not limited to, the following:
- The representation of class in different types of medium (cinema / television) and genres (fiction and nonfiction films)
- The representations of social groups and their ideological underpinning
- The representation of class cultures
- Spectatorship, film reception and social classes
- The relationship between the aesthetics of kitsch and class
- The representation of labour conflicts and social unrest
- The relations between class and gender, class and generations, class and ethnic minorities
Proposals (250 words) along with a short biography should be sent by March 1st 2013 to: firstname.lastname@example.org Delphine.Letort@univ-lemans.fr email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org
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