Table of Contents
Part I. The British Working Class in the Course of the 20th Century
1. The "Old" Working Class
2. The "New" Working Class
Part II. The Representation of the Working Class in the Films Brassed Off and The Full Monty
1. The Characters' Socio-Economic Situation
2. The Social Bonds
3. Working class Pride and Traditionalism
4. The Workers' Male Identity
5. Regional Identity
Social class has always been a basic topic of British film-makers. Especially the New Wave films of the 1950s and 1960s represented class, and particularly the working class, as one of their main issues. At a time of increasing consumerism, Americanisation, commercialisation and growing affluence the lower ranks of society feared a demise of their class identity, as they were traditionally associated with a lower socio-economic status (Hill 2000a: 178; Eley 1995: 19). Later, in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher's politics of de-industrialisation and individualism destroyed not only a huge part of the workers' traditional working places and, thus, of their social basis, but also of their class identity (Eley 1995: 40; Monk 2000: 275). Now the stress of the films' narrative lay on the social effects of mass unemployment and poverty rather than on the consequences of growing working class affluence and embourgoisement (Hill 2000a: 178). As the socio-economic effects of Thatcherism were still noticeable in the 1990s, that decade's films' narrative was also centred around unemployment and social disadvantage of the lower classes.
Two of these films which focus on the lives of working class people in the 1990s are Brassed Off (Mark Herman, 1996) and The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997). Both films take unemployment in traditional working class industries and its social and psychic effects on the people involved as their themes. The main focus of these motion pictures is on working class people and their way to manage their lives without work and financial means.
In this respect, it is particularly interesting to analyse the representations of class, and especially of the working class, in these two films. As films always convey certain ideas and images, and, thus, re-presentations of the "real world", it is of particular significance to filter out these recorded images to understand what 'sense of the world' (Cooke 1996: 298-9) the film is making, i.e. how the film-maker interprets and presents the "world outside" to the viewer. According to Richard Dyer (quoted in Cooke 1996: 299), four different aspects of representation can be considered: First, the concept of representation, i.e. the sense of the world the film is making, second, the typicality of the representations, i.e. the question of what the film considers to be typical in society, third, the producers of the representations, i.e. the question who is responsible for the representations on screen, and fourth, the recipients of the representations, i.e. the audience.
This essay, which is going to analyse the representation of class in Brassed Off and The Full Monty, will particularly focus on the typicality of the representations. The question will be, in which ways the films can be seen as "typical" working class motion pictures. In this respect, the stereotyping of the social classes in these two films will particularly be focused on. Stereotypes are based on oversimplified and preconceived ideas of the characteristics of a particular person, situation or group (Oxford English Dictionary 1989, "Stereotype"). With regard to Brassed Off and The Full Monty, it will be analysed if classes, and particularly the working class, are represented in such an oversimplified way or if the films represent new and innovative images of the social ranks.
According to Eley (1995: 21), the images and stereotypes of the 'traditional working class culture' as they are presented in many films refer back to 'a historically specific formation of the period between the 1880s and the 1940s'. That was the time when the popular image of the working class was formed; according to Eric Hobsbawm (quoted in Eley 1995: 21) it was 'the working class of cup finals, fish-and-chips shops, palais-de-danse, and Labour with a capital L ', recognisable 'by the physical environment in which they lived, by a style of life and leisure, by a certain class consciousness increasingly expressed in a secular tendency to join unions and to identify with a class party of Labour'. Yet, although the working class underwent several substantial changes in the course of the 20th century, causing an increasing demise of the traditional working class culture and its distinctive characteristics, many film-makers still fell back on these images and stereotypes when producing a film. In this context, it shall be analysed if the makers of Brassed Off and The Full Monty also used such stereotypes to produce an image of "the good old working class" as it was many decades ago. In order to gain an understanding of these working class stereotypes, the first chapter of this paper will deal with the "old" working class as it existed at the turn of the 20th century and its main characteristics.
Yet, it shall also be investigated whether Brassed Off and The Full Monty offer new approaches to the question of class representation, and especially the representation of the working class. Because, as one could expect, not only the traditional working class culture changed drastically during the 20th century, but also its images and stereotypes as presented in films. According to Hayward (1996: 348), 'stereotypes come and go; they also change in the light of the shifting political cultural context'. That is why it will be examined if this 'shifting political cultural context' found expression in the representation of class in Brassed Off and The Full Monty. For a better understanding, the characteristics of the "new" working class as it existed at the end of the 20th century will be dealt with in the second chapter.
Part I. The British Working Class in the Course of the 20th Century
1. The "Old" Working Class
The characteristics of the "old" or "traditional" working class are best described by David Lockwood and his colleagues (1966, quoted in Saunders 1990: 108), who had carried out the famous 'Affluent worker' study in 1966 to analyse the British class system. According to him, the "traditional proletarians" consisted mainly of those men who worked in the heavy industries such as coal mining, shipbuilding or in the steel industries. These workers were above all characterised by a very strong sense of community, solidarity and fraternalism. As they mostly worked in small and cohesive groups in which they came to know and rely upon each other, a very strong attachment to one's workmates became a traditional signifier of the working class status. These men did not only work together but they also helped each other as best as they could and fought for their rights in unionised groups. As Cashmore (1989: 13) claims, 'working class people have shown impressive solidarity in defence of what they take to be their interests' throughout history. Yet, the emotional bonds of fraternalism between the workers did not only exist at the workplace, but were often carried over into their personal life outside. Apart from their work in the factories or the pit, the workers also tended to spend their leisure time in pubs and clubs with their workmates. In contrast to that, the attachment of the workers to women seems to have been much weaker, because, as Lockwood (1966, quoted in Saunders 1990: 108) says, 'wives and daughters lead strikingly separate lives based on the home'. Apart from the intense relationship between the workers, only the emotional bonds between father and son seem to have been equally robust as the bonds between the workers.
The strong sense of community and belonging together between the workers led to a powerful sense of class solidarity and pride within the working class which, furthermore, resulted in a noticeable turning away from the ruling classes. As Lockwood (1966, quoted in Saunders 1990: 108) says, a clear class division between "us", i.e. the workers, and "them", i.e. the bosses helped to form a distinct working class identity.
Yet, the local factory did not only determine the workers' lives but also the life of the whole community. According to Lockwood (quoted in Saunders 1990: 108), entire villages and towns were often grouped around a single source of employment, such as the local pit, shipyard or dock, which also shaped the physical surrounding of the working people.
Apart from the mentioned characteristics of the traditional working class culture – solidarity, community, fraternalism and pride – Stedman and Gareth (1983, quoted in Haywood 1997: 14) name some further 'conspicuous icons' of working class life which are, above all, symptomatic for the proletarians' personal lives: the extended family, the terraced street, the pub, football matches, the sporting paper, the race track, the music hall, the Sunday stroll and the holiday excursion. Additionally, Haywood (1997: 109) names traditional working class cultural activities such as the brass band.
2. The "New" Working class
Since World War II the British class system has been undergoing numerous drastic changes which also influenced the traditional working class life and its typical features.
While poverty played a dominant role in many proletarians' lives during the 19th and the beginning 20th centuries, the working class entered a period of unparalleled prosperity in the 1950s. They profited, above all, from the remarkable economic changes in Britain after the Second World War which resulted in a steady economic growth and, thus, full employment for most workers and a general rise in their living standards. However, this development also led to an increasing anxiety that consumerism and mass culture would erode the workers' class identity and that the affluence would assimilate the working class into an expanding bourgeois lifestyle (Haywood 1997: 91-93).
Another drastic change for the working class culture came with the 1980s and Margaret Thatcher's politics. Her policies of monetarism, deregulation and de-industrialisation resulted in a far-reaching reshaping of the working class. Above all, the weakening of the workers' economic basis, namely their industries, led to mass unemployment and made the term "working" in working class more and more meaningless. Mainly the staple industries, such as shipbuilding, steel and coal, were hit by Thatcher's policies of de-industrialisation. Furthermore, her crushing of trade union power deprived the workers of a huge part of their traditional class identity (Haywood 1997: 139-140; Green 1990: 28; Dorey 1999: 179-181). After several years of affluence and rising living standards, the working class now again experienced social and economic inequalities such as unemployment, low wages, poor housing and education. However, the study Social Class in Modern Britain, carried out by Gordon Marshall and his colleagues in 1984, found out that the class consciousness and pride among the workers returned during these hard years as the increasing social and economic inequalities between the lower and higher ranks reawakened the "us" vs. "them" feeling (quoted in Marwick 1990: 366).
Even though Margaret Thatcher was replaced by John Major in 1990, the economic and social conditions of the working class people in Britain remained almost the same. As Dorey (1999: 183) says, 'he [John Major] did nothing to foster a new, closer relationship with the trade unions, nor did he seek to provide workers with greater employment protection or job security'. As Dorey (1999: 196) points out, the time of Major's premiership was characterised by '"down-sizing", "delayering", longer working hours, pay cuts, job insecurity, and "macho management"'.
Nevertheless, it needs to be mentioned that the traditional working class as it had existed in the 19th and 20th centuries was more and more vanishing in the course of the 20th century (Saunders 1990:117; Marwick 1990: 363). Above all, the lack of the workers' economic basis, the growing consumerism and technological advance made employment in the manual heavy industries increasingly unnecessary. As workers in such industries were exclusively male, the loss of work also meant a loss of male and masculine identity. In contrast to that, the expanding service sector led to an increasing presence of women in working life. While they were mainly bound to house and housework in the previous decades, they now more and more participated in public life.
- Quote paper
- Alena Friedrich (Author), 2003, The Representation of the Working Class in the Films Brassed Off and The Full Monty, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/14482