Arrested Development & the pitfalls of the wealthy

Why do so many TV watchers love Arrested Development (whose latest season was released on Netflix last night)? Is it just another sit-com in the cringe-inducing comedy genre, like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm? I think there’s another factor: the show accurately illustrates some common maladaptive life paths of people who grow up in wealthy families.

Every class life experience socializes children to have distinct strengths and limitations, including growing up owning-class life. I’ve talked with many, many people who grew up in wealthy families, knowing they would never have to work for a living, and the issues they struggle with are reflected with surprising accuracy, (though exaggerated grotesquely) in the Arrested Development Bluth family characters:

  • Michael Bluth, the ostensibly sane brother, in fact has the most common owning-class character flaw: he speaks with great confidence even when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about; his urgency about the family’s crises leads him to think he’s always right. He is forever hatching overblown grand schemes to re-make the family business and his life with his son.
  • Buster Bluth, the addle-pated youngest brother, remains a permanent child, because he never has to grow up. He flits from one course of study to another and remains his mother’s companion.
  • The oldest brother, Gob Bluth, is a bottomless pit of need for validation of his worth. Like many people whose wealth was built by an earlier generation of entrepreneurs or talented achievers, he compares himself to them and wonders if he’ll ever measure up. Instead of working for his own accomplishments, he flails about with pointless acts of ego.
  • Lost in her own narcissistic world of consumer goods is Lindsey Bluth Fünke, Michael’s supposed twin. At first, as a progressive activist myself, I was mortified by the mocking portrayal of her as a clueless liberal championing one ridiculous cause after another. But soon I recognized the syndrome of progressives who can volunteer at will: flitting around, doing the exciting or glamorous parts of activism, not buckling down to the hard work of making social change.
  • Lucille Bluth, the matriarch, is recognizable as the archetype of rich women who are expected not to work, but only to consume wealth as a perpetual dependent. Like millions of housewives, her personality and will are too big for her life, so she wields control over petty things.
  • These last four characters’ lack of practical knowledge about how the world works poses a challenge for the younger generation, teenage cousins George Michael and Maeby, who have to figure out the ropes with no help from their parents. Throwing another banana in the trash whenever she embezzles another dollar from the banana stand makes Maeby the ultimate in this hilarious ignorance. But when she accidentally becomes a movie producer, Maebye also exemplifies the ways that success “just happens” to ultra-privileged people through their social capital.
  • George Bluth, the patriarch, has the ruling-class delusion that “The rules don’t apply to me.” He strikes watchers as bizarre because he doesn’t fear what most people fear, such as prison.

Where else on television or on film can we see such a variety of rich people’s archetypical personality flaws blown up into comedy?

Of course, belittling foolish rich people has been a staple of American popular culture at least since Groucho Marx used stodgy upper-class ladies as his foils, and villains have tended to be wealthy at least since Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life.  But these portrayals stay on the superficial level of formality and greed. The super-rich celebrities famous for nothing but their wealth and foolishness, from Paris Hilton to certain Kardashians, are a cultural staple that adds the component of dysfunctional behavior to the television image of the rich: greedy, clueless and messed up. Needless to say, such extremes are atypical of most actual wealthy people. I would argue that the Arrested Development characters’ quirks, while  obviously exaggerated, fall much closer to the actual pitfalls of owning-class life.

In less extreme forms, these personality problems and information gaps show up in many actual wealthy families. Most owning-class people I know are progressive activists and artists driven by dedication to their values, so they struggle mightily not to fall into these pitfalls. But in the absence of the necessities that keep the rest of us tethered to a budget and a daily routine, learning common sense from having to keep our noses to the grindstone, it’s not easy to teach oneself these lessons of working life.

Like all of us, owning-class people find it a challenge to overcome the limitations of our class backgrounds. It’s easy to scoff at the rich, “I’d like to have their problems!” But honestly, I wouldn’t want to face the task of finding my way without needing to work for a living. I hope seeing bigger-than-life comedy about their cultural limitations helps some owning-class people laugh their way to change.

1 Response

  1. Cari Gulbrandsen
    Cari Gulbrandsen

    Hi Betsy. Your post made me think about how the wealthy and privileged are prone to being stereotyped and having assumptions made about them just as the poor are. I will admit it is sometimes hard to conjure up a lot of sympathy for their “problems”, as you mentioned in reference to Arrested Development.

    I don’t have any of their “super richness” experiences, and I am certainly not part of their world, but I do know that the “real life” wealthy are human. This means the wealthy and privileged can suffer loss, have personal or relationship problems, get cancer, become injured or disabled, experience disappointment and the list goes on. While, yes, they do have more resources to cope with these things, material abundance doesn’t exempt them from experiencing the full range of the human condition.

    As I tune in to your blog more frequently, I realize the magnitude of the work ahead. Engaging in cross class conflict and crossfire is not going to do a lot towards solving the social problems we have to contend with in our everyday lives, and more abstractly on national and global levels. The truth is, we need each other’s help to solve some of these things. This is where your organization has made a genuine contribution by bringing people together.

    At a personal level, I know for certain I will have to get past my own assumptions and accusations of those with more privilege. I will be the first to admit that I can become smug in my own class analysis and tend to automatically blame the wealthy. I am trying to become more reflective on my own judgments. Maybe I am a disillusioned optimist, but I would like to believe that some of the privileged are inclined or have the capacity to share their privilege for reasons other than tax advantages.

    My work, community and student activities have exposed me to many circles. If I am honest with myself, I will admit that I have heard classist, sexist, racist, homophobic or otherwise oppressive statements come from all across the class spectrum. As I became more conscious of this reality, it created some discomfort for me. I had become too comfortable in my personal circle of mostly feminists, social workers, activists and helping professionals and didn’t want to address that some of us can be part of the problem.

    I try to remind myself that grasping and learning about classism and other forms of oppression has taken me years and extensive reflecting on my own personal experiences. Along the way, I had several gentle teachers and mentors who didn’t criticize when I was clumsy or didn’t have the just right words or actions. For those of us who feel confident in our class-consciousness, we can give back by nurturing this awareness in others.

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