White Collar’s Problems with Class (and Beyond)
July 25th, 2012
White Collar is a show about the elite chasing down the elite. While representing the government, the white collar bureau of the FBI is hardly recognizable as even middle class given that our vantage points are the well-off Peter Burke and the globe-trotting criminal Neal Caffrey. Meanwhile, the people they track down are often business men or men of power, people who have private security firms and operate in high-rises as opposed to slums, meaning its New York City setting is pretty well limited to the most affluent of the boroughs.
However, this only makes the show as classist as most television programming, which tends to focus on the wealthy and well-off as opposed to those of a lower class. USA’s lineup is filled with other examples, whether it’s Royal Pains (where Hank, despite struggling financially to begin the show, is placed in the lifestyle of the wealthy Hamptonites to quickly erase his relative poverty), or Covert Affairs (where Annie lives in her sister’s guest house), or Burn Notice (where Michael, despite having no money to his name, transforms his warehouse-living existence into a sign of humility as opposed to destitution), or Necessary Roughness (where “money problems” mean the slow erosion of college funds by a frivolous ex-husband while continuing to work as a high-paying therapist to wealthy clients), or…well, you get the picture.
However, we’re conditioned to accept the inherent classism of television content, so it’s unlikely these shows resonate as particularly offensive. The past few weeks of White Collar, however, have more directly addressed or failed to address the lower class in their storytelling, and I’ve come to the point where I felt the need to comment on it. Since my off-handed Twitter remark picked up some response, I wanted to expand on it briefly to explain where the show has gone wrong in its evocation of the lower class at the start of its fourth season, and why the show’s “elite” DNA is more capable of addressing issues of class than its execution would suggest.
When White Collar‘s writers chose to set the first two episodes of the season in Cape Verde, they chose a specific location with a distinct local culture. Of course, because shooting in Cape Verde (located off the western coast of Africa) would be inefficient for a show that films in the U.S., USA chose to shoot the scenes in Puerto Rico, where they’ve also shot location work for Covert Affairs and Royal Pains in recent years. However, this meant that a country where the official language is Portuguese and where the Creole population is the dominant ethnicity (with their own language based on the Portuguese) is being replaced by a country where Spanish is the primary language and the local pool of extras is largely Spanish in origin.
This makes the show’s decision to have the characters speak Spanish—and, of course, English—throughout the two episodes incredibly suspect, and we could obviously talk about the erasure of the local culture more generally (and I intend to, in my dissertation). However, while we can see the confusion between Spanish and Portuguese as a matter of utility for the featured performers in the episodes—as the actors are likely more familiar with Spanish—given the shooting location, do you think there would ever be a conversation about researching the regional Creole dialects spoken on an everyday basis? And would they ever consider the ethnic diversity of their setting when casting non-speaking extras, perhaps focusing more on those who would be more likely to represent the residents of Cape Verde as opposed to Puerto Rico? Creative license is understandable when it comes to characters central to the plot of an episode, especially for a show that does so often focus on the rich white collar criminal hiding out on the island as opposed to the common people. However, their choice of setting brought with it a distinct cultural identity that would be most evident among the lower classes, and the show’s non-existent attempts to reflect this reveals the consequences of the general classism of television programming.
In last night’s episode, “Diminishing Returns,” we saw something quite different. In the episode, Peter is removed from the white collar unit as a punishment for his involvement in Neal’s escape from custody, and he is placed in the drudgery of ‘The Cave,’ also known as evidence processing. This is not exactly an uncommon trope in crime procedurals, but at its core is the belief that consignment to “menial” labor in evidence processing is a punishment despite the fact that countless non-white collar FBI employees make their living in this environment.
Of course, “Diminishing Returns” doesn’t allow us to meet any of them. Instead, Peter is overseen by a antagonistic supervisor who buries him in cell phones to itemize, labor that is seen as a barrier to “real police work” rather than a necessary administrative task required in order for the FBI to operate smoothly. It’s one thing to make the argument that warehouse drudgery is boring, or that it can occasionally function as a prison (as the episode alludes to with Neal and Peter’s lunches in what Neal compares to “the yard” based on his time in the big house), but usually there’s some semblance of the community shared between employees. Here, though, it’s being used as something for Peter to escape, something for the episode to devalue to prop up the importance and excitement of the show’s usual crime-solving by comparison—the time clock is treated like a torture device, as though Peter has never worked a regular day in his life.
While many procedurals hide the labor of the lower rungs of their internal bureaucracies (although CSI‘s lab technicians and Bones‘ “squints” suggest shows focused more on the forensic side of things can be exceptions), here the very act of their labor is trivialized to an extreme degree. Even when Neal and Peter use the evidence job as an excuse to gain access to a van used as part of the “important” crime, it’s a transfer organized by Diana off-screen as opposed to something facilitated by one of Peter’s new co-workers we never meet. Even when it comes to the labor the warehouse employees are supposed to perform, it takes a “real” FBI agent to get something done.
These issues have always been part of the show’s DNA, so one could argue that criticizing them is futile (or, if you want to be really cynical, facile). However, when the show moves to a new location, it raises the questions anew: we might be used to the show’s limited depiction of its New York City setting, but the switch to Cape Verde foregrounded issues of class and ethnicity (which are, as always, connected). Similarly, when the show does choose to consider the labor of non-white collar FBI employees for a change, its ongoing struggle with class becomes more prominent in the absence of any conversation on the subject or personification of those employees.
Additionally, I think the show’s DNA is more capable of engaging with class issues than it might seem at first glance. The show has largely chosen to depict the conflict between Neal and Peter as a conflict of “crime vs. the law,” logical given the nature of their relationship. However, at moments Neal has been depicted as a man of the people, as seen in the Cape Verde episodes when he stands up for a young kid who’s being bullied by the “governor” of sorts who runs the authorities on the island. There’s a bit of Robin Hood in Neal’s character, but any sense of actually pushing the Robin Hood angle was undone when they chose to house Neal in a plush Manhattan apartment with an endless collection of dapper vintage suits in the show’s pilot. Neal’s high class tastes complicate his appeal to the lower class, although stripping him of some of those qualities could be a way to allow the character to embrace his less worldly upbringing (which has become a storyline this season).
Additionally, there is the potential to explore Mozzie’s labor more critically. While this is again not pitched as a class issue, and Mozzie’s relative affluence keeps it from truly exploring the lower class, there is at least a clear difference between the labor he and Neal perform—including completing Peter’s menial task while the more important case gets solved—which could become a metaphor for class disparities. Instead, Mozzie comfortably accepts his “behind-the-curtain” role, something that I wish the show could have equally accepted for the people cataloging cell phones into evidence. Perhaps the FBI needs an equivalent to Mozzie, someone who works “behind the curtain” that could at least offer an occasional glimpse at the labor of the lower class and its value to making Peter and Neal’s work possible.
White Collar isn’t suddenly going to become interested in exploring the labor or culture of the lower classes, and in its defense its episodes can occasionally offer an underdeveloped but present critique on the largesse of the upper class. However, even compared to other USA shows (like Royal Pains‘ attempts to have Hank do pro bono work, or Mike’s sympathy for the victims of the corporations he’s forced to defend on Suits, or Michael’s willingness to help the down and out for free on Burn Notice), the people who solve those crimes live in a state of privilege themselves. In scenarios where the show strays outside of their status quo, the failings of their approach to class (and ethnicity) become more readily visible and should push against that status quo along with the specific circumstances on display here.
- Thanks to a bunch of Twitter folk for the push on this—I probably didn’t have time to write it, but it’s something that needs to be written more often.
- Given its focus on white collar crime, the show’s unwillingness to really deal with the Occupy Wall Street movement demonstrates a general unwillingness to engage in both politics—including issues of class—and Politics. I think the discourse around the 1% and the 99% seems like an obvious avenue for the show to explore, and I’d be interested to hear why they haven’t (or if they’re planning to this season).
- If anyone who remembers the show’s first three seasons better than I do can think of a specific episode that dealt with class issues that I’m forgetting, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. I do think the show could do so more consistently, as “special episodes” aren’t sufficient, but I’d like to be challenged on this.