Everybody Else’s Biggest Problem: The Inner Ring

Welcome to the fifth installment of act two of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s […]

Mockingbird / 3.8.16

Welcome to the fifth installment of act two of author Ted Scofield’s series on everybody else’s biggest problem but your own. If you missed one or more of the previous installments, the entire series can be found here.


The Showtime series Billions opens with a shirtless man in his underwear, bound and gagged, supine on a hardwood floor. A dominatrix stands over him, one spiked heal on either side of his chest. She squats, just a bit, and urinates on him. His face transmits ecstasy; he revels in the humiliation.

In the next scene we see the man in his elegant office. He’s a public servant, a United States attorney. Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades is short, slump-shouldered, paunchy, profane and weak-chinned. (And, for some reason, I assume he won’t drink a drop of Merlot.)

Next we meet Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, the titular man with the billions. Not only does he have a cool name, he’s handsome, fit, and he has a hot blond wife with whom he gets along fabulously. In the ensuing scenes we learn that Damian Lewis’s Axe is self-made, a Horatio Alger rags-to-riches Hofstra grad. He’s the smartest guy in the room and wonder-dad to his two sons.

This being television, Chuck Rhoades also has a beautiful wife, but she appears older than Axe’s flashy blue-eyed blond, and she’s brunette. Chuck argues with Wendy, isn’t particularly good with his kids, and we’re quickly told that Wendy earns eight-and-a-half times what poor schmuck Chuck earns. Moreover, Chuck is the silver spoon son of a powerful, wealthy lawyer whom we assume got his son his presidential appointment.

The inaugural episode ends. Blessed billionaire Axe is a Master of the Universe and, oh yeah, probably a criminal. Comparatively poor and wretched Chuck upholds the law and likes to get peed on.


In Act One of this series on greed, we concluded that as a society we cannot define the term, yet we’ll point an accusatory finger at just about anyone but ourselves. The other guy is greedy; I am not.

Today we’ll investigate a subliminally obvious fifth answer to the follow-up question, Why? We’ll examine how the media portrays people with and without money and conclude it has a profound influence on how we view our own existential desire to accumulate cash.

Let’s start with what we all know: Americans watch a lot of television. How much? According to recent data from Nielsen, the average American watches five hours of TV per day. FIVE HOURS. Lower-income households, below $25K, spend nearly twice as much time watching the boob tube compared to households with annual incomes over $75,000.

Impressionable young people? Even with school and homework and extracurricular activities and Snapchat, they still manage to watch about three hours of television programming daily, on multiple platforms of course.

So, what are we passively absorbing during all these hours of TV viewing? How does our pop culture portray working-class Americans versus middle-class versus the very wealthy?

A 2015 study in Psychology of Popular Media Culture found that “working-class fathers continued to be depicted less positively than middle-class fathers.” The study’s author notes that “poor” fathers are portrayed as “kind of bumbling” and “incapable.” They are “immature buffoons and schemers.” In an article entitled “Social Class and Television,” researcher Richard Butsch concurs: “The prototypical working-class male is incompetent and ineffectual, often a buffoon, well-intentioned but dumb.” (Recall the topic of a previous post, Bucks are Brains, discussing our societal association of money with intelligence.)

European studies find the same results. “The marginalisation of white working-class people across Europe,” reported the Guardian in 2014, “has been fuelled by media stereotypes portraying them as feckless, lazy scroungers.” The Open Society Foundations concluded “working-class people are depicted as poor, unsocialised and sometimes violent.” Finally, a 2013 BBC special titled Totally Shameless: How TV Portrays the Working Class found that “poor and everyday working people have been invisible onscreen as producers opt to show more extreme stereotypes instead.”

Speaking of extreme stereotypes, a 2001 report in the Journal of Social Issues, “Media Images of the Poor,” concluded that low-income folks are far more likely to appear on reality shows such as Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake and Cops than as characters in scripted series. Furthermore, in what might be deemed the understatement of the decade, the “real-life depictions present the poor and working class in a distorted and negative light.” Susan Douglas, a professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, adds: “Behind the scenes, of course, by the producers these people are referred to as ‘trailer trash.’”


Why are realistic working-class characters rarely depicted on scripted programs? With the exception of offensive reality TV depictions, why are the poor virtually invisible in our pop culture? Author Shannon Ridgway answers:

Because no one wants to see or hear about it. We’d much rather watch a show about rich, superficial housewives squabbling over trivial issues, or New Yorkers living in huge apartments that they somehow magically can afford, despite having jobs that pay moderate wages, or no jobs at all.

I doubt any of us are surprised that the middle class fares much better on TV. “In most middle-class series,” Richard Butsch writes, “both parents are mature, sensible, and competent. It is the children who provide the antics and humor.”

In Hollywood’s version of reality, even characters earning working-class salaries manage to live high on the hog. American Public Media’s Krissy Clark points out that “Hollywood’s inflated version of the middle class is alive and well.” She references New Girl, a Friends reboot in which, yet again, a group of young people with middling incomes “live in a gorgeous loft in L.A.”

While the middle class is portrayed as idyllic, “the American family ideal,” we are particularly obsessed with “ogling the filthy rich,” as The New York Times noted in 2014. “Several Academy Award contenders like ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ and ‘American Hustle’ glorify white-collar criminals and scammers, and many reality TV shows embrace the wealthy too.” If you’re of a certain age, like myself, it’s impossible to forget Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which ran from 1984 until 1995, with Leach’s catchphrase, a slogan for the era, “Champagne kisses and caviar dreams.” Indeed, Leach’s raison d’être, the sole object of the show, was ogling.

Leach’s legacy lives on in today’s reality TV. From the mind-boggling Housewives oeuvre to Shahs of Sunset to Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, Americans certainly do embrace (allegedly) unscripted shows about the wealthy.

And, sure, the white-collared Gordon Gekkos of pop culture are often portrayed as villains, but are they really? Patrick Bateman notwithstanding — or maybe just the opposite? — no one physically gets hurt by most of these guys; the well-dressed men use their wits and confidence to beat a system many of us deem corrupt and biased when it’s working as intended. And when Hollywood doesn’t show us even one victim of the Wolf of Wall Street’s penny stock scams, can we really be that upset with Leo Dicaprio’s Jordan Belfort? He’s the cute kid from Titanic who loves our Earth as much as his private jet!

As usual, nothing is new under the sun. In 2011 The Economist declared: “It’s hardly news that most popular culture concentrates on the economic elite. The characters in 19th century English novels chiefly comprised two social classes: aristocrats, and impoverished aristocrats.” One might add that most all of Jane Austen’s popular novels then became 20th and 21st century movies, celluloid celebrations of the landed gentry. Heck, if Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet today it would be a Bravo sensation called Rich Kids of Verona. Mercutio’s death would be broadcast during sweeps week, a DVR-worthy “very special episode.” But I digress.


In John Hughes’s 1986 romantic comedy Pretty in Pink, Molly Ringwald’s working-class Andie has a crush on Andrew McCarthy’s high-society Blane. Meanwhile, Andie’s low-income friend Duckie, played by Jon Cryer, has a crush on Andie. After inviting Andie to the prom, Blane is pressured to dump her by his wealthy buddy Steff, the film’s “villain,” impeccably performed by a slick and slimy James Spader. Weak and clueless Blane succumbs to the peer pressure and breaks Andie’s heart. With a little help from New Order, Andie sews a dress from scraps, goes to prom with Duckie, and in the original ending, they end up together, dancing to David Bowie’s “Heroes,” a working-class triumph over money-fueled snobs.

But test audiences hated it. They wanted Andie to end up with the pasty guy with the BMW, the guy who lied to her, the guy with money, the society insider, Blane. Hughes reacted, it is called show business, after all, and the rest is history.

Why do we want the girl to end up with the rich guy? Why do we root for Bobby “Axe” Axelrod to win his battle against Chuck Rhoades? As the Times asked, “Why are we so obsessed with watching the antics of the 1 percent?” Is it because we want to be rich ourselves, to win over our true love and live happily ever after as gilded members of the 1%?

In 1944, C.S. Lewis delivered a lecture at the University in London titled “The Inner Ring” in which he lamented the universal human desire to join social circles perceived as more elite than our own. Speaking before gender-neutral language was de rigueur, Lewis said:

I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. This desire, in one of its forms, has indeed had ample justice done to it in literature. I mean, in the form of snobbery. Victorian fiction is full of characters who are hagridden by the desire to get inside that particular Ring which is, or was, called Society. … We hope, no doubt, for tangible profits from every Inner Ring we penetrate: power, money, liberty to break rules, avoidance of routine duties, evasion of discipline. But all these would not satisfy us if we did not get in addition the delicious sense of secret intimacy.

I suggest pop culture, from the literature of yesteryear to the Rich Kids of Beverly Hills today, provides us with a fantasy means of stepping inside the Inner Ring. Television and film serve up a visually vibrant and vicarious vacation from our reality. My own novel, Eat What You Kill, is a story built around a troubled protagonist’s overwhelming desire to get inside an Inner Ring of money and privilege. Few of us can keep up with the Kardashians’ wealth, but all of us can join them in our living room every week. Keeping Up with the Kardashians has won numerous Teen Choice Awards and a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Guilty Pleasure. Season twelve rolls out this spring. Multiple spin-offs include traffic-snarling gems like Kourtney and Khloé Take the Hamptons.



What’s the result of all this vicarious voyeurism, this veritable wealth porn? “We found that the more people watch television, the more materialistic they are,” conclude three marketing professors writing for the Association for Consumer Research. Television, with its “superficial emphasis on money and status … glorifies the acquisition of material goods and services.” We know the result: The more we watch, the more we want. And how far are we willing to go to get what we want?

“Of all passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things,” C.S. Lewis warns. Is that why Axe is handsome and fit and confident while Chuck is a toilet? Is that why we glorify the Wolf of Wall Street and hold vigil for Lamar? Power, money, liberty to break rules, avoidance of routine duties, evasion of discipline. We want them to be beautifully bad, we need to identify with their bad, elevate it above the good, so we can be bad too.

We want what they have — the homes, the cars, the clothes, the celebrity — and television provides us with “the delicious sense of secret intimacy” we crave. But it’s fleeting. It’s never enough. It’s Champagne kisses and caviar dreams. We want more.   We want the dreams to be real, and that shiny borrowed reality must be bought with cold, hard cash.

But that insatiable desire cannot be greed. After all, television teaches us that accumulating the cash that buys us the stuff makes us not only better people, but better parents. If the raw money grab offends our moral or political sensibilities, or our fragile view of self, no problem, we can convince ourselves that money and power are just fortuitous byproducts of our noble quest to provide for our families.

Similarly, membership in the Inner Ring isn’t really for us; it’s for someone else, most notably the children. We can’t control the actions of Stanford’s head of admissions, but with enough money and the appropriate application of power, we can get Junior into the right pre-K program.

Let’s face it, our passion for the Inner Ring is ultimately a passion for control, which we believe money and power can purchase. Television gives us a taste; we want to swallow it whole.

C.S. Lewis’s dear friend J.R.R. Tolkien also wrote about a ring that bestowed power and control. Forged by the Dark Lord Sauron, the personification of evil, the One Ring was inscribed: “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”

What darkness do we seek to control with our money and power? What is my One Ring? What is yours?