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(Structured) Reality Television and Social Class


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(Structured) Reality Television and Social Class

  1. 1. MARCH 2012 Skeggs and Wood (2011) maintain that “allrepresentations are at some level always about class. Television in particular, with its stories of everyday life and ‘ordinary people’, represents the structures of social relationships, from the most intimate to the most global, which are always about class.” Discuss. IDEAS, POLITICS & POLICY 4,185 words Student 1160350
  2. 2. IntroductionThe statement of Skeggs and Wood (2008), forming the title of this essay, comes from their study ofa relatively new genre of programming: reality television. Emerging in the late 1990s and early 2000sin the form of fly-on-the-wall set-ups like Big Brother (Endemol 1999) and lifestyle-contrasting showslike Wife Swap (RDF Media 2003), reality TV purports to portray real people going about their lives,while providing entertainment value through these depictions. Using a series of examples from bothsides of the Atlantic, the authors argue that the new genre is particularly reflective of classdifferences and antagonisms. Not only this, but they assert that both the formats and apparentideologies in programmes such as Ladette to Lady (RDF Media 2005) betray an imposition of middleclass normativity, using a number of convincing examples and surrounding social context.This essay will examine their position in relation to the latest step in the evolution of realitytelevision: structured reality (SR). Originating in the United States in the mid-2000s and quicklymaking the transition to British television, the sub-genre marks a new step by presenting the lives ofits subjects in the format of a conventional drama, blurring the traditional lines betweendocumentary and soap. In the UK as in the US, the programmes depict certain classes of people inhighly stylised and sensational manners. The genre provides potential for class-based insights on twocounts: it portrays real people in their real lives and thus reveals more about reality than a scripteddrama in the style of Eastenders, while the very fact of its heavy orchestration and editing betraysthe class-based viewpoints of producers, who reproduce class-based stereotypes in anticipation ofwhat the audience expects from certain types of people.The essay begins by providing a social context, outlining the development of social class in Britain,arriving at the ways in which the British view and experience class today in light of recent history. Abrief look at the role of British television content in mediating class is followed by introducing thespecific genre of SR. In order to explore Skeggs’ and Wood’s assertion, I will present a class-basedcomparative analysis of two contemporary British SR programmes, depicting lives of the fabulously
  3. 3. rich and the glamour-seeking working class respectively: Made in Chelsea (Monkey 2011) andDesperate Scousewives (Lime Pictures 2011). Through this analysis key insights about therepresentations of class emerge, and conclusions emerge about the extent and implications of thisculture of televised class representation.Class in Britain: The past and the present ‘It is widely believed, both in Britain and abroad, that the British are obsessed with class in the way that other nations are obsessed with food or race or sex or drugs or alcohol’ (Cannadine, 1998)So wrote David Cannadine in his work Class in Britain (1998). He acknowledges the difficulty ofproving or disproving this belief, but its existence is nonetheless indicative of a long social historythat shapes the way that class is perceived and experienced in post-millennial Britain.For hundreds of years, dating from the Norman Conquest (1066), British society was strictlyorganised under the feudal system. The king was at the head of a social pyramid which placed thepeasantry under knightly liege-lords, who answered in turn to the Crown. The fiscal system of taxesand tributes reflected this, as did the absolute power of the monarch and the nobility. Whatcomplicated matters from the 16th century onwards was the rise of trade and a prosperousmerchant class – precursors of the Marxian bourgeoisie. This new class grew over the followingcenturies, truly blossoming during the Industrial Revolution (c. 1750-1850), when the concentrationand mechanisation of production laid the grounds for modern-day capitalism. This period also saw abreak-up of agrarian society, as country peasants moved to the cities to work under intense labourconditions, creating the new industrial working class. This class found its expression in the tradeunion movements and ultimately achieved political power as the Labour Party (1924). After twounsettling World Wars, the old social order of powerful aristocracy and underprivileged workersgave way to a new welfare capitalism, under which income and living standards improved greatly for
  4. 4. the middle bulk of British society. The new middle class – large, well-off, influential – was firmlyestablished.Margaret Thatcher (1979-90) avowed a desire to break down class stratification, dismantlingorganised labour unions and promoting individual endeavour and upward mobility. But Tony Blair’s(1997-2007) subsequent declaration that ‘We’re all middle-class now’ (Jones 2011) was a denial ofthe class difference that still exists in today’s Britain. In fact, 50% of Britons surveyed in 2002believed the country to be more divided by class than in 1979. (MORI) Moreover, studies reveal thatindividual fortunes are still largely determined by socioeconomic class at birth. (Skeggs andWood,p11). In 2012, the country finds itself experiencing mass unemployment and deep recession,under a government whose Cabinet of twenty-nine includes twenty-three millionaires (Owen 2010).We are debating both welfare cuts and corporate tax breaks, and still nominally ruled by a Queen ofsixty years’ reign. Unlike the economy, class in Britain is very much alive and well.Class on British televisionCannadine claimed that, ‘Britons are always thinking about who they are, what kind of society theybelong to, and where they themselves belong in it.’ (1998,p23) The consumption of television is avery British pursuit; figures show that Britons watch an average of 28 hours per week, more than inany nation except America. (Nationmaster 2011). Given this, where better to turn for insights intoBritish society than the television schedules?Hollywood, of course, is fond of portraying British society through an overtly classist lense, with itslong-held predilection for upper class romances like Four Weddings and a Funeral (Newell 1994) andThe King’s Speech (Hooper 2010). But despite popular British complaints on this score (Collins 2011),this obsession with class is also shared by British TV producers and viewers, with the significantdifference being that lower classes seem to be more frequently represented on the small screenthan on the large.
  5. 5. The working classes are depicted in popular soaps including Coronation Street and Emmerdale, andalso in daytime get-rich-quick shows like Deal or No Deal. In the former, there is more than a hint ofregional caricature, which plays on the perception of provincial deprivation in the UK. I will arguelater that region-based class distinction is a key feature of the new SR shows. Class-based moralisingis nowhere more obvious than on The Jeremy Kyle Show, which are accused of ‘presenting the lesswell-off as "undeserving" objects of derision.’ (Sparrow 2008).Unlike American television, with its O.C.s (Fox 2003) and Desperate Housewives, (ABC 2004) theBritish offering is remarkably lacking in fictional portrayals of middle or upper-class people. This maybe linked to the earlier point about the general hesitation to engage with the issue of class privilege,and the traditionally British dislike of overt shows of wealth, derided as ‘nouveau riche’. (Turnock2007) It may also be attributed to a hidden media power balance, to which I will return later. Asidefrom Made in Chelsea, there is really only one dramatic account of the British privileged classes thathas found success in recent years: Edwardian servants-and-masters drama Downton Abbey (Carnival2011). It seems the British can only stomach overt depictions of class-based inequality when situatedin a suitably-distant romantic past.I believe that the current British TV landscape betrays an enduring preoccupation with class, albeit aone-sided one. The fictional portrayal of working-class people by middle-class actors and producersis a recipe for distortion and class-based stereotyping. Surely then, the new wave of reality-baseddrama would afford the opportunity for a restoration of justice, by allowing ‘real-life’ subjects to telltheir own, unmediated stories?Structured reality (SR) hits the UKSR is a new post-millenial genre with its origins in US productions like Laguna Beach (MTV 2004) andJersey Shore (MTV 2009). Designated by Hill (2005) as the ‘third wave’ of reality television, these‘dramalities’ purport to show us life as it really is, but in fact this is doubtful. There is evidence ofheavy manipulation of everything from the selection of character-subjects to the locations and
  6. 6. situations depicted. The Only Way is Essex (Lime Pictures 2010), Britain’s flagship SR show, openseach episode with a reminder that ‘While the people are real, some of what they do has been set uppurely for your entertainment.’ The often blatantly engineered selection processes for participatorsin American reality TV shows that Grindstaff (Skeggs 2011:188-95) notes have been reproduced,along with the unashamed glamour and break with gritty reality pioneered by The Hills. (Skeggs2011) I will argue that the products of this blurring of reality and fiction betray a great deal aboutclass representation in British television.The (structured) reality of British class: a comparative analysisIn order to fully bring out the class discourse, I have chosen to compare and contrast two SRprogrammes: Made in Chelsea and Desperate Scousewives. At first glance, the premise and aestheticappear alike: depictions of glamorous young people entangled in webs of romantic intrigue, playedout at champagne-popping extravaganzas that invariably give rise to plenty of food for gossip thefollowing day. However, on closer inspection, the characters, situations, language all reveal that thetwo programmes are engineered to depict the ultimate stereotypes of class in Britain, with aregional North-South polarisation providing added emphasis.Made in Chelsea (MIC)When James Walcott wrote that ‘Reality TV wages class warfare and promotes proletarianexploitation,’ (Vanity Fair, December 2009) he failed to predict the recent wave of aristophilia.Paradoxically, during an economic recession, the British public seems more enthralled than everwith the upper classes. MIC was impeccably timed to launch hot on the heels of 2011’s RoyalWedding, itself a fascinating topic for class analysis. For the first time, the heir to the throne wasunited with a ‘commoner,’ a fact made much of in the countless column inches and televisionprogrammes devoted to investigating Kate Middleton’s non-noble yet highly privileged background.(Rayner 2010) In the UK, at least, the public appetite was there for a spot of aristocratic exploitation.
  7. 7. You may have heard rumours that Chelsea is an exclusive world of royals, aristocrats and playboys, where the gossip is as startling as the prices. Well it’s all true. I’m Caggie Dunlop, and this is my world. (MIC episode 1, May 2011)So begins our entree into the gilded circles that inhabit one of the world’s most expensive locales:South West London, specifically the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Building on a well-established popular perception of the area, MIC is concerned with the affluent lives and turbulentloves of a group of privileged twenty-somethings in Chelsea. It goes a step further than The Hills inmaking its exploration of privilege explicit and conscious, rather than glossing over it as incidental.The programme employs a kitsch British aesthetic centring on the Union Jack motif, and takes atongue-in-cheek approach to its subject matter. At the heart of the narrative is a tortuous love storybetween stockbroker Spencer Matthews and globetrotting singer/songwriter Caggie Dunlop.Desperate Scousewives (DS)In November 2011, a new incarnation of the SR genre promised us insight into a very different socialenclave. Situated opposite to MIC both geographically and socially, DS was set in Liverpool, a city inthe North-West still popularly associated with social deprivation, tawdry taste and the notoriouslyincomprehensible Scouse accent, despite significant rebranding efforts. (Bartlett 2011) No wonderthen, that local residents took such exception (Collinson 2011) to the show’s stereotypical portrayalof their city on the national stage: We’re loud and we’re proud. It must be something they put in that water – the Mersey that is... I’m Jodie, and I’m back. Just like the others, I’m ready to grab life by the scruff of the neck, to get what I want. (DS, Episode 1, November 2011)The opening sequence, narrated in a broad Liverpudlian accent by the platinum blonde JodieLundstram, features shots of glamorous parties and apparently fabulous lifestyles, interspersed with
  8. 8. fleeting vistas of terraced housing and inner city dereliction. This is emblematic of the programmeitself, which is essentially concerned with the working-class subjects’ aspirations to worldly successand quality of life, despite their humble surroundings and backgrounds. While the MIC story is aboutliving with wealth and privilege, DS is about the struggle to get hold of a piece of it, ‘by the scruff ofthe neck’ if necessary.Occupation and identityOccupation is one of the key criteria for official socioeconomic classification, with unskilled manuallabourers placed at the bottom and highly skilled professionals ranked highest. (ONS) Despite beingof similar ages, the casts make (or don’t make) their livings in very different fields. Those of MIC’ssubjects who do work pursue careers in decidedly luxury industries: designer jewellery,entertainment PR and lifestyle journalism. Comical ‘entrepreneur’ Francis Boulle, is the heir to adiamond-mining company. At the other end of the scale, the DS are salon workers and shopassistants. In an unusually poignant moment, Amanda Harrington reveals her struggles to succeed asa glamour model while raising a child she had at 19. Their low-powered jobs reflect their position ina society still characterised by low social mobility. (Sutton Trust 2007) Even their names reveal cluesabout the class divisions still apparent in contemporary Britain. Debbie O’Toole and Joe McMahonbear surnames characteristic of traditionally impoverished Irish settlers in Liverpool (Aughton 2003)while Rosie Fortescue and Alexandra Felstead (of MIC) could almost only be names from a publicschool register. Research shows that surnames continue to be a rough indicator of social class in theUK (BBC 2006), and they were almost certainly a consideration in the casting of these twoprogrammes.AppearanceThe way that people dress is another significant social indicator (Bennett 2010). In a manner thatsometimes appears paradoxical to foreign observers, the British upper classes traditionally eschewflamboyant dress on all but special occasions, preferring understated (but expensive) styles
  9. 9. reminiscent of country living, from designers like Dunhill and Barbour. This is the dress code for MIC:the boys don quietly superior tweed suits and cricket cardigans, while the girls sport subtle make-upand simple designer dresses. Once again, DS offers a startling contrast. Here the emphasis is onflaunting everything; many of the scenes are built around the salon makeover or dressing for a nightout, and the aesthetic reflects a philosophy of ‘More is more’ – from the fake eyelashes and thesurgically enhanced breasts to the sparkling jewellery and obligatory spray tan. When MIC’s Rosiedeclares in her cut-glass accent, ‘I think fake tan is probably the most offensive thing in the world,’ orMark-Francis announces, ‘Topshop *a popular high street clothing brand] is not allowed!’ these aremore than just casual expressions of preference. British viewers familiar with the cultural contextinstantly recognise the subjects’ attempts to distance themselves from cheaper, ‘lowbrow’ forms ofaesthetic expression – the ones which DS flaunts. Good taste is thus reinforced as an upper classattribute, while the regional working class is portrayed as tawdry and garish.Language and accentDespite its relatively small size, the UK has a wealth of diverse regional accents and dialects.Traditionally, the ‘BBC tones’ associated with the South-East and the upper classes, were favoured asthe ‘received pronunciation,’ and regional accents were poorly represented on national television.(Rowbotham 2001) People with strong provincial accents are still often regarded as less intelligent,and lower down the social scale, as exemplified by Rampton’s study of reaction to accents (2003)and Tolson’s discussion of the British media’s treatment of reality star, Jade Goody (Skeggs, pp52-55].While the cast of MIC all speak with the plummy received pronunciation associated in the popularimagination with the privately-educated upper-class ‘toff,’ the DS characters without exception havebroad regional twangs. Both groups use slang, which by its disparity highlights the social divide.Lazily drawling use of semi-ironic abbreviations like ‘yah’ (yes) and ‘totes amaze’ (totally amazing) inChelsea contrast with earthier terms like ‘boss’ (brilliant) and ‘bang tidy’ (attractive) in Liverpool.
  10. 10. This marked contrast in itself indicates a manipulated expression of reality; there are surely plenty ofLiverpudlians who speak more mainstream English, and London is famous for its urban street slang,associated with lower socioeconomic classes. However, there is another dimension to the language-linked representation: content. While both programmes deal with romantic adventures, MIC is farmore coy about intimate matters. The Chelsea characters speak in terms of ‘Something happened’and ‘Did you go there,’ while the Scousers refer openly to ‘anal bleaching’ and ‘giving someone a go.’Along with the high amount of nudity from both male and female characters in DS, compared to MICwhich depicts none despite being shown post-watershed, a picture begins to emerge of class-basedsexualisation. The old Victorian idea of the vulgar, oversexed working class begins to resurface,contrasted by the restraint of the morally superior upper classes. (Skeggs, pp225-35)Social interactionThe ways in which the subjects behave and interact betrays further differences that can beinterpreted in a class framework. Conflicts and conflict resolution, as may be imagined, forms thebulk of the subject matter. The MIC characters adhere largely to the WASP1 stereotype by eschewingopen confrontation and pursuing grudges in the form of rumour-mongering, whispered commentsand would-be subtle innuendo, masked by pristine politeness. None of Lakoff’s increasingbelligerence of televised confrontation here. (Skeggs,p56) On the other hand, DS would lead us tobelieve that all grievances in Liverpool are expressed in the form of shouted arguments littered withobscenities, and frequently venturing into the physical. Local celebrity Amanda Harrington’s clashwith ‘bitchy blogger’ Jaiden Micheal is a prime example: a public exchange of insults at a partyfollowed by the throwing of a drink. Overblown theatrics? Very likely. But this only reinforces thepoint that there is a conscious portrayal of the working class subjects of DS as given to excess anduncivilised social habits, while the well-off denizens of the Royal Borough know how to behave in1 WASP is a North American abbreviation strictly denoting ‘White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant.’ In its wider currentsense it refers to a set of cultural characteristics and values popularly associated with privileged Whitecommunities, including high social influence, and aversion to emotional display and open conflict. (Feldman2010)
  11. 11. polite society. This equation of good class with good manners is an ancient one that continues tofind expression in SR, as it did in its less subtle reality predecessors like Ladette to Lady (Skeggs2011). The only difference is that where that was overtly pedagogic, DS and MIC are chieflyconcerned with exaggerating and exploiting class-stereotyped behaviour for voyeuristicentertainment.Making cultural sense of MIC and DSThe fact that these programmes are manipulated and stage-managed to a significant degreeenhances, rather than reduces, their significance in terms of class-based representation. Rather thanbeing true documentary accounts, they are exaggerated and stylised portrayals of class stereotypes,crystallising the idea of continued class polarisation in modern Britain. For example, the DS boys arefrequently shown playing or watching football, a stereotypically working-class but in reality nationalsport, (Bennett 2010) while their MIC counterparts engage in polo and rowing, popularly associatedwith the privileged classes.Moreover, there is a moral and behavioural framing of this polarisation. Both programmesfrequently depict scenes in nightclubs or at parties. Yet while the DS are frequently portrayed asunder the influence of alcohol and raucous or emotional because of this, the Chelsea girls are nevershown in this way. It would be unrealistic to conclude from this that non-working class English girlsdon’t become very inebriated – in fact research (Randhawa 2011) and personal experience provesthe opposite to be true! The more informed conclusion is that there is a conscious equation of poorself-control with lower social class. This should lead us to consider who exactly is making andrepresenting these class-based judgements, since it is unlikely that the subjects themselves are incontrol.
  12. 12. The third classIf MIC’s subjects stand in for the upper class, and the DS for the working class, then we are missingan important component of contemporary British society: the middle class. As mentioned before,there is very little dramatic/fictional programming depicting the middle class on British television,but this underrepresentation is not indicative of weakness, but in fact of control.As Skeggs and Wood [2011,p19+ note, media invisibility can be a clue to ‘hidden power.’ Rather thanthemselves being represented for entertainment purposes, I would argue that the overwhelminglymiddle-class British media producers (Sica 2011) have created two extreme caricatures of the upperand lower scales of society, portraying not only the disreputable poor, but also the frivolous rich, assensationalised Others, in a manner recalling Foucault’s observations: The middle class thus defined itself as different from the aristocracy and the working classes who spent, sexually and economically, without moderation... It differed by virtue of its sexual restraint, its monogamy and its economic restraint or thrift. (Foucault 1979,p100)Thus it follows that the ideal viewer is middle-class, which is frequently equated with ‘normal.’(Skeggs and Wood 2009,p629) That these programmes exemplify the phenomenon of creatingmedia through and for the ‘middle-class gaze’ (Lyle 2008) corresponds with the current politicaldiscourse in the UK. Mainstream media is preoccupied with waging a war of words on two economicfronts: on the one hand there is continued obsession with the idea of ‘benefit scroungers’ andparasites draining resources from society (Jones 2011), and on the other uproar abounds overbankers’ bonuses, tax cuts for the very rich and the idea that money can still buy power andinfluence. (BBC 2012) The ‘squeezed middle,’ a term implying undue pressures exerted from boththe upper and lower scales of society, seems to be fighting its corner by holding up the imprudenceof the other two classes in implicit contrast to its own traditional ‘economic restraint or thrift.’
  13. 13. Exploitation or aspiration?The SR genre employs a new form of labour: performing oneself (Skeggs 2011). On the one hand, thesubjects are living the neoliberal dream to its fullest: making their way in the world by using not onlytheir talents or skills but their very identities, arguably the ultimate form of capital. In doing this theypotentially achieve fame, fortune and free products – the subjects and characters inevitably actingas vehicles for promotion of various consumer goods. SR programming is a direct product of thedream of social mobility based on consumerism and individual fortune. The old prejudices againstupstarts and climbers may still exist, but they seem weak in post-Thatcherist Britain where everyone,whether living in a Chelsea townhouse or a terraced estate in Merseyside, can demand a glamorouslifestyle. But does this come at the price of performing the ultimate alienated labour?When Marx complained that production had become the aim of man (Baxandall,p63-4), he could nothave predicted that people would one day live out their lives on camera in order to create personalwealth and corporate revenue. However, the phenomenon could be interpreted as a contemporaryvindication of his lament. The fact of ‘privileged access to the means of making reality’ (Couldry2000) intensifies this problem of exploitation, as producers control the story and manipulaterepresentations according to their own class-based judgements of appropriateness andentertainment value. This power relationship considered, we could even regard the middle-classmedia producers as cultural capitalists, controlling a set of fame-seeking wage-labourers from boththe working and the upper classes.ConclusionThrough analysing MIC and DS, contemporary British SR programmes claiming to depict life at twoextremes of the social scale, it has been argued that the representations made are loaded with class-based meaning. The deliberate selection and manipulation of the subjects’ occupations, appearance,language and social behaviour is all calculated to convey caricatured impressions of social class. Theregional working class is presented as vulgar and indiscreet, while London’s upper class is portrayed
  14. 14. as more tasteful and restrained, but ultimately frivolous and irresponsible. I have also argued thatthese exploitative representations point to the existence of a hidden middle-class, through whoselens of judgment the programmes are both produced and intended to be viewed, in line with a widermiddle-class media discourse blaming both the thriftless poor and the extravagant rich for the UK’scurrent economic and social woes.Britain’s taste for class-centred SR programming shows little sign of abating, with the continuingsuccess of nouveau-riche drama, The Only Way is Essex and a new show centred on Welsh workingclass youth recently announced. (Bull 2012) This contemporary mediascape yields robust support forSkeggs and Wood in their assertion that television’s ‘stories of everyday lives and ordinarypeople...are always about class.’
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