The author Ronald Wright asserted that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” This adage remains true as Bernie Sanders has failed, once again, to convince the country that American capitalism is exploiting its workers. If he had been more attentive to Hollywood representations of class – mainly that Hollywood largely avoids depicting class as Parasite (2019) does – his inevitable defeat to Joe Biden might not have been such a surprise.
That is to say, the themes of poverty and class that Parasite explores have a lot in common with the economic critiques that Bernie has maintained in his platform for years. However, the themes of inescapable class conditions do not make many appearances in American films. When class is represented, it is in many cases directly antagonistic to the themes in Parasite and Bernie’s campaign. Bernie’s policies will be successful if and when America speaks about class poverty the way Parasite does.
Bernie’s campaign asserted that his socialist policies were the only way to free the lower class from capitalism’s constraint. His 21st century Economic Bill of Rights pledged “once and for all that every American, regardless of his or her income, is entitled to the right to a decent job that pays a living wage; the right to quality healthcare; the right to a complete education; the right to affordable housing; the right to a clean environment; and the right to secure retirement.” The critique implicit in these policies is that capitalism has failed to provide the necessities of life. They assume that the American dream of hard work necessitating economic success is false. They also assume that poverty is not a failing of the poor person, but a fault of the rich man’s system.
Parasite, just like Sander’s Bill of Rights, represents capitalism as a broken structure that arbitrarily glorifies the rich while subjugating the poor. In the film, there are two families that rely on each other: the wealthy Park family requires services which they receive from the poverty-stricken Kim family. This business relationship begins when Ki-woo, the son of the poor family, lands a job tutoring the Park’s daughter. Once he has infiltrated the rich home in this way, he plots to have his sister hired by the family as another tutor. The brother and sister then get the father hired as a chauffeur and finally, the mother is hired to do housework. Throughout this scheme, the Parks remain oblivious to the fact that their servants are all one family. In essence, while the Kims sustain themselves on the upper-class families’ wages, the Parks live more comfortably thanks to their services.
Image Source: Bloody Disgusting
However, the Kims have no hope of climbing out of their class. For one thing, the Kims live in a semi basement, peering out into the gutter from their kitchen window. The upper-class Park family, on the other hand, live atop a hill among the sunlight and fresh air. And this difference is reinforced throughout the film. The Kim’s ascend to the realm of the rich during the day only to descend back into the slums after their day is done, and the camera angles are always marking this cycle. The very geographical structure of their city (a city built with capitalism and by capitalism) reinforces the class hierarchy. Furthermore, when a completely natural thunderstorm strikes, four feet of water in the Kim’s apartment forces them from their home and into a shelter for the night, while the rich family need only cancel their camping trip. And of course, all four of the Kims work everyday, while just one of the four Parks work at all.
At the end of the movie, Ki-woo vows to climb the class ladder and buy the rich families’ home. But as he imagines this, the camera pans down, following him as he slides down against his kitchen wall, beneath the gutter window. Ending the film at the bottom of the semi basement returns Ki-woo to where he started the film. If anyone remains hopeful that Ki-woo can succeed, the credits roll to a song that was originally titled “564 Years” or as the director noted, the amount of time it would take Ki-Won to save up for the rich house that he desires to buy with his current salary. Clearly, these unequal class structures, symptomatic of a capitalist society, have become, in the film, deeply ingrained into South Korean life. The systematic oppression goes so far as to mutate even natural disasters into further expressions of the hierarchizing effects of capitalism which forever place a better life out of reach of the poor.
This type of poverty that is ingrained in the economic system was exactly what Bernie believed needed to be mended in American politics. However, it appears that for the second time he cannot garner agreement on his radical critiques of business in America. Once again, the democrat voters are leaning towards a candidate much closer to the center and everything will proceed thus. Capitalism as usual.
Is this move away from radical changes in the capitalist system surprising when Hollywood largely tries to avoid depicting poverty as unavoidable? Take Joker (2019) as an example: the protagonist, Arthur Fleck, a middle-aged man who is both poor and unsuccessful, is written as a villain. I am not condoning his violence, just noting that this type of characterizing the poor is common in Hollywood. It is like Hollywood is saying, “Anyone who is poor and gets angry at the system is a scary criminal, the poor should just take responsibility for their poverty.”
Image Source: IMDB
Building on the dubious characterization of class in Joker, think of Marvel’s premise behind their film franchise: an elite class of heroes, who always symbolize power, superiority and often, money, saves the lower middle class and the poor through gallant gestures of benevolence. Whereas the poor and alienated individual is often written as the villain who must be destroyed if our “heroes” cannot convince him that the fault lies with them and not the system. Until either Hollywood begins depicting class structures as arbitrary hierarchies that oppress those at the bottom unreasonably or American people begin demanding these sorts of films, like in Parasite – which show how foolish one is to consider one’s self as part of “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” – Bernie Sanders’ policies will never be viable.
Hero Image Source: nytimes