In a 1996 Simpsons episode, Middlebury-College-graduate-turned-“jailbird” Snake storms into Moe’s Tavern with a gun to empty the cash register. “Goodbye, student loan debts!” he calls, gleefully fleeing the scene. The episode aired a quarter of a century ago, but it is still one of our only examples of a character dealing with student loan debt on TV. When millions of Americans, especially Black women and other women of color, are being pulled under by the rising cost of higher education, there are almost no stories about it on our many, many screens.
Americans talk a lot about money, but we rarely talk about class or generational wealth. Instead, we are all encouraged to imagine ourselves as middle class. Whether we fall “above” or “below” that economic category, we supposedly have the same opportunities to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to become entrepreneurial millionaires. This distorted economic representation of America is reinforced by what we see on TV, where a disproportionate number of scripted dramas are about the 1% and there exist very few complex, authentic representations of what living in financial precarity (the reality for a majority of Americans) can look and feel like. TV shows about the obnoxiously wealthy, such as Succession or Big Little Lies, are seen as giving vital insight into American society and garner prestigious awards that reinforce that social value. Meanwhile, TV series about the working class community, such as On the Block, Vida, or P-Valley, are framed as niche entertainment and more often than not live their series’ runs on the bubble.
When discussing why there aren’t more depictions of poor and working class life on TV, many will point to TV’s presumed role as a medium of aspirational storytelling. But if you look at the TV storyscape as it exists today, it’s clear that this is an old-fashioned idea. Succession and Big Little Lies may be about the ultra-wealthy, but viewers are not encouraged to aspire to be like those characters or to live in their privileged worlds. And, contrary to popular belief and depiction, stories about the working class can be aspirational — a misconception that may be rooted in the lack of lived, working class experience in the average TV’s writers’ rooms and in positions of creative authority.
The person who ultimately has to approve your idea is still a straight white man.
late-night comedy writer
late-night comedy writer
“You can make pretty much any character compelling and stirring, if you have the talent and then the opportunity … [but] the person who ultimately has to approve your idea is still a straight white man,” says Pia Glenn, a Black actress and late-night comedy writer. And by “straight white man,” Glenn also means “rich.” While TV writers’ rooms are getting more diverse in terms of race and gender, the same focus hasn’t been given to making these spaces accessible to those who don’t come from generational wealth, which complicates those strides in inclusivity.
“As a lot of Black people say, ‘All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,’” says Glenn, who grew up in a working class family in New York City before working on shows like The Opposition With Jordan Klepper. “So a lot of the time, the person who makes it in and fulfills their diversity requirements is not someone who lives and breathes in their Black identity … And so the network gets their token [person], and the actual work doesn't change and the environment doesn't change.”
Producers hold the keys to their productions, and often those doors are closed for writers of color, but even if producers wanted to hire writers of more diverse class backgrounds, it is difficult to find data on the subject. Writers Guild of America West, a labor union representing writers of film, television, radio, and internet programming, has a “Find a Writer” feature that allows employers to search for union members based on self-identified attributes. The “writer’s background” function includes filters for “sexual identity,” “age group,” “gender identity,” “disability,” “ethnicity,” and “language,” but has no search functionality for class background. Similarly, WGAW’s annual “inclusion report” includes statistics surrounding identifiers like gender, race, sexual identity, ability, and age, but no information around writers’ class identity.
That being said, we do know that white men and women from generational wealth are disproportionately represented in America’s elite industries, including entertainment. The intersection of those privileged identities impacts the kinds of stories that make it onto our screens. We inherit financial wealth (or not), but we also inherit tastes and cultural reference points from our families and communities. “What I have found time and again is that we don't have the same set of references as the people who are in power, and it directly links to money,” Glenn says. “I've been in a room with 10 writers and four of them are white men who went to Yale. They don't have to have gone to Yale together, they don't have to know each other, for their cultural references to be the same.”
There's no middle class [in the TV industry].
Historically, programs designed to recruit and train more diverse writers have required candidates to live in Los Angeles, one of the most expensive cities in the country, before applying. And if you do get your foot in the door through a diversity program or an entry-level position, they are often either unpaid or pay very little. While the WGA ensures that TV writers get a minimum rate for their work, lower-level positions, such as writers assistant or script coordinator, have historically been compensated below a living wage for their work (though progress was made on this front in last year’s IATSE deal).
“There's no middle class” in the TV industry, says writer Jenniffer Gómez (Vida, The Bite, Sacred Lies). “You're either not being paid a living wage, or you're making really good money. It's just the extremes. … A lot of times, the people who are deciding if a show will go [forward] or not are in the extreme of making really good money.”
For folks who don’t come from generational wealth, college can give access to financially privileged networks and systems of socialization that are usually necessary to get a foot in the door of elite industries. Gómez, who grew up in a working class family in Puerto Rico, credits her undergraduate and graduate education as instrumental to her success. Attending grad school in L.A. is what allowed her to move to the city and make contacts in the industry.
“I think everybody deserves the opportunity to have doors open for them to be able to pursue whatever it is that brings them joy,” says Gómez. “In my case, I wanted to write TV so I wanted to be in Los Angeles. In my case, without student loans, I wouldn't have been able to make that dream a reality.” Still, that choice came with a hefty price tag. More than a decade after she graduated from graduate school and after finding success as a TV writer, Gómez still has six figures to pay off. “My wife makes a joke that we have two mortgages, and that the second mortgage is like a house without a roof. That's my student loans.”
In the time since Snake hopefully solved his student debt problem, the total student debt in the United States has ballooned from $187 billion to over $1.7 trillion, driven by the rising cost of higher education, according to the Education Data Initiative. Women are disproportionately impacted by student debt, as they carry nearly two-thirds of the cumulative total. According to an AAUW 2021 report, women — especially Black and Latina women — pay off their student debt slower than men, in part because we are paid 25% less than men with college degrees. Black women carry about 20% more student debt than white women do. Because of the slower average rate of repayment, women also end up paying more on their loans than men due to interest accrual.
Meanwhile, on TV, student debt as a subject is largely absent. In this era of “Peak TV” (2021 had an all-time high of 559 scripted TV shows that aired), only a handful of half-hearted mentions have popped up in the last decade. While one in eight Americans are student debtors, most TV characters who have student debt are doctors or lawyers (Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy), or other white-collar professionals (Atypical). This is not representative of the diversity of student debtors, including an estimated 39% of student debtors who never graduate. And while Black Americans are disproportionately impacted by student debt, most storylines involving student debt center white characters (The Bold Type, Good Trouble).
“When we talk about student debt, we have to remind people that we're actually talking about people like Black women who have their Master's degrees from a state school to become a social worker,” says Braxton Brewington of The Debt Collective, a union for debtors and their allies. “It's actually not an economist that went to Yale Law. Those people actually don't have student debt, statistically.” While it takes an average of 21 years to pay off student loan debt in America, almost all mentions of student debt are contained to one episode or just one scene, like The Simpsons. For TV characters for whom student debt would almost certainly be a factor, such as New Girl’s Jess or Brooklyn 99’s Jake, it never comes up.
It’s telling that one of TV’s most focused, thorough depictions of student debt came from a place of lived experience. Grown-ish episode “Real Life S**t” follows college senior Aaron as he searches for a post-graduation job that will help alleviate his six-figure student debt. Des Moran, who wrote the episode, says the pitch was his first upon making it into the series’ writers’ room. “For me, my senior year really was about the realization that I had to start paying my student loans,” says Moran, a Black man and the first person in his working class family to go to college. “I think one of the big reasons I was bringing that into the room and wanted to tell a story about it was because student loans were still a very active part of my life.”
The people who are most affected by this are often people of color as a result of systemic issues in our country.
The Grown-ish episode makes it clear that this is an issue that is not only systemic, but disproportionately impacts Black Americans. “As is the case with most things in our country,” says Moran, “the people who are most affected by this are often people of color as a result of systemic issues in our country. When we started really talking about this stuff and making these discoveries, we just knew it was a story we had to tell.”
Ultimately, Aaron is not able to find a position that will help him pay off his student debt; instead, he is offered the opportunity to stay on at the college as a T.A., which will allow him to take graduate classes for free and delay paying his loans. It’s a realistic result for a burden that, for so many, becomes less about solving and more about enduring.
For the most part, Americans don’t aspire to be rich so we can wear expensive clothes or drive expensive cars. We aspire to be financially secure so that we can take care of and spend time with the people who matter to us. Sometimes, it’s comforting to turn on the TV and consume an aspirational story of a life without financial struggle, but we’re full-up on those. When imagining the potential stories American TV could be telling about what living with student debt and/or financial precarity looks like in this country, the possibilities seem endless. Many of those stories necessarily include struggle, but only a few of them are defined by it.