I have fond memories of winter break as a teenager, sitting on the couch and consuming hours of sugary Christmas specials every year. But it was an episode of My So-Called Life, that ‘90s angst-ridden teenage drama, that really stood out for me in how it broke the saccharine Christmas-special mold to tell a serious story about teenage homelessness. The episode, titled “My So-Called Angels,” centered around Rickie, a queer Latinx teen who is friends with Angela, the show’s main character. Fleeing abuse at home, Rickie finds himself wandering the freezing streets of Pittsburgh on Christmas Eve. A Christmas angel who visits earth as a runaway teen to look after Rickie (inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life, no doubt) reveals Rickie’s circumstances to Angela so that she and her parents can help him.
While the episode had its share of clichés and problems (what Christmas show doesn’t?) it also had something I hadn’t seen before: a realistic portrayal of systemic issues without a simple solution at the end.
Today, more than 25 years later, we still struggle with portraying economic disparity and its causes on television. We still don’t honestly tell the story of people struggling with houselessness, let alone poverty or low-income life. Imperfect as My So-Called Life was, it was notable for centering a queer Latinx teenager and his struggles with instability so prominently. Similar examples on television, according to our latest report, Power of Pop: What TV Gets Wrong About Getting By, are almost nonexistent.
One key finding of our research, which analyzed 105 randomly sampled television episodes that aired on broadcast, cable, and streaming services during the fall 2017 to spring 2018 season, was that storylines about low-income characters avoid showing the precarious nature of meeting daily expenses—such as the ability to pay for utilities, food, and other essentials.
Instead, these problems seem to be magically fixed out of thin air: bail money is made without mention, college tuition is unquestionably paid, a lottery ticket is conveniently won. And houselessness, if depicted at all, is usually a background issue or briefly mentioned plot device.
In the holiday genre, especially, these unrealistic tropes hit a sugar high.
Take the timeless classic A Christmas Carol, for example: after encountering three Christmas ghosts and having a come-to-Jesus moment Christmas morning, Ebenezer Scrooge (best played by Scrooge McDuck in the Disney version, of course) does a complete about-face with his underpaid employee and decides to grant him that Christmas bonus after all, with a turkey and fruitcake on top! As if such a miracle could happen to any company executive on Christmas Eve.
Our research also found that when low-income storylines are told, it is almost always through comedy. Indeed comedy, as a genre, is unique in its ability to use satire and dark humor to put center stage the parts of life that we're least comfortable facing. Income disparity is a perfect example.
The constantly replayed Christmas comedy, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, shows how comedic depictions of characters struggling to get by such as Clark Griswold’s cousin Eddie can fuel big laughs in a movie (if I didn’t admit to cracking up at his character, I’d be lying) at the expense of perpetuating harmful stereotypes. That is the double-edge sword of using comedy to depict low-income characters: while the approach opens us up to uncomfortable conversations about income inequality, it usually ends up leaving us with damaging narratives.
Not every holiday special has to follow this script. While themes of charity and poverty are a natural choice for storylines inspired by the Christmas spirit of giving, it doesn’t mean they have to be simplified or saccharin.
As the 1994 Christmas episode of My So-Called Life showed us, the systemic struggles of low-income characters can be depicted with nuance, authenticity, and love. Solutions don’t have to appear by magic, wrapped up in a festive red bow. They can be presented as complex and intersectional—like they are in real life—yet attainable.
I am hopeful that TV and film writers will begin to think about how to tell a fuller story on economic insecurity and what we should do about it. A more truthful story. A story that centers themes like abundance, community care, and joy. That’s the next Christmas movie I want to see, even if it means working an angel into the plot.