Cinema and Media Studies Social Class
Erica Levin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0179


In contemporary film studies, the term class often appears as part of the trio of terms race/class/gender. Attention to social class figures as a factor in both film production and reception. Much of the writing on social class in film studies falls on one side of this divide or the other. The analysis of class in film studies is informed by two major but distinct theoretical approaches to the concept of class, one provided by Karl Marx and the other by Max Weber. For Marx, a class is defined in terms of its relationship to the means of production, while for Weber, class is determined by education and the development of particular skills. How class is defined theoretically often remains implicit in the mode of analysis. Approaches to the study of class that focus on cinematic representation often begin from a set of assumptions developed out of Marxist methods of analysis in which cultural forms are understood to be the manifestation of economic and political relationships. Approaches to class that focus on cinema’s construction of class identity implicitly begin from theoretical ground established by Weber, where class status is something that can be acquired or developed. Theories of class have necessarily evolved in response to the rise of globalization and neoliberalism, and new scholarship focuses on issues of the breakdown between labor and leisure as well as questions raised by the enduring (or waning) power of civil society and the nation-state. Additionally, specific historical political movements have spurred inquiry into cinema’s power not only to consolidate, but also to challenge class interests.

Textbooks and Introductory Texts

Class is often constellated with the analytic terms of race and gender. Benshoff and Griffin 2009 offers a comprehensive introduction to class in the context of race and gender with reference to questions of representation and industrial film production, while hooks 1996 focuses on class as one analytic in a series of close readings of specific films. James and Berg 1996 provides a more theoretically engaged argument for restoring the centrality of class analysis to the study of film with essays by major scholars in the field. Feltey and Sutherland 2013 takes an interdisciplinary approach, using film to illustrate an introduction to sociology, while Hayward 2013 shows how economic and social theory have informed the formation of cinema studies as a discipline. The edited collection of Grieveson and Wasson 2008 offers a rich selection of texts that provides more context for the discussion of the institutionalization of film studies and its different approaches to class as an object of analysis provided in Hayward 2013. Durand and Leigh 2013 looks at Marxism within a broader social context (beyond the formation of film studies as a discipline) and offers a useful theoretical model for understanding representation in relation to political struggle.

  • Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. 2d ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009.

    Basic introduction to the cultural study of American film. Book is divided into sections on film form and representation, race, class, gender, and disability. The section on class is divided into studies of class representation in Hollywood cinema before and after World War II, focusing on the industrialization, unionization, corporatization of filmmaking as it impacts the mythology of class.

  • Durand, Kevin, and Mary K. Leigh. Marxism and the Movies: Critical Essays on Class Struggle in the Cinema. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2013.

    Collection looks at a variety of films from different genres (comedy, drama, cult) to examine cinematic representation within the larger context of class struggle. Essays examine specific films through a Marxist lens.

  • Feltey, Kathryn, and Jean-Anne Sutherland, eds. Cinematic Sociology. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2013.

    This textbook explores key ideas in sociology through analysis of feature films. The third section of the book focuses on the subject of class. Includes articles on social mobility, “Hollywood’s distorted view of inequality,” and class as represented in educational films.

  • Grieveson, Lee, and Haidee Wasson, eds. Inventing Film Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822388678

    Offers a helpful introduction to the formation of cinema studies as a discipline and the role of social theory and class conflict in its institutionalization (among many other factors). Provides an in depth examination of the social, political, and intellectual contexts in which cinema has become an object of study.

  • Hayward, Susan. “Class.” In Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. By Susan Hayward, 59–64. New York: Routledge, 2013.

    Entry on class as a key term for cinema studies traces the influence of Marx and his readers, (Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Herbert Marcuse, and theorists of post-structuralism) on film theory. Introduces students to the relevance of class in textual and genre analysis, production history, modes and practices of production, and apparatus theory’s analysis of ideology effects.

  • hooks, bell. Reel to Real: Race, Sex and Class at the Movies. London: Routledge, 1996.

    Class is one critical term, along with race and sex, that hooks treats in this study of identity in contemporary cinema. Chapters offer close readings of single films. The chapter on Issac Julian’s film The Attendant focuses on class relations most directly (“Thinking through Class: Paying Attention to The Attendant,” pp. 114–122).

  • James, David, and Rick Berg, eds. The Hidden Foundation: Cinema and the Question of Class. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

    Offers a history of the discourse of class in film studies. Essays approach class from different angles and consider different national contexts, including the Soviet Union and China (a useful corrective to emphasis on American and British cinema in other studies). Models how analysis of class might be woven into readings of films that focus on race and gender.

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