Here I am, binge watching while googling the amazing Olivia Coleman who plays the Queen in the third and fourth seasons of this epic drama. I remember that I first saw her in comedy shows -Peep Show (still worth a watch) and the excellent, off-the-wall, Flowers and of course, Fleabag. A real home-grown talent I think, and then I remembered her winning the Oscar last year when she played another Royal in The Favourite.
Wasn’t there something about the media coverage of her award? I remember now. Alongside coverage of her heart-warming acceptance speech - just what we needed as austerity was really biting hard at home - UK news headlines repeated a little known fact about Olivia, (now that I’ve binged the third series of The Crown I get to call her by her first name) – she once worked as a cleaner. The Daily Mail described Coleman as a ‘penniless cleaner’, who, as The Express had it ‘conquered Hollywood’ through hard work and tenacity. Actually, she once worked as a secretary too, but ‘cleaner’ offers more in the way of humble origins for a ‘rags-to-riches story’ that The Mirror and other press celebrated at the time.
As a media scholar, I am interested in this framing of Olivia’s success. I started thinking why little attention was given to her private education and her attendance at Cambridge. Does this matter for Oscar winners? It turns out it does. Analysis by The Sutton Trust found that (67%) of British Oscar winners went to independent schools, over a quarter (27%) attended grammar schools and only 7% went to comprehensive schools. They found similar patterns for Brits winning BAFTAs for film: half (42%) of British winners of the main BAFTAs attended independent schools, over a third (35%) grammar schools. There’s a pattern here that suggests something more is at play than just Olivia Coleman’s exceptional talent. Research would suggest that her educational background opened doors, got her into Cambridge and then, into the networks made in the Footlights. These experiences played a major role in her ability to get the roles in which to shine.
So why the rags-to-riches story? Such stories are familiar – they are woven through our culture through fairy tales and heart-warming ‘underdog makes good’ stories. Rags to riches stories also have a cultural power: they are part of our belief that we live in a meritocratic society. No matter how humble your origins, our society provides equal resources and opportunities to allow those who are willing to apply effort to develop their talent to get to the top. Meritocracy is linked to heady ideas of social mobility: Cinderella ends up in a palace remember, and to return to Olivia, a more modern cleaner wins that Oscar. Perhaps we can too.
What happens to these rags-to-riches stories when social mobility stalls? This is an important question, because in recent years, social mobility has pretty much halted and wealth has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few. Research shows that in the past 30 years many people’s economic status has stagnated or fallen. Yet, the wealthy have seen gains: we know now that the top 10% of households take home 25% of all earnings and own more than half of all wealth. The concentration of wealth into the hands of the few has required new ways to describe them: ‘rich’ doesn’t cut it, ‘billionaires’ gets close, but the best term so far is the ‘Super Rich’. At the other extreme ‘Food bank’ is also a newly commonplace term. The Trussell Trust Food Bank provided 1.6 million people with emergency food last year and has already seen an 89% increase in demand over the Lockdown period. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation remind us that high levels of social mobility rely on low levels of poverty: as wealth becomes unequally distributed so too are the resources, opportunities and networks that are needed for talent to shine.
Why isn’t there an outrage? Bizarrely, research suggests that the more unequal and less socially mobile a country, the more its public will tolerate inequality and the less likely they are to support policies for a more equal distribution of wealth. Some of the reasons suggested for this include a poor knowledge about the distribution of wealth and just where we each personally stand in the wealth league table; the poor and rich very rarely mingle so comparisons between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ are quite rare. My own work on benefit stigma shows how people living in poverty are repeatedly represented as ‘scroungers’ and ‘lazy’. These stereotypes feed into cultural ideas that we are each to blame for ‘our failures’ and, logically, it therefore stands that we are responsible for our successes. What binds these together is that persistent myth in meritocracy. What we get is more rags-to-riches stories! What the ‘cleaner to Oscar winner’ story tells us is that meritocracy masks the advantages enjoyed by the few and dismisses the very real barriers to social mobility for the rest. It also tells us that this myth needs to be repeated time and time again - it’s quite lucky then, that Oliva had that short stint as cleaner.
Lockdown offers chance to take a critical breath: to reach behind the headlines to ask more critical questions. This is more than fact checking – yes Olivia was a cleaner – it is more thinking about the myths that shape our cultures and lives. As lockdown eases and we move into a ‘new normal’ it has never been as important to flex our critical muscle, to put our academic skills to work, to question and to wonder. If we want a better ‘normal’ one of the first steps is fighting against a likely continuation of funding cuts to the arts, drama and cultural industries: we need to protect the resources to secure a wider access to opportunity.
My last thoughts before I start the fourth series of The Crown is the importance of staying critical of those rags-to-riches stories: heartwarming they may be, but what realities are they distracting us from? Now, pass me the remote.