Meritocracy Vs Social Cohesion: A Review of The Acting Class (O’Neill and Wayne, 2017)

by ANTHONY KILLICK

Film can either perpetuate or disrupt damaging representations of social groups, as well as the myths surrounding neoliberal meritocracy. Class-based exclusions to the acting profession add yet another barrier to our collective and individual pursuit of happiness, Anthony Killick finds, since the latter is to some extent dependent on a degree of social cohesion. This can be achieved in part by first realising that we live in a drastically unequal society, and developing arts and cultural practices that address this issue. To this end The Acting Class makes a rare and necessary contribution.

The Acting Class (O’Neill, Wayne, UK, 2017)

The latest documentary from Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne highlights the barriers faced by working class actors attempting to pursue cultural work. In doing so, the film exposes the fraudulence behind some of the central tenets of neoliberal meritocracy, as outlined by Jo Littler (2017) in her book, Against Meritocracy, particularly the idea that arts and cultural jobs are equally accessible to all on a “level playing field” that is free of class, gender and race-based limitations.

What this film shows is that class-based exclusions (often hidden by these meritocratic myths) are a barrier to cultural equity. They generate individual as well as societal consequences, because distinct wealth and resource inequalities are detrimental to overall social health and well-being. What is required, then, is an arts and cultural practice that is built not on the individualistic mythologies of merit and competition, but on the recognition that societal inequalities, exacerbated by austerity, are contributing to atomisation on intersubjective, local and geo-political levels. The capacity for arts and culture (particularly film, in this case) to address such issues and foster social cohesion and reconciliation among disparate social groups in a highly unequal, class based society, is well-evidenced in this film.

The actors interviewed by O’Neill and Wayne are, or course, aware of the financial and cultural barriers that arise from being working class in the acting profession. The narratives they offer are a counter to dominant representations of working class people as seen in television programs like Benefits Street. In the media, class based struggles, as well as working class people in general, are often treated with gross disdain or simply omitted altogether. This tendency has been exacerbated by the transformation of the political left throughout the neoliberal period, its turning away from class and the adoption of what Littler calls “neoliberal justice narratives” that “recognise existing unjust social dynamics in relation to ethnicity, gender and class, and suggest that neoliberal marketisation will solve these problems” (Littler, 2017: 69).  The Acting Class makes an important contribution to a sincere discussion about class inequalities that should be taken up by the political left, as well as within mainstream popular culture.

The film does this by allowing the interviewees to speak about their personal experiences and the realisation that these are connected to overarching political systems and cultures. For example, the film’s “protagonist”, Tom Stocks (who founded the Actor Awareness campaign after being unable to enter drama school for lack of funds) speaks about the point at which privately educated actors began to push back against the idea that their profession is not an “equal playing field” as being the moment he realised that “this was a class thing”. Here, the disparity between Stocks’ personal experiences and the pronouncements of his middle and/or upper class peers exemplify a diverging habitus that is effaced by meritocratic discourse. As Stocks comments in the film, “you can’t win a race if [at the start] you’re two hundred metres behind”, While this comment foregrounds his class consciousness, it’s evocation of a competitive race points to the internalisation of meritocratic discourses by working class young people, suggesting a conflict between notions of class and meritocracy that is evident in some of the films’ other interviewees. As Littler notes “it is often people who face significant disempowerment in terms of the extent of their resources and the range of available choices who are most intensely incited to construct a neoliberal meritocratic self” (Littler, 2017: 70).

The point the film makes here is that barriers to cultural work can seem inconsequential to one class while for another they can become a source of genuine despair (consider, for example, the dull and abject frustration of having no money for travel) that is bolstered by the meritocratic idea that any failure to “get on” is due to personal inadequacy as opposed to social inequality. This is not a question of individual obstacles to work and success, but the network of problems arising from a particular class position that combine, making pursuit of ones ambitions seem like a pre-emptively doomed enterprise. For example, many of the interviewees offset their cultural work with service sector jobs, which, as the film points out, is a necessity that goes some way towards solving the problem of finance, only to bring up a different problem around time constraints and the ability to attend auditions. Thus actors who have the financial backing of what Peter Bazalgette calls in the film “the bank of mum and dad” are simply more free to pursue the good life than those who do not.

Recognising and reversing this inequality is essential for any society that cares about social cohesion. Yet, as the film shows, wealth inequalities are now both class based and intergenerational, with established actors such as Maxine Peake and Christopher Ecclestone frequently pointing out how much more difficult it is for younger people to break into the profession nowadays. The effects of the neoliberal redistribution of wealth and resources from the bottom to the top are thus felt over different generations, particularly in terms of the revocation of public subsidies and congruent increase in the gap between richest and poorest.

The film itself stops short of making such recommendations, focussing instead on how working class actors are responding to the issue through building grassroots organisations such as Actor Awareness, wherein they develop their own support groups while drawing attention to these issues through national media outlets. The lack of diversity in acting roles is presented in the film as damaging to the profession overall, and this is one of the ways in which the film seeks to reconcile the differences between upper/middle class and working class actors, as opposed to merely “bashing the rich”. However, the film also suggests that this lack contributes to social fragmentation insofar as it engenders a view of the world as seen solely from the viewpoint of the middle and upper classes, while narratives produced by (not just about) the working class are removed from the public sphere. The disparity of habitus between classes is thereby exacerbated through one-sided cultural distortions and, in many cases, outright demonisation of the working class.

Film can either perpetuate or disrupt damaging representations of social groups, as well as the myths surrounding neoliberal meritocracy. It can also stall and potentially reverse social atomisation and exclusion, given its capacity to facilitate discussion and mutual understanding. As The Acting Class points out, class-based exclusions to the acting profession add yet another barrier to our collective and individual pursuit of happiness, since the latter is to some extent dependent on a degree of social cohesion. This can be achieved in part by first realising that we live in a drastically unequal society, and developing arts and cultural practices that address this issue. To this end The Acting Class makes a rare and necessary contribution.

Anthony Killick is a research fellow with CUSP, working within our arts & culture theme. He has recently completed a PhD in film festivals, activism and urban development from Edge Hill in Liverpool, and has worked on numerous grassroots-led cultural projects, including the Bristol Radical Film Festival and the Liverpool Small Cinema, of which he was co-founder. He’s also a film-maker.

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