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Abstract
This study identifies emerging themes of the British social class structure as they are
represented on a situational comedy, Keeping Up Appearances, broadcast on the British
Broadcasting Channel for America. Using Marx’s theory of social class as a framework, semiotic
analyses were performed on five episodes of the television show. Results identify that the social
class ideology is still prevalent in British society, as well as demonstrable to other cultures
receiving the BBC America broadcast (i.e., the United States). Upper-class ideologies and male
hegemonic issues and their implications for viewers of Keeping Up Appearances are presented
and discussed.
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KEEPING UP APPEARANCES: MAINTAINING THE BRITISH SOCIAL CLASS
STRUCTURE THROUGH SITCOM TELEVISION
Introduction
Though it has only been in people’s homes since the 1950’s, television has had a
remarkable impact on both people and the field of communication. Television as a medium of
communication has spurned such theoretical ideas as the Hypodermic Needle theory, in which
viewers are “injected” with messages; Uses and Gratifications theory, in which viewers use
television to meet their own needs; Agenda Setting theory, in which the media tells us what to
think about; and Cultivation theory, in which viewers see the world in terms of a TV storyline.
Television as a medium sends pictures for viewers to watch. These pictures help
construct the ways people “watch” real life situations. These television pictures are the window
through which people see the world. These pictures and their messages, intended and unintended,
as well as their placement must be critically analyzed to help determine the effects they have on
people’s identities and viewpoints.
Keeping Up Appearances, a television show on BBC America, takes a sitcom approach
to life in middle class Britain and the efforts of one woman to ascend from that class to the
“upper crust” of British society. Though on the surface Hyacinth’s actions are comical and overdramatized, a deeper analysis of the television show is necessary to determine the underlying
messages sent to viewers about a class system that has affected millions of people worldwide for
centuries.
A critical research approach guided the analysis of Keeping Up Appearances, which
sought answers to the following research questions:
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RQ1: How does Keeping Up Appearances convey themes relating to Marx’s theory of
social class?
RQ2: How are the British social classes' roles maintained or negotiated through the
characters’ interactions on Keeping Up Appearances?
RQ3: How does the television show itself idealize British social class roles?
RQ4: How does Keeping Up Appearances affect implications of British social class
roles?
Theoretical Framework
Marx’s Theory of Social Class
Although there are several schools of Marxist thought, Marxism as it applies to
culture and the media are themes that seem to have several common threads. Marxism is often
linked to the word “communism” in popular culture, but they are not necessarily connected
(Berger, 1998, p. 37). In some ways, we can see Marxism in the very fabric of society’s
economic systems, whereby all members of a cultural group are defined by the ways in which
capital and class are connected. If we take a look at social class systems within the British
culture, we see the establishment of institutions based upon social knowledge and control.
But who is in control? It is the superstructure—the “institutions, philosophical systems,
religious organizations and arts” transmitting ideas to humans within the culture (Berger, 1998,
p. 40). Capitalism has an effect not only upon economic systems, but also on individuals and
their attitudes and beliefs as a whole. It seems that the ruling class-- that is, those with the
controlling capital-- has a great deal of control over society at large. According to Berger, “...the
ruling class... affect(s) people’s consciousness by giving them certain ideas; in this way, the
wealthy, who benefit most from the social arrangements in a capitalist country, maintain the
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status quo” (Berger, 1998, p. 41). It is in the best interest, then, that those with greater wealth
continue to put forth the importance of a social class system, a way in which to set themselves
apart from those with less monetary power. “...The masses of people are being manipulated and
exploited by the ruling class” (Berger, 1998, p. 42).
Those in control of the media are also those in control of the culture, by way of being
members of the upper class, and the media is their most powerful ally in keeping the status quo.
The media has the power to manipulate the masses, and when the controlling capitalist party
portrays class separation as being a normal and accepted part of British life, the viewing public is
inclined to accept that as a common truth. Traditional Marxists allow for only two groups, the
upper class and all others. In some ways, this fits in with British beliefs and attitudes about those
with more money and power, but there are more subtle distinctions made in within the British
social system, giving even more leeway for ridicule and discrimination of various groups.
Although Keeping Up Appearances portrays class distinctions in a humorous way, there
is a serious embedded message behind the lighthearted nature of the program. It is apparent
message throughout this program that social climbing is a mistake, and attempting to pull
yourself from lower or middle class into the upper class is not only frowned upon, but it’s just
not possible. There is an unspoken caste system in place, in which most British citizens believe
that they are born into a class, and it is this class to which they belong (Savage & Egerton, 1996,
p. 880). Marx claims that this class system mentality generates alienation among all members of
a society, and although all suffer from the separation, it has become so much a part of themselves
and their culture that they are actually unable to recognize their situation (Berger, 1998, p. 47).
Perhaps this explains in part the fact that although many persons claim that England is
becoming a classless society, they still unerringly associate themselves with a position of class,
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most often “middle class,” and they claim to have come from middle class roots, even if the
respondent is a high-paid professional (Savage & Egerton, 1996, p. 883). It seems that they are
unable to associate with any class other than the one most familiar to them. In this way, they are
alienated from their own reality.
The media plays a large part in the continued alienation of the lower and middle classes.
These are the working class, the laborers who drive the economy, and yet they are alienated by
the very act of their work. When their alienation becomes repressive, they are compelled to
become consumers, and the media is the force behind the sale of those consumable items. The
lower and middle class are then forced to labor even more to pay for the items they crave, which
the upper class own by right, creating a vicious cycle of capitalistic class separation. Much of
their knowledge of the upper class and their material possessions and artifacts comes directly
from the media, which creates even greater animosity toward those who are members of that
unattainable social standing. The media creates a feeling of dissatisfaction, and “advertising
takes control of everyday life and dominates social relationships... [it] leads people to turn
inward and to separate themselves from one another... impos[ing] upon people a collective form
of taste... The immediate mission is to sell goods; the long-range mission is to maintain the class
system” (Berger, 1998, p. 51). “The media, as unwitting instruments of hegemonic domination...
influence [and]... shape people’s very ideas of themselves and the world; they shape people’s
worldviews” (Berger, 1998, p. 56).
Hyacinth Bucket, the main character in the program Keeping Up Appearances, is
a perfect example of someone who has been influenced by the media and society at large, and as
a result, she is continually unfulfilled and seeking out a way to break out of her situation and
become upwardly mobile.
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Keeping Up Appearances
Keeping Up Appearances is a half-hour situational comedy presented on the BBC
America television network. The show follows Hyacinth Bucket, a middle-aged Caucasian
British woman in her quests to ascend from her current middle class, suburban lifestyle to the
lifestyle of the “upper class.” Each episode highlights a new event or attempt of Hyacinth’s to
appear to her family, friends, and neighbors as “upper class.” The episodes convey Hyacinth’s
attempts for social mobility as comical and often ludicrous.
Hyacinth is sometimes assisted in her attempts for social mobility by her husband
Richard, a middle-aged middle class office man. Her attempts are often foiled, however, by the
inevitable appearance of her low-class sisters, Daisy and Rose, Daisy’s husband Onslow, and
Hyacinth’s slightly senile father. Despite her sisters’ unseemliness, Hyacinth tries to keep up her
appearance of social mobility to her neighbors, Elizabeth and Emmett. Hyacinth often reminds
the other characters of her “high class” sister Violet and her son Sheridan, who is away “at
university.” The show’s comedic value is delivered through Hyacinth’s elaborate escapades in
keeping up appearances.
Semiotic Analysis
Semiotics is a media analysis technique that allows researchers to identify the signs
presented in a text (whether it is written, oral, visual, social, or otherwise) and examine the
relationships these signs produce. Berger (1998) notes that when semiotic analysis is used, “an
arbitrary and temporary separation is made between content and form, and attention is focused
on the system of signs that make up a text” (p. 6).
A sign has two parts: the sound-image, referred as the signifier; and the concept of that
sound-image, referred to as the signified. For example, the word book is used as a signifier for
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representing the physical object of a book, the signified concept. As illustrated, the relationship
between the signifier and signified is arbitrary; that is, the word book looks nothing like the
physical object the word represents. Thus, signs can be interpreted in a variety of ways, as no
definitive relationship exists among its components. Berger (1998) notes that the signs and
relationships that people can identify “are based on associations we learn and then carry around
with us” (p. 9).
The signs of a text are critical to semiotic analysis, which posits that meaning is
negotiated and understood through the relationships of these signs, and that the relationship is
basically oppositional (Berger, 1998). That is, the meaning of “awake” exists only in its
opposition to “asleep”. Meaning, then, does not exist, but rather is derived from the comparison
of relationships among the signs that are identified.
To observe and discover the relationships among the signs of a text, a synchronic,
paradigmatic analysis can be used. Synchronic is analytic: this type of analysis looks at specific
instances in time or relations in a system. Synchronic discovers the focus of signs through
paradigmatic analysis, in which texts are analyzed for “patterns of oppositions that are buried in
it [text] and that generate meaning” (Berger, 1998, p. 21).
By searching texts paradigmatically, the complex associations that are developed by
cultures through these signs can be identified as codes. The identification of codes is important
as they “affect the way that individuals interpret the signs and symbols they find in the media
and they ways they live” (Berger, 1998, p. 26). These codes, then, are utilized in the
development of mass-mediated culture, including television shows. Turner (1996) suggests that:
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Semiotics allows us to examine the cultural specificity of representations and their
meanings by using one set of methods and terms across the full range of signifying
practices: gesture, dress, writing, speech, photography, film, television and so on. (p. 16).
As paradigmatic semiotic analysis searches for the codes and hidden meanings of text, it
is ideal as a method for researching Marx’s theory of social class. As the dominant ideology of a
particular culture may be emulated in a television show, it is difficult to ascertain that ideology
without the use of semiotic analysis. Similarly, the hegemony of certain classes is not easily
distinguishable in behavior and interaction without first discovering the codes and signs used by
those classes in a particular setting.
To answer the research questions of this particular study, paradigmatic semiotic analysis
is applied to the television sitcom, Keeping Up Appearances. Five episodes of the show’s
broadcast on BBC America were videotaped and analyzed by independently by both authors for
signs and codes representing the British social class system. A list of themes and examples from
the show were discovered and related to Marx’s notions of the middle class, dominant ideology
and hegemony of the upper class over all other classes.
Emerging Themes
Women’s Marginalization
The marginalization of women is an emergent theme, which is represented in the show as
a reflection of society. We see the typical female stereotypes in the main characters, as well as in
those on the fringe of the program. Hyacinth portrays the woman trying to break out of the
Marxist class system society in which she unhappily finds herself. Her attempts to make her
home a “showplace” of sorts give the impression of the woman who is domesticated and
concerned with the family and the home, a portrayal very typical of middle-aged women in the
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media. Although this image is declining, it still exists to a large degree (Glascock, 2001).
Hyacinth is an enigmatic character of sorts, due to the fact that although she is an independent
social climber, she still maintains an interdependence with her husband Richard. His lack of
interest in her society standing does nothing to quash her interests, and in some respect, she
would be less effective without his practicality. Her class is certainly predetermined by her
husband’s employment, and although we are only aware that he is employed and works in an
indeterminent office, we can clearly see that they are middle class by their living arrangements
and their lifestyle. This in itself is a conventional assignation of class (Shirahase, 1998), and
Hyacinth is comfortable enough with this situation because it allows her to remain in the home,
in the traditional feminine role of housewife, but in Hyacinth’s case, she places herself in the role
of a “lady of leisure” rather than a common housewife. Her clothing is an outward projection the
social class she aspires to. She wears dresses, which seem inappropriate for everyday wear, even
when gardening, and she feels that an outfit is incomplete without a hat.
There is more emphasis on the physical appearance of her younger sister Rose, by
contrast. She portrays the “easy” woman, and as is typical of this character, she is shown as
having a full, long, blonde hairstyle and almost without exception is shown in tight, short,
situationally-inappropriate clothing. Rose inevitably wears very small mini-skirts and low-cut
blouses. She is never shown without makeup or jewelry. Interestingly, females shown on
television are four to five times more likely to have red or blonde hair than males (Glascock,
2001). According to one study, this is indicative of the media’s tendency to reflect the traditional
societal expectations of beauty and femininity. Once again, a female character’s physical
appearance has been adapted to please what the media perceives to be male preferences, and it
seems that “Gentlemen prefer blondes” (Glascock, 2001).
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In direct contrast to Rose is the frumpier, dowdier Daisy. She is not only marginalized by
her appearance and clothing styles, but also by her dependency upon Onslow. Although Onslow
seems to be uneducated and unemployed, he is also very intelligent at times, leaving us to
wonder if he is brighter than he would lead us to believe. He may be posturing himself as a sort
of unemployable oaf in order to avoid any possibility of work, a ploy apparently utilized by some
members of the working class in order to collect unemployment pay (Moore, 1996), but to Daisy
he is still in charge of the home. Whatever the issue, Daisy defers to Onslow, calling him the
“man of the house” and asking his opinion on important issues, such as whether to straighten up
the house or shave her legs. Daisy is a voracious reader of romance novels, which leads us to
believe that she is living vicariously through the stories she reads. Onslow is only marginally
interested in her, and their intimate life apparently suffers from a lack of attention. Daisy’s
pathetic attempts to gain his approval range from changing her hairstyle in some imperceptible
way to wearing a see-through negligee, under which she mistakenly wears a “vest,” making her
the brunt of Onslow’s ridicule. Even though it seems that Daisy is left out in the cold, for the
most part, she seems to be happy with her life and she is, for the most part, uncomplaining and
satisfied. As a woman without children, Daisy turns her nurturing affection upon her husband,
and takes his ribbing and mild ridicule with a good-natured attitude. This would appear to be a
trait among many women from working class roots. Women who have spent much of their lives
caring for and nurturing others are more fulfilled within their roles, even when they lack for
material goods and luxury items (Giles, 2002, p. 37). This media portrayal of Daisy as the
frumpy but happy nurturer is non-threatening to viewers, and is a stereotypical portrayal of a
woman who is satisfied with her lot in life. Daisy is the only woman we see in trousers
throughout the show, although she is often wearing nightclothes. When she is out in public, she
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is usually seen only from the waist up, but appears to wear very non-descript frumpy polyester
slacks and blouses.
Hyacinth’s neighbor, Elizabeth, is less central to the story line, but she seems to be the
ruler by which the other women portrayed on the show are measured. She is of middle class
roots and appears outwardly to be the most “normal” female character in the program, although
her neuroses emerge once Hyacinth makes an appearance. Elizabeth seems to be the woman
beyond reproach, the good woman with good intentions who cannot escape Hyacinth’s schemes
to better herself due to her physical proximity as a next door neighbor. Elizabeth finds herself ill
at ease any time she is near Hyacinth, and although she avoids her to some extent, she does
accept invitations for coffee and dinner parties from Hyacinth, against her better judgment.
Elizabeth seems to be supported by the income of her brother, with whom she lives. She
participates in typical “women’s duties,” as well. We see her dusting the furniture, vacuuming,
darning socks, and wearing an apron much of the time. She is never shown wearing trousers,
rather, she is clothed in feminine flowered dresses and skirts, a typical “Laura Ashley”
Englishwoman.
The group of women portrayed in “Keeping Up Appearances” runs the gamut from
innocent bystander (Elizabeth) to nurturing mother type (Daisy), the “siren” (Rose), and the
social-climbing selfish and narcissistic Hyacinth. Each of these women is reliant upon men for
their support. Hyacinth’s husband, Richard, is her sole means of income. Rose seems to rely
upon the kindness of strangers for her monetary needs, dating mostly married men, most of
whom apparently lend to her support. Daisy and Onslow appear to be on the “dole,” but Daisy
continually gives credit to Onslow for their upkeep, and Elizabeth relies upon her brother. None
of these women are employed, which does not seem to represent a realistic view of society, with
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many women working outside the home (Glascock, 2001). Although they seem oblivious to
their limited independence, their transparent stereotypes and their dependence upon men for their
very existence marginalize the women of Keeping Up Appearances.
Language Usage
One of the most evident indicators of social class is simply language and its usage. The
Broadway musical My Fair Lady illustrates the importance of good pronunciation, grammar, and
usage of the English language in British society when Henry Higgins takes Eliza Doolittle from
the slums of London and turns her into a well-cultured, well-spoken lady. Bernstein (1977) noted
in his study of British children that the linguistic code a child learns greatly impacts that child’s
adult life. Bernstein (1977) identified two major linguistic codes: the restricted, which was
reserved for the working classes of British society; and the elaborated, which was used by the
middle classes.
Twenty-five years later, Bernstein’s two linguistic codes are still demonstrated in
Keeping Up Appearances. Hyacinth, in her attempts to appear as a member of the upper classes,
insists upon pronouncing her last name in a French style. When she calls a furniture store
inquiring about a delivery to her home, Hyacinth gives her last name as “Boo-kay.” When she
and her husband visit a country inn for a golfing weekend, she gives the same pronunciation to
the receptionist. Both the receptionist and the furniture gallery are confused, so Hyacinth spells
her last name for them, “B-u-c-k-e-t.” When the receptionist says, “Ah yes, Mrs. Bucket,” she is
rewarded with a disapproving glare from Hyacinth.
Robinson (2001) asserts that little has changed in Britain in regards to language and class
standing since Bernstein conducted his original research. He notes, “it is probably safe to
conclude that the descendents of the low socioeconomic status (LSES) parents of the 1960’s are
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no better off than their parents were…and probably worse off” (Robinson, 2001, p. 239).
Robinson (2001) also notes that, “LSES people were likely to be constrained in their psychology
by the priority they accorded to the social functions of language…the direct regulation of affect
and behavior” (p. 235). In short, members of the working classes use a more restricted code of
language, whereas members of the upper classes of British society use an elaborated code of
language. When Hyacinth insists on the French pronunciation of her last name, she is using an
elaborated code that signifies the historical link between members of higher social standing and
their superior educations—in this case, their command of the French language. Characters in the
show that are viewed to be members of the lower classes (i.e., the hotel receptionist, the furniture
movers) do not understand this elaborated code, referring to Hyacinth as “Mrs. Bucket.”
Hyacinth also employs a style of language that is more precise, grammatically correct,
and uses fewer pronouns. When Hyacinth refers to her son, she always calls him, “my dear
Sheridan” and never simply “my son.” When Sheridan calls and asks for money, Hyacinth
remarks, “Mommy misses you dearly, Sheridan, and Daddy’ll put a cheque to you in the post
today.”
However, Onslow and Daisy (Hyacinth’s lower class sister and brother-in-law) use a
more informal style of language. When Daisy mentions her sister to Onslow, she says things like
“my Hyacinth wants us to have her old furniture suite” and “me sister Hyacinth is on the phone.”
Onslow, in turn, refers to Daisy’s sister as “your Hyacinth.” These examples illustrate the
restricted and elaborated codes used by different classes in British society. Hyacinth does not
stress the social relationships of her family; rather, she relies on the elaborated code conveying
these social relationships. Daisy and Onslow, however, use the more restricted code and stress
the social relationships of sister, father, husband, and so on.
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Hemphill (1989) argues that the different conversational styles of working class and
middle class speakers result in different syntactic usage, where the working class uses more
pronouns in speech. Ellis and Armstrong (1989) also found in a conversational analysis of
television characters that “middle class television characters, especially males, use elaborated
codes of speech” (p. 161) and that the usage and characteristics of the codes of speech help
identify the social class of the characters. Thus, Hyacinth can be identified as a member of a
higher class than her sister Daisy, but at the same time she does not appear to have the greatly
elaborated codes of the upper classes, which identifies her character as the middle class Mrs.
Bucket instead of Hyacinth Boo-kay.
Culture of class
The culture of class is displayed in Hyacinth’s love for all things of important
appearance. She surrounds herself with the accouterments of what she believes are wealth and
social status. Allowing for “reproductions,” she is the proud owner of a “3-piece suite [of
furniture], an exact replica of the one in Sandringham House (a residence of the royal family).”
The Queen Anne corner cabinet that has pride of place in her lounge is also of this category. Her
use of brand names and associations with others who own similar pieces are both a pathetic
display of her insecurity, and her lack of personal taste. Yet, there are studies to support a close
connection between cultural lifestyle and class position. The choices made by individuals
regarding consumption of goods and services can reflect on an individual’s status within society
(Katz-Gerro, 2002). By surrounding herself with what she believes to be the items chosen by
those of a higher class than herself, she psychologically propels herself into the higher stratum of
middle class, and perhaps crosses the line into the upper class elite. Most of the items displayed
and used within her house have a label or some sort of distinguishing feature, such as her “solid
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silver self-cleaning sauce separator,” her “Royal Worcester double-glazed avingnon,” or her
“Royal Dalton with handpainted periwinkles.” She is always careful to loudly announce phone
calls from her sister, Violet, the most successful of the family, who, to Hyacinth’s great delight,
owns a swimming pool, a Mercedes, and has “room for a pony” to boot.
Hyacinth also chooses her leisure activities and hobbies by their potential for correctness
and importance. She claims to be famous for her “candlelight suppers,” her lovely table settings,
and her musical talent. Fortunately for Hyacinth, next door neighbor Emmett is the director of an
amateur operatic society, which in Hyacinth’s view is the height of village class and
sophistication. She would love nothing more than to be chosen for a starring part in one of
Emmett’s productions, allowing her a showcase for her highbrow musical tastes. There is
documentation allowing for the preference of opera, or “high-brow,” music by those of the upper
classes. There is some degree of difference allowed for age, gender, race, and education level,
but it is generally found that as a musical form, opera is most accepted in the more upwardlymobile social classes (Bulik, 1999, p. 638). Her desire to be onstage before those of the local
upper crust might be realized, if it wasn’t for the fact that her singing voice leaves much to be
desired.
Hyacinth also takes a great deal of care with her physical appearance, in an attempt to
“look the part” of a lady of class and leisure. Although those around her dress in a more
traditional village style, Hyacinth aspires to fit into a different group of people. The vast
majority of women hope to fit into the norm when choosing fashion styles, and are often
uncomfortable and anxious when they perceive that there clothing is appreciably different than
that of others within their peer group (Nenga, 2003, p. 180), but because Hyacinth is attempting
to fit into a different group altogether than that of her peers, she experiences a great degree of
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superiority rather than dissonance. She believes that a woman of good breeding would never
leave her home without gloves and a hat to match her “frock,” giving her the appearance of a
pretentious fool. Her lack of awareness regarding her appearance is humorous, and yet it is also
somewhat unsettling to witness her callous disregard for others in her climb to the next level of
cultural identity.
Segregation of Classes
Historically, members of the British upper classes have avoided social interactions with
members of lower classes. Though members of the “upper crust” of British society historically
employed lower-class members as servants, “polite society” did not interact with members of
other social classes.
Today this segregation and separation of British social classes still exists and is
exemplified in Keeping Up Appearances. This segregation is one of the major difficulties of
social mobility in British society. Hyacinth, for example, managed to ascend classes to the
middle class by marrying Richard, an “office man.” Similarly, Hyacinth’s sister Violet ascended
to the upper-middle social class by marrying Bruce, who “buys her all those lovely things.”
However, Hyacinth’s other sister Daisy descended to the working class by marrying Onslow, an
out-of-work, slovenly man. Shirahase (1998) noted in a study of the assignment of class
positions of women in Japan and Great Britain that the conventional method of assigning a
woman’s class by that of her husband’s is still the dominant method in both Japanese and British
society. Thus, Hyacinth, Daisy, and Violet are assigned to their respective classes because of
their husbands.
Similarly, though Hyacinth, Violet, and Daisy are all sisters, the interaction among them
is stilted and remote in nature. Violet, the sister with the most affluent class, is conspicuously
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absent from all episodes analyzed. Though her character interacts with Hyacinth, the viewers
never see or hear her. Similarly, Violet never visits Hyacinth, and only calls her on the telephone.
Hyacinth, in turn, tries to distance herself from her other sisters, Daisy and Rose. Hyacinth
makes her sisters drive around the block so her neighbors cannot recognize them; she fails to
introduce her sisters to her neighbors; Hyacinth makes them leave through the back door of the
house so others will not them, and so on.
Barker (2000) notes that beginning in the 1950’s, though a new “middle class” had been
established in England, the stratification of classes remained as “the new class protected its own”
(p. 21). Evans (1993) investigated the social and political significance of class in British society
in 1987 and compared it to the significances published in 1964. He noted that “overall the
findings suggest is still as much of a basis of ideological conflict in 1987…there is also little
evidence of differences in the divisions between particular classes” (p. 463). Thus, the “classes”
labels have perhaps changed over the years, but the members of those classes have not.
Continued membership of the class a person is born into is the dominant pattern in British
society. Marshall and Swift (1993) note that:
Although many men and women from working-class origins have been upwardly
socially-mobile, the more privileged social classes remain proportionately more
successful in using their advantages to prevent downward mobility among their offspring,
so that the overall association between an individual’s class or origin and his or her
destination is remarkably stable throughout most of the present century. In other words
the degree of ‘openness’ or ‘fluidity’ in the structure has been more or less constant. (p.
196).
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Because of their advantages in society such as privilege to elaborated codes of speech as
well as higher education opportunities, the upper classes of British society have managed to
protect their children from downward social mobility. As the gap among classes widens, those
members of the middle class fight to protect their own class status. Piatt (2003) acknowledges
that “the odds of a working-class child making good and earning considerably more than his or
her parents have actually worsened. Today’s middle classes are consolidating their monopoly on
high status…and buttressing the safeguards against failure” (p. 20). Thus, Hyacinth, by avoiding
public interaction with her sisters Daisy and Rose, is protecting her own middle class standing.
Violet, in turn, protects hers by remaining absent from Hyacinth’s attempts of upward social
mobility.
Class Structures of the Show
Though Keeping Up Appearances is framed under the impression that Hyacinth’s quest
for a higher class ascertainment is overplayed, the show itself is relegated to continuing the class
structure of British society. Previous research (Barker, 2000;Bernstein, 1977;Evans,
1993;Gordon & Marshall, 1993;Hemphill, 1989;Piatt, 2003) illustrates that members of higher
social classes have better access to education, elaborated speech codes, and discernment among
the stereotypes of British social classes. However, Keeping Up Appearances caters to a middleclass audience, assuming that the viewers of the television program will have the education and
elaborated speech codes to identify the humorous, ridiculous attempts of Hyacinth to ascend to
high class.
For members of the working and lower-middle classes, however, Hyacinth’s attempts are
not as ludicrous as they are futile. Christiansen (1979) posits that television is likely to be more
important in the socialization process to member of the lower classes and those who are less
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extensively educated than others. As these members do not possess the elaborated speech codes
of the upper classes, nor do they educational background required for viewing the show
successfully, Keeping Up Appearances does not “poke fun” at the British class system as much
as it reinforces its very structure.
Similarly, Keeping Up Appearances, though broadcast on BBC, appears on a network
designed for audiences of another culture, e.g. the United States. To Americans, Hyacinth’s
attempts to ascend social class are amusing because her efforts seem trite and trivial. After all, to
American viewers, Hyacinth’s desire to ascend social classes is pointless and unimportant. By
broadcasting these views of Britain’s social class society, however, Keeping Up Appearances is
reinforcing the ideology Americans have of the British class structure. Frith and Wesson (1991)
note this distinction between British and American magazine print advertisements. Through a
content analysis, more individualistic stances were displayed in the American advertisements,
whereas a comparable British sample displayed more social class differences (Firth & Wesson,
1991).
Gerteis and Savage (1998) also noted in a comparative study between American and
British voting behaviors that “class is generally weak in the USA…class may be generally
salient…class is understood and articulated quite differently in the USA” (p. 258). Thus, the
audiences of Keeping Up Appearances all have different views of the British social class, which
seems to be propagated by the very structure of the show itself.
Conclusions
Overall, the themes identified through paradigmatic semiotic analysis of Keeping Up
Appearances reveals the Marxist pattern of social class structure and purveyance of the British
social class structure. Women’s roles are marginalized and defined by the male-dominant class
20
structure. Lower class members are disadvantaged by their lack of educations and language
usage. The class structure itself is maintained by membership and loyalty of each social class,
and the upper classes continue to distance themselves socially from the lower classes as much as
possible.
It is clear, then, that at least in the context of the television show Keeping Up
Appearances, the British social class system is still quite prevalent, despite claims that Britain
has moved toward a meritocratic society (Barker, 2000). This television show, then, does its best
to keep up the appearance of the British social class system to its viewers around the world.
Paradigmatic semiotic analysis allows these “appearances” to be critiqued and studied indepth to reveal their very essences. As Marx notes that the dominant ideology is so ingrained as
to be unrecognized, semiotic analysis discovers the hidden meanings of language codes and
signs. When studying British texts for elements of social class, a Marxist theoretical framework
combined with semiotic analysis clearly identifies the ideologies and hegemony underlying those
texts.
As for the British society, it is clear that the social class system has prevailed for
thousands of years and is unlikely to change. It is important, then, for people to recognize the
implications that this class structure has on interactions and exchanges. Members of each
particular class are unlikely, despite however probable, to ascend social class except perhaps
through marriage or the governed elimination of working class jobs. Similarly, education and
language backgrounds will remain cultural indicators of social class and will thus guide all
interactions with people of British society. Clearly, British society will keep up appearances of
its ideological social class.
21
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