"Class" is a term used to categorize people according to their economic status. It frequently involves a consideration of income level, type of profession, inherited wealth and family lineage, and a diffusely understood idea of "social standing." Historically, most societies have made distinctions among their members according to some kind of class division—although capitalist cultures promote the idea of being "classless" societies (as in the concept of the "American Dream" that individuals can rise in station based on their ability alone). Motion pictures have been intricately involved in issues of class and modern capitalism, emerging as both a technology and as a form of entertainment at the height of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States, and subsequently becoming one of the most powerful market-driven businesses of the twentieth century. Representations of class division on screen have been joined with the history of labor negotiations in the industry, and even attitudes toward the class identities of filmgoers over time. While the dominant Hollywood film industry has largely attempted (whether consciously or not) to soft-pedal its messages about class, various historical eras and film movements across the globe have attempted not only to raise class consciousness but also to encourage social change.
Often discussion of class is caught up within a film's discussion of more manifest social concerns. For example, issues of class disparity tend to be threaded through examinations of gender and sexuality. Hollywood screwball comedies like It Happened One Night (1934) and Easy Living (1937) often frame antagonism between the classes as a rocky (but ultimately resolvable) heterosexual romance between a person of wealth and an average worker. Gion no shimai ( Sisters of the Gion , Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936) details the economic power relations of the geisha system in 1930s Japan, but is often regarded as a film about gender oppression. Similarly, depictions of the working class or the poor are also often depictions of a country's ethnic or racial minorities—thus (whether intentionally or not) obscuring the discussion of the economic system with a discussion of racial discrimination (or conversely, an assertion that such people are inferior and thus deserving of—and perhaps even content—being poor).
Such obfuscations seem to reinforce Marxist ideas of base and superstructure—that the economic imperative forms the base of both a society and its ideology, with various other systems (such as concepts of gender and of race/ethnicity) built like a superstructure upon that base. The development of cinema as a capitalist enterprise has tended to lead to the production of films that repeatedly construct superstructural representations that uphold and celebrate capitalism, and any potential downsides to capitalism must be reworked and redirected.