If bankers see themselves taking it on the chin in the workplace, it sure doesn't get any better in popular culture.

Unflattering images of the modern banker are a staple of television, movies, books, magazines, and pop songs. Bankers are portrayed as slack- jawed nebbishes, heartless job-slashers, objects of rage.

Consider the 1994 movie "The Mask," featuring the wildly popular comic actor Jim Carrey. He plays a wimpy banker who turns into a flamboyant superhero whenever he dons a mask with magical powers.

Fiction, you say? What about the recent Newsweek cover story on downsizing? It vilified Chase Manhattan Corp. Chairman Walter Shipley as one of a rogues' gallery of "Corporate Killers." Mr. Shipley was depicted hovering over two huge numbers: $2,496,154 (his salary) and 12,000 (the projected layoffs from Chase's merger with Chemical Banking Corp.).

Banking's rank and file takes its share of lumps. A recent television ad for Chevrolet featured a dark-haired young woman tearing up the highway in a red Camaro and fuming as she shifted gears: "This is for my ex! This is for my overbearing boss!" Upshifting again, she raged: "For the condescending bank teller!"

Tellers "were seen as a frustration that people could relate to during the course of the day,"said Daniel Hubbert, a spokesman for the Warren, Mich., automaker.

When the bankers aren't taking a pounding in pop culture, they're dropping from view altogether and being supplanted by faceless - even hostile - machines.

A recent episode of NBC's "Seinfeld," for instance, revolved around a character who had to be rescued from a burning bank lobby after getting his necktie stuck in an ATM cash slot.

"There is no banker anymore," said Marshall Blonsky, a professor of semiotics - the science of signs and symbols - at the New School for Social Research in New York. "The banker as a person of authority who could be fair doesn't exist anymore. A benevolent and mythic figure has collapsed."

In short, banks and bankers in popular culture are seen as a necessary evil, ridiculed and pilloried for their greed. They are buffoonish captains of an economic machinery that is hurtling out of control.

It wasn't always this bad. Bankers occasionally figured as good guys during Hollywood's golden era.

In a 1946 film classic - "The Best Years of Our Lives," William Wyler's portrayal of returning veterans of World War II - Fredric March plays Al Stevens, a small-town loan officer who was a corporal during the war. As a civilian again, he lends money to another vet on the strength of a handshake; no collateral necessary.

Still, when you get right down to it, even the good old days weren't so good.

Actor Jimmy Stewart brought to life one of the most enduring and endearing characters in movie history when he played George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," another 1946 film.

As chairman of Bailey Building and Loan, stalwart George was the embodiment of the civic-minded small-town lender, ever willing to take a risk on the little guy. But strictly speaking, he was not a banker, but a thrift executive. His nemesis was a commercial banker, and Mr. Potter - played by Lionel Barrymore - was rotten as they come. Consider this exchange:

Potter: Have you put any real pressure on those people of yours to pay those mortgages?

Bailey: Times are bad, Mr. Potter. A lot of these people are out of work.

Potter: Then foreclose!

Bailey: I can't do that. These families have children!

The image of banker as bad guy is deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian history. The laws of Moses admonish: "You shall not lend upon interest to your brother." And the story of Jesus driving the money-changers out of the temple is recounted in all four Gospels.

Bankers hadn't undergone much of a rehabilitation by 1600, when Shakespeare penned "The Merchant of Venice." Shylock, eager to exact his pound of flesh, was a caricature of the reviled Jewish money lender.

But with the rise of a new, prosperous merchant class, fresh attitudes began seeping in. Religious paintings still featured images of greedy money lenders. But in portraiture and allegory, the Dutch were giving the whole matter of money a facelift. For instance, Jan Vermeer's "A Woman Weighing Gold," circa 1663, shows an aristocratic woman counting out her coins.

Three hundred years later, the banker's image had taken a turn toward the ridiculous in a new venue: the television sitcom.

A bank was the setting for some of Lucille Ball's TV antics with the sour-faced bank president Theodore J. Mooney, played by Gale Gordon. In "The Lucy Show," she was forever scheming to pull the wool over the boss's eyes to escape the drudgery of her bank duties.

Another TV bank manager was Milburn Drysdale, a dark-suited sycophant, played by Raymond Bailey. He would show up at the Beverly Hillbillies' mansion to make sure the mountain clan wouldn't withdraw its millions.

Disney's "Mary Poppins" - a 1964 movie version of the book by P.L. Travers - offered one of the first images of bankers that children encounter today, and the picture is not pretty.

Michael and Jane's neglectful father, Mr. Banks, is a bank officer so caught up in his work that he scarcely has time for his offspring. Angry that the children want to spend their tuppence on bread to feed birds, he takes them to meet his bank bosses. They are feeble, greedy old men who salivate over the minuscule sum that Mr. Banks forces his children to hand over to them.

Such popular images of bankers are largely in conflict with the historical images of legendary bankers such as J.P. Morgan, the Rothschilds, and David Rockefeller - philanthropists who had the community's interests at heart.

Martin Mayer, author of The Bankers, said bankers used to be seen as solid, upstanding community leaders, the most profligate of whom also bore the communal fantasies of the less affluent.

"Bankers were larger than life," he said. "They made incredible amounts of money beyond the wildest dreams of people today.

"When they spoke, the captains of industry listened," Mr. Mayer added. "Once upon a time, they were sound citizens. Now they are doing puts and calls, playing in the financial futures market. They have been dragged down to the level of gamblers."

So have their customers. A new television game show called "Debt," on the Lifetime channel, ritualizes debt and the idiocy of the strapped consumer who has had no other option but to roll the dice and take a gamble on high-interest loans.

Game show host Wink Martindale reads the contestants Trivial Pursuit- type questions, but unlike on other game shows, they no longer win anything. Instead, their credit card and home mortgage debts are erased, and the contestants are returned to status quo. There may be a little extra cash left over if they are lucky.

"If you are a small person, there is no banker for you. It's a gouging system, a place of debt where you'll never get out," said Prof. Blonsky.

Popular culture is of the masses, for the masses, and by the masses. And if bankers listen closely, they can hear a cash-strapped society that has weathered a string of recessions singing a lament. This lyric from John Mellencamp's 1986 song "Rain on the Scarecrow" sums it up:

The crops we grew last summer weren't enough to pay the loans,

Couldn't buy the seeds to plant that spring, and the Farmer's Bank foreclosed.

Called my old friend Schepman up to auction off the land,

He said, "John, it's just my job, and I hope you understand."

Hey, callin' it your job, old hoss, sure don't make it right,

But if you want me to, I'll say a prayer for your soul tonight.

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