Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

How Hollywood Subtly Reinforces Wage Slavery

Film and TV depictions of the working stiff today suggest that resistance is ultimately futile. Why?
On the set of Falling Down

Most ordinary people work hard every day, and music, films and literature have, at times, done an admirable job of exploring the sorrows and triumphs of the working life. 

Nonetheless, the mundane realities of working life are often bypassed by Hollywood in favor of more sensational content involving gunfights, car chases, grand mysteries, exotic romances and supernatural horror. Perhaps this reflects the reality that individuals who toil all week don’t want to sit down and watch their own drudgery-filled week replay on the screen. Audiences tend to want escapism and adventure. 

Nonetheless, media and pop culture shape and reflect society, so it’s worth looking at how they portray the worker experience—white and blue collar. Certain films and programs have told the story of the working class with some profundity—and display an interesting and observable trend. Pockets of optimism and activism in early and mid-twentieth century cinema treatments of the working class have trended toward fantasy and fatalism in today’s popular films centered on working people. Many useful insights can be gleaned from this: most notably dissatisfaction with corporate ideology and economic-progress-at-all-costs coupled with resignation about its inevitability.

Wage slavery, or the concept of being completely dependent on the person or company paying your subsistence wage is a reality for many individuals in modern developed nations. The cost of living and inflation rises as wages stay stagnant and families shop for food at the dollar store. Corners must be continually cut to stay afloat as the middle class becomes the lower-middle-class. 

Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times tells the story of a frazzled and exploited wage slave. As a worker on an assembly line, Chaplin’s character of the Tramp undergoes all sorts of misadventures satirizing capitalistic excess, including endless demands to speed up, having a nervous breakdown, getting stuck inside a machine, rescuing a fugitive orphan who stole a loaf of bread, and eventually pulling another boss out of a machine. It ends with the Tramp leaving with his love interest Ellen for a potentially brighter future. There is a hope of escape, of human connection. 

The 1979 film Norma Rae also tells the story of unionizing workers with a message of hope despite hardship. While not skimping on the indignities suffered by wage slaves, these films present solidarity, human connection and the mission for betterment as a realistic goal and a necessary conviction. 

Although finding hope and meaning through clinging to family ties and solidarity is echoed in some contemporary films like Debra Granik’s dark and compelling Winter’s Bone, the modern media landscape about the working class and downtrodden tends to depict an uphill battle that’s already been lost. Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film Falling Down is about a white collar working stiff who loses it and the cops who try their best to stop his trail of destruction. 

The protagonist Bill Foster boils over in frustration at his broken family and the lack of integrity and solidarity he perceives in general society, going on a rampage across Los Angeles. The police officer trying to take Foster down—Sergeant Prendergast—serves as a character foil: he is a working class man whose life has also been a let-down in many ways but who has accepted his lot with equanimity. 

Foster, who is disgusted by the consumerism and emptiness of the society around him, ironically claims that he is “just standing up for my rights as a consumer” after beating an Asian corner store clerk for having high prices early in the film. Foster is filled with racial resentment at the indifferent, multicultural landscape around him that seems to have no place or need for him other than wanting him to spend his money. He balks at now being the bad guy. “How’d that happen? I did everything they told me to,” Foster complains, adding that “they lied to me.” Prendergast scolds Foster like a child for not accepting the harsh reality that we are all replaceable cogs in the machine: “hey, they lie to everyone. They lie to the fish. But that doesn’t give you any special right to do what you did today.”

Similarly, David Fincher’s Fight Club also presents an oppressed wage slave storyline with a doomed ending. The schizoid protagonist Tyler Durden exhorts a crowd of his angry followers to rise up against their tepid lives “pumping gas, waiting tables” and being “slaves with white collars.” Durden, the alter ego of the unnamed protagonist, starts their relationship by targeting the narrator for his consumerism and empty life. He urges them to burn down their apartments full of IKEA furniture, but the counter-solution of violent upheaval and rejection of social norms is inherently rejected by the film’s conclusion. Indeed, the formation of Project Mayhem and its anti-corporate violence is backed away from by the narrator as he comes to grips with Durden’s instability and cruelty. As director David Fincher explained, the film is intentionally ambiguous in presenting no solution to the problems afflicting consumerist society, and Durden represents an inability to accept “the compromises of real life as modern man knows it. Which is: you’re not really necessary to a lot of what’s going on. It’s built, it just needs to run now.” 

The tale of John Locke, one of the survivors of Oceanic flight 815 in J.J. Abram’s hit television show Lost, is also one deeply rooted in the experience of wage slavery. Before falling victim to the crash, which mysteriously reverses his paralysis, Locke is confined to a wheelchair and a dead-end desk job at a box factory. At his job, Locke is bullied by his younger boss and mocked for his acts of escapism, which include playing war strategy games with another colleague and secretly LARPing as a colonel during office hours. When Locke decides to go on an Australian Outback walkabout he is promptly denied the ability to go on his booked tour due to his paralysis. His yearning for an escape from the reality of wage slavery and a reconnection with nature is strongly transmitted to the viewer. Indeed, the only time Locke is truly happy in the show is when he’s stranded on the island, and able to carry out the natural, self-sufficient survival lifestyle of early man. Locke’s signature catchphrase “don’t tell me what I can’t do,” also conveys the stress and angst of a man who is not where he wants to be in life and is determined to reassert his own willpower and vitality. Lost provides an “out” from wage slavery only in the form of fantasy and escape. 

While the funny side of wage slavery has also been explored on programs like the Office that satirize the vacuity of white collar wage slavery, this is also generally presented with a tinge of sadness. Despite giving a subtle nod of appreciation to the kind of community and both bizarre friendships or even romance that can develop in a work environment, the Office more or less finds laughs in a group of people who have given up on finding meaning or betterment in their jobs. The Dilbert cartoon also takes a humorous tilt at white collar wage slavery, with a character whose resigned apathy at the tedium and stupidities of daily corporate life gets laughs instead of tears.

The powerlessness of the wage slave is disguised in a comfortable blanket of screensavers and padded office chairs, or presented behind soft denunciations of retail big box chains and corporate silliness. It would feel silly to shake your fist at a row of computer screens or half-stocked store shelves, after all. Whereas the first half of the 20th Century was eager to straightforwardly show individuals trapped in an industrial machine longing to escape, and cinema up until the 1980s presented the plight of a physically downtrodden middle and lower class seeking workers’ rights, contemporary film struggles with a different beast: that of mental over-exertion, deep anomie and existential office and retail nightmares. 

Rather than facing up to physical exploitation, today’s working class is often facing up to mental exploitation and falsity. It’s hard to show a comeback against the machines and AI except in some silly fantasy like 2004’s I, Robot. The suffering for the average wage slave no longer tends to as literal or physical, it’s metaphorical, spiritual, mental. The beauty of the wage slave identity, particular at a time where nations are so polarized by ideology and race, is that it transcends all.

Contemporary media and pop culture tend to reinforce prevailing liberal market ideology and norms with a simple message: resistance is futile. Even programs like Black Mirror often present scenarios of an out-of-control techno-future and credit-slavery that is still just believable enough to seem inevitable at times. Modern media portrayals of unsuccessful working class rebellion argue for the hopelessness of taking a stand—quite cunningly—by apparently sympathizing with the plight of the forgotten man and woman only to often depict disastrous or fantastical outcomes if they refuse to accept their wage slavery. 

The contemporary media’s portrayal of wage slavery as a fact of life may be motivated by genuine sentiments of inevitability at the march of technology and meaninglessness of much of modern work, but is also certainly a sign of unconsciously or consciously enforcing market ideology and the bourgeoisie cult of apathy. Warning! Accept your station, wage slave! You don’t want to be like those crazy guys in the movies who get ideas in their heads and ruin everything or end up stranded on a strange island, do you?  

Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.



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