Pop Culture Lied About Work

Pop Culture Lied About Work

Women have always worked (they just haven’t always been paid fairly, or like, at all). And for as long as we’ve had working women, we’ve had pop culture’s take on them. After all, in what’s arguably the first proto-novel circa 1400, Chaucer gave us The Wife of Bath, an independently wealthy woman making bank as a cloth merchant in medieval England while having a livelier love life in middle-age than most Gen Z’s in their twenties. 

Was her fictional prosperity and autonomy the reality of the vast majority of women who might have read (or more likely, listened) to the story when The Canterbury Tales were the talk of 15th century pilgrim circuit? Of course not, in the same way that Emily In Paris’ expat adventures in advertising in 2020s France is a delusional fantasy, la vie en rose personified. That wardrobe and that apartment on the average salary for a social media manager? Fifty-five thousand dollars couldn’t even. 

That’s because pop-culture stereotypes of the structured-blazer-loving corporate woman have always been aspirational. Consider the archetypal “woman with a job,” the original Working Girl. 

No, not Melanie Griffith playing a secretary who fights back against her sexist boss in the 1980s. (Although arguably being able to call out to the deep-rooted misogyny that marked so many Boomer women’s experiences of the workplace was a fantasy in its own right.) 

Nor are we talking about another sort of ’90s “working girl,” Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, whose experiences on the job with her client Richard Gere are as foreign to many real life sex workers as her character felt at the polo. 

Instead, we’re talking about one of the very first pop culture working women icons many of us encountered: Barbie. From her first job as a “teenage fashion model” in 1959 to all the careers she’s had in between—marine corps sergeant, dolphin trainer, astronaut—this toy marketed at young girls broke gender barriers in the workplace years before most women did in real life. (And always in heels!) Case in point: We had an “executive Barbie” as early as the 1960s, and a “presidential candidate Barbie” in 1992, thirty years (and counting) before America gets a woman commander-in-chief. There was a breeziness to Barbie’s achievements that made it seem as though mobility and representation in the workplace was as easily achievable as putting on a new outfit. If only!

At the same time, other depictions of the “working girl” do reflect and respond to the specific anxieties of their time. Some—like the floundering millennials of Girls, who struggled to establish themselves on screen while real twenty-somethings did the same in a real post-recession job market—reflect the experiences of certain segments of a population. 

Others sweeten the pill, adding a soft-focus spin to the harsher realities of working life for women. Andie in The Devil Wears Prada is a perfect example of this: While her experiences working at thinly-veiled-Vogue-stand-in-Runway would send chills down a human resource department’s spine, they’re ultimately glossed in the kind of glamor that somehow convinces us all the abuse could be worth it. Likewise early 2000s publicist Bridget Jones, whose romance with her boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), romanticizes a mismatch of power-dynamics that, in a post-MeToo era, smells an awful lot like sexual harassment.

Still others, like Sandra Bullock as The Proposal’s driven executive whose tunnel-vision focus on business domination leaves her pitiably (in this worldview) single, serve as both a cautionary tale, and, more charitably, an escapist catharsis for all the women of that generation who bought the “you can have it all” dream, only to realize that, well, you simply can’t.

So many depictions of the “working girl” come to us in romantic comedies, where a woman’s career is only ever a set-up for finding true success: Finding a man, naturally.

There’s also the fact that so many depictions of the “working girl” come to us in romantic comedies, where a woman’s career is only ever a set-up for finding true success: Finding a man, naturally. Consider Andie in How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days, whose pursuit of “serious” journalism leads not to a Pulitzer but Mathew McConaghey’s arms. Even twenty years later, the trope is alive and well, as in Set It Up, when personal assistants played by Glen Powell and Zoey Dutch fall in love at work while scheming to get their bosses together. Chemistry trumps productivity every time.

If this seems like a confusing, contradictory state of affairs—it is! In a weird way, these TV shows reflect how we all feel about work on a daily basis. We love it, we loathe it, it’s all we want to devote ourselves to, it’s the last thing we want to do. 

Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to Emily In Paris. Her working life, despite happening in a sphere which theoretically “real” women could work too, is as far removed from actual experience as that of our era’s other most iconic “working girl,” Shiv Roy in Succession.

There’s the math-that-doesn’t-math of her lifestyle, yes, but there’s also the fact that everything that happens at Savoir, her advertising agency employer, is a B plot that exists mostly to facilitate all the other happenings in her life, from friendships to becoming Internet-famous and longing glances with the sexy chef she romances in all that free time of hers. 

For most of us who live in reality, the equation looks very different. Rather than acting as a backdrop to our lives, work is our life—not because it’s an all-consuming passion, but because of things like stress, long hours, and burnout that make it all consuming by necessity. Friendships, romances, hobbies: These don’t happen at work or through work. They don’t happen because of work.

Which, by the way, tends to have far fewer employer-paid jaunts to the South of France or elegant soirees in Parisian mansions than Emily’s life might suggest. (Or, in Shiv’s case, trips on the corporate jet.) For most real “working girls,” their job is frequently frustrating, often tedious, and, even when they do enjoy it, a world away from what Barbie told us it would be like. 

That’s not to say, however, that we necessarily need an on-screen depiction of a 30-something working from home in sweatpants, juggling a Zoom call and a toddler who was too sick to go to daycare while her Boomer boss asks her to explain how to insert a GIF into a Teams chat one more time. Nor do we necessarily need to see the other concerns of our working world (wage stagnation, layoffs, ChatGPT coming to take all our jobs) dramatized and packaged into a neat 45-minute arc each week. 

What would be nice, however, are depictions of working women that keep step with the more nuanced representation we’re seeing in other spheres on the small screen, like relationships, sexuality and friendships, where aspiration and reality meet in a way that’s entertaining, but not infuriatingly out-of-touch. 

Let’s work on it, ladies?

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