Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The Dark Side of the Office

On the surface, it would appear that working in an office would not be that bad of a job. After all, it would seem that there are much worse jobs to be had. Office work is not physically demanding in the way that construction work or farming are. Office work is not a dirty job, in the way that garbage collecting or sewer maintenance are. And office work surely is not as dehumanising as some factory work is, in which an individual may repeatedly perform the same simple task over and over and over again.

Despite this, it seems to me that in the latter of part of the Twentieth century, the United Kingdom and the United States has developed a bit of hatred towards working in offices. It would seem that in Anglophonic pop culture offices are at times portrayed as draconian bureaucracies where individualism is discouraged and conformity is often more important than productivity or as Kafkaesque workplaces where office politics often run counter to common sense. While office work may not be physically demanding or particularly dirty, it would seem to have its own dangers if many movies and TV shows are to believed.

In many respects this is nothing new. A law clerk and court stenographer at different times in his life, Charles Dickens often portrayed offices as less than desirable places to work. Perhaps the prime example of this is in A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge ruthlessly overworks his clerk, Bob Cratchit. Of course, employers weren't the only villains in the office space of Dickens' world. In David Copperfield it is clerk Uriah Heap who ruthlessly blackmails his employer, Mr. Wickfield.

While Dickens and a few other earlier writers recognised offices as potential minefields, it seems to me that it wasn't really until the late Twentieth Century that portrayals of offices as less than pleasant places to work. If there was perhaps a pivotal moment in the Anglo-American portrayal of offices, it was perhaps the publication of the novel The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, later adapted to film with Gregory Peck in the lead role. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit if the title is employed by a public relations at a television network. It is through this job that he faced with such decisions as to whether work is more important than family and whether integrity has any place in the work place. While it was considered rather stinging at the time, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit would be tame compared to portraits of the office to come.

Indeed, the play (and later movie) Glengarry Glen Ross is positively dark compared to The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Both the play and the movie follow the lives of four real estate agents for two days. So intent are the agents to make sales that they are prepared to violate conventional ethics and even the law to do so. They have utterly no respect for their boss and are even willing to betray each other to get ahead in the business. The owners of the real estate agency, Mitch and Murray, are never seen, but clearly have little concern for their employees. They set up a sales contest in which the agents must make sales or face being fired.

The office as a place of interpersonal politics and cutthroat competition is also seen in the TV series Mad Men. Set in the early 1960's, Mad Men centres on the fictional Sterling Cooper advertising agency. The advertising men on Mad Men are largely amoral characters. They drink. They smoke. They womanise. And they are not below violating ethics and even the law to get ahead. At one point in the series a junior account manager tried to blackmail one of the firm's junior partners into giving him a promotion. The office manager at Sterling Cooper is not below using her feminine wiles to get her way with her male employees. What makes Mad Men. all the more depressing is that it is a largely accurate portrait of Madison Avenue in the early Sixties.

While many movies and TV shows attempt to somewhat realistically portray the dangers of office work, yet others take an absurdist view of the office. In fact, absurdism was at the core of the satirical book How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying by Shepherd Mead. Written as a "self help" of the sort popular in the early Fifties, the book recommends the most devious means to get ahead in business. The book was turned into the musical of the same name, debuting on Broadway in 1962. Although a musical comedy, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying takes a very cynical view of the business world. It centres on J. Pierrepont Finch, a window cleaner who uses the book How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to rise to the top of the corporate world. And just as the book recommends, Finch uses the most villainous means to get ahead in the work place.

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was not alone in its Kafkaesque view of the office. It would soon be followed by two sitcoms which took similar views. While the primary focus of The Beverly Hillbillies was the Ozark family who moved to Californy, it showed enough of the Commerce Bank for one to get a feel of the place. Not only was banker Milburn Drysdale willing to do literally anything to keep his wealthy clients at the bank, but it was sometimes hinted that he was an absolute slave driver with regards to his employees (he certainly was when it came to his secretary, Jane Hathaway). Bewitched took an even more absurdist view of the office. As if Darren Stevens did not have enough problems being married to a witch, he was also employed at the advertising agency of McMann and Tate. Sadly, his boss, Larry Tate, was more obsessed with profits than anything else, willing to do literally anything to land or keep important clients. And more than once in the series (in fact, it seemed like almost every episode), Larry would "fire" Darren over some foolishness or another.

More recent sitcoms have continued this absurdist view of offices. The Drew Carey Show centred on Drew, who worked in the human resources department of the department store Winfred-Louder. Drew's bosses changed over the years, from the sexist and self centred Mr. Bell to Mr. Wick, who wasn't below violating conventional ethics to keep his job. Of course, as absurdist as offices portrayed in The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, and The Drew Carey Show could be, none of them compare to either offices on the British or American versions of The Office. Both are centred at paper companies. In the British version, the regional manager David Brent is a shameless self promoter who wants to be loved so much by his employees that he has pretty well alienated him. His assistant, Gareth Keenan, is self important and a stringent enforcer of rules. In the American version the regional manager Michael Scott is socially awkward and, like his British counterpart, so desperate to be liked that he drives people away. His assistant, Dwight Schrute, is downright psychotic, eager to believe in any conspiracy theory and overly interested in survivalism of any sort.

Of course, in recent years sitcoms aren't the only things to take an absurdist view of offices. Nine to Five revolved around three women who take revenge on their egomaniacal, hypocritical, sexist, and racist boss. Mike Judge's cult film Office Space would go even farther in portraying the office as a place where ridiculousness sometime rules. It portrayed the plight of average IT workers. They must put up with consultants sent to help their company cut costs. They must also put up with a boss who insists on micromanaging everything, obsessed entirely with making sure every bit of paperwork that passes through the office is absolutely correct. It is a world where a red Swingline stapler is often an office workers' most valuable possession.

While some TV shows and movies portray the office in humorously absurdist terms, yet others take an even darker view of the office. In effect, they use the office workplace as a metaphor for the dehumisation of modern man. The movie Brazil presents a futuristic world in which bureaucracy has run amok. It is perhaps for this reason that screenwriters Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard, and Charles McKeown made their lead character, Sam Lowry a low level government employee. His job is dull, boring, and virtually mind numbing. Indeed, in some respects Brazil could be seen as an office on a massive scale, where filling out the wrong form can be a crime.

Office work is also at the centre of both the novel and the film Fight Club. The nameless narrator works for a car company in a division which appraises the cost of automotive recalls. In both the book and the novel the narrator's job would seem representative of his own dissatisfaction with his life and emblematic of the sad state of masculinity in the modern world. Quite simply, the narrator's job at the car company is as dehumanising as Fight Club is liberating.

In Brazil and Fight Club, the office lies at the periphery of greater plots. This is not the case of In the Company of Men, Neil LaBute's dark take on corporate culture. The movie centres upon two junior executives who ruthlessly toy with a secretary at another office in their company. And that is not the end of it--In the Company of Men presents the office as a place of vicious oneupmanship.

Perhaps the darkest view of office work, however, is not to be found in a book or a movie, but in a short lived TV series. Profit centred on Jim Profit, Vice President of Acquisitions at Gracen and Gracen, a large multinational corporation. Profit would literally do anything to get ahead in business. Among other things, he framed the former Vice President of Acquisitions at Gracen and Gracen so he could have the position, blackmailed his archnemesis's psychiatrist, and even murdered his own father. And that is only the start of a very long list of Jim Profit's crimes. Had the show lasted longer (only four of its seven episodes were originally ran), who knows what else he might have done? Profit was the corporate world as the epicentre of evil.

In many respects it is difficult to say why Anglophonic pop culture often takes a dark or absurdist view of office work. I suspect part of it may simply be an outgrowth of the post-World War II United Kingdom and United States. Following World War II, more individuals entered white collar jobs than ever before. With more people working in offices, more people were bound to write about their experiences in offices. And not all of these experiences would be pleasant. The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit was based upon Sloan Wilson's experiences as sistant director of the US national citizen commission for public schools. David Mamet drew upon his own experience as working in a real estate office.

At the same time, however, I suspect that negative portrayals of offices have also developed from a distrust of the corporate world that has grown since the Fifties. After corporate scandals ranging from Kaiser-Frazer Corporation and stock floating to Enron and its myriad crimes, it should be no surprise that many would be suspicious of corporations. And that suspicion might lead many to believe that corporate employees are as cutthroat with each other as they are other corporations. It should be little surprise that it was following the many business scandals of the Eighties that we see works such as In the Company of Men, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Profit.

Of course, another reason for pop culture's concentration on the dark side of office work could be that the office is often being used as a microcosm for society at large. Quite simply, authors, screenwriters, and television writers are using the office in the same way that Shakespeare might use the court of King Claudius or the streets of Verona--as a means to comment on society in general and humanity at large. If much of the material tends to be of a rather dark nature, it could be because that is sometimes more interesting than lighter fare.

Surely not every office is dehumanising, cutthroat, or Kafkaesque (I would like to think mine isn't). And surely not every office worker feels hopelessly oppressed by his job. But I rather suspect that in the future we will see more books, movies, plays, and TV shows in which the office is a metaphorical minefield.

1 comment:

dennis said...

Dennis says this is off subject but turner classic movie channel is showing some Richard Widmark movies on Saturday--In one he plays a cartoonist. (a romantic comedy)