Blog Post

The New Servility

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I ) 

It should surely by now be recognized that the 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada marked a crucial moment in American bourgeois self-critique. The casting of Meryl Streep as a Bad Career Woman, and Anne Hathaway as an ingenue, is not in itself particularly groundbreaking. (More interesting is the movie’s announcement of the skinny jeans trend.) What I find unsettlingly prescient about the film is its celebration of the perverse role of the “Assistant,” with its acknowledgement that most work involves necessary humiliation and submission to the will of a superior. On the one hand, the “Assistant” fits the movie’s Bildungsroman plot, with its assumption that a period of youthful apprenticeship is a stadial approach to the Guild of Adult Power. But on the other hand the movie suggests that being an “Assistant” is no mere phase. Everyone who works at Miranda Priestley’s fashion magazine is engaged to some degree in the courtiership of flattering and cultivating power. In short, the movie invites us to identify, at least half the time and only quasi-unwillingly, with the glamour of servitude.

The Devil Wears Prada feels to me like an archetypal movie from the mid-aughts: aware that it’s in a bubble economy, aware that celebrity is fleeting and shallow, and yet trapped in a world where these cultural ephemera have real power. Since the financial crash in 2008, things have gotten a bit darker. In 2011, the Occupy movement popularized the growing divide between “the 1%” and “the 99%”—a statistic that probably helped Obama win a second term. If you combine that class-consciousness with the ongoing fads of reality TV, celebrity worship, and the ITV/PBS hit “Downton Abbey,” you get “Another Period,” Comedy Central’s wicked depiction of rich and famous parvenus of Newport, Rhode Island in the Gilded Age.

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) - The Walking Dead - Season 4 _ Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

I think two main things are being skewered by this hilarious show. First of all, it makes fun of reality TV (the pampered heiresses talk to the camera like Real Housewives or Kardashians) as well as “Downton Abbey,” with its uncritical delight in fabulous hats and gowns. Second, and a bit more interestingly, it foregrounds how distressing it is to see American servants be so grovellingly servile. The lingering postfeudal Tory romance of “Downton Abbey,” with its loyal servants and paternal aristocrats, is not a new genre in 20th century British culture (see large parts of the work of Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, or Vita Sackville-West). But in America, servitude is not supposed to be permanent, much less enjoyable. The servants of “Another Period” collude openly in their own humiliation, inviting their superiors to treat them as monsters and quasi-humans, which they constantly and unthinkingly do. Only Christina Hendricks(!!!)’s character, a maid brutally nicknamed “Chair,” occasionally shows a flash of violent but impotent rebellion. Of course, humiliation is funny, and the heiress daughters (played by the show’s creators Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome) are creatively vicious, and the supporting cast of comedy all-stars are peerless in their masochism. I particularly enjoyed watching Gandhi and Trotsky get into a fistfight at Mark Twain’s charity luncheon.

It's complicated

It’s complicated

One of the new things about this bitter depiction of American servility to the wealthy, of course, is that it’s white people who are suffering. Both “Another Period” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” (in which Kimmy gets a terrible job as a nanny for an infantile trophy wife) emphasize the pains of servility by focusing on white servitude, rather than black servants (or, um, slaves). But these new comedies strip the narrative of inequality of any pretense of upward mobility or moral uplift. The equivalent of the aristocratic paternalism of “Downton Abbey” can probably be found in saccharine tales like Driving Miss Daisy, in which rich whites and poor blacks touchingly learn to get along. But “Kimmy” and “Another Period” convey absolutely no illusions that the people at the top deserve to be there, or that the people at the bottom are learning anything. It’s a sad world in which the dream of meritocracy doesn’t even work for white people.

Transporting the feudal class hierarchy to America, and gleefully exaggerating the distance between the classes—that’s all okay, of course, because we know the past was a time of inequality and shame. But on another level, “Another Period” is much cannier about collapsing the distance between the Gilded Age and the present than “Downton Abbey.” The reality-TV-style editing is a constant reminder that we, too, are fascinated by preening half-celebrities. I don’t really know what to do with this pop culture connection between celebrity worship and deeper social inequality, which may be the new way we work through the arbitrary nature of privilege. The social subjection of “Another Period” is conspicuously feminized and whimsical—as it is in “Kimmy Schmidt,” in which after escaping from 15 years in a bunker, Kimmy must undergo a new subjection to a tyrannical rich lady played by Jane Krakowski. We know that it’s crazy that the 1% have so much power; is depicting that power as feminized the way we acknowledge that it’s wrong?*

What even is this

What even is this

Stop now if you don’t want to read about how this new servility connects to (what I hope is the brief summer political career of) Donald Trump. Jodi Dean has written incisively of Trump’s appeal as a figure of naked plutocracy, freed by his wealth from the dreary necessity of being polite. Dean suggests that Trump’s infantile glory represents a kind of jouissance, a pleasure derived completely from the id. In the Trump campaign, rational political choice collapses into celebrity worship and what I find the very bizarre desire to celebrate the free and wealthy billionaire, completely apart from whether this serves the voter’s own self-interest. My examples of the new servility have so far been drawn from pop culture that only indirectly connects the humbling experience of social inequality to the supposedly rational contract-driven realm of the (masculine) capitalist workplace. But I detected some interesting responses to the New York Times’s recent article exposing the abusive work environment at amazon.com: while many subsequent commenters deplored the pointless degradations of the workplace, others suggested that the workers should be grateful to Amazon for hiring them. No price is too high to pay for this opportunity! Working an 80-hour day for a tech startup (or a tech giant) is not supposed to feel the same as being a personal assistant to a bitchy celebrity, but it’s hard to deny that they both participate in a kind of cult of servitude.

Don't

This horse will not save you

This post feels like it’s building up to a big defiant American finale, a call to declare your independence by going back to the land in a Jeep Wrangler. But romanticizing the ideals of pioneer masculinity as a response to fears of decadent social inequality is definitely an escapist cop-out. Sadly, undoing the glamour of plutocratic inequality is probably going to be tedious, uninteresting work.

* The link between femininity and bad economic excess goes back a long way of course: see Laura Brown’s analysis of the ideology of femininity and 18th-century imperial trade in Ends of Empire (1993) and Rachel Bowlby’s survey of women and consumer culture in 19th-century naturalism in Just Looking (1985). I would tentatively suggest that there is something new about using the feeling of servitude to a capricious rich woman as an allegory for plutocracy.

Associate Professor of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Eleanor Courtemanche teaches Victorian literature and economic thought at the University of Illinois, with occasional digressions into pop culture and media theory. Her book about Adam Smith's "invisible hand" and the construction of moral outcomes in complex Victorian novels was published in 2011. Here's her faculty webpage: http://www.english.illinois.edu/people/ecourtem.