I vividly remember first time I watched Undercover Boss. It was on February 7, 2010, immediately following the New Orleans Saints’ 31-17 Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts. I, along with a record-breaking 38.6 million people, stuck around after the game to watch the premier of a new reality television show that promised to deliver a wealthy CEO picking up trash, cleaning toilets, and getting fired for doing it poorly.
Of course, the timing couldn’t have been better. Just sixteen months after the economic collapse of 2008, Americans were eager to see a CEO struggling to perform dirty, menial tasks, particularly as public anger continued to rise over the mismanagement of public bailout funds and news headlines decried the “golden parachutes” being handed out to disgraced executives.
The narrative formula Undercover Boss follows is simple enough: each episode features a corporate executive who dons a disguise and works an entry-level job alongside employees in his own company. But as I watched Larry O’Donnell, President and Chief Operating Officer of Houston-based Waste Management, grow a stubbly beard and exchange his designer suits for jeans and a baseball cap, I experienced an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, for I recognized a modern version of the nineteenth-century class-passing narratives that I research and teach. Dozens of these undercover narratives were published during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and they proved to be wildly popular. Like Undercover Boss, they were voraciously consumed by a populace angry about the material excesses of the rich and powerful, labor conditions that were increasingly exploitive, and the growing gap between prosperity and poverty.
Most famous among these earlier class-passing narratives is probably Stephen Crane’s 1894 “An Experiment in Misery,” published in the New York Press. Disturbed by the omnipresent homelessness he sees in New York City, Crane puts on a tattered set of clothes and spends the night in a seven-cent flophouse near Chatham Square, attempting to find out—as Jacob Riis had recently put it—“how the other half lives.”
As I watched the Undercover Boss premier, however, I was even more strongly reminded of the nineteenth century class-passing narratives authored by women, because they typically focused on sites of wage labor, as opposed to the alleyways and homeless shelters favored by male writers like Crane. In 1902, for example, Bessie Van Vorst, an upper middle class woman, left a comfortable home and traveled to Pittsburgh, where she posed as a working girl and took a job in a pickle factory. Describing her first day in the factory, Van Vorst writes, “My shoulders are beginning to ache. My hands are stiff, my thumbs almost blistered. The enthusiasm I had felt is giving way to a numbing weariness” (25). In fact, pain and physical injury are precisely the point for Van Vorst, for as she looks around they are what she sees in her fellow working girls. She repeatedly describes the women she meets as disfigured and endangered by the conditions of poverty, describing one as having “the appearance of a cave-bred creature” (42), while another woman has “arms, long and withered, [that] swing like the broken branches of a gnarled tree” and another seems like a “mechanical creature wound up for work and run down in the middle of a task” (19).
Van Vorst’s narrative purpose is to denounce the injustice inherent in Gilded Age class extremes, and to expose, as she says, that “this land which we are accustomed to call democratic, is in reality composed of a multitude of kingdoms whose despots are the employers-- the multi-millionaire patrons--and whose serfs are the labouring men and women” (9). Her method is to depict the hardships and struggles of working women by taking on their conditions as her own, and advocating for social change.
However, the seeming absence of any such social advocacy kept nagging at me on February 7, 2010, as I watched the Undercover Boss premier. For instance, near the end of the episode O’Donnell finds that his recent cost-cutting decision to downsize the Fairport, NY, staff has forced a young woman named Jaclyn Pilgrim to absorb the duties of several eliminated positions—she now functions as office manager, administrative assistant to the facility manager, scale operator, and scale supervisor. As O’Donnell follows her through a frenetic day, he is impressed with her work, but finds himself far more interested in her personal life. It turns out that Pilgrim has battled multiple forms of cancer, and when she kindly invites O'Donnell to dinner with her family, he also learns they are about to lose their home to rising property taxes that her salary can't cover.
O'Donnell is convinced that something is wrong with this picture, and because he sees Pilgrim as so personally admirable, he promises to promote her—to get her, individually, out of an untenable situation. Instructively, his solution is not to adjust the entire Rochester facility's pay-scale to keep wages in line with the region’s cost of living, nor is it to reverse the downsizing he'd ordered to ease pressure on the job site.
Indeed, throughout the series the titular undercover bosses never discover that their employees’ problems include structural disenfranchisement, corporate abuse, or unreasonable productivity demands. That kind of critique is simply not the point of the show. Instead, the goal of Undercover Boss is to tell positive stories about executives getting to know, and building affection for, their most loyal entry-level employees. At base, Undercover Boss seems to be network television’s attempt at rehabilitating the image of CEOs in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse.
By comparison, Bessie Van Vorst’s 1902 class-passing narrative depicted an educated and genteel lady suffering bodily pain from the abuses of factory labor with the express purpose of horrifying readers, eliciting support for labor reform efforts, and rousing sentiment against the policies of owners and bosses. However, an undercover executive like Larry O’Donnell, who awkwardly struggles to perform the work he demands of his lowest-paid employees, is supposed to be comical. And what’s more, his good-natured stumbling functions to humanize the him, and positions the executive as the central figure with whom viewers sympathize and identify—which ultimately allows him to be positioned as the narrative hero who bestows gifts and favors on struggling employees.
Today, in a historical moment that is being heralded as a second Gilded Age, the resurgence of the class-passing narrative form that was popular in the first Gilded Age is not surprising. What is fascinating, however, is how this narrative form has been transformed so that it works against the goals of its earlier iterations. Such a profound transformation raises bigger questions: How does a genre of tragedy and social critique turn into one of comedy and heartwarming personal interest? How do we make sense of the American reluctance to see class as a collective situation or structural formation, but instead as a set of individual circumstances?
These are the issues running through my head as I watch shows like Undercover Boss. Readers, what about you? What’s your take on the cultural function of class-passing narratives?
[Ben’s PS. Well, what do you think, readers? And if you have any final responses or suggestions to the week’s posts and series on Americans abroads, please share them too, ahead of tomorrow’s crowd-sourced post!]
8/11 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two talented American writers, Sarah Piatt and Alex Haley, and one American Studier pére.
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