[Later this month I start teaching a new online class, a variation of my Ethnic American Lit course that will focus on representations of work in American literature. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied a handful of such representations, leading up to this special weekend post on some of my favorite pop culture worker-characters!]
On five pop culture characters (presented in their representations’ chronological order) who reflect the range and complexity of work in early 21st century America.
1) Nick Rinaldi: No American filmmaker has been more consistently interested in representing work than John Sayles, and many of his characters are defined more centrally by their labor than is Vincent Spano’s Nick in City of Hope (1991). But from our first glimpse of Nick, hardly working on a construction site due to his status and role within his labor union, to our fraught last images of him, bleeding (perhaps fatally) atop another abandoned construction project in the arms of his father (a construction workers turned developer and real estate entrepreneur), he, like the hugely underrated film he headlines, reflects many of the complex realities of work, labor, urban settings, and American society in the late 20th century (all of which have endured and deepened in the early 21st).
2) Zulema L.: While construction work seems in part like a remnant of earlier periods of American history, migrant labor very much embodies the fraught world of 21st century work (and global community). I don’t know of any cultural text that more thoughtfully and powerfully portrays that community of workers and Americans than does the Academy Award-nominated 2010 documentary The Harvest (La Cosecha). The film follows a number of workers and families, but at its heart (in every sense) is Zulema, a 12 year old girl working as a strawberry picker. Nothing I write here can humanize the realities, the lives and identities, and the horrors of 21st century migrant labor as well as does this young girl’s voice and perspective.
3) Janette Desautel: While migrant labor reflects some of the most extreme and brutal sides to work in 21st century America, it’s important to note that virtually every American has connections to, and is at least partly defined by, the world of work. That includes what might seem on the surface to be far more stable and supported forms of work, such as the roles of chef and restauranteur occupied by one of Treme’s central characters, Kim Dickens’ Janette. Many of the challenges Janette faces in the course of the show’s four seasons are tied to the show’s overarching topic, New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; but many others (such as all those Janette experiences when she briefly moves to New York City to work as a chef there) reflect far more widespread, gritty realities beneath the glamour of the 21st century culinary and restaurant worlds.
4) Dre Johnson: As I highlighted in this post on using Black-ish in my Writing II classroom (an assignment that worked just as well this last semester), the sitcom does a wonderful job (not just for that genre, but for any type of cultural work) portraying the manifold realities of race in 21st century America. That its protagonists work in white-collar jobs—Dre is an advertising executive and his wife Rainbow a physician—not only doesn’t lessen those themes of race and community, it reminds us that both they and other issues such as work (among other themes) don’t go away depending on the social status and neighborhood. Moreover, as the first hyperlinked video above demonstrates, we get to see a good deal of Dre in the workplace, a world that is vastly different from, and I would argue even in these brief glimpses more multi-layered and realistic than, Mad Men’s 1960s advertising offices.
5) Destiny (Dorothy): I haven’t seen the 2019 based-on-a-crazy-true-story film Hustlers yet, so I can’t speak specifically about Constance Wu’s Destiny/Dorothy nor any of its other exotic dancer-turned-con artist main characters. But I wanted to make sure to include her in this list nonetheless, both because sex work is work (and a hugely prominent 21st century form at that) and because Asian American sex workers in particular are at the heart of one of 2021’s most horrific events. Hustlers might tell a pretty sensational story, but it nonetheless helps us think about those important layers to work and life in 2021 America.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other representations of work you’d share?