Thursday, February 28, 2013

Serious beauty mistakes

Don't ask how I ended up here -- morning browsing Internet K-hole is always the answer -- but there is something about beauty tip advice sites that draws me like a moth to the flame. I'm not particularly interested in the tips themselves, having maintained a satisfying a mascara-blush-lipstick routine since high school, but numbered lists about how to make your face look more anything-y always harbor the potential for outrage. As a veteran hate-reader, I can't look away.

The tips-list that came up this morning, Seven Beauty Mistakes That Make You Look Old, took a step outside of the usual "too much concealer, hair too flat!" line of advice, however, sneakily inserting this gem right in the middle of the list:
In our busy and hectic lives, people build up a great deal of stress throughout the week. It’s a serious beauty mistake to have lots of stress on your shoulders and not do anything about it. Skin suffers when the body and mind are under stress, and no amount of beauty tips or make-up can undo the damage caused by stress. Find a healthy way to reduce stress and keep yourself looking as beautiful as you can.
Stress! A serious beauty mistake. In a contemporary situation where the global economy is floundering, student debt is soaring, and sexism and racism are alive and well, the most important thing to know about stress is that it your skin will look a little worse for the wear. Par for the course for women's beauty advice, which is --as far as I can tell -- essentially about masking the physical manifestations of living under late capitalism. At this point, "keep yourself looking beautiful" is less girlish advice on how to look youthful, and more a coercive injunction to think about what might happen if you don't. If that's not stress-inducing, I don't know what is.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

In which I watch Undercover Boss

So, obviously, I ended up on the couch on a Friday night, beside my mom and my brother, watching Undercover Boss and seething. I don't know how the channel ended up there between The Rick Mercer Report and plans to watch David Fincher's House of Cards on Netflix, but forty-five minutes later I was stuck in CBS's capitalist fantasy, waiting for the inevitable end.

For those of you who are privileged enough to have never seen an episode of Undercover Boss, the basic premise is this: head corporate honcho joins climbs down the ladder to join little people in the trenches for a few days. While on the job -- washing dishes, doing sanitation work, or in tonight's episode, cutting chickens in half at Boston Market -- the bosses learn something about just how difficult it is to do intellectually bereft, physically repetitive, and socially unrewarding work all day, and show off their newfound respect for the worker by bestowing gifts of cash and promotion on the the employees with the most tragic stories and cheeriest demeanors. In this particular episode, three employees received approximately $20,000 each, to which one drive-thru worker responded with an exclamation that God moves in mysterious ways.

Like essentially every other reality television show, Undercover Boss offers emotional payout in the form of providential benevolence. We can all feel good because the single mother going to school part-time on her days off can move up in the company, and the aspiring nurse can quit her second job to learn the break management software and teach it to the regional market leaders. Or at least we can until we think about the other seventy-five employees who are still moving warmed-over green beans around in a stainless steel box to make them look "nice" for the customers. But Undercover Boss bothers me more than shows like American Idol or Say Yes to the Dress because it touches more on the realities of life in the service industry while simultaneously valorizing the enforcement of brand-management affect-policing.

The Boston Market episode makes this particularly evident because it is apparently the only episode in which an employee is fired by the undercover boss. While the self-proclaimed "Kim Kardashian" of Boston Market is an abrasive personality who clearly takes some perverse pleasure in shit-talking the clientele, he is ultimately fired not for expressing these sentiments to a customer (he does not), but to a woman he presumes to be a non-Boston Market diner waitress with aspirations to owning a restaurant. In this context, his catty vitriol re: elderly customers and crying children comes off less as corporate insubordination and more like service-worker solidarity. "It's not mean of me to hate customers," he says at the end of the episode, and while it certainly would be 'mean' to hate any of them as individuals, a generalized resentment of the category of customer on the part of service workers seems almost banal.

But more than the firing of a petty and disgruntled employee, it's the weekly rehashing of the 'boss goes slumming' schtick that really grates. What it makes evident, in the end, is that none of the bosses worked their way up in the company, but were rather outside hires. This gives lie to the opportunities provided, at the end of each episode, to those few selected employees to "move up" in the company. Ultimately, the boss goes back to her job mending Boston Market's failing brand -- a job depicted at the beginning of the show as consisting mostly of tasting chicken and spouting off phrases about better living through fast food -- and the rest of Boston Market's front line employees go back to their dead-end service jobs without a $20,000 reward from corporate for busting their ass while still attending school. The fact is, retail, food service, administrative, and other low-wage jobs are often defined by dead-end career development, unpredictable hours, minimal benefits, and precarious job security. The fantasy that things would be better on the bottom if only those on the top knew just how hard it was strips workplace relations of any political context, relegating the experience of the worker to a simple test of who can be the happiest when the cameras are on.