Silly Elves & Mall Cops: How Hollywood Depicts Holiday Workers

Man dressed as an elf in department store window. His dad is a holiday worker and can't see him
Getting a busy dad's attention on Christmas. Screenshot from Elf, 2003/New Line

It’s Thanksgiving week! And while certainly I saw some moaning at the appearance of Christmas displays before Halloween was even over, this week signals the official start of the U.S. holidays. Whether it’s your favorite — or least favorite — time of year, I think we can all agree that the holidays are great fodder for good ol’ American controversy. I mean, we are still dealing with a racist origin myth of Pilgrims and Indians eating together in happy harmony, something which continues to engender discussion about the country’s troubled colonial history.

With the rise of Black Friday as a near-official U.S. holiday over the last ten or so years, another great Thanksgiving debate has arrived: the encroachment of the shopping extravaganza onto what is supposed to be a sacred day for friends and family to focus solely on gratitude and togetherness. While many seem to be concerned about the effect of dinner guests dashing off to stand in the Target line, others explicitly express anxiety about the effect of Black Friday on the holiday celebrations of retail holiday workers.

Those of us who are labor historians – and probably more so, those of us whose holidays have been disrupted by paid work for generations – understand that this is just another version of a story that has affected the so-called “servant class” throughout U.S. history. The people who make the holidays possible have to work, so that those with more labor privilege can celebrate in comfort. This is especially the case when celebrations have come to rely so heavily on the labor of service workers, most of whom now work in retail and the restaurant/food service industries.

It is estimated that around  20-25% of U.S. workers are employed in these low-wage, low-skilled jobs. A little less – about 15% – work in healthcare and social assistance (i.e., home health aides), industries which tend to be sharply divided by highly-paid, skilled workers with job autonomy (like doctors), and low-skilled, low-paid workers (i.e., janitors) who often have little choice over things like scheduling.

In the spirit of solidarity with service workers everywhere (from retail to food service to in-home domestic workers (yes, that’s still a thing!), we offer the following holiday movies that can help us all see how labor privilege is a long-standing U.S. holiday tradition. Interestingly, most of the examples below are historical by either production or setting, which means one thing: we probably need more stories about labor inequalities today if we are ever going to face the reality of the contemporary labor market (although they are not totally absent. Superstore, while not perfect, is one of few that represents labor and acknowledges issues of race and gender – and it has a great Black Friday episode).

But in the meantime, we can draw from examples like those below to build a framework for seeing the economic inequities that exist all around us.

The Long Walk Home: A holiday dinner plate of racism and privilege

two black women in maids uniforms serve a white family dinner
Whoopi Goldberg serving a holiday meal in The Long Walk Home, 1990

In The Long Walk Home (1990), a black domestic worker named Odessa (Whoopi Goldberg) and her white employer Miriam (Sissy Spacek) band together to fight racism during the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. When the boycotts begin, Odessa participates and regularly takes the ‘long walk’ to get to and from Miriam’s house for work. Eventually Miriam challenges the norms prescribed to middle class white ladies in 1950s Alabama and begins to give Odessa rides so that she can continue with the boycott with less physical strain. The movie is a classic Hollywood narrative of Civil Rights history (with all the baggage that can carry, including relying heavily on a white savior trope), but it does a pretty great job of presenting the intertwined ways that the law, politics, and labor operate together in a system of institutionalized racism.

While the movie spans nearly the entire length of the boycott (over a year), there is a scene that takes place on Christmas that shows us not only the privilege of being waited on by a ‘servant class,’ but just how much this labor structure relies on racist ideologies.

The scene begins as Odessa and a fellow maid circle the dinner table at Miriam’s house, filled with white people wearing their holiday best. After the two women finish their duties and disappear into the kitchen, the conversation turns to the Montgomery bus boycotts. There is a general air of disagreement with the political movement among those at the table, and concern about how the it might create disruptions to white privilege. An older woman at the table – presumably representing an “older” perspective – offers the following concern:  “In a few years you won’t even be able to have this Christmas dinner! Because you’ll have to have the maid sittin’ right beside ya.”

In other words, we are looking at a labor structure where those who serve are carefully separated from those who are served. This spatial difference relies on the kind of de jure segregation that the Montgomery boycotts were fighting against, and eventually overturned. But even in 1990, The Long Walk Home asked audiences to question the remaining connection between the labor relationship visible on screen and a system of racial inequality that engendered that labor relationship. This relationship is one that continues even to today to rely on systemic racial privileges that underlie the strict division between workers and employer, the serving and the served.

The Help: Not everyone enjoys the holiday party season

Black women holiday workers in maids uniforms lined up at a party next to a white woman in an evening gown
Thanking “the help” in The Help, 2011.

What makes a good holiday party possible? Elves?! Secret Christmas fairies??

Nope. It’s the multitude of low-paid service workers, many of whom are doing seasonal work for a flat rate while catering companies and party venues charge a premium. This current labor structure flows out of a history whereby the regular ‘help’ was present to serve their employers for every holiday event (and for wealthier Americans, this phenomenon still exists).

In The Help (2011), which takes place in 1963 Jackson, Mississippi, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, the wealthy white townspeople throw a holiday gala. These people of social importance have gathered to enjoy an elaborate dinner, celebratory dancing, and a pretty extravagant silent auction (the protagonist’s mother wins what looks like a very expensive fur coat).

Of course, these party-goers gratefully acknowledge the men and women who are working to make the celebration possible. Even Junior League President and meanest, most racist white lady of all Hilly Holbrook asks attendees to give a “nice round of applause for the help.”

But as the movie tells us, no amount of gratitude is going to change the low-paid, low-status reality of domestic labor. The solution offered by the film is to exit the occupation, rather than to revalue the work itself, which many women began to do in the 1960s. But as we know, the option for service workers today to just ‘find different work’ is continually decreasing as the U.S. employs more and more people in part-time, low-paid, and low-valued service sectors.

Bachelor Mother (1939): The temporary nature of service work

Ginger rogers arranging a row of toy ducks
Ginger Rogers works the toy counter at Christmas time in Bachelor Mother, 1939.

As Sara Tatyana Bernstein examined in her dissertation “From Little Black Dress to Little Blue Vest,” before there were Wal-Mart and Best Buy “associates,” there were shopgirls (to see an example of her argument, go here.). During this time there were shopgirl movies galore, a genre that had its heyday in the 1920s and 30s and faded out by the 1950s. One of the more popular shopgirl films of the period was Bachelor Mother (1939). Here, Ginger Rogers plays Polly Parrish, a seasonal department store worker who is fired as the holidays come to a close. The plot is actually kind of weird and random but super fun: Polly finds an abandoned baby and through a series of misunderstandings, is forced to pretend that the baby is hers in order to keep her job. She eventually finds romance and comes to appreciate her somewhat unconventional family situation, with the movie ending in a standard happily ever after scenario.

Not only is the film a great example of the historical shopgirl genre, it helps to draw a connection to the way that retail work today is similarly based on a system organized by both gender and racial privileges. Further, the film helps us see that there is a narrative history to the feminization of retail work: the assumption that ‘women’s occupations’ do not need to be well-paid because these supposedly ‘temporary’ earnings will be replaced by those provided by a male breadwinner. As such, retail work has always in some way been constructed as “seasonal.” It’s a myth that distorted reality in the 1930s, and arguably does so even more today. The danger of this myth, of course, is that is justifies the low wages, sporadic scheduling, and the part time and temporary employment that has created an underemployment crisis for at least one quarter of U.S. workers today.

Elf: When prioritizing is no longer an option

Will Ferrell in a window dressed as an Elf. James Caan shows there are wealthy holiday workers
Will Ferrell tries to get his dad’s (James Caan) attention in Elf, 2003

Elf holds a special place in my heart because it’s one of my brother-in-law’s favorite Christmas movies, so it’s found a way into our family’s holiday traditions. But it’s always made me a little uncomfortable with its premise based on a common holiday myth: that parents who work too much to celebrate the holidays ‘the right way’ are simply in need of reprioritization.

As many of us know, there is a difference between jobs that allow for work flexibility and family time and jobs where these benefits are an absolute pipe dream. Some moms and dads just don’t have that choice of taking off on Thanksgiving or Christmas to spend time with their kids. In fact, to return to an above theme, nearly every movie about a domestic worker features a scene that involves a worker having to leave their own family to ensure their employer has a seamless holiday celebration.

And even further, the myth that parents just need to regain their holiday family spirit relies on a whole set of problematic assumptions: one of these is the idea that parents (especially fathers) can somehow let go of the anxiety that a decrease in worker productivity will result in lost earnings or even being fired. Even for professional-class workers, the job market is so competitive that the threat of job loss is a totally legitimate. And when over 25% of Americans graduate college with student loan debt that currently totals well over a trillion dollars, and capitalism generates more and more needs to sustain itself, the professional class has come to rely on their high-salaried jobs to support them and their families. Very often, this means that if they tell their employer to fuck off so they can attend their kid’s Christmas program, there is likely another candidate ready to complete their job — one who will sacrifice the quality of their family life so that they can pay their mortgage.

Paul Blart: Mall Cop: Only losers work on Black Friday

Kevin James tackles an old mans scooter as holiday workers do
Kevin James does his thing in Paul Blart: Mall Cop, 2009

Paul Blart: Mall Cop is actually set during Black Friday, although the real focus of the narrative has little to do with the holiday itself. Instead, we see a so-called ‘loser’ security guard who becomes an accidental hero due to a wild plot twist (hint: it involves an elaborate heist).

In essence, this more recent movie that features someone working low-wage and low-status holiday shift work is one about a “loser” who is working while everyone else shops and enjoys the holiday. The simple and false message: there is a labor hierarchy, and this hierarchy reflects the reality of an individual’s capabilities and value to society.

Of course, this is a classic American myth: the notion of a meritocracy where one’s labor position is a result of the merits of their talents, skills, and hard work. But in a labor structure where the only available jobs are the crappiest ones, and where there are literally thousands of workers applying to decent positions at a time, we know that the meritocracy is a false ideology. Unfortunately it’s a hard truth to uphold when we’re constantly told something different. But it’s an important one to remember.

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