The revolution will be televised: why we are witnessing a big-boss backlash – The Guardian

Posted: July 7, 2022 at 9:22 am

The cultural zeitgeist around work is changing. Last week, many of us will have been frantically adjusting our journeys amid nationwide train strikes. If the transport gods were merciful, we will have got home in time for the latest episode of Sherwood, a twisty drama about the legacy of the miners strike. You may have just finished Apple TVs Severance, which depicts a future where work is so bleak the only way it can get done is by creating alternate versions of ourselves. Now we have Minions: Rise of Gru which asks if there is a place in todays world for a morally compromised but lovable boss supported by a legion of subservient, amorphous workers.

Having worked in retail in the mid-to-late 2010s, no collection of words makes me shudder like: It might seem crazy what Im bout to say. This is the opening line to Pharrell Williamss Happy, as featured on the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, which was blasted across shop floors like audible amphetamine to keep workers conscious and adequately cheery. The song also defined much of the 2010s, frantically screaming at us to be happy while the world around us, in many ways, became increasingly grim. The Despicable Me franchise also loomed large in the same era, becoming the highest-grossing animated film series of all time in the space of seven years. The films breakout stars the Minions were ubiquitous throughout the decade. They were plastered on everything from tic tacs to salad bags and Amazon parcels, they led Zumba classes and adorned the tops of NYC yellow taxis. They were quite literally everywhere.

When the first Despicable Me film was released in 2010, ultra-rich business moguls received a mostly positive reception in popular culture. Elon Musk guest-starred in an episode of The Simpsons in 2015 where he was presented as a world-saving genius whose immense wealth was a secondary concern. The episode ends with Musk rocketing off into the sky like a tech-bro Mary Poppins. In the same year, Steve Jobs was eulogised as a troubled visionary in the Danny Boyle-directed biopic. But the seeds of a big business backlash were planted with The Big Short, which lamented Wall Streets role in the 2008 financial crash.

In the years since, the cultural backlash against the ultra-rich has only intensified. 2019s Joker reimagined the aristocratic Wayne family as a cruel, selfish clan while recontextualising the villains rampage as a tragic consequence of a failing society. Dont Look Up, which saw a Jobs-esque billionaire annihilate our planet after promising (and subsequently failing) to stop a comet filled with lucrative minerals from crashing into Earth became the second most-watched film in Netflixs history last December. Earlier this year, The Dropout, Super Pumped and WeCrashed, three shows about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs meteoric rises and cant-look-away falls debuted within weeks of each other, all but cementing popular cultures assault against this once vaunted section of society.

This shift isnt confined to English-language fare. The best picture-winning Parasite resonated around the world with its wildly entertaining exploration of wealth inequality. Squid Game twisted universal fears about debt into a gore bonanza. Javier Bardem plays a factory owner who meddles in the lives of his employees in order to win a business award in the Spanish film The Good Boss (on release later this month in the UK). An exploration of the toxic impact of work and its overreach into our personal lives, the film is another addition to this burgeoning canon of pro-worker, anti-big boss on-screen work.

The parallels between Gru, the supervillain protagonist of the series, and the legion of ultra-rich business moguls in the public eye is striking. Like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, Gru is interested in space exploration. Perhaps most potent, he has a workforce so voiceless and obedient, these bosses would probably salivate with envy. Though, in this area, he faces tough competition from Bezos and Amazon where warehouse workers report frequent injuries and fear of getting fired for not packing enough items an hour while their delivery drivers are so overworked, they have to urinate in bottles.

Most revealingly, real-world corporate culture loves the Minions. HR managers use them as a not so subversive allegory for their workforce. On LinkedIn, you will find many posts about the lessons workers could learn from the Minions, from offering colleagues a helping hand to eating bananas to stay productive or even that having a big bad boss is desirable. Minions, in their eyes, are what workers should be loyal, infantile and replaceable.

The cultural shift against work and big business has opened a vacuum that the burgeoning workers movement is filling. As workers from all sorts of jobs, from barristers to call centre staff, vote for strike action, it is likely that the political and cultural landscape will only tilt further towards pro-worker sentiment. Perhaps it is time to lay the cute-as-a-button do-badders to rest.

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The revolution will be televised: why we are witnessing a big-boss backlash - The Guardian

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