Work of Art: Graff on "The Intern"

"A Feminist Manifesto for the Managerial Classes"

by Dan Graff
Director of the Higgins Labor Program

November 2015

The Intern (2015) is a feminist fable that simultaneously upholds and upends Hollywood convention in order to promote gender equality at the workplace. Written and directed by Nancy Meyers - who's made a career of exploring gender, family, work, and romance amongst aging and affluent baby boomers in films like What Women Want (2000), Something's Gotta Give (2003), and It's Complicated (2009) - The Intern features Robert DeNiro in the title role as a retired executive who joins an upstart online retailer as part of its new "senior intern" program and is assigned to company founder Anne Hathaway, whose remarkably rapid success has led her investors to demand that she cede control to a more experienced (and undoubtedly male) CEO. 

The stage is thus set for a classic Hollywood comedic clash of opposites*, as we expect to watch DeNiro's sagacious grandpa, Ben, teach a thing or two about business and life to Hathaway's creative yet harried young genius, Jules. After all, Ben forged a fulfilling career managing a firm that printed phone books (how quaint!) in the very space now occupied by the internet phenom, while Jules seems about to crack from the pressures of micromanaging every detail of her business. But while Ben does become Jules's trusted advisor, the wisdom he imparts to his young protégé is surprisingly free of the usual Hollywood sentimentality. He doesn't warn her to let go of her tight managerial grip before she suffers from burnout, he doesn't suggest that she needs to spend more time at home with her straying husband and young daughter, and he doesn't even tell her to stop and smell the roses. In short, he doesn't preach any of the platitudes customarily found in Hollywood films. Instead, as if channeling Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, he keeps encouraging her to "lean in," even if he never utters those exact words. 

By repeatedly confounding my worst-case-scenario expectations - I kept waiting for the two leads to strike up a creepy old guy-young gal intergenerational romance - The Intern is refreshing, especially in its refusal to make Jules pay for wanting a career. But the simplistic, relentless optimism of the film - Jules, and indeed we, can have it all! - comes with a cost. In classic Hollywood fashion, our hero(ine) wins the day, and harmony is restored at work and home. But by framing a workplace story solely from the point of view of the entrepreneur/employer, the movie only glances at the actual workplace concerns confronting most Americans - unpaid internships, long hours with no overtime pay, the challenges of household division of labor, the search for quality childcare, and lack of recognition by supervisors, to name just a few. By focusing on the charming partnership between baby boomer Ben and millennial Jules, The Intern imagines a comfortable continuity between the nation's gloried capitalist past and its future, erasing the economic anxieties that dominate our present and dismissing the real gender and class tensions embedded in American workplaces and households. A feminist manifesto for the managerial classes, the movie misses an opportunity to explore the stories of most workers, especially women, who find themselves more leaned on that liberated in today's economy.

*Those interested in workplace comedy should check out The Devil and Miss Jones (1941, directed by Sam Wood), Hollywood's greatest labor fantasy. In a parallel to The Intern, the film centers on a spring-fall platonic romance between tycoon Charles Coburn and shoe saleswoman/union organizer Jean Arthur. The Devil and Miss Jones is currently streaming free on YouTube as part of Paramount Pictures' Vault. Everyone should watch it before it disappears!

Further exploration:

On the problem with internships in the contemporary US economy, start with Ross Perlin's New York Times oped from July 3, 2015.

On the alarming numbers of American workers exempted from overtime protections, see Chris Kirkham's LA Times story from June 30, 2015.

On the endurance of "the second shift" for wage-working American women, see Brigid Schulte's interview with sociologist Arlie Hochschild in the Washington Post of August 6, 2014.

For an exposé of the work culture at the world's quintessential online retailer, see Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld's New York Times investigative piece from August 16, 2015.

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