What’s with all the television shows representing men at work?
I’m thinking of shows like “Deadliest Catch,” “Ice Road Truckers,” “Ax Men,” and “Coal.” All are about men, since women are rarely present except in occasional jobs (such as a helicopter pilot) and waiting at home, and they’re mostly white men (racial and ethnic minorities need not apply?). The men work hard, often in dangerous and physically exhausting jobs. And while they’re mostly working for themselves or for relatively small, family-owned capitalist enterprises, they’re always forced to confront the reality of the bottom line. It’s a pretty complicated set of images of work.
Clearly, then, lots of different things are going on between viewers sitting on their couches and the televised images of men at work. For James Turner, it’s a combination of “a window into a world that most modern people don’t experience,” the “human drama that plays out, especially the conflict,” and the “potential for disaster.”
Matt Zoller Seitz has a different view, at least in terms of “Deadliest Catch”: it’s a metaphor for the New Economy.
The crew on these boats derive their pay from the size of each season’s haul, which means there’s no incentive for either bosses or employees to enforce humane workplace practices. These men routinely toil for twenty-plus hours at a stretch, pausing just long enough to scarf down a meal or relieve themselves. If they’re lucky, they get a few hours to nap before returning to the grind, and if they’re not lucky, they end up as participants in a kind of iron man contest, seeing how long they can work without keeling over from exhaustion or making a catastrophic mistake. (Last night’s episode casually revealed that the crew of the Ramblin’ Rose worked 32 hours straight, and went without food for 20.)
Almost no one on these boats dares bitch or moan. Why? It’s only partly a mindset thing. The job attracts stoics who detest whining. But economic imperatives also come into play. The industry is structured like a cross between an agricultural collective and a waterborne sweatshop. Anyone who pauses for longer than a few minutes for any reason is instantly suspected of being a slacker who’s going to shrink both the season’s haul and the size of each man’s share. (Not that any of these guys are making a king’s ransom. According to figures at the end of last night’s show, the average haul is somewhere between $30-$60K, which isn’t much once you subtract taxes and Social Security.)
The more you watch this show, the more it ceases to seem a mere portrait of a way of life, and the more it starts to play like a metaphor for life in the so-called New Economy. And isn’t it interesting that the New Economy looks suspiciously like the economy of the pre-unionized industrial era, when a huge share of the citizenry worked grueling and sometimes physically dangerous jobs on farms and in factories for pathetically low wages, knowing full well that anyone who complained would be docked, suspended, fired, blacklisted, or murdered in a “workplace accident”?
On this view, watching men work does not represent a nostalgia for a lost form of “real” labor but a warning about what capitalist labor historically was and, once again, is becoming.