I’m concerned about the portrayal of certain jobs as comedic and worthy of scorn. Recently, I went to a movie theater and saw a preview for the new film Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. This fictitious story revolves around a fat and slightly incompetent man who works as… a mall cop. These three ‘characteristics’ are lumped together under the guise of creating a character and, predictably, they create nothing of the sort. They are nothing more than steps in a comedic formula and what they create is a caricature, one we have seen many times before.
This caricature has many models and seems to turn up in various guises depending on the story. There is the impassioned housekeeper who struggles to speak English and is treated like more of a pet than a person. There is the irate postman who is chased down by neighborhood dogs. There is the disgruntled crone of a DMV desk worker. There is the haggard and bitter lunch-lady. These portrayals are damaging because they create comedy purely focused on the lack of education, finesse, or social poise of the characters.
Elitism shows up in many places, but constructing simplistic parodies of people in low-income jobs is a standout example because its only purpose is to amuse the privileged. It is cheap comedy that reinforces stereotypes and stands in the way of community building. There is no value to be found in the mockery of these jobs but it happens all the time. Images of plumbers as dirty, gruff men with low hanging pants are ingrained on my mind from television even though all the plumbers I have ever met have been polite, professional and extremely competent. A cheap laugh at this old categorization of a trade, one that takes a lot of skill and experience, does nothing but reinforce class divisions.
These stereotypes do not only exist for low-income jobs and have a flip-side in comedy about idiotic politicians, robotic doctors and immoral lawyers. I find these jokes significantly less disturbing because the people in a position to become politicians, doctors, and lawyers already have a fair number of advantages working in their favor. Understandable as they may be, this comedy comes from the same root as the first kind and that is an enormous gap in our comprehension of different life experiences. It deters people from voting, seeking medical help, and paying attorney fees.
Lack of understanding is such an obvious societal problem that it is unsurprising it shows up in movies. The people writing and directing these films are not the same people working in the DMV for long hours or the same people patrolling malls and parks. They do not feel that they need to show respect for those positions and they are signaling to all movie watchers that they do not need to respect those people either. This shaming is not malicious; it is just entirely ambivalent to the circumstances and concerns of others.
Depictions of low-income jobs as hilarious and out of touch is upsetting because it shows a lack of consideration for the people who fill those roles. The glamorization of high-income positions has already alienated people. We do not need greater division based on egocentric and demeaning jokes.