The Troubling Neoliberal Overtones of “Undercover Boss” (Or, How Grad School Will Ruin Television For You, Even If It Leaves You Enough Time to Watch It)

Last winter, a serious paper from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives made its way around the Internet and popular American press, garnering mostly eye-rolls. The authors of “Who’s the Boss” argued that the Christmas “Elf on the Shelf” tradition, so popular among parents who want to ensure angelic behavior from their small children in the weeks leading up to Christmas, was a whimsical way to prepare little ones to live in a surveillance state. The authors warned that Elf on the Shelf teaches children to “accept or even seek out external observation of their actions outside of their caregivers and familial structures.” If that doesn’t chill you, the authors raise the stakes: Elf on the Shelf “serves functions that are aligned to the official functions of the panopticon …[and] contributes to the shaping of children as governable subjects” (Pinto & Nemorin, 2014). So Elf on the Shelf is a Christmas tradition that’s less George Bailey and more George Orwell.

I was reminded of that paper last week when, taking a break from homework for my doctoral program, I settled in to take in an uplifting episode of one of my favorite guilty pleasures, “Undercover Boss.” The formula of this reality show is simple: The show follows “high-level corporate executives as they slip anonymously into the rank-and-file of their own companies. Each week, a different executive will leave the comfort of their corner office for an undercover mission to examine the inner workings of their corporation” (“About Undercover Boss”). The show is great fun to watch just for the chintzy wigs they put on the CEOs. And who doesn’t like seeing a white-collar guy break a sweat filling soda bottles or pratfall his way through a loading dock? Each episode ends with the CEO revealing his—yeah, I’ll stick with that pronoun here—true identity to the workers and then, almost invariably, lavishing them with gifts like cash, new cars, scholarships, vacations, or waived franchise fees. The workers often cry (“I just never thought anyone would notice the work I do, but I do it because I love it”) and sometimes, so does the CEO. Television gold, right?

Though I enjoy watching the show—or did, anyway—it has always irked me for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Sure, there are the obvious things, criticisms one could lodge about almost any “reality” show: the backstories of the front-line workers seem cherry-picked for ultimate emotional effect, for example. And then there are discomforts particular to this show. The CEOs are almost invariably white males, while the dupes, hourly workers struggling to care for elderly parents or disabled kids, are almost invariably women, immigrants, and people of color.

But the show really started to fall apart for me when I read Henry Giroux’s (2014) Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education. I have to confess that before I started studying for my doctorate, I couldn’t have told you what neoliberalism was. In fact, if I’d been approached by one of those Jay Leno “man on the street/aren’t Americans stupid” segments, I probably would have said that neoliberalism was like liberalism, only newer. But learning what neoliberalism was wasn’t so much an experience of learning a new concept as much as learning that there was a name for phenomena I’d observed. Unfailing trust in the invisible hand of the market? Systematic divesting of public programs, dismissal of the whole idea of a safety net for society’s neediest, privatization of everything from ambulances to prisons to zoos, and fidelity to the ideal of individual profit above all? There’s a word for that, and it’s neoliberalism.

Although Giroux (2014) is concerned in this book with the way neoliberalism is gutting the university and rendering it only a hollow imitation of that rich public sphere that encouraged free thought and open debate, he offers a serviceable (if scathing) definition of neoliberalism in the process. According to Giroux (2014), neoliberalism “privileges personal responsibility over larger social forces, reinforces the gap between rich and poor by redistributing wealth to the most powerful and wealthy individuals and groups, … [and] privileges the entrepreneurial subject while encouraging a value system that promotes self-interest, if not unchecked selfishness” (p. 1). If I had to play the neoliberalist’s advocate, I suppose I would say that the ideology puts utmost faith in the power of individuals to succeed. People don’t need handouts—like, say Head Start or WIC—they just need the right attitude.

Furthermore, Giroux warns, neoliberalism’s “unbridled individualism” (Giroux, 201, p. 2), its obsession with private profit, fuels the military industrial complex that perpetuates wars and encourages the increasing infringement of citizens’ privacy and civil liberties. This infringement necessarily causes a widespread feeling of fear, fear that is justified given the expanding role of surveillance in Americans’ lives.

Which brings us back to “Undercover Boss” and its ambush performance reviews. The episode I tuned in to watch the other day was a rerun from 2010 and featured Joseph DePinto, the CEO of 7-Eleven Corporation. The show followed its formula. DePinto donned a wig, called himself “Danny,” and got in the way of several employees including Delores, Waqas, Phil, and Igor, all of whom who were just trying to do their jobs and now had to train this supposed failed realtor while a team of cameras filmed them. These three workers had classically “Undercover Boss” backstories: Delores was slinging more cups of coffee than any other 7-Eleven location while also going for dialysis several times a week and awaiting a kidney transplant; Waqas, an immigrant from Pakistan, worked the night shift in the bakery while pursuing a bachelor’s degree during the day. Phil worked like a dog and spent his shift breaks drawing in his sketchbook and dreaming of being an artist. And Igor, an immigrant from Kazakhstan, spent nights cheerfully stocking his truck and making deliveries to 7-Eleven locations and looking forward to the only two days every week that he got to see his wife.

Lucky for these employees, they performed well under DePinto’s surveillance. And when the time came, each was rewarded. Delores got New York Yankees tickets. Phil got an opportunity to do some “freelance” work in 7-Eleven’s advertising department (paid, I hope). Waqas was offered personal mentorship from DePinto himself. And Igor got a resort vacation with his wife.

By “Undercover Boss” standards, these gifts are relatively modest. CEOs of other companies on the show have been known to dole out large chunks of change (to the tune of $10,000), new cars, rent for a year, or breast augmentation surgery (hey—it was relevant to the employee’s aspirations for success on the job at an institution called Bikinis). Furthermore, touched by Delores’s health issue, DePinto also coughed up a $150,000 donation to an organ-transplant cause and started an organ-donation-awareness campaign in his stores. Inspired by Igor’s up-by-his-bootstraps, nose-to-the-grindstone narrative, DePinto offered Igor his own 7-Eleven franchise and waived the franchise fee. As Igor himself said, “This is American Dream!”

DePinto isn’t the first CEO on the show to discover that his employees are facing hardships and challenges he’s been lucky enough to sidestep. More than one boss, after going undercover, has found that hourly workers are battling health issues, cost-prohibitive childcare, inaccessible education, or all of the above. Moved by these stories, the CEOs usually start emptying their pockets for these employees. And this seeming generosity is exactly what’s problematic: These blue-collar workers’ issues are systematic and widespread, but the bosses on the show address them individually. The show usually includes a clip of the boss returning to his board room and telling his cohorts that they’ve “really got to look into” such-and-such an issue to “better support” the employees, who are the “backbone” of the organization, but that’s about it. How many of these bosses actually revamp their health- or child-care benefits? How many throw money at policies that support continuing education? The emphasis is most certainly individual, not collective—the rewards are designed to address the problems of individuals, not organizations, as if individuals are the cause of, and therefore the solution to, the problem.

In fact, sometimes the gifts lavished on the employees at the end of the show amount to golden handcuffs that serve the ends of the executives while pretending to advance the laborers. Consider, for example, that waived franchise fee for Igor. In the last two years alone, 7-Eleven Corporation has been the object of at least a dozen lawsuits alleging that the company engages in manipulative hardball—and racially motivated—tactics to increase their profits, including illegally spying on franchisees, fabricating sales records, threatening prosecution, and coercing individuals to give up their franchises—so that the corporation can “flip” them for higher franchise fees (Hsu, 2014). Good luck, Igor. This is American Dream.

The CEOs on this show often don’t even pretend to have the employees’ best interests, or aspirations, at heart. Waqas, the immigrant from Pakistan, told DePinto-as-Danny that he didn’t see a real future for himself with 7-Eleven. After the reveal, DePinto addressed Waqas’s sense of a dead-end future with the company, praising him for working so hard to earn a bachelor’s degree while working nights. Waqas said that his real ambition was to return to Pakistan and help poor people, to fight for justice and human rights. In response, DePinto told Waqas that if he instead remained in America working for 7-Eleven, DePinto would personally mentor him. And then, as if remembering that a camera was on him, DePinto lamely added, “If you decide to go back to your country, I think we can help you too.” Call me cynical, but I kind of doubt that any meaningful, long-term help will be on offer from DePinto or 7-Eleven as Waqas fights for social justice in Pakistan.

Ultimately, what’s troublingly neoliberal about “Undercover Boss” is the same thing that makes it irresistible television, and that’s the rags-to-not-exactly-riches story. Igor, for example, came to America in the mid-90s unable to speak English, with $50 in his pocket. When viewers of “Undercover Boss” met him, he’d been working for a decade as an overnight driver for 7-Eleven and was not only fluent in English but fluent in upbeat, self-determined cheer. This guy has a master’s degree in electrical engineering, military experience, and a badass work ethic. As a franchise owner, according a Dallas Morning News piece two years after the show’s airing, he was making netting about $600 a week—and those were 60- to 80-hour weeks—which wasn’t much more than he was making as a driver, though he was working many more hours as a franchisee (Mervosh, 2010). Igor may not be impoverished, and he seems downright thrilled with his work, but that isn’t exactly upward mobility.

“Undercover Boss” is evidence that, as Giroux (2014)suggests, a neoliberalist agenda to preserve and widen a class divide has found “legitimation in a popular culture … of cruelty that promotes and expanding landscape of selfishness, insecurity and precarity that undermines any sense of shared responsibility for the well-being of others” (p. 14). The tacit neoliberal message of stories like Igor’s when framed by “Undercover Boss” seems to be this: See? See what he did? If you are an immigrant, or disabled, or poor, or uneducated, you ought not be struggling. You have a job. You ought to content yourself with the low-paying job you have and work your ass off doing it in the hopes that one day a CEO from corporate will descend in a wig and spy on you and reward you for knowing your place and not crying foul at systematic injustices. The reward you get will be one that purchases your fidelity to the organization while simultaneously ensuring that you will never break through the boardroom door yourself.

References

“About Undercover Boss.” (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.cbs.com/shows/undercover_boss/about/

Giroux, H.A. (2014). Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Hsu, T. (2014, June 4). “Franchisees allege hardball tactics, store seizures by 7-Eleven.” [Online news article]. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-7-eleven-lawsuits-20140605-story.html#page=1.

Mervosh, S. (2012, November 19). “Former 7-Eleven truck driver now runs his own Richardson store—exuberantly.” [Online news article]. Retrieved from http://www.dallasnews.com/news/community-news/richardson-lake-highlands/headlines/20121118-former-7-eleven-truck-driver-now-runs-his-own-richardson-store–exuberantly.ece

Pinto, L., and Nemorin, S. (2014). “Who’s the Boss?: The ‘Elf on the Shelf’ and the normalization of surveillance.” Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. December 1, 2014. Retrieved January 26, 2015 from https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/whos-boss

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Andrea Decker

Upper School English Faculty at Phoenix Country Day School

Andrea Decker is an upper school English teacher at Phoenix Country Day School in Paradise Valley, Arizona. She is interested in adolescent cognition, multiple intelligences, literacy and linguistics, creativity, and disability studies. She is concerned with improving inclusiveness and educational equity in the private and public educational spheres.

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