Media Digitization + Preservation
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Reel Work: Movies & the Workplace

Carla Arton & Joseph Arton chat every week about Hollywood films that deal with workplace issues and how they can be a guide to developing your career, help us collaborate better, work faster, better, and smarter. Hollywood has played an over-sized role in setting our expectations of the workplace and establishing unrealistic norms. However, they’re also creative treatments and Utopian visions of real workplaces, management styles, and industries. We can learn a lot from them.

Boss Baby (2017), The Secret Life of Pets (2016), & Storks (2016)

On Today’s #ReelWork Chat we’ll discuss three films and three topics

  1. Pets, babies, and careers

  2. Work-life balance

  3. Ageism in the workplace

Warning: Contains Multiple Spoilers

 Carla: Hi Joe.

Joe Arton: Hi Carla.

Carla: So today we are going to discuss the children’s film Boss Baby (2017), a current favorite in our house. Boss Baby is one of those films that the more I see it the more I enjoy it and appreciate the details in the dialog and commentaries it has on modern working families and corporate America. Did you enjoy this film the first time you watched it? What was the first thing you took away?

Joe: I did enjoy it the first time but I agree with you, it’s really grown on me. It came out a year after Storks (2016) and The Secret Life of Pets (2016) and they seem to be in dialogue with each other in the following way. These films really reflect how millions of people in the United States have approached the question of parenthood. For example, many of our friends have had kids but they tended to be slightly older when they made that decision while our contemporaries aren’t having kids but treat their pets like children. I’ve heard people tell stories about their pets in the same way that others tell stories about their kids. Boss Baby speaks to the idea that couples are substituting pets for children and frames this with a story about Corporate America.

Carla: Boss Baby definitely shows the threat to the nuclear family through the creation of puppies that never grow up. I think it’s interesting that they show the nuclear family as being two working parents, which in my mind is a more modern view of families but it’s moved it forward even more to reflect the threat to the birth rate by bringing in what you said regarding more Millennials deciding to wait to have children or skipping that altogether and substituting pets in order to fit them into their busy work and social lives. Boss Baby still shows a bit of a misnomer that both parents can work and still be 100% engaged with their family and house and have a social life. They seem to have an abundance of time to have successful careers while also juggling raising two young children. Even today it is near impossible to have two successful careers without sacrificing something with your family and it seems like that is what Millennials have realized. It’s easier to have a successful work-life balance if you just get a pet. I found it interesting that there is no real reference to daycare which makes having children near impossible financially today as well. The only reference in Boss Baby is the evil babysitter which taps into parents’ guilt of not spending enough time with their children in order to do their job. What do you think? I would say in The Secret Life of Pets the dog walker is considered the babysitter.

Joe: I like what you said about the career implications of having children vs. pets. Children’s films are films made by adults for children but Pixar figured out that they also have considerable cross-generational appeal. For their child audience, they have always had a clear pedagogical function; teaching children how to overcome challenges and become better citizens. Disney didn’t start this but he certainly perfected it going back to Bambi’s (1942) message about environmental stewardship. The second commonality to the genre is the death of a parent. This is most children’s biggest fear and once they’ve faced this, ever other fear pales in comparison and therefore can overcome life’s other challenges. Think The Lion King (1994). In Boss Baby, Timothy almost loses his parents and it’s this loss that brings him closer to his brother. For Boss Baby, it’s losing his family; something he never felt that he needed that motivates him to get them back. This for me is the real gut punch of the film; that having someone to share life’s experiences matters. Now, this is also framed by wider sociological forces like those that you mentioned; the declining fertility rate, Millennials choosing pets over having children in their twenties and thirties.

Carla: Do you think this is a teachable moment for viewers then that if you don’t have a family you will never know that emotion that Boss Baby learns or have the fear of that loss? Thinking about The Secret Life of Pets, the owner doesn’t ever find out her pets are missing so she doesn’t experience that loss. It’s more focused on forming a brotherhood between the two dogs like in Boss Baby. In Boss Baby, however, you get to see the parents reaction to nearly losing their kids because of their their jobs. Not sure what I’m getting at here but I think there’s something there.

Joe: I think you’re right. The dogs' owner Katie, doesn’t experience any loss at all; it all works out behind the scenes for her. It’s an interesting distinction in these films. As Storks is all about losing your family before you meet them.

Carla: Storks incorporates in the corporate America critique from Boss Baby as well. Both films show something replacing babies for different reasons. How do you interpret that?

Joe: You’ve shown me how Hollywood has always made genre films in clusters for a variety of reasons. For example, You Can’t Take it With You (1938) & Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) are both about corporate greed. Studios take advantage of the public’s tastes in addition to realizing various cultural forces on screen. But it’s also true that they have embraced counter-cultural forces as much as the mainstream albeit with varying degrees of success and commitment. I love how Storks is about Amazon and Boss Baby is about a legacy company like GE...

Carla: I would almost characterize Boss Baby’s Puppy Co. as that of the smartphone industry. Puppy Co.’s motivation is to lower the birth rate due to Francis Francis' resentment for being kicked out of Baby Corp. The smartphone is currently considered a direct threat to physical interaction between couples. They create apps in order to keep you addicted to your phone like a puppy that never grows up.

Joe: I completely agree. Even though Boss Baby is a period film, The ‘Forever Puppy’ encapsulates 21st Century Disruptive Innovation. Boss Baby and Storks didn’t perform as well both critically and at the box office as The Secret Life of Pets; the first two are more high concept films than the latter. They’re cultural commentaries but also ‘what if?’ films. I don’t know why they didn’t do as well but their message is much more nuanced and their themes not that easy to package. Children’s films are about values. There’s a long history of the genre being hostile to corporate America and consumerism but the message of friendship and working together in The Secret Life of Pets is easier to digest than a narrative that’s somewhat antithetical to a lot our current habits like online retail, smartphones, treating our pets like children etc.

Carla: Another thing I wanted to bring in about corporate America, work-life balance, and the value of family in Boss Baby is the experiences of Boss Baby and Francis Francis (aka Super Colossal Big Fat Boss Baby) who founds Puppy Co. They both were sent to the corporate world before they had a taste of a family and taught to only value “making it”. The corner office with the gold toilet. Boss Baby “makes it” but finds it hollow where as Francis Francis never gets to experience a family except when he has been kicked out of Baby Corp. for developing a lactose intolerance. What do you think of their two experiences and what this says about work life balance and “making it”?

Joe: These plot points seem very familiar and make the film more timeless. They reminded me of a lot of other Hollywood films about corporate America and especially Christmas movies; spending time at work rather than with your family (Elf, Baby Boom etc.). But I’m not sure what it says about contemporary ideas about work-life balance, What did you think?

Carla: To me it says for Boss Baby that “making it” is hollow if you have no one to share it with, or the value of having family and importance of a work-life balance. For Francis Francis I see it as ageism coming into play in the corporate world, throwing him out when he starts to show his age; developing an intolerance to his baby formula that keeps him young. He is dismissed for something that isn’t his fault, creating resentment toward his employer. By sending him to a family that can’t provide for his emotional needs they create a disgruntled ex-employee. If they had a policy that helped place babies like him in a loving home he may have learned to value family the same way as Boss Baby. But the company was only thinking of their bottom line and not their commitment to the mental health of its workforce. This is further reinforced by his desire to make “Forever puppies.” It is also the subtext of The Secret Life of Pets regarding the discarded pets who either got too old or didn’t have the “new” appeal to their owners anymore. They experience real emotional trauma and abandonment issues. 

Joe: I totally forgot about the ageism theme in this film and that’s such an important point. Seven years ago I worked with a programmer in his fifties who had worked at NASA and couldn’t find work in his field. At the same time, there was so much noise from Silicon Valley that there was a tech-talent shortage. I spoke to a retired IT executive in the Bay Area around this time and he told me about the systemic ageism in tech but it’s obviously not limited to that industry. The last point you make is also in Storks which is about a company not supporting its workers and losing its soul in the process. The emphasis on kindness has always been a feature of the children’s film more than any other genre and the message of Boss Baby and Storks is that a loss of humanity is a feature and not a bug of 21st-century disruptive industries and disruptive technologies. However, it’s no small irony that these films were only possible because of advances in technology and innovation in distribution models but that’s also been one of the most fascinating pieces of Hollywood history; their profound ambivalence towards technology and innovation.

Carla: Excellent point and a great place to end on. Thanks for another great chat. Again, on first view it is easy to miss but Boss Baby has so much to offer with its commentary on the corporate world, the declining birth rate and the rise of “pet babies”, work-life balance, and ageism in the workplace. Looking forward to next week.

Joe Arton