Workplace Romances

Do what you love. Most American 20- or 30-somethings have heard this helpful tidbit of career counseling at one time or another in the course of our lives. Like many adages, this one is dangerous: it ...

Do what you love. Most American 20- or 30-somethings have heard this helpful tidbit of career counseling at one time or another in the course of our lives. Like many adages, this one is dangerous: it places a burden on young people to invest emotionally in what is, for many, a matter of survival. Consequences include the proliferation of unpaid internships, the increased stratification of blue- and white-collar jobs, and sheer exhaustion. When you love what you do, to stop doing it implies a betrayal of your own emotions. Who needs vacation time, overtime, benefits, or respect when love is on the table?

What’s more, “do what you love” is never followed by instructions for finding out what you love. How can you tell if you love a job? What does vocation feel like? Aimlessness has become a generational condition not because we are apathetic, but because we are worried about not caring enough—about our jobs, about our partners, about our lives. When even emojis sob with laughter, the absence of intense emotion starts to seem problematic. Given the emphasis on the affective connection between work and love, it should come as no surprise that several major summer releases meld romance formulas with explorations of millennial women’s experiences in the workplace.

Camille Perri’s The Assistants and Emma Rathbone’s Losing It straddle the line between literary fiction and “women’s fiction,” and have been marketed as both. Only a decade ago, the exemplars of workplace women’s fiction—such as Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, or Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s The Nanny Diaries—depicted young women who find themselves addicted to unrewarding jobs that run them into the ground. They sacrifice friends and boyfriends on the altar of career, and in doing so become cautionary tales for women who might get a little too career-happy. The Ellen Parsons character in the television show Damages is another, bloodier example of the phenomenon.

As works of “women’s fiction”—a difficult term that has conveniently ghettoized fiction written by or targeted toward women—the exemplars from the aughts show the power of addressing gender issues that have historically been ignored by mainstream fiction.1 But while these earlier heroines must reject their careers in order to regain their romantic relationships, in the worlds of Perri and Rathbone it seems only natural that women are enmeshed in their careers. Although the relationship between work and life continues to provide narrative tension, the traditional discussion of “work-life balance” is secondary to the complex existential problems of finding meaning in labor and maintaining affective autonomy under capitalism. Working, for these protagonists, is as fundamental as loving. The novels profiled here take women’s concerns about work seriously and adapt romance formulas in order to address these anxieties. In so doing, they mark the development of a new framework for thinking intersectionally about labor practices in a moment where workplace sexism coexists with its critiques.

Perhaps the best and most self-conscious exploration of the relationship between work, gender, and literary formula is Camille Perri’s The Assistants. In this novel, work provides a possible escape from itself when two women embezzle money from their employer, a major media conglomerate, to pay off their student loan debts. It begins when the narrator, Tina, obsesses over a $19,147 reimbursement check that she’s mistakenly received. Her admiration of the check cheekily and crucially reuses romance tropes, as when she realizes the source of her sudden distraction: “I was in love. I’d fallen in love with the idea of not having student-loan debt, and all the swooning and fantasizing that accompanied love was making me scatterbrained.” Here, the physical check represents and ignites Tina’s desire for money as effectively as a muscled body sparks a well of lust in a romance heroine. Tina cashes the check, and is swiftly found out by an accounting assistant, Emily, who threatens to expose her unless Tina helps her pay off her loans as well. The scheme quickly snowballs from there.

The novel embraces many of the familiar tropes of women’s fiction, which has a long history of inverting oppressive power structures. In her essay for Public Books’ 2013 roundtable on romance and Fifty Shades of Grey,⁠2 Bethany Schneider quotes novelist Jayne Ann Krentz’s observation that many romance readers become interested in the genre in their early 20s. Krentz and Schneider attribute this interest to the genre’s manipulation of power structures:

It is interesting to note that many of the contributors discovered romance novels in college or shortly after entering the work force, at a time when they were becoming fully aware of the battles they would face as women for the rest of their lives … Romance novels invert the power structure of a patriarchal society because they show women exerting enormous power over men.3

In these accounts, the romance genre is a temporary panacea for the frustrations of patriarchy, which become particularly pronounced in the work force. Neither Krentz nor Schneider believe that romance solves these frustrations; rather, they insist that romance provides an emotional outlet that facilitates women’s survival within patriarchal structures. Devotees of the Frankfurt School might argue that genre fiction offers only the illusion of escape without its reality, but as Krentz and Schneider suggest, forms of catharsis are crucial to the well-being of the audience member as a laborer. That the stakes of such survival are felt differently across vectors of race, class, and gender should make us especially wary of discounting the importance of well-being as an end goal of literature.

The corporate culture of gallantry creates a cycle of gender oppression that masks itself as the natural consequence of skill.

The Assistants details and then dismantles the gender divide in traditional workplace culture. The book is full of wry observations on women’s experiences in offices, made all the more convincing by the narrator’s matter-of-fact tone. During one exchange with her boss, Tina observes how “Robert brought one of his brogues up on top of my drawer stand and leaned in.” After she answers his questions to his satisfaction, she notes: “Robert waved his hand dismissively. He stepped back and took his balls out of my face.” When he leaves, she exhales in relief, both because the interrogation has ended and because she is no longer trapped in a vulnerable physical position. The relationship between workplace power and sexual intimidation is clear—all the more so because neither Robert nor Tina seems to think his genitalia’s prominence in the conversation is at all unusual.

Perri avoids stereotypes of a single predatory boss and depicts a systemic workplace sexism that is no less oppressive for being well-intentioned. Robert, who is this problem’s enabler as well as its emblem, insists upon an office culture of gallantry and chauvinism, which has been a low-level irritation for Tina during her entire employment. Leaving the elevator after the conversation with Robert, she observes, “No man who worked for Robert would ever exit an elevator before a woman. It was both gallant and totally annoying.” Perri ably conjures annoyance at these gestures while also conveying the larger scale of Tina’s frustration: the chauvinism she experiences is only one outlet of a systemic injustice that ensures women’s economic marginalization. Tina lives in a world where male executives buy $80,000 fish while their female assistants live in squalor. While a more simplistic representation might suggest that the corporate hierarchy produces the class division in isolation, Perri shows that gender is the root cause of both uneven power distribution and income inequality. The culture of gallantry allows the corporate world to create a cycle of gender oppression that masks itself as the natural consequence of skill.

Emily Blunt and Anne Hathaway in <i>The Devil Wears Prada</i>. Photograph courtesy Twentieth Century Fox / IMDb

Emily Blunt and Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada. Photograph courtesy Twentieth Century Fox / IMDb

Tina’s place of employment, Titan, is so enormous that Tina never quite manages to grasp the scale of it; she is constantly surprised by the other assistants that pop out of the woodwork as the scheme grows. Titan is obviously a stand-in for the machines of capitalism and patriarchy, which is what makes Tina and Emily’s subversion in the style of Robin Hood so satisfying. Ironically, the bureaucratic system is central to their scheme’s success: thanks to a centralized expense report system, as well as the executives’ indifference to the daily minutiae that cross their assistants’ desks, Tina and Emily are able to go weeks without anyone noticing the flawed expense reports. Perri thus paints an alluring picture of how a system can provide the means of its own destruction.

In case we didn’t notice Perri’s skillful pastiche of romance tropes, Tina’s work plot directly parallels her romance plot. Tina is given a living, breathing love interest, a coworker whose nickname, Kevin Handsome, points to his chief defining attribute (the profession-based surname, revitalized?). Tina likes Kevin, but fears that if they become too close he will discover the embezzlement scheme. In many ways, the arc of the embezzlement plot and the romance plot go hand in hand. Both are dropped into Tina’s lap without her active involvement, then quickly accelerate as, despite her misgivings, she takes a less passive role. Their climaxes are also tied together: in the end, Kevin winds up working as a legal counsel at Tina’s new start-up, which she founds after quitting her old firm.

Capitalism does not have a vocabulary for pleasure that extends beyond productivity.

As the entwined plots move towards resolution, the book holds out the promise of labor separate from this nefarious system. Several characters vaguely dream of “nonprofit work.” When such an escape is eventually realized, however, the structures of bureaucracy reassert themselves, this time less critically. While the eventual restoration of a relationship with Kevin provides some emotional closure, the real happy ending comes when Tina finds herself in a position where she can hire her own assistant. The victory for Tina is that she pays her assistant a livable wage, ostensibly empowering the worker, and that her former boss comes to her door to apologize for his behavior. In the final line of the book, the girl who prepared tequilas for her boss all those years finds herself in the satisfying position of ordering him to cut her limes.

In Emma Rathbone’s Losing It, which describes 26-year-old Julia Greenfield’s tragicomic efforts to lose her unwanted virginity, both romance and career plots develop around a lack. Julia has never had sex; she no longer has a job. At one point, she came close to a career as a professional swimmer, before her body got in the way. The dissolution of that dream led her into four years at a dead-end consulting job, which she quits within the first 20 pages. Julia spends the rest of the book obsessing over her virginity, pursuing a traditional romance plot with several different men she meets through the course of the book. With a skillful management of dramatic irony, Rathbone suggests that what really matters—what Julia should be worrying about—is her unemployment.

In other words, if The Assistants turns the romance trope of role reversal into a promotion narrative, Losing It reimagines the romance triangle plot: a girl falls in love with the wrong guy (in Julia’s case, with sex), before eventually discovering that the right guy was there all along (work). Sex and work often come into conflict, but the problem now is not that work endangers sex, but that sex endangers work. This can be seen at the end of the book, when Julia’s crush on her coworker escalates to a public sext that gets her fired. The loss of her virginity seems in some strange but vital way to be a precondition for the ultimate goal of refocusing her mind on her career.

The character of Vivienne, Julia’s 58-year-old aunt and fellow virgin, provides another perspective. Viv has an uninteresting desk job, but quietly paints plates and dreams of turning her art into a career. While she has many friends she has never had sex, and even declines an opportunity when it arises (to Julia’s shock). Instead of losing her virginity, she finds career fulfillment as an artist. By the end of the novel having sex is less critical for Viv, because she has already successfully integrated herself into economic and social structures. When Julia tries to joke about Viv’s virginity, Viv only “nod[s] quickly, everything about her demeanor saying she wanted to get back to work and be left alone.” The substitution of sex with work structures Viv’s experiences. Despite her discomfort with her continued virginity, Viv can deny the virginity-loss narrative because it is replaced with the story of her first art exhibition, another narrative of exploration and experience.

On the one hand, as expressed in the character of Julia, Rathbone’s valorization of work implies that even nonworking uses of the laborer’s body should nonetheless be conducive to work. In her account, sexual satisfaction’s payoff is that it creates a more focused worker. There is also a Freudian dimension here, a suggestion that an obsession with sex is a life stage that must be passed through—and left behind—in order to become a fully functioning member of society. On the other hand, Rathbone is clearly writing against a cultural narrative that privileges women’s sexiness above their ambition, artistry, or skill. Yes, both Julia’s and Viv’s narratives involve the pursuit of jobs that they love. But within the context of debates concerning gender in the workplace, the question of whether work can be as good as or more pleasurable than sex takes on a more radical tone.

In other words, Losing It stumbles precisely where contemporary discussions of gender in the workplace also do, at the friction between women as sexual objects and women as laborers. The contradictions in Rathbone’s novel arise because both Julia and Viv are constantly working against two coexisting cultural views: the sentiment that womanhood depends on sexual experience and availability, and the new capitalist dictum that, as laborers, women must channel their passion into efficient work and economic contribution. The convergence of these models imposes a heavy burden on women’s relationship to work, sex, and identity.

The centrality of this burden to contemporary female life is yet more visible in one of the summer’s hottest fiction debuts. Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is an account of a young woman’s experience as a server at a famous New York restaurant. The novel has received extensive press coverage, which has tended to describe it as hedonism enrobed in poetry, a lyrical celebration of food, sex, and drugs.4 In an interview with Paris Review Daily, Danler said, “I feel like food and sex go hand in hand. The intensity, the sense of all your senses firing at the same time. The temporary intimacy. All that links restaurant work with sex.”5

That last sentence gestures toward what many reviews ignore: the importance of work in Sweetbitter. This is not a book that could have been narrated by an inveterate diner or even an excellent epicure; it is structured equally on the revolving rhythms of shift work, the taxing physical labor of the restaurant industry, and the invisible fault lines that spring up between the consumer of a product and its producer. The book’s sex and drugs are neither unusual nor astonishing, and they are in many ways only distractions from what turns out to be the true romance of the book: a romance not only with food, but with the food industry as a profession where pleasure and capitalism intersect in vivid and enthralling ways.

Indeed, Tess’s descriptions of her job are as fleshly as her descriptions of food and sex. Of learning the ropes of kitchen life, Danler writes:

You burned yourself. You burned yourself by participating.

On the wineglasses that came out in gushes of steam, on the espresso machine’s milk-scum-covered steamer wand, on the leaky hot-water faucet of the bar sink, on the china plates searing themselves in the heat lamps at the pass.

On the webbings of hands, on your fingertips, on your wrists, your inner elbows, strangely right above your outer elbow … The burns healed and your skin was boiled.

Here, Tess’s relationship with her job mimics the same virginity-loss convention that structures Losing It. Scars and calluses adorn Tess’s scalded, “boiled” flesh. Work strips away her innocence in both moral and physical dimensions. The diverse brutalities of her job, of city life, of hookup culture are all enmeshed as Tess comes up against a world desperate to subordinate her.

Though at the beginning of each book none of these protagonists are in love with their jobs, by the end they are all moving toward fulfilling careers. The transition from job to career exemplifies the movement toward upward mobility and work-based identity. But it is precisely at this moment of achieving “love” that the romance formula truly struggles to encapsulate the workplace narrative. At the end of Sweetbitter, after being dumped and fired in quick succession, Tess laments to her former self, “Didn’t you run away to find a world worth falling in love with, saying you wouldn’t care if it loved you back?” Romance norms insist that love is reciprocated. The conclusion usually ends with the hero somehow proving his love for the heroine—proving the proper reciprocation of affection—usually through some brash act of self-endangerment. But how can a workplace prove reciprocity? Money? Status? In-house massages and napping pods? Companies provide these rewards merely because they encourage employee loyalty and therefore theoretically drive productivity. Capitalism is by nature a selfish beast. It makes no unrequited gestures. It does not have a vocabulary for pleasure that extends beyond productivity.

While this clash between the workplace narrative and the romance formula might seem like evidence of the formula’s insufficiency, we needn’t see the fulfillment of women’s fantasies of workplace and sexual equality as a project of ideological indoctrination. Pleasure and critique are not opposed here. It is entirely possible that workplace romance narratives may serve as incubators for incorporating well-being—especially women’s well-being—into a future economic structure. These fictional narratives can usefully serve as a way to help women survive, and even thrive, in a system that we are still struggling to reform. icon

  1. I do not use the term “women’s fiction” lightly. On the one hand, it is dangerous to reuse a term that has helped perpetuate the idea that women are incidental to the publishing industry, when in fact they represent the lion’s share of the industry’s readers. On the other hand, in these market conditions, women’s fiction has become a natural habitat for narratives that feature female characters and prioritize a female gaze. Refusing the term therefore risks further denigrating a literature and an audience that have already been dismissed by the academic canon. Until publishers and booksellers come up with a better way to categorize books, we should work to trouble the boundaries between genre fiction and general fiction—a process that may mean not only bringing women’s fiction into the hallowed precincts of literary fiction, but also the reverse.
  2. Bethany Schneider, “Genre Panic,” in “Virtual Roundtable on ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’” Public Books, June 5, 2013.
  3. Jayne Ann Krentz, “Introduction,” in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance, edited by Jayne Ann Krentz (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), pp. 3–4, as cited in Schneider.
  4. Gabrielle Hamilton, “‘Sweetbitter,’ by Stephanie Danler,” New York Times Book Review, May 24, 2016; Leah Greenblatt, “Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler,” Entertainment Weekly, May 20, 2016; Dwight Garner, “Review: ‘Sweetbitter,’ a ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ for the Restaurant Set,” New York Times, May 19, 2016.
  5. Jonathan Lee, “Is That All There Is?: An Interview with Stephanie Danler,” Paris Review Daily, May 24, 2016.
Featured image: Turret lathe operator machining parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant, Fort Worth, Texas, 1942. Photograph by Howard R. Hollem / Library of Congress