Film Quarterly columnist Rebecca Wanzo surveys the history of fictional treatments of labor in US television and film and examines the frequently overlooked role played by sentimentality in media representations of labor and union organizing. Noting that sentimentality has been criticized for its deployment of suffering bodies as “other” objects for voyeuristic tears as well as for sometimes collapsing difference in an effort to construct empathy, Wanzo observes that documentary has often been a more welcoming space for the telling of sympathetic narratives about unions than Hollywood fiction films and television. This makes the depiction of labor and union organizing in Wanzo’s two case studies—the sitcom Superstore (NBC, 2015–21) and the primetime soap Homefront (ABC, 1991–93)—all the more exceptional. At a moment when labor issues are more relevant than ever, Superstore shows people why labor loses, but Homefront reminds people why labor won.
The sitcom Superstore (NBC, 2015–21), created by Justin Spitzer, ended its run in March 2021. It possesses the distinction of being one of the rare US television shows with an ongoing plot about union organizing. Workplaces are a common setup for US television, but unions are much rarer as a topic. Superstore focuses on a diverse group of employees who work in a big-box store, Cloud 9, in St. Louis. Spitzer claims that “we never wanted to be a message-y show” but a comedy focused on low-wage workers—who are typically shown as focused on their own self-interest—is inevitably political. Gabe Miller and Jonathan Green took over after showrunner Spitzer stepped down in 2019 and Miller and Green wanted the show to reflect the shift to fulfillment centers that many stores were making. “The one thing that did feel right to us,” Miller said after the show’s finale, was “that there would be a final push to fight corporate and stop this from happening, but [the employees] wouldn’t succeed.”1 That failure feels right in a deeply sentimental show about labor reflects common fictional treatments of labor on US television and film.
Parental leave triggered an early discussion of unions in the show’s first season. A woman on the verge of giving birth is still working because she needs the hours. Assistant manager Amy (America Ferrera) calls “Corporate” and asks about maternity leave. Coworker Jonah (Ben Feldman) mentions the word union, and it immediately triggers massive attention from management. When their manager is fired for “suspending” the new mother with pay in order to give her the maternity leave that Cloud 9 does not provide, Amy calls for an impromptu walkout that results in the manager’s reinstatement but no other changes.
It is typically retaliation from Corporate that produces employee resistance. In a later season, management contacts ICE to raid the store in response to unionizing efforts. Alas, the workers’ efforts are all for naught: management signs a contract only to reveal they have sold Cloud 9 to a company that has no obligation to uphold the agreement. The store later falls victim to the COVID-19 downturn and closes.
Suffering produced by lost jobs is undercut by the kind of closure in the series finale that is so common to comedy: marriage (between Amy and Jonah) and a continuation of community—in this case, between friends at a picnic. The episode “All Sales Final” closes with a montage and accompanying voice-over from Garrett (Colton Dunn), who had worked in the store for twenty years. After he states that “most jobs suck 99 percent of the time,” the audience sees moments of pleasure in the store that represent the other 1 percent—images of friendship at work. He ends by saying, “If you’re lucky maybe you even get to be friends with a coworker or two along the way. Not sure what else you could want in a job.”
Obviously, there is quite a lot more one can want and need in a job. The show consistently showed the many other things that workers could want: parental leave, good health insurance, opportunities for advancement, a fair wage, job security, a workplace free of discrimination, and ethical management. Superstore is a very smart show about jobs that lack these characteristics, but in the end, genre undercuts satire. It is a situation comedy, and ending with people struggling to make rent or unhappy in their next jobs would be a betrayal of the social contract with the sitcom’s audience.2
Garrett states that he is “not a sentimental guy,” yet this statement is the classic sentimental framing of what makes the world better: interpersonal intimacy.3 But sentimental treatments of union organizing do not inevitably turn attention away from the injuries of bad labor practices. At its best, the sentimental framing of solidarity between workers—as viewers see with a walkout scene at the end of season 1—turns viewers toward organizing as a site of pleasure and pathos.
James Baldwin famously described sentimentality as “the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion,” but despite the feeling that it is inauthentic and ineffective, the sentimental has been an effective tool in many social movements.4 Baldwin was specifically objecting to the tears of the more socially powerful as a troubling aesthetic as a political form of redress, but emotion has been a tendentious issue in the history of social movements more broadly. Social-movement theorists Jeff Goodwin, James M. Jasper, and Francesca Polletta have pointed to a long scholarly tendency to treat emotion as the opposite of the rational in political activism, as if some pure, liberal, rational subject would be best at leading people to social change.5
Historically, many people in the United States have singled out unions in crafting prejudicial discourse about the danger of emotions. Capitalists propagated the idea of angry, working-class mobs rising up against their bosses in order to invalidate the work of union organizers. Political activists have nevertheless long made effective use of the sentimental—the enslaved mother who loses her children, the “poor burned bodies” in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, the Lewis Hine photos of the Lawrence child laborers that included a girl of fourteen with eyes that “look 40,” Mamie Bradley weeping over the body of son Emmett Till, and the “mothers” of the Black Lives Matter movement.6 Rage, sympathy, and shame are all affects that, mobilized in social movements, can inspire solidarity.7 While sentimentality has always been a specific site of scorn both politically and aesthetically, it has nevertheless played an important role in media representations of labor.
Sentimentality has been criticized for its deployment of suffering bodies as “other” objects for voyeuristic tears as well as for sometimes collapsing difference in an effort to construct empathy.8 Even a film like Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award–winning documentary Harlan County, USA (1976), which is a such a strong example of direct cinema, uses folk music to evoke a sentimental folk romanticism in a film that primarily relies on aural realism.9 As Grace Elizabeth Hale argues in her discussion of the layered aural landscape of the classic film, the use of music is one of the mechanisms that both works with and pushes against the ways that Appalachians were constructed as primitive both within and outside of the United States.10
Documentary has often been a more welcoming space for the telling of sympathetic narratives about unions than Hollywood fiction films. Hollywood does, however, have a love affair with triumphant working-class protagonists; Michael Denning and others have traced the embeddedness of working-class people—as subjects, consumers, and producers—in popular culture.11 Unions have not fared as well. Films of the 1930s and 1940s were often about class. Elegiac Busby Berkeley production numbers, My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava, 1936), and Frank Capra films all celebrate the Forgotten Man and working-class collectives without a union in sight. The era spoke to class concerns without embracing unions as a solution. The Devil and Miss Jones (Sam Wood, 1941) is a rare pro-union film from Hollywood’s golden age, but it is rather perverse in making the capitalist its protagonist.12 Union dysfunction and corruption are arguably much more frequent in Hollywood productions, with a demonization of organization leaders in films such as On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954).
An interesting feature of fictional films sympathetic to union organizing is their narrative centering of women despite the fact that, in the workplace, slightly more men are unionized. The blacklisted Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman, 1954) made a miner’s wife and gender relations central to the story of a strike. Norma Rae (Martin Ritt, 1979) and Silkwood (Mike Nichols, 1983) are two of the most well-known films about union organizers. Sally Field’s Norma, standing tall with a union sign while her coworkers shut down their machines, is an iconographic moving scene, but the union issues are sublimated to the women’s film genre. Yet it is this very sublimation that draws the viewers to side with the union, as they root for Norma’s empowerment.
A number of television shows have focused on working-class women, but the union has often been strangely absent from series where it would be a natural fit. For example, the first season of celebrated working-class sitcom Roseanne (1988–97) depicted a walkout, but there was no discussion of the factory workers going to their union to discuss management changes. Unions are often mentioned in passing on series, but despite the potential for conflict or melodrama and its comfortable fit within the women’s genre, an actual union is rarely seen. One notable exception was a prime-time soap that debuted thirty years before Superstore ended.
Homefront (ABC, 1991–93) was set in the fictional town of River Run, Ohio, in the period following World War II. The series (Lynn Marie Latham and Bernard Lechowick) primarily follows three families: the wealthy Sloans, who own a steel factory; and the two working-class families employed there: the African American Davis family and the white Catholic Metcalfs. In episode 5, the series introduces union organizer Al Kahn, played by John Slattery, initially doing his best to channel the rapid patter of a Preston Sturges protagonist. He eventually settles into becoming a swoon-worthy romantic lead and part of the most long-suffering couple on the show. He falls in love with matriarch Anne Metcalf (Wendy Phillips), and they are first divided by religion (he is Jewish), then by her manager son, who despises Kahn’s union activism. After they are married, Anne contracts polio and is disabled. As if they had not suffered enough over the course of two seasons, Al becomes a victim of the Taft-Hartley Act when he is branded a communist for refusing to sign the loyalty oath, and they are forced to leave town so he can find work.
Making the union organizer a romantic lead is key to the sympathetic construction of labor activism in the show. Social issues are more palatable if encountered through personal intimacy. Also, the union here functions as a space that can bring people together despite difference. With his first efforts, Kahn is successful only at recruiting Anne’s daughter Linda (Jessica Steen), lone African American worker Robert Davis (Sterling Macer Jr.), and Charlie Hailey (Harry O’Reilly), a white worker who initially joins impulsively because he is angered by management’s surveillance. Charlie comments to his wife and friend at the end of the episode that the “Jew, the colored guy, and Linda” seem to offer very little for management to fear. He is wrong, of course: that kind of solidarity is exactly what capitalism fears.
Through parallel editing, Homefront often played with the idea of similarity across difference. A racist white union member and Black union member talk about their readings of each other; the wealthy Sloans discuss their employees while their employees discuss them; Linda is shown pouring coffee and being excluded from planning at a union meeting, while a female coworker against her activism is shown enduring the same treatment at her office. Such matched scenes sometimes have a healthy political irony, but at other times the series commits the sentimental sin of treating misreadings as similar in scale and injury—a disingenuous conflation that may be pleasurable for some viewers but alienating for others. The frequency and charm of these parallel scenes is seductive, as they use humor to ease the discomfort over conflicts that could otherwise be insurmountable. Just as Superstore somewhat undercuts its critique of contemporary labor inequities with the sentimental comforts of interpersonal intimacy, Homefront sometimes emphasizes a universal humanity that masks the violence of class struggle and discrimination.
And yet, both of these shows do get at certain realities of work. Homefront is set during the most intense period of labor organizing and strikes in US history—1945–46—and shows the challenges of those who demand an acknowledgment of other struggles both outside of and related to labor. Three of the four workplace leaders—Al, Linda, and Robert—are no longer in the union at the end of the series. Al is a victim of the communist and radical Left purge of unions that began with the Taft-Hartley Act. Linda leaves to work where she can be better paid. Robert is pushed out of town because of white-supremacist threats to him and his (white) French war bride and leaves to attend school. Only Charlie is left. Charlie, who had to be told by Al that Black soldiers faced discrimination in the war yet had also fought for a country that discriminated against them. Charlie, who thought Jews had tails.
But the last scene of the series is of Charlie at Shabbat with his fiancée, a survivor of Auschwitz, after he has shed many of his discriminatory ideas (but not all) through interpersonal intimacy with subjected others. Homefront places a voice-over from a Black character over this scene (something Superstore also does in its conclusion), presumably because the presence of hopeful Black people in oppressive contexts tends to signify America’s sense of possibility. Gloria and Abe Davis, having finally left the Sloans to open their own restaurant, discuss how the “world truly is truly changing…. Lord only knows what will happen next.” The Black family signifies an optimism about the nation’s future—perhaps troublingly, given how the town treated their son. But so does Charlie, whom the show treats as a lovable bigot who is arrogant and ignorant but transformed by friendship and love.
I wonder how this Homefront plot would fare today. Charlie would seem irredeemable to the audience, who might consider it narratively unethical to recuperate him. Soaps, however, love redemption. And the labor organizer—writ large—might have been the most recuperated figure of all. While this was a show that trafficked in nostalgia and the “innocence” of an era of rampant discrimination, it also was a rare example of a US television series that supported union organizing as essential to building a better life, even as conflicts about sexism, racism, and other radical political projects can place pressure on labor solidarity.
I have fond memories of Homefront. But it is not available on DVD or streaming. I wish people could rediscover it today, at a moment when labor issues are more relevant than ever. Superstore shows people why labor loses, but Homefront reminds people why labor won.
Alexandra Del Rosario, “‘Superstore’ Finale: Creator and Showrunners on ‘Satisfying’ Endings amid the Pandemic, Future of Cloud 9 Family,” Deadline, March 25, 2021, https://deadline.com/2021/03/superstore-finale-series-creator-showrunners-finding-satisfying-ending-pandemic-future-cloud-9-1234718994/.
Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: BFI Publishing, 1999).
Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008). In a discussion of “women’s” texts Berlant explores how “sentimental political practice” focuses on “emotional recognition” and “building pain alliances” (35).
James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon, 1955), 14.
Jeff Goodwin, James M. Jasper, and Francesca Polletta, Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 1–4.
Greg Cook, “From Photo of a Lawrence Girl a 100 Years Ago, Discovering the Legacy of Child Labor,” WBUR News, February 6, 2003, www.wbur.org/news/2013/02/06/child-labor-hine.
See James M. Jasper, “The Emotions of Protest: Affective and Reactive Emotions around Social Movements,” Sociological Forum 13, no. 3 (September 1998): 397–424.
I discuss this at length in Rebecca Wanzo, The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009).
For a discussion of diegetic and nondiegetic sound and aural layering in the film, see Grace Elizabeth Hale, “Documentary Noise: The Soundscape of Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA,” Southern Cultures 23, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 10–32.
Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1997).
Michael Rogin, “How the Working Class Saved Capitalism: The New Labor History and The Devil and Miss Jones,” Journal of American History 89, no. 1 (June 2002): 88.