On TV and in real life, droves of smart postgrad women are finding themselves unemployed or underemployed. But due to the recession and the contracted job market, girls who are considered especially good looking get pulled into low-paid labor that exploits their sexuality. This isn't sex work per se, and not all women experience so-called pretty-person jobs in a disempowering way. But when economic realities force female post-recession postgrads to do work that objectifies them, we've got a problem.
On the episode of New Girl called "Re-Launch," Jess (Zooey Deschanel) gets laid off from her schoolteacher job. When she tells her male roommates Schmidt, Winston, and Nick about it, they worry that she's about to panic. But she says, "It's just a job. I'll get a new one." That job, it turns out, is shot girl at Schmidt's upcoming party. And the other shot girl? A forty-something, whip-it loving barfly named Casey (Parker Posey). At the party, Casey masters the unsubtle role of shot girl ("Look at my butt, jerks!") Meanwhile, Jess complies with the male crowd, climbing up onto a table and awkwardly dancing-tap dancing. As partygoers chant "Shot girl!" at her, she laments, "I'm a shot girl..." She leaves the party in tears and flees to her former school's parking lot where she admits to Nick that being a teacher is all she ever wanted to do.
For sensitive Jess, working for one night as a shot girl is a singular humiliating turn that helps her realize her true calling as a teacher. But for Girls's uptight Marnie (Allison Williams), who was rebuffed by a prospective boss in "I Get Ideas," working as a sexy hostess is not only novel but in some ways thrilling.
In the Girls episode "I Get Ideas," Marnie gets laid off by her art gallery owner boss. This is not only a blow to her finances but also to her self-esteem; she's always prided herself on being the responsible one, the one destined for (or, in Hannah's words, "obsessed with") success. Now she has no boyfriend, no bestie roommate, AND no job. She worries she might be as chaotic as her struggling writer best friend Hannah (Lena Dunham). But Marnie has something that Hannah does not, which is traditional good looks.
Their friend Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) suggests that Marnie get a "pretty-person job." Marnie promptly gets hired as a hostess, and when she shows off her new uniform, Elijah tells her, "You look like a slutty Von Trapp child." Her crush Booth Jonathan tells her that her work seems "fucking depressing" to which she replies, "It's a job. It pays." Hannah reacts by saying that, personally, she'd never put her sexuality up for sale. Marnie slights her by implying that she couldn't land a pretty-person job anyway.
So we've got two divergent experiences of so-called hot girl jobs. Jess reacts with almost instant shame. However, Marnie experiences her new gig as a privilege. Instead of lashing out at the real causes of "hating everything in [her] life right now"-her ex-boss who fired her, her patronizing prospective employer-she fat-shames Hannah. Yes, Hannah and Marnie are channeling some other longstanding conflicts from their friendship as well. But what's interesting here is how misplaced their subtle rage is.
In real life, what's degrading isn't the inability to get a sexy job nor being offered a sexy job and taking it; what's degrading is that, with an average of more than $20,000 of student debt for postgrads, only 82% of the earning power of our male counterparts, and a dry job market, the recession the recession has been tough for young women in general. And for young women who happen to fit traditional beauty standards in particular, sometimes the easiest jobs to land are the ones that involve dancing on tables or "slutty Von Trapp child" outfits.
To be sure, young women who didn't have the privilege of going to college experience pretty-person jobs in yet another way. Shameless's young cocktail waitress Fiona (Emmy Rossum) is no stranger to hourly wages and poor working conditions. She's a high school dropout who grew up in a dysfunctional working class family. But unlike Jess and Marnie, she's never been given the space and the resources to explore her own ambitions. Therefore, her conflict isn't the dissonance between her current work and her dreams. Instead, her struggle lies in which low wage job will offer her the best money and hours so that she can support her family. Because of Fiona's financial and educational disadvantages, she's forced to do whatever work is available, whether it's cocktail waitressing, cleaning up toxic waste, or working at a supermarket. And in the episode "May I Trim Your Hedges?" she almost gets exploited by her boss at the supermarket who demands sexual favors in return for work hours. For disadvantaged women with no safety net and outsize family obligations, objectification isn't limited to pretty-person jobs. It can lurk anywhere someone in a position of power abuses your lack of resources.
Yes, Fiona, Marnie, and Jess are fictional characters. But because TV is our modern folklore, it's important to examine how these narratives reflect and refract the experiences of young women in the workforce. In a down job market and with mounting debts, young postgrad women with little work experience and few job prospects often have no choice but to fill the market demand for sexy shot girls, hostesses, and cocktail waitresses. For more privileged girls with a college degree and a financial safety net, this is a temporary setback. For working class girls, this may be one in a long line of jobs to support the family.
As gender and pop culture scholar Maria San Filippo told me via email, "Seeing young women struggling in the workforce [on TV]...is revealing, I think, of the ways that women remain unfairly disadvantaged in the the American workplace and gestures more broadly to structural exploitation during this winter of our economic discontent." But in the meantime, we can't slut-shame young women who are doing what they must in order to survive.
A pretty-person job is still a job. And for the time being, those are hard to come by.
Grace Bello is a lifestyle and culture reporter based in New York. Follow her on Twitter at @grace_land.