The Schadenfreude and Vicarious Access of Personal Assistants on Film

All the fun, none of the work.

Disclaimer: I did not see The Assistant (2019) and don’t plan to. Maybe someday.

I often think of an old Russian saying my muzh’s family quotes:

There are three things a man can watch endlessly – the roaring of the fire … the motion of the ocean …. and another man working.

That must be why we love movies about people being overworked, underpaid and utterly unappreciated, right? There’s catharsis to be found in seeing a character have to deal with workplace trials and tribulations that might be out of our realm, but definitely echo our own work experiences.

There’s also the schadenfreude of watching a person being put through their paces, dealing with adversity, putting in blood, sweat and tears, while we get to be couch potatoes.

Most of my favorite (and, therefore, successful) movies offer another element: unfettered access to an exclusive world.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) isn’t just about how tough of a boss Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is – it’s also about seeing how an elite fashion magazine comes into being, how the fashion world operates, what it’s like to be a woman who is feared and revered in a world that relishes telling women all of the things that are wrong with their bodies.

Films that feature “ordinary girl works for extraordinary boss” act as our window into a high-stress, mysterious world, without putting in the work ourselves.

I think that we also get to assume that unlike our own boring lives, the hard work of these bottom-of-the-food-chain assistants will eventually pay off, and that we’ll get to see that happen. (Like Peggy in Mad Men – but we’re not talking about television right now.)

That’s why it’s also interesting when a film doesn’t allow the assistant to rise by the time the credits roll:

In Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), Valentine (Kristen Stewart) has no aspirations beyond serving her aging diva actress (Juliette Binoche). In Gemini (2017), Jill (Lola Kirke) is just trying to get her own actress (Zoë Kravitz) off the hook for murder. Those stories put the focus entirely on the relationships between the women.

It’s this lack of ambition that makes their extraordinary circumstances almost … pedestrian. Almost as though being the employee of a movie star is as everyday as being the employee of the people we, the viewers, work for.

Of course, then you have The High Note (2020) a hard one to pin down, for the simple reason that it’s not a very good movie. Tracee Ellis Ross is by far the best part, but the script doesn’t even know if her character is supposed to be a caricature or not. Maggie (Dakota Johnson) is both a great assistant (does her job) and a terrible assistant (tries to do a different job). And then she’s allowed to become a producer in the end. Happy Endings all around!

If The High Note had a sense of what kind of story it is, it would have either been about Maggie OR about Grace. The fact that it felt the need to preserve their relationship is what makes it fall flat. EITHER Maggie goes off and becomes a strong producer thanks to her failure with Grace, or Grace’s manager was right all along and Grace was right to trust him over Maggie and her “big ideas that no one will listen to!”

Anyhow.

Obviously, the OG film about all this is All About Eve (1950), where Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is on a secret mission to become a big film star, at the expense of her employer, Margo Channing (Bette Davis).

These films, where the assistants try to morph into their big personality employers, are the most delicious.

Whether they’re told from the point of view of the employer – like All About Eve – or from the perspective of the meek inheriting the earth – like in Working Girl (1988) – I can’t get enough of them. And in both situation, the villains, as my mother would say, get what’s coming to them!

Speaking of the Tippi Hedren dynasty, Working Girl, for a change, doesn’t take us behind the scenes of a celebrity. It shows us money. It shows us the upper echelons of people who can talk their way into millions.

What Working Girl does exceptionally well is show us the full-on class divide between employer and employee.

Tess (Melanie Griffith) is from Staten Island and when we first meet her, she’s taking locution lessons. When Katharine (Sigourney Weaver) comes on the scene as her new boss – younger than Tess, even, by a few months! – Tess practically single-white-females her in an attempt to take on Katharine’s poise and business know-how. She replays Katharine’s dictation tapes, copying her WASP-y accent. She “borrows” her $6000 clothes. She gets Katharine’s haircut. Not because she wants to be Katharine, but because she recognizes that obtaining Katharine’s social signifiers will make available a whole lot of opportunities that Tess has been striving for.

There will always be an inherent class divide between the personal assistant and their employer.

Assistants are likely making a fraction of what their employers do. By definition, the employer must have enough work to need one and enough money to afford one.

Yes, there’s the obvious indignity of serving the role of “something between a mother and a waitress.” (Sorry, Mad Men just really gets it sometimes!) But that’s the day to day business of it. The power imbalance is unavoidable, but thinking too hard about the position also yields the gulf between them, no matter how close the two may get personally.

What is it, though, about personal assistants that’s so fascinating?

Being a personal assistant is hell.

You get to know your employer better than you know yourself. You know which restaurant to order their food from, and the dish they prefer. You know how they like their coffee. You know who to interrupt their meetings for. You know their finances, their schedule, their dark secrets that you probably didn’t even want to know about.

All this, while you might still be figuring out if you even like the industry. When you’re young enough to not have tried all the restaurants yet. When coffee is the determining factor of whether you can get through your day with your eyes open, not quite a pleasure yet.

All this, and you could easily lose yourself in your employer’s momentum.

All this, and there’s no guarantee that the hard work will pay off.

And isn’t it nice to know that there are stories out there where this isn’t just a daily grind. Where people can move up and down, where people can get murdered, where people can be blacklisted. Exciting things happen.

Isn’t it nice to know that the world can be more than the small windows that appear on someone else’s calendar.