Working, by Studs Terkel (BOOK TWO, Part Three – The Farmer’s Daughter and The Commercial)

Have you heard about the one concerning the farmer’s daughter and a commercial? …Cause I haven’t.

Did You Ever Hear The One About The Farmer’s Daughter?

Barbara Herrick (Writer/Producer)

While the last chapter was mainly concerned with the struggle of women and (in my opinion) showed the need for for feminism, via stories from the airline industry, being a secretary and being a sex-worker, this chapter deals with the need for intersectional feminism. This chapter highlights a black woman named Barbara Herrick who is fairly confident in herself, well-paid and often in better positions than the men around her. And yet, due to her race and gender she’s mistreated, harassed and demeaned for her very existence much of the time.

She’s a vice president, working with advertisements and mostly food and cosmetics (things women are supposed to be “experts” in, of course!), she’s well-read, graduated from college and has earned recognition and awards for her work. Yet Herrick is often put in certain boxes or categories because of presumptions towards her character based on nothing more than race or gender. Again, just as a reminder, this book was written in the 70s and that’s not long after the Civil Rights marches and struggles for racial equality (that of course is still sorely needed).

Herrick talks not just about being demeaned through explicit actions but implicit ones. The very act of being seen and recognized in a given room full of (white) men is sometimes a task in of itself:

On first meeting, I’m frequently taken for the secretary, you know, traveling with the boss. I’m here to keep somebody happy. Then I’m introduced as the writer. One said to me after the meeting was over and the drinking had started, “When I first saw you, I figured you were a—-you know. I never knew you were the person writing this all the time.” (p. 67)

People are astonished when Herrick is revealed as someone who could actually be equal to these other white men. Because, of course, white men have been taught (like most white folks) that they’re superior to people like Herrick and it was only recently that this became very publicly challenged (which isn’t to say it wasn’t always challenged).

Most of these white men are likely older (40s or 50s) and are especially susceptible to the myth that white people are inherently superior to people of color. So it makes sense that in a boardroom like that, Herrick was bound to get some looks upon introducing who she is. The men around her try to deal with this by trying to gauge things like her exact salary and how they stack up to her so they can feel better about themselves.

Sometimes they try not to acknowledge she’s there at all:

The first time, they don’t look at me. At the first three meetings of this one client, if I would ask a direction question, they would answer and look at my boss or another man in the room. (p. 67)

The best way to keep pretending that nothing has changed is to pretend that change isn’t happening in front of your eyes.

Opposite that, some men try to studiously categorize her. Is she a woman libber? A lesbian? A mistress for the boss? Getting there from her own merits and just being herself isn’t even a possibility. She must have an “in”, she must have cheated the system somehow. Somehow this woman (this black woman, no less!) must have cheated!

And all of this discrimination, implicit disrespect and the more blatant sort is happening while Herrick is a very successful woman and is well-educated. This is where intersectionality comes into play and becomes important. Despite Herrick’s wealth during the 70s she was still treated with vast inequity because of her gender and her race. Her wealth alone doesn’t shield her from who she clearly is and what she represents to the white men around her.

This particular section was striking:

The night before, there was a rehearsal. Afterwards, the account man suggested we go back to the hotel, have a nightcap, and get to bed early. It was a 9:00 A.M. meeting. We were sitting at the bar and he said,

“Of course, you’ll be staying in my room.” I said, “What I have a room.” He said, “I just assumed. You’re here and I’m here and we’re both grown up.”

I said, “you assumed? you never even asked me whether I wanted to.”

My feelings obviously meant nothing to him. Apparently it was what you did if you’re out of town and the woman is anything but a harelip and you’re ready to go. His assumption was incredible. (p. 68)

Incredible in the moment but upon reflection not very surprising. Men assume (and it doesn’t just extend to men, but it’s often men) that women are simply available for them in certain situations. Not as much anymore (I would hope) but back when less women were in power and communication wasn’t as easily accessible to get the word out (and having the word itself being more socially aware helped to) meant that things like this happened early and often.

Herrick gave an excuse to the effect of, “I did this sort of thing once and it ruined my reputation. So although you’re a great guy, I’m going to have to pass.” Herrick often made excuses or agreed with things that didn’t reflect reality, just so she could get along better in the business world. Whether that was about her marriage (she was single) or anything else that made the men around her feel less inadequate (#fragilemasculinity is hardly anything new).

Sometimes Herrick will be more direct and tell men how she is feeling. But most of the time she prefers to keep things unruffled and make everything seem normal. Even when it comes to someone she’s working with and actually feels some level of attraction to. Her “great double standard” is that if a man sleeps around, he’s praised. But for her, as a woman, she could be ruined and that’s something Herrick says she rails against.

One of the best things in this interview is rightly italicized by Terkel:

I’ve had a secretary for the last three years. I hesitate to use her … I won’t ask her to do typing. It’s hard for me to use her as I was used. She’s bright and could be much more than a secretary. so I give her research assignments, things to look up, which might be fun or her. Rather than say,m “Here, type this.” (p. 70)

The passage goes on to mention how the secretary thinks of Herrick as women’s liberation. But Herrick responds that this is mostly due to “the externals. She admires the apartment, the traveling.” (p. 70) Herrick also comments on the insecurity of the industry she works in. This insecurity comes from her age and her looks and while she acknowledges that her talents are a major contributor for why she got to where she is, she can’t deny her looks as an “attractive woman” helped. This type of advantage has its limitations however and beauty doesn’t last forever.

So despite the glorification of her work by others (including her secretary) there are many pitfalls we may not realize are associated with a very well-paying job. Even now, for women in a given field there are going to be different relationships with their co-workers and managers then there are for people who are seen as men. This is going to be even more notable when race is involved as well. Things have certainly improved in certain ways, but not to the extent that we can dismiss that Herrick’s experiences could very much still happen over 30 years later.

Lastly, I think Herrick’s concept of what she does is on point:

I don’t think what I do is necessary or that it performs a service. If it’s a very fine product—and I’ve worked on some of those—I love it. It’s when you get into that awful area of hope, cosmetics—you’re just selling image and a hope. It’s like the arthritis cure or cancer—quackery.

You’re saying to a lady: “Because this oil comes from the algae at the bottom of the sea, you’re going to have a timeless face. It’s a crock of shit! (p. 72)

Herrick goes on to say that she feels she could be an editor and would likely be a better reader than writer. She muses about whether she could publish an anthology of short stories and concludes she’d do pretty well.

The interview ends with her saying (perhaps wistfully) that she has a feeling she could…

The Commercial

Disclaimer: A little ways into this chapter I’m over my 20 page limit. So I’m going to go towards the middle of this section and then call it quits there. I try not to work myself too hard over these chapter reviews, around 20 pages per review. That usually nets me 3,000-4,000 words which I’m satisfied with. I want these chapter reviews to be thorough and informative but still, generally speaking, accessible. At the rate I’m going, I should be able to get around 4,000 words, but we’ll see.

Post-script: Nailed it!

John Fortune (Copy Chief)

Fortune (a fortuitous last name for someone in the advertising industry) is a “creative supervisor” who thinks the word “creative” is a pretentious word and comes from a philosophy background. Given that background I was interested in what he thought of advertising itself. Would he ask some deep and penetrating questions about advertising?

…No, not really. He does raise some interesting points and at least mentions some of the questions people at the time were having about advertising. e.g. What effects does it have on people? Is it controlling people? Is it manipulative? Is advertising necessary at all? Fortune doesn’t really do much to answer these questions, but at least he mentions them.

According to Fortune there are different vogues for the advertising industry. During the time of his interview he thinks that the “angry stand-up” wins the day. A commercial where someone is pissed off and threatens violence against anyone who doesn’t buy the product. The advertisement business can be serious but is also inherently silly on some level.

I like how Fortune explains it here:

They’re aware that they’re talking about little bears capering around a cereal box and they’re arguing which way the bears should go. It’s a silly thing for adults to be doing. At the same time they’re aware the client’s going to spend a million dollars on television time to run this commercial.

Millions of dollars went into these little bears, so that gave them an importance of their own. That commercial, if successful, can double salaries. It’s serious yet it isn’t. This kind of split is in everybody’s mind. Especially the older generation in advertising, people like me. (p. 73)

I imagine this experience is similar for any job that can get you a lot of money or capital (monetary or otherwise) yet involves things that seem ridiculous to be so invested in. Writer in particular often get in these kinds of positions because we often have to create fantastic worlds to distract from the often more mundane one we actually live in.

For advertisers they not only have to create this world and try to get others to live in it but make it try to be profitable in a way that books, magazines, newspapers, etc. didn’t really need to. Once you bought a book, that was that. But a commercial’s goal is to get you to buy the product over and over. And the mass consumption of items is often contributed to these commercials (as well as the writer themselves of course).

But for the younger advertising people, Fortune denotes that they can be much more serious about it. They’ve gone to college to study for advertising. They’ve spent a lot of money themselves on the psychology of people and trying to understand what makes people tick and how to use that to their advantage. Those bears and the cereal box is much more akin to a sort of “art” then it is a business and they want that to be known will all the seriousness it deserves.

Which…seems to me to be a bit ridiculous. But it’s an interesting dichotomy and not one I would’ve expected. I would have expected the older folks to be much more serious than the younger kids. But Fortune’s reasoning makes sense to me and especially for a generation of people who have been taught that advertising is the future.

For Fortune the most important aspect of an advertisement is that it “make[s] some kind of connection between the attributes of the product and what people want, human needs.” (p. 74) The tricky thing then becomes however, what are our needs? Do advertisers know what our needs are better than ourselves? Given that advertisers are just people who have dedicated their lives to a certain kind of psychology I don’t find it entirely unlikely.

That being said, it also seems possible that advertisers, due to their own studies, overestimate their own smarts that they got from college. But when Fortune talks about things like the Mustang as a “whole cocoon of satisfaction” (p. 75) and says that a customer isn’t just getting satisfaction from the car, that seems intuitively true to me.

Fortune admits he’s puzzled by the question of importance when it comes to advertising. But adds that there do seems to be changed in advertising in terms of tone and offensiveness. He thinks lawyers are going to become more prominent in the field and water down advertisements so they become a bit safer for people to consume. I’m not sure what this says about the importance of advertising but it’s a prediction that was borne out.

I’ve been going awhile without a quote so here’s a good one:

Originally I was a copywriter. I sat in a room and it was very simple. I would go to the boss and he’d tell me what he wanted. I’d go back to my room and try to write it, and get mad and break pencils and pound on the wall. Then finish it and take it in to him, and change it and change it, and change it again, and I’d take it back. This would happen thirty or forty times and then we’d move to another man.

He’s put up his feet on the desk and change it again. (p. 76)

This seems to be so far from a “simple” process. In principle, yeah, giving someone A and expecting B (getting it back) is a pretty simple process. But having to do it over and over again so many times sounds like a “simple” process made incredibly complex by the fickle and ultimately hard-to-please needs/desires of your boss.

This quote also makes me think of the ways that sometimes writers glorify professionalization. I think about all of the benefits I would or might have been a professional writer. But I’d likely be absolutely miserable if I had a job where I had to constantly attempt to please someone again and again and start all over (or something akin to that) if I messed up.

Starting over is a big pet peeve of mine, so I have to wonder what level of patience the writers who did/do this kind of work have with them. Certainly more patience than I’ve got, that’s for sure.

Fortune makes an interesting point in saying, “When you’re doing creative work, you should think about it all the time. When you’re doing administrative work, you should think about it as little as possible. There’s the contemplative mind and the business mind.” (p. 76) Although the second sentence is in a different passage on the page, I find the two connected.

When I’m thinking about writing I try to think about it as often as possible. But when it comes to the things I have to do at my job I try to think as little as possible. The creative work fills me with drive and purpose while the administrative work fills me with dread and a foreboding feeling deep in my gut. The two couldn’t be more separate most of the time.

And while it’s true that sometimes the creative work can feel administrative, I think the end product is often what matters. Sometimes it feels like an utter slog to write all of the words I’m writing on this site and in my articles. But when I look back on the finished product (so to speak) I feel pleased and gratified with myself. Well, most of the time anyways…

Speaking as someone who was a philosophy major in college and is considering going back, this part stuck out to me:

I’m glad I didn’t go into philosophy. I don’t think I have the right personality for it. I think it involves talent. Also, it involves a language that fewer and fewer people can speak. Finally, you’re speaking to yourself.

Advertising is a more social business, which is also frustrating. I’m not sure I’m happy in advertising, but I don’t think philosophy would have been heaven for me.

I think I’d rather write—movies or books. or some reason I don’t do that. (p. 76)

For myself, I think I very much do have the personality and talent for it. I enjoy talking to myself and to a close knit group of folks who can speak a similar language to myself. And having a job that is more social certainly does seem much more frustrating, but I think the idea that philosophy isn’t social (or can’t be as social as advertising) isn’t true.

Philosophy is an inherently social field. The dialogues that happen are often between your students, between you and your co-workers in the college and other colleges. There’s papers to grade and discuss, people to talk to in your classes and outside of it and especially with the internet, more avenues to discuss philosophy than ever.

A last quote from Fortune:

People at parties will come up and denounce me. There’s a lot of paranoia about the power of advertising. They say we’re being controlled, manipulated. Sometimes I enjoy playing the devil’s advocate, so I’ll exaggerate it: “We take human needs and control them. (Laughs.)

I have an active fantasy life–not during the workday because it’s coming at me so very fast. Many of my fantasies have to do with the control of society.

Very elaborate technological-type fantasies: a benign totalitarianism controlled by me. (p. 77)

So…make of that what you will.

Arny Freeman (Actor)

Now here’s a name I actually vaguely remember. I’m not sure where exactly I remember Freeman from but he’s been in a few movies, TV specials and some commercials (obviously) so perhaps it’s just an amalgamation of all of that.

One of the things I found most interesting about this interview is Freeman’s discussion with Terkel about fame.

For example, here:

The commercial became so successful that I couldn’t walk down the street. I now know what it’s like to be famous, and I don’t want it. I couldn’t walk down the street. I’d be mobbed. People would grab me … They’d pin me up against the wall … I once got out of the subway at Times Square and a guy grabbed me and slammed me against the wall. (Laughs.) Crowds of people gathered around. My wife was terrified. They were all screaming … Because of that little TV box. (pp. 78-79)

Stardom isn’t something we’ve yet encountered in Working. Most of the people involved so far have been decidedly lower or working class. Some of them are wealthy (such as Herrick) but those folks are (no pun intended) in the minority when it comes to the people interviewed. Here, we actually have an example of fame and having success. Not just monetary success but actually being well-known and liked to levels that most of us may only ever dream of.

And how does it stackup? Well, not to burst the bubble that’s likely been bursted for a long time now, but fame isn’t everything Hollywood promised in the movies. By the looks of it, it’s stressful, claustrophobic and apparently carries the potential of fan-based violence.

Really, I’m not trying to ruin everyone’s dreams here. I feel like I keep saying things like, “Well you or someone you know may think this job is wonderful but…” And I am but I’m not doing that to make folks feel like there’s no hope for their dream job or whatever they wanna do in their life. But I think it’s important to be realistic about our futures.

Fame can be a wonderful thing and afford us many luxuries we couldn’t get otherwise. It can get us a lot of attention and make us feel important. It can lead to us living treasured and fondly remembered lives that stick with generations of people. But it can also be a disastrous scenario that pulls at your sense of self and makes it dependent on the entertainment of others. It can ruin your reputation as easily as it can make it. It can do great harm as well as good.

As Freeman says, “It really was terrifying, but I enjoyed it very much. It was great. …(Laughs.) Sure, there’s a satisfaction. I like a certain amount of it. I enjoy having people say complimentary things. I’m a gregarious person.” (p. 79)

Realism is something Freeman values as well:

I have never been obsessed with the sickening drive inside to become a star.

Possibly it’s because I came into it very late in life. I was thirty-seven years old when I became a professional actor. I was a little more realistic about life. I knew the percentage of somebody who is five feet six and a half inches tall, who is dark and ethnic looking.

The chances of becoming a star were quite remote.

I’ve conditioned myself not to want it, because the odds against it are too great. (p. 80)

In a similar way (though with marked differences given my own race) I’ve conditioned myself not to want a lot of material goods. I don’t really care about being rich. Would I like to be comfortable? Yes, but that doesn’t require a lot for me.

All it means for me is that I have a place to live (an apartment with multiple people is fine most of the time, living by myself or with close friends is optimal), food to eat (ideally be able to afford supermarket food on a weekly basis but I’m fine with food banks) and have it be a safe space (non-negotiable).

I find myself meeting most of these things but there are other things I want. Things I know I don’t strictly need but for instance I’d love to have another book case and so many more books. I’ve love to have the latest technology in smartphones, video games and laptops. I’d love to have better musical equipment so I could pursue music a little more seriously. I’d love to have an automated car so I could get around (mostly) without requiring on my own skill.

I haven’t met a lot of those goals but given I’m living on a budget of 10-15 hours a week at $9 an hour + my Patreon money and any money I get on the side from watching kids or dogs (or sometimes both), so it’s not hard to see why.

Instead, I’ve got the same bass guitar and amp I’ve had since high school and I’ve got an iPhone from the year I graduated high school (2010!) and it pretty much sucks, to be honest.

But these are all extra things as I’ve said. The most important things in life to me I tend to have at present. I’ve got a close circle of friends whom I love and trust. I’ve got a place to live, food to eat and I feel safe where I live. I can almost always get a good night’s of sleep (pending my own choices) and I engage my time outside of work doing meaningful things.

Oh, like writing, right.

I want to finish this bit of writing with how Arny finishes his interview:

I used to think to myself, This is not a life. A man ought to be something more important, ought to be a doctor or a lawyer or something that does something for other people. To be an actor is to be a selfish person. It’s a matter of ego, I think. Many actors make the mistake of thinking this is life.

I have in recent years found my work somewhat meaningful. So many people have stopped me on the street and said, “I can’t tell you how much I enjoy what you’ve done.”

If, for a moment or two, he can turn on his TV set and see you in a show or a commercial and it makes him a little happier—I think that’s important. (pp. 81-82)

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