What Is It About The Toxic Workplace We Love in FX’s ‘The Bear’

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What Is It About The Toxic Workplace We Love in FX’s ‘The Bear’

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At the height of the anti-work movement, the breakout show of the season is a love letter to an all-consuming workplace

With Beyoncé singing about quitting your job, viral TikTok videos evangelizing “quiet quitting” (basically just a new term for doing the bare minimum), and major news outlets continuing to wonder if we’ve reached the end of ambition, our collective zeal for hating on work continues to permeate.

To some extent, the hot takes seem to reflect real trends. According to a report from McKinsey and Co. in July:

Roughly 40% of workers are considering quitting their current jobs within 3-6 months. Yet amidst this sea of discontent emerged a wildly popular show that is, funny enough, entirely about people obsessed with work.

FX’s The Bear, now streaming on Hulu, revolves around a chef (Carmy) trying desperately to salvage a failing greasy spoon after inheriting it from his late brother. Along the way, he forms a dysfunctional family of sorts with the kitchen crew, who begrudgingly come to respect and care for each other. What bonds them, largely, is a shared commitment to their jobs. In fact, they feel so strongly about their opposing visions for the restaurant and aspirations to thrive within it that it drives them to verbal and even physical blows. One obsesses over building his pastry skills. The (notably young, female) sous chef pushes to elevate the menu and tighten the business plan. Even the most petulant employee who resists change does so not out of apathy but a fierce loyalty to the restaurant’s core clientele. In other words, they’re ambitious, and deeply so.

The overwhelmingly positive response to the show (it scored 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and has spawned countless thirsty memes), seems at odds with the overall vibe of anti-work. So why, if everyone is apparently disillusioned, burnt out, and “over” hustle culture, are we using our precious free hours away from work to escape to…someone else’s workplace? A workplace that’s super stressful no less?

When I reflect on why I personally felt engrossed by this show, aside from obvious reasons like its A+ acting and writing, I think it’s because it centers on the type of straightforward, tactile work that I haven’t done in over a decade, when I worked full-time in restaurants and cafés. And while I’m admittedly speculating, I imagine that by the sheer fact of how many people do what we’ll call “desk jobs” (which I use to refer to anyone who spends most of their day in front of screens, as that includes many mid- and low-income people unlike the traditional “white collar worker,” which implies a level of affluence), there are aspects of The Bear’s world that emblemize certain fantasies of labor. These are:

Outcomes You Can Understand

In his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, anthropologist David Graeber makes the case that over half of our work is pointless, and that this is psychologically destructive when we associate our value with our work ethic. Feeding people, as difficult as it can be, is not a bullshit job. And when it comes to output, you can’t really get more basic, essential, and universal than food. Everyone needs it. Most people enjoy it. It’s work that’s not hard to justify or explain in the way that, say, managing accounts for branded content in a social influencer campaign, or selling a B2B product that exists solely to help businesses sell other B2B products, is hard to explain. Even writing articles like this—work I objectively love–seems pretty abstract and potentially purposeless compared to cooking and serving a meal. Even if many of our outputs are fairly harmless (and many of them aren’t), they don’t give one much to emotionally latch onto. Which brings me to my next point…

Passionate Leadership

One of the reasons many workers cited for wanting to jump ship in McKinsey’s report was having uninspiring or uncaring leaders. While I’ve encountered my fair share of incompetent bosses, I also have to extend some empathy for managers–especially middle-managers–tasked with rallying their employees around tedious goals like peddling blatantly unnecessary ecommerce products or making incremental improvements to apps. They’re not exactly aims that make you fired up to follow your captain into battle. But a chef can inspire. At least some of them can, and Carmy is one of them. That passion can be unhealthy, sure. Workaholism is a fickle lover. But it’s undeniably compelling.

True Human Connection

Not only are the characters in The Bear’s kitchen physically present with each other, they’re in constant physical contact with one another. This type of intimacy feels worlds away for those of us who mostly communicate via Slack or email, and whose jokes mostly take the form of a stoic “lol” while our real faces don’t betray so much as a flicker at the corner of our mouths. When you regularly go 8 to 9 hours without feeling the heat off of another human’s body, even the idea of being elbowed by a frustrated coworker might seem like a welcome interaction. On top of this, the world of The Bear seems mostly devoid of COVID-related concerns. Though the show briefly acknowledges the pandemic, masks are notably absent and no one worries about getting sick.

Even if our relationship to in-person work remains fraught–most people reportedly don’t want to go back to an office full-time and I’m one of them–I think a lot of us still need more human contact than we’re currently getting. The isolation of desk workers began long before the pandemic anyway, as soon as emails and messaging became a primary form of communication. Contrast that to the relationships between The Bear crew, who hug when they’re happy and shout in each others’ faces when they’re upset, allowing them to process their various traumas together. For that matter, there’s also…

A Lack of Corporate Bullshit and Buzzwords

No one is “sorry to inconvenience” anyone on this show. No one “hopes you’re well,” or needs to “run it up the ladder” or “promises to circle back.” Their requests are direct and unambiguous: “move over,” “stop talking,” “more salt.” And when they’re pissed off, everyone knows it. I’m not going to argue that their fights represent some kind of ideal for interpersonal conflict resolution. There’s no denying they have issues. But given how much of the professional/corporate world is clouded by insincere niceties, I do find it kind of cathartic to watch people let themselves be a little explosive.

Is there anything to take away from this fantasy?

One might argue that if everyone is so enamored with a fictional kitchen, why aren’t more of us flocking to work in one? Of course, in reality, restaurant work is very tough and often underpaid (federal minimum wage for tipped workers is an appalling $2.13 per hour before tips). Not to mention the physical toll, unpredictable scheduling, and the fact that we’re still in a pandemic that leaves direct service workers vulnerable. Hence, the service industry has seen some of the highest rates of quitting in the past few years.

Thus, desk work isn’t going anywhere. If anything, we’re probably headed towards a future in which we fully disembody ourselves once and for all and work in some kind of virtual/augmented reality. Still, I think it’s worth acknowledging that the things we find appealing about The Bear may be things we crave in our lives, and that as we’ve written about before, maybe the answer isn’t to reject our professional ambitions entirely, but to try to heal our collective relationship with work, whatever that may take.

Annie Midori Atherton is a writer, content producer and parent living in Seattle. She’s interested in exploring how our broader culture impacts everyday life and questions of why we are the way we are.

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