Today’s post is inspired by two very different items. One is the delicious romantic comedy Always Be me Maybe (2019, Netflix) and the other my coming across the term ‘career blocker’ in a CV sent to my university by a candidate to a teaching post. Yes, very different matters but not really.
The comedy, scripted by its stars Ali Wong and Randall Park, together with Michael Golamco, and directed by Nahnatchka Khan, deals with the difficulties of thirty-something top chef Sasha to convince her childhood friend Marcus that they are meant for each other. Her frantic lifestyle, however, suggests that there is hardly room for anyone but herself in it. In the CV I read a woman academic with a similar hectic lifestyle described her five-year-old daughter and two-year-old boy as career blockers. I didn’t know what that meant, and what my quick search revealed is that, yes, this mother was warning prospective employers that her career had been halted at points by her having children. I understand and profoundly respect the need to send this warning but I was, nonetheless, saddened. Put yourself in the children’s shoes and try to guess how it would feel to be described in this way by a parent.
A very quick Google search revealed three basic meanings of ‘career blocker’, a term which, I assume, must be American (how come Americans are so inventive linguistically speaking?). In the article “Avoding Mid-Career Stalling” by Athena Vongalis-Macrow of the volume Career Moves: Mentoring for Women Advancing Their Career and Leadership in Academia (Sense Publishers, 2014, 71-82) which she herself has edited, you may find this sentence: “The lack of participation in networks has been identified as a career blocker for working women largely because most networking has been traditionally organised around male activities and interests” (77). Here the career blocker is, rather, a career lack. In the article “Beware of These Career Blockers” signed by Performance Management Consultants in their web PMC Training, the focus falls on the relational skills. They offer a table in which these binary pairs appear (strength first, career blocker second): Responsive/Too easily influenced, Careful/Too Cautious, Free thinker/Eccentric, Confident/Arrogant and so on (check https://pmctraining.com/site/resources-2/beware-of-these-career-blockers/). The article by Victoria Butt, manager director of Linked In, “Why Career Blockers are Impacting your Salary” (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-identify-influence-your-career-blockers-victoria-butt) defines very differently ‘career blockers’ as “those people who will inhibit your career in some way –large or small. On a large scale, they will openly block your promotion in a leadership forum and explain to others why you should NOT be eligible for a promotion/role change; on a small scale, they do not recommend your skills when asked”. Definitely, one’s own children are not it… One day, when I get the courage to do that, I’ll talk about the person who was my career blocker for so many years, and in what sense I am an abuse survivor. Not now, perhaps soon.
Extremely successful individuals, then, have no inner or outer career blockers, whereas the rest of us are subjected to them. The gender discourse implicit in the CV is that for a woman becoming a mother is a major career blocker, whereas for a man it need not be, though I think that what is at stake is the construction of personal careers based on masculinist patriarchal models that value competitiveness above all. Whereas men still enjoy the complicity and help of many career wives, few women have the luxury of enjoying the support of a career husband. And this where chef Sasha comes in. She longs to have a baby but when the film begins she is in a relationship with an ambitious man who just sees her as a prop in his own business emporium but not really as a person to found a family with. Who does Sasha turn to? To childhood friend Marcus, as noted. What is the main argument she uses to seduce him to her view of things? That he has blocked his career as a musician at all points and accepted a job, a lifestyle, and even a girlfriend that are not good enough for him.
The problem with this argument is that it still doesn’t work well with men, hence the film’s title: Always Be my Maybe. Apparently, this is a witty distortion of a song by Mariah Carey, “Always Be my Baby”. In the film’s title the certainty of ‘always’ is destroyed by ‘maybe’ for the problem is that love stories involving career women are still fraught with all sort of problems. I was watching yesterday Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991), a post-modern take on Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and at one point the Prince Hal character Scottie (Keanu Reeves) falls in love with an Italian peasant girl. Next thing we know, he has transformed her into a well dressed Portland socialite, with no comment required. Her social ascent seems as credible to me today as it was in 1991, I only need to think of Cristiano Ronaldo’s girlfriend Georgina Rodríguez as an example. The opposite case, the guy who adapts his life to that of a career woman is still complicated. Very much so.
Thus, in Always Be my Maybe there is a running gag about Marcus’s inability to match his outfits to each occasion. This is put down to his being working-class but it is really down to his being a man sartorially at odds with the glamorous world of Sasha. Of course, she is not just a cook, but a star chef, though the film makes a point towards the end of endorsing small scale homely restaurants rather than the elite places she runs. The point I am making is that although the likes of Georgina Rodríguez have made a career out of their social climbing, triggered by a man’s erotic choice, in this film comedy comes from the difficulties a regular guy has with accepting a place by the side of a successful woman. This is not even a case of his being considered less manly but of how his decisions not to pursue a career are chastised in the film’s discourse.
There is a more or less general consensus that a career is better than a job, as a career is vocational and if you play your cards well you eventually become your own boss, reap the corresponding economic rewards and live the upper-class dream (or at least upper-middle class). In the film Sasha pulls herself by the bootstraps and gets all this, except that she has no man to share it with, whereas Marcus is content enough until Sasha starts pointing out that actually he is unhappy. In fact, she is projecting her own unhappiness and does so by a constant process of harassment, without quite realizing that if Marcus had been as successful as a musician as she is as a chef he would hardly be there for her. They would be in another film: in Damien Chazelle’s nasty La La Land, that awful film in which love becomes the main career blocker for the man, and so he turns his back on the woman, a successful actor. Always Be my Maybe is much more fun and so it reaches a sort of happy ending but one that provokes just a half smile and not the full confidence that romance will work. In this sense, all romantic comedy is dead.
If you move on five years into Sasha and Marcus’ story what you will probably get is a couple with one or two kids squabbling because she is still running her career at the same hectic pace and his as a musician has not really taken off. Marcus, who is not interested in the lifestyle of the wealthy, might resent his new life as an imposition and try to be the nonchalant dude he was as often as possible. I can easily picture him spoiling a few dinner parties when guests ask him what he does apart from being Sasha’s husband and the father of her kids. This is not a question a woman who has chosen to be a wife and mother would resent but here Marcus has not chosen being a house husband but pushed into becoming something that hardly exists: the working-class husband of a middle-class, ex-working-class woman. Holding her handbag at parties might jar after just a couple of events.
If you’re familiar with Always Be my Maybe you may be wondering when I am going you mention race and ethnicity, for Sasha is American-Vietnamese and Marcus American-Korean. The answer is that I am not because a sign of the normality of racial matters is that they needn’t be discussed. It does matter very much that this romantic comedy enhances the presence of Asian-Americans on the screen and that it has something quite interesting to say about the invisibility of Keanu Reeves’s ethnic background so far, but to me it is essentially a text about class, not a very popular subject these days. Specifically, it is a text about the difficulties of an upwardly mobile de-classed woman to find a mate, for the men in her new circle are too career-minded and the men in her former circle are too little career-minded. Where is the middle ground, Sasha wonders? The solution, as noted, is pushing Marcus very hard up the social scale but, again, this is a very, very complicated choice. Keanu, who plays an obnoxious version of himself, is there, by the way, to test Marcus’s insecurities when faced with a top male star.
I think, in short, that when thinking of gender, careers and career blockers we tend to forget class issues connected with upward social mobility, which is what this romantic comedy has forced me to consider. I do not know if there is a study of who career women of working-class backgrounds end up partnering with and though I assume it is mainly middle-class men, I am really curious to know. I think that men of the same background have the choice of marrying either working- or middle-class girls for women from the lower social strata can adapt far more easily than men of the same class to new social circles. I do wonder how many Marcuses are there holding bags for their career wives and my guess is that very few, if any. So cheers to Wong and Park, and Golamco, for making us think of this neglected topic.
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