Saturday, 24 July 2010

Fairy Jobmother deconstructed.

‘Fairy Jobmother’ may be a reality show, but we can nonetheless categorise it as fiction. These aren’t real people - they’re grotesque stereotypes who are broadcast solely to reassure the public that their prejudices are correct. The show is a useful pantomime that reinforces received wisdom. The official line on the unemployed is that they are entirely to blame for their own plight as a result of being lazy, feckless, stupid, or badly brought up (by people who were lazy, feckless, stupid…) This is what we see in the programme. We don’t see Hayley Taylor being sent to live with families who are killing themselves jobseeking, beating their heads against the same brick wall day after day with no hope in sight - because it wouldn’t be a good story. Each episode has a safe and familiar routine - Guru lives with family, Guru diagnoses family, Guru inspires family to solve problems, group hug-and-cry session (along the lines of Adam Curtis’ writing about emotion-driven television).

The key this week was apparently the long-dead family patriarch, praised as a man with a great work ethic (in other words, he grew up in a time when work was more easily available), whose stern Fatherly influence the family was clearly missing. The shabby surroundings, the family’s lack of drive and poor physical condition were all too easy to diagnose with a little amateur psychology on Taylor’s part. She encouraged the family to ‘move on’ from their loss and take responsibility for themselves.

Taylor helps the mother get over her grief at the loss of her husband by first expressing sympathy (an overfamiliar arm around the shoulder and group cry at the cemetery) then by making her face some ‘harsh truths‘ - harsh medicine, of course, being the favoured kind in neo-Thatcherite times. The two children lack self-esteem, so the son is sent to learn boxing in a gym, while the daughter gets a makeover in preparation for an interview with an electrics store. She gets the job. More group crying, only this time with happiness. Simple. Perhaps we can all be ‘solved’ in this way, by people who possess no relevant qualifications on the matter - but then qualifications aren’t important, are they? It’s just a matter of common sense.

In fact the programme’s title is misleading - finding work is only a minor feature of this family drama. Taylor organises the climactic job interview herself (the daughter never actually applies for the job) and we never see any of the family doing any other jobhunting. Taylor obviously believes that there are deeper problems to fix before she can think about sending the family to work. While this is a refreshing change to the attitude held by successive governments (blindly prescribing work itself as a cure for all personal or psychic ills), it's more sinister than it seems. Bear in mind that Taylor’s former employers, A4E, are keen to extend their influence into all areas of their clients’ lives - not just work and training, but financial advice, legal advice (to the point of driving a CAB out of business in Hull) and now even medicine. Their latest scheme (described in a recent entry at is ‘offering their expertise in reducing long term sickness related absence from work’ - in other words, using their own medical personnel to declare employees fit to return to work as soon as possible and taking the decisions out of the hands of GPs. Perhaps I’m an alarmist, but I can’t help thinking of the early twentieth century and the era of the Company Store, when the firm you worked for owned and controlled every aspect of your life, and there was next to no idea of a private existence beyond the reach of your employers.

The Fairy Jobmother, for all its disposability, feels like a step in the same direction. If factors in our lives are making it more difficult for us to find work (that is, make employers less likely to be impressed by us), we can expect to be hassled and bullied into changing our lives to remove the obstacles. We cannot, of course, expect any material help along these lines - it’s just a matter of threats and motivation. If you have the temerity to be out of work, your personal life is not a private matter. The DWP and shady organisations like a4e have every right to examine your circumstances, deem them unsuitable, and, on pain of starvation and homelessness, mould you into a better person - that is, one more amenable to employers*. And this process will be cheered from the sidelines by those who rail at the ‘nanny state’ and become puce with rage at the thought of local authorities telling them what to put in their wheelie bins.

This no small matter. What‘s at stake here is the principle that a human life has value beyond the use that can be extracted from it in the meat grinder of Capital - and it’s an argument that the other side is winning.

On another note, it’s revealing that Taylor’s partially-successful methods required the production company to shell out on bereavement counselling sessions, gym membership, new clothes and an expensive makeover before even one of the family could enter work. The average jobseeker could not afford any of these things. The family could barely afford to keep food in the house (many commenters have drawn attention to the mother ‘wasting’ her money on cigarettes, as if those weren’t famous for being addictive and very difficult to give up. But the idea that benefit claimants would have loads of money if they didn’t waste it all on beer and fags is just another keystone of the mythography of the undeserving scrounger). The obvious point to conclude from this is that the family were too poor to find work. Without some source of disposable cash, they were incapable (even if they were willing) of improving themselves to the standard required.

Looking at this another way - the family’s position improved when they were made artificially less poor (or at least made to appear that way). The estate-dwelling ‘underclass’ are unemployable - intrinsically unattractive to employers - and the only way for them to escape their situation is to remodel themselves as respectable middle-class (or, at the minimum, respectable upper-working class) citizens. Even if they are struggling to buy food and pay the rent, they must present a professional appearance, learn the language of the professional workplace (the interview talk of ‘flexible team players’ and ‘highly motivated self-starters’). The moment when Taylor revealed the post-makeover daughter (made-up, coiffured, and dressed exactly like a miniature Hayley, scarf and all - now that‘s one for the amateur psychologists out there) pulled aside the veil. What the working class unemployed are being asked to do is to become middle class. Being a member of the Morlock underclass is a failing in itself, making you fully deserving of the starvation and homelessness that will follow if you can‘t adapt.

This is the crass, condescending, point-missing message of all the ‘problem-solving guru’ shows - “Why can’t the bovine masses solve their problems in the way that’s so obvious to us? Why can’t they be more like us? We’re psychologically well-adjusted, well-dressed, fit from morning gym sessions - what‘s holding them back?”

The show’s very title gives us an idea of what kind of strictly limited conclusions will be drawn at the end. Taylor’s steps did improve the family’s situation, but it was made clear that these ‘fairy godmother wishes’ were miraculous and unexpected, a break from the normal order of things. The idea that they be distributed on a wider basis, or even structuralized as part of the benefits system, is never on the table. The majority of the working class unemployed are expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps - become mini-Hayleys and fully valid humans without any outside help. So what exactly was the moral of the show? That finding work is easier when you have a well-known, well-connected recruitment specialist in your corner? Shocking. And even then - if Taylor fails to find work for the family next week, we can expect blame to be diverted to them. There is no systemic analysis. Blame falls solely upon the individuals (and, yes, their families.)

Again, it’s in keeping with the official narrative of unemployment in this country: work is available to those who want it, the unemployed have themselves to blame, and the only problem they face is not wanting it enough. As the events of the last few years have shown, this is unchallengeable by any amount of empirical evidence. Trawling the comments and discussion threads of the internet, you can see that there’s been only a slight adaptation of the common wisdom as the number of unemployed has reached its highest level in decades - ‘granted, there are a few genuine unemployed, people being made redundant from skilled and professional jobs, and those people deserve our support, but for the most part they’re still lazy scroungers and a drain on the economy.’ One commenter on a thread about Fairy Jobmother rather plaintively suggested:

Maybe there should a government agency that detects those who don't/won't work and their benefits should be stopped. Those who are carers of children, eldery or disabled NEED greater financial support to enable them to work. Those are the people I have empathy for, not the scroungers.

And that’s the question, isn’t it? How do we tell the deserving poor from the undeserving? Make no mistake, we’re in the realm of simple ontological categories. We are Good People - the state should be punished, stripped of its powers for even having the temerity to bother us. They are Bad People - the state should intervene to make them Good (more charitable types may avow that this is for their own health). The Good Jobseekers need to be helped. The Bad Scroungers should be hassled and starved into submission.

Given that the entire bureaucracy of the DWP can’t reliably make this distinction (every long-term jobseeker has tales of undeserved, apparently random benefit stoppages, usually contrasted with some other lazier jobseeker who went unchallenged for years), it’s not exactly clear how a new ‘government agency’ will do it - will it employ half the population to follow the other half 24/7 to make sure that they’re really putting the effort in for their benefits? Is there any way of making progress on this front that doesn’t involve the complete abolition of individual privacy (for the unemployed only, naturally)? And is there any way to conduct this debate without clinging stubbornly to the resentful fantasy of millions of life-of-Riley spongers living it up at ‘our’ expense?

These sneering-at-proles programmes aren’t just harmless, cheap-to-produce trash - they’re actively setting back the political dialogue in this country. Thanks for contributing, Channel 4.

*Anyone getting advice on a CV can expect to be told which extracurricular hobbies and activities will look good, and which ones are best left off - in other words, employers already get to pass judgement on the way we choose to spend our time outside work...


  1. I watched the first one and refuse to watch any more episodes. I just found it ridiculous because, you know, it's TV. It's not REAL.

  2. The majority of the working class unemployed are expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps - become mini-Hayleys and fully valid humans without any outside help. Notes