Over the last ten weeks I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the Popular Culture sophomore inquiry class, in which I was given the opportunity to research a part of my identity in the scope of popular culture and to draw meaning from what I found. In this blog post I hope to illustrate my journey, my findings, and what I believe I’ll be taking away from this class.
The Popular Culture Depictions
To start off, let’s talk about the popular culture research I mentioned. The first phase of this research involved consuming media containing portrayals of an aspect of our identity that we chose. I chose to research my identity as an aspiring human resources (HR) professional, though I sought out media containing depictions of current HR professionals. I know it sounds rather niche, but I found a bounty of depictions without much searching at all. The depictions that I selected for my research were Toby Flenderson from The Office, Catbert from Dilbert, and the Bobs from Office Space.
Toby Flenderson was a well meaning but unfortunate character who is, also unfortunately, the unofficial mascot of the HR profession. If you do anything involving HR, chances are that you will acquire Toby as a second name and become rather familiar with Michael Scott quotes. In the show, he was repeatedly shot down and isolated from the rest of the office, while also being the all-too-often recipient of bad luck and situations. His life is shown to be not going where he’d like despite all his efforts, and while many of The Office’s characters had a happy ending, Toby gets a narrative about crippling depression and failure to switch career paths. The figurative pity party is always going over at Toby’s house, I realized, and his theme of poor choices aligned perfectly with the classic stereotype of the HR profession.
Catbert, from Scott Adam’s Dilbert, was quite a change in pace from Toby. Catbert, The Evil Director of Human Resources, is a fan favorite. His malevolence knows no bounds, and his playful yet insidiously harmful initiatives are the subject of many of the comics in which he appears. The other characters are shown to have their trust in him and HR betrayed time and time again, as Catbert toys with them to the point of making them question if they’re actually insane.
I found that Catbert represents another bundle of stereotypes that HR professionals face, that is the idea that they’re counterproductive and mad with power.
The Bobs, of Mike Judge’s Office Space, are of a similar flavor to Catbert, though toned down several notches. Interrogative and uncomfortable, the Bobs wield the metaphorical executioner’s axe. They’re called in to facilitate a massive reorganization, in which their work was rather questionable. They promote the main character, Peter, almost immediately after he tells them that he does fifteen minutes of work a day, and they take advantage of an eccentric employee by cutting off his salary without telling him, so as to “avoid conflict”. The Bobs showcase incompetence and misplaced power, more stereotypes of the HR profession.
Perhaps you’re noticing the same themes that I did after viewing these depictions. Toby was his show’s punching bag, Catbert was a sadist, and the Bobs were the poster boys of uncomfortable situations. In other words, they were all different flavors of negative, with the overlaps being that they weren’t helpful, weren’t good decision makers, and certainly weren’t well-adjusted. Not a good look for HR professionals. As a solutions oriented person my mind went searching for the cause of this, of which there isn’t a straightforward answer unfortunately.
Digging Deeper: What Do These Show?
However, my curiosity did find some relief when I sought out my secondary research, information that was to be related to my previously acquired popular culture research. The research that I selected to focus on was Jess Bradfield’s article Toby v. Catbert: Perceptions of HR, Stephen Gibb’s paper Evaluating HRM effectiveness: the stereotype connection, and Stefan Stern’s article What is HR Really for?. The common themes that I derived from these articles are that the HR profession is not yet fulfilling the expectations of their stakeholders, has a range of largely negative stereotypes as a result, and is in a state of flux in the pursuit of becoming more effective.
In short, what I discovered about HR professionals from my research is that the field isn’t well regarded due to the negative influence it can have on people’s lives, and that this is reflected in our popular culture. This reputation has been one of the primary motivators for the advancement of the field, which matters because it’s a strong example of how popular culture and popular opinion feed off of each other and influence tangible change.
What do I mean by that? Consider how popular culture is both a reflection of popular opinion and vice versa. Also consider how due to this relationship they hold each other largely stagnant, as those without experience in the subject will have little else to draw their opinion on, continuing the cycle. With this in mind, those who are the subject of a stereotype perpetrated by media find that they must either live under its shadow, or work to change the stereotype itself. When it comes to my research into the portrayals of HR professionals, this is absolutely true for how they’re handling it. Then, as popular opinion slowly but surely shifts, the stereotype will as well.
Taking Action Against Stereotypes
I recognized a similar phenomenon in one of our course readings, that is Hanna Rosin’s article The Evolution of the Doltish Dad. In her article, Rosin examines the portrayal of fathers throughout the history of television in relation to real fatherhood. The stereotype which she primarily focuses on is the “Doltish Dad”, who is an incompetent but well-meaning father who audiences are meant to find comedic and relatable. She goes on to detail the issues that this stereotype creates for the rapidly increasing stay-at-home father demographic, and how some shows and ads are bending the status quo to reflect the change.
This article, I realized after completing my research and pondering it for some time, is a clear example of what I found, and it even helped me to put it into words when I had struggled to do so before. That is, that popular culture and reality push each other to evolve and spark change in each other. It even shows that those who are the subject of the stereotype, the stay-at-home fathers in this case, sparking the change in the same way that I found HR professionals are struggling to do now.
We see this in the article as Rosin recounts how stay-at-home fathers campaigned to change a stereotypical ad, as the ad was harmful due to “…showing a group of football watching dads ignoring their infants as the diapers grew heavy and smelly” (Rosin). Rosin continues recounting, “Huggies pulled the ad and shot a new one. The updated version is arguably equally condescending”, and finishes with, “at least it shows a room full of fathers tenderly rocking their infants instead of neglecting them” (Rosin). While it is a rocky account of progress, it is progress nonetheless.
It was in seeing this and considering it in the context of HR professionals and my research about how they’re struggling to change their own stereotypes through action as well that I made the connection. It was a lovely connection to make as well, as it was a bit of a lightbulb moment in that I then understood why this mattered. It was that it reinforced the fact that popular culture is very much a part of us in that it inspires tangible change, whereas before I was stuck in a mindset that popular culture is akin to a far-off entity, present but not noticeably of our world. After all, we all know that many stereotypes are simply overblown and overdone jokes or just plain not true, so how could it be a part of reality? I found that it was how we acted upon the stereotypes that connected it to us that made it matter, how we real people changed minds and our world based upon what we saw.
The Dream: Why We Care
Oftentimes, as I found in both Rosin’s article and my research about popular culture and HR professionals, it is the subject of the stereotype that will act upon it. They act in order to positively influence or dismantle said stereotype. Why, though? Rather, why care what a character sharing a trait with you in an ad or TV show does? These were questions that I began to ask myself as I considered my own future as a HR professional, with the weight of the stereotypes resting upon my shoulders growing ever more burdensome as I let the negativity and complicated road to improving it stew in my mind. I’ve been aware of the stereotypes for years now, and as I sheepishly soul searched for my future profession and found that the things I wanted could almost all be found within a career in HR, the stereotypes upset me more and more. I couldn’t make myself not care, and could only place anxiety as the reason why.
I’ve found some insight into why I felt, and still do, feel this way in the form of a documentary which we watched in the class, that is John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. In Ways of Seeing, Berger focuses on the imagery and messages of advertisements and connects them as they are now to the elite paintings of centuries ago. It discerns the fact that while they look similar, the paintings of old are a celebration of us as we are, and the ads of today push us to want a better version of ourselves, which he calls “the dream”. The dream is of us being the envy of others, the champion of ourselves and friends, respected and well fulfilled. We can have it all, the ads say, if we buy it.
While in Ways of Seeing the dream is strictly discussed in relation to advertisements, I believe that the dream is present in all forms of media, and even in our institutions. The dream, though manufactured, has permeated us deeply. I believe that my previously mentioned upset is being largely fueled by the dream. I look ahead and want a life in which I have opportunity, passion, and fulfillment. I want a better me. The stereotypes surrounding HR put quite a damper on the dream, and being an exception won’t cut it, as that doesn’t fulfill it. It’s exacerbated by college culture, where all of us are chasing the dream in our own ways. For many, the dream seems straight ahead if you can make it, teaching, nursing, engineering, all well received and loved fields. For me, that road is dark, and pretty poorly paved. In other words, the stereotypes bothered me so much because their existence made me feel like I was throwing away my chance at the dream, which I realized after watching Ways of Seeing. It made sense to me then, when considered with my research, why the subjects of stereotypes throw themselves into dismantling them. It destroys the dream for them.
I’ve realized many things in this class, and had numerous other things of which I was already familiar reinforced. I learned that popular culture, popular opinion, and tangible change go hand-in-hand from my research and Rosin. I learned about the dream, and that the subject of stereotypes will often be the ones to enact the previously mentioned change to said stereotypes, fueled by visions of the dream lost to them. Most importantly, I learned about myself in the scope of these learnings, and was given insight into myself and how to move forward.
As I transition out of this class, I hope to hold these learnings close, armoring myself with knowledge as I make what may be an uncomfortable transition. I will be able to look upon the stereotypes and understand why they’re there, how they fuel change in my field, and how it is the pursuit of the dream which drives our need to make these changes. I will understand that the dream is constructed, but I’ll be lenient with myself as I grew up with it. Lastly, I hope to be mindful of the profound influence popular culture has on our lives, and to be able to discern future insight from it.
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. BBC Two. Jan. 1972.
Bradfield, Jess. “Toby v. Catbert: Perceptions of HR.” Pulse 16 Jun. 2016, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/toby-v-catbert-perceptions-hr-jess-bradfield. Accessed 19 Feb. 2017.
Daniels, Greg. The Office. Deedle-Dee Productions and Reveille Productions, 2013.
Judge, Mike. Office Space. 20th Century Fox, 1999.
Gibb, Stephen. “Evaluating HRM effectiveness: the stereotype connection.” Employee Relations, Jan.-Feb. 2000, p. 58. AcademicOneFile, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=s1185784&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA65948016&it=r&asid=437cfcc1b7810b4a196b15c7ddb0b5bd. Accessed 19 Feb. 2017.
Rosin, Hannah. “The Evolution of the Doltish Dad”. Slate, 15 Jun 2012.
Scott, Adams. (Comic strip). Andrews McMeel Publishing, 7 Aug 1995, http://dilbert.com/strip/1995-08-07 Web.
Stern, Stefan. “What is HR Really for?” Management Today, 1 May 2009, p. 52.AcademicOneFile, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=s1185784&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA198764360&it=r&asid=96c67d7b3ccef42cd2ae4d4e011b454d. Accessed 19 Feb. 2017.