Ben Stiller, workplace auteur

The director of Reality Bites, The Cable Guy, Zoolander, and Severance is a consistent critic of how American labor works

August 10, 2023

When I talk to people about Ben Stiller, usually what comes to mind is several cringey and highly questionable roles that he played in movies from the 1990s and early 2000s. That is, people think of him as a comedic actor.
But it might surprise you to learn that Ben Stiller has directed several culturally significant films about the American workplace, and particularly about creative labor, spanning the past three decades.
Reality Bites (1994) focuses on the beginning of the student loan crisis, centering on a group of recent college grads who're in the familiar jam of being financially strapped and overqualified for most jobs. Most of these grads are under no illusions that they'll get a job that allows them to be creative, but Lelaina (Winona Ryder) believes she'll be the exception to the rule and translate her filmmaking skills into a career.
Stiller casts himself as a villain, a TV exec who takes Lelaina's heartfelt doc about her friends and transforms it into a corporate reality-TV show, much like MTV's smash hit The Real World. Not only is this plot development a self-read—Stiller had his own MTV show—but it's also a critique of the naïveté of creative workers who think they can make it without "selling out."
In his next film, The Cable Guy (1996), Stiller tackles such meaty issues as the casualization of blue-collar jobs and the impossible affective balancing act service work requires. Scholar Sianne Ngai analyzes how The Cable Guy disrupts the unspoken expectation that modern service workers have to be "always on" but also to hold themselves at a distance. The cable guy is a freelancer who struggles to find an appropriate balance between extra helpful and helpful to the point of deranged.
This brings us to Zoolander (2001), where Stiller's back in his sweet spot—poking holes in cultural myths about creative labor. Stiller plays Zoolander, a model who's sincere in his passion for the craft, but is actually being brainwashed by the fashion industry to carry out a political assassination.
As part of the brainwashing, fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) explains the benefits of using child labor to manufacture his clothes. Here, Stiller is doing nothing short of critiquing the labor conditions of fast fashion, implicating modeling as part of that exploitation.
Severance (2022) brings together classic Stiller themes: alienated creative labor and the physical comedy involved in working too hard. In another self-read, Stiller's making a show for Apple, while at the ametime lambasting the tech industry's tendency towards exploitation. Severance is a dystopian vision of the much coveted "work-life balance" made literal. What would it be like to actually leave your memories of work at the office? Well, it would be a nightmare.
With the ongoing SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes, Stiller's oeuvre seems more relevant than ever. While most of his work portrays the bleak reality of corporate greed, sometimes he shows how workers can come together and even triumph over their cartoonish oppressors.
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