samedi 16 février 2013
Rédaction en anglais sur Ragged Dick et Working Girl - Office Life in New York with the Secretaries
Voici un devoir que j'ai écrit pour mon cours de sociologie sur le rêve américain en Californie. Il s'agit d'analyser l'évolution du rêve de mobilité sociale basée sur le travail (un mythe américain qu'on intitule "rags to riches", de la misère au luxe, ou encore "pulling oneself by the bootstraps", littéralement se tirer par ses propres bottes, autrement dit se sortir de la misère par ses propres moyens).
Nous avions étudié en classe "Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks", un roman d'Horatio Alger datant des années 1860 suivant l'évolution sociale de Dick, un cireur de chaussures. La consigne pour cette rédaction était de le comparer à une histoire moderne basée sur ce même mythe; j'ai choisi le film Working Girl avec Julia Roberts.
Et au passage vous verrez le fameux format de citation MLA, obligatoire aux Etats-Unis pour ne pas être accusé de plagiat.
Working Girl, or Office Life in New York with the Secretaries
From rags to riches – this is quite literally the story of Ragged Dick, a novel written by Horatio Alger in the 1860’s about a bootblack who pulls himself by the bootstraps through education and hard work. Mike Nichols’ 1988 Working Girl Tess, a secretary played by Melanie Griffith, might not wear young Dick’s rags, but she does rise above her condition in a similar way. In over a century, what has changed in the American dream of upward mobility, and what has remained the same?
An obvious difference, which reflects the evolution of society, is the place of women, which shifts from quasi inexistence in Ragged Dick to some of the leading roles in Working Girl, even though most executives are still men. We can also notice that contrary to Alger’s novel, in which middle-class people almost always mean well and are willing to help Dick (unpleasant characters are either rich or working-class), Tess has to deal with quite a few unfriendly superiors, whether they are misogynists like her first boss, who send their employees on “dates”, or manipulative ice queens like Katharine Parker, who steal their ideas.
Working Girl therefore begins with roadblocks for Tess, whereas Ragged Dick narrates an almost continuous social progression, only if ever very temporarily disrupted. Moreover – and it might be significant as to the change in the ideal of upward mobility – Tess does not start off quite as low as Dick did: she already has a job and, before splitting up with her boyfriend, an apartment. Perhaps by the 1980’s, the average American would no longer be so eager to believe that one can actually start with nothing and get somewhere, that going from rags to riches is really a matter of will.
But the ideal of upward mobility is still there. Just like Dick listened to Mr. Whitney and Mr. Greyson express their convictions (“Remember that your future position depends mainly upon yourself, and that it will be high or low as you choose to make it,” Alger 114) and made them his own, so does Tess with Katharine Parker’s advice: “Tess, you know, you don’t get anywhere in this world by waiting for what you want to come to you. You make it happen. […] Only then do we get what we deserve” (Working Girl), which she adapts into her own personal mantra after she finds out she has been betrayed: “You make it happen.” Dick and Tess both work hard to get what they want, they use their talent (both are depicted as smart and have a quick wit) and education (Tess got her degree with honors at night school, and Dick spent evenings learning how to read and write with Fosdick).
We can witness, throughout the book and the movie, the transformation of our heroes, most tangible in their clothing and language. Dick swaps his rags for a suit, and Tess changes her hairstyle and borrows Katharine’selegant clothes, following her advice inspired from Coco Chanel: “Dress shabbily, they’ll notice the dress; dress impeccably, they’ll notice the woman.” They also both adopt a more formal language, refraining from using slang and in Tess’ case, changing her accent. This allows them to pass as what they are not, but wish to become.
But do they really deserve what happens to them, as social Darwinism claims? Admittedly they have worked hard, but they also owe their success to special circumstances: chance, luck, meeting the right people at the right time – Whitney gave Dick five dollars, Greyson invited him to Sunday school, and the drowning child’s father offered him a job; Tess’ boss had a skiing accident and Jack Trainer helped her with her plan. Other people who worked just as hard may not be as lucky as them. Yet Dick blames Johnny Nolan’s failures on his laziness, thus justifying his own belief in the “pulling yourself by the bootstraps” ideology: if he was able to do it, so could anyone else who really wants to (“You’re lazy, Johnny – that’s what the matter,” Alger 20 and 248). It doesn’t mean that Dick and Tess look down on the people who have not succeeded, as we see with Tess and her secretary at the end of the movie, or Dick and Fosdick. But their kindness actually contributes to spreading the belief in upward mobility to those who have the most reasons to aspire to it, while enabling those who have achieved it to feel good about themselves. That way, no one needs to question the system. By believing in their ability to rise in society, our heroes have found motivation to work hard, and once they succeed, it confirms their belief, as well as others’ who don’t realize that such success stories are only the tip of the iceberg.
Moreover, at the end of both the movie and the book, we realize that Tess and Dick still have a long way to go (Working Girl ends showing how many offices just like Tess’ there are). They both have to keep on working hard – but when does it stop? The very nature of pyramidal hierarchy implies that not everyone can reach the highest positions, and if ten equally talented people work very hard, only one of them might rise to the top. But the ideology of upward mobility has people believe that not getting where they planned to means that they haven’t worked hard enough. What would have happened to Dick if he hadn’t stumbled across Whitney and Greyson, to Tess if Parker hadn’t had her accident and had been able to steal her idea unpunished? Anyone who believes in this ideology will feel guilty if he or she doesn’t succeed – but as long as they believe it, they will blame themselves, won’t question the upper class’ legitimacy, and their hard work will keep the system going.
From the Civil War to the era of shoulder pads, the dream of upward mobility lived on. Yet the dreamers seem to have grown less naïve about their options, and to realize that the system is not set up for them to rise to the top, as Tess explains: “You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you're trying to get there. And if you're someone like me, you can't get there without bending the rules”; “I'm not gonna spend the rest of my life working my ass off and getting nowhere just because I followed rules that I had nothing to do with setting up” (Working Girl). Even though in the end it is her sincerity that gets her out of trouble and promoted, just as Dick’s honesty helped him up the social ladder, she first had to lie and pretend she was somebody else for anyone to take her seriously. Her “goodness” was not obvious or visible as Dick’s is described in Alger’s book, and she had to prove it to the world before being granted her American dream.
Alger, H. Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks. Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Co., 1910. E-book.
Working Girl. Dir. Mike Nichols. Perf. Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver. Twentieth Century Fox, 1988. Film.