Thursday, May 11, 2017

What "The Paradise" Tells Us About Labor and Gender Politics Today

BBC's The Paradise (2012-2013) is one of my very favorite television shows, a tantalizing mixture of gorgeous clothes, glamorous sets, romance, and melodrama with a good dose of wish fulfillment tossed in there. The show is very loosely based on Emile Zola's The Ladies' Paradise (Le bonheur des dames), but those readers hoping to find similar enjoyments as those offered by Bill Gallagher's sugar-dusted confectionary of a show won't find them.

Zola's novel portrays the lives of shopgirls, small and failing businessmen, and the high-flying department store capitalists that are filling their pockets without the slightest concern for who suffers (or dies) as a result. The BBC show, in contrast, cultivated a bevy of comradely relationships that connected the salespeople, the managers, and even the ambitious owner, creating an enviously edenic web of friendships, convivial compromises, emotional support, and business victories. The novel describes in biting detail the vicious maneuvers of a staff reliant on hard-won commissions, the misery of blistered feet, the danger of sexual harassment, the necessity for the shopgirls to take lovers in order to survive, and the brutal and unjustified firing of people who commit such irregularities as eating a lunch containing garlic. While in the show, the angelically blonde Denise skyrockets into her employer's good graces with her ingenious business ideas, in the novel she is summarily fired when her brother comes begging her for money to entertain a mistress. Even when the novel's Denise is rehired, having caught the eye of the Bonheur's owner, her ascent to power is owed to his sexual interest, rather than her brilliant business ideas.

The sexual politics of the novel emphasize sex as commodity, sex as something to be bought and sold. While the novel's Mouret, the despotic owner of the Bonheur, simply invites whichever salesgirls he desires to dinner and 'dessert' whenever he feels like having sex, in the show, the rechristened Moray proves remarkably chaste, a monk to the service of commerce. In the novel, Denise is the only virgin in a sea of young women whose sexual lives could fill a dozen bawdy volumes and her refusal of Mouret is partly a horror of sex as such and partly a deeply embedded sense of the fitness of things: she respects herself too much to have sex before marriage and she believes marriage with Mouret to be impossible because of the difference in class. The TV show, decidedly twentieth-first century in attitude, sweeps away class difference, dismissing it as mere snobbery, easily overcome by the family-like camaraderie that develops as the Paradise's staff make pots and pots and pots of money. But, this seemingly progressive attitude merely extends the sexual repression of the upper and bourgeois classes to the working class as well.

Zola was the leading proponent of a philosophy of novel-writing that later critics dubbed naturalism. His purpose was to describe, in exact, rigorous detail, the political, social, economic, scientific, religious, infrastructural, familial, etc. upheavals taking place in industrializing France. Bill Gallagher shifts the location to England, shedding most of the political content as a result. Mouret becomes Moray: the rather vicious, if seductive and charming, and misogynistic capitalist becomes a charismatic, somewhat vulnerable, and romantic wunderkind salesman. While in the novel, Denise develops from a quaking, terrified country bumpkin into a smooth-as-cream saleswoman, respectful, aloof, and paternalistically compassionate, in the show, Denise becomes the resident genius of the Paradise, the source of the gimmicky marketing ideas that keep the enterprise afloat, but also easily swayed into a romance with her boss. The book's Denise would be scandalized by the show's. From practicality and self-respect, the character shifts to capitalistic inventiveness and moony-eyed romance.

These changes totally alter the fundamentally transactional nature of any and all sexual relationships in the world of Zola's novel, the inevitable result of a world in which the pursuit of money in and of itself, over and above class aspiration, becomes paramount. His thundering criticism of capitalism is reinforced by his carefully researched depiction of the sex lives of the shopgirls. The wide-eyed virgins of the show are scrubbed-clean, doll-like versions of the novel's sexually experienced harlots. While in the show, romance becomes the cover for a striking lack of sex, in the novel, all the girls except Denise are having regular sex, and enjoying it. Sex becomes a problem only in the event of a pregnancy, which is not tolerated. The novel's shopgirls are dismissed the moment they begin to show and some are doomed to miscarriages, desperately lacing themselves ever more tightly in their corsets until they collapse and are carted away to die. In the show, none of these girls succumb, and those who have in the past, did so for love, not desire, and not money.

Why? Why, in a show made in a supposedly more sexually liberated time in history is sex outside of adoring love and marriage suddenly taboo? The answer lies in the two works' diverse understandings of capitalism. Zola portrays the Bonheur as part-machine, part-monster, an inexorable behemoth that spews out goods and devours money. The small shopkeepers whose businesses are ruined are not simply sad, melancholic people who retire to the country, as in the show's version of Denise's uncle. They are all but literally chewed up and spat out. These people starve, go mad, attempt suicide, get dragged from their collapsing homes, waste away, tottering miserably in the funeral caravans that become a regular feature of the death throes of the old world and the birth pangs of the new. The show erases this agony. Its characters are fundamentally nice people, people whose success is worth rooting for. Commerce reigns as benign goddess.

The show takes for granted that capitalism is a good thing. People don't suffer from other people's success; they suffer because they fail to be successful in the capitalist market. It's taken for granted that Moray, Denise, Miss Audrey, and all the other characters are to be congratulated because it's taken for granted that making money is a wholly good thing. Denise's uncle fails not through the ruthless business practices of Moray and his ilk, but because he refuses to modernize. He never appears to go hungry, even if he loses all his customers.

Thus, sex gets subsumed into romance; its transactional nature, as a commodity, as something bought and sold, gets erased. Characters are not summarily fired for tiny infractions, or no reason at all. The brutal, calculating maneuvers for power of the novel are tamed into friendships so tight-knit that they seem almost impossible. Cruelty dissipates, capitalist transcendence is achieved. That doesn't mean that the TV show is bad, but it does mean that it espouses a pro-business stance that reveals much about the world in which we live. The Paradise is an escapist fantasy, a many-tiered and richly iced cake of materialism, but the malevolent, sinister side of capitalism that Zola so damningly excoriates is as tame as a leopard on a leash, its claws tastefully sheathed. Those who suffer under capitalism are so many unseen ghosts; the heroes are the people who rake in the money. Moray is the Steve Jobs of department stores, Denise is the Sheryl Sandberg of shopgirls, the model for leaning in, but it behooves us to ask whether any capitalist enterprise has ever fostered the cuddly, feel-good atmosphere of The Paradise. I think not.

Zola specialized in clear-eyed honesty, the most scrupulous and research-verified depiction of truth. In this adaptation of his The Ladies' Paradise, he would have ruefully seen the total rout of social critique. That's the high price we pay for the victory of capitalism.

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