Family Matters: Neoliberal Narratives of Welfare Capitalism in Undercover Boss

Sean Brayton


This paper examines media representations of labor and working conditions under late capitalism. Specifically, it presents an interdiscursive analysis of the “reality” television series Undercover Boss, drawing attention to themes that reflect and react against the vicissitudes of the Great Recession and recent labor struggles within service and hospitality industries in the US. With corporate “generosity,” the series belies recent protests by presenting individual rather than structural solutions to problems in the workplace. The act of corporate “benevolence” and rhetoric of the “family” resemble the tactics of what is historically called welfare capitalism, which aimed to forestall government labor regulations, disarm organized labor and discipline the worker. All of the employees rewarded in the series embody neoliberal ideals of the citizen-subject; they are self-disciplined, abstain from union activity and rely on the company rather than government assistance for wellbeing. But if Undercover Boss is approached as a serial melodrama rather than merely a “makeover,” it may support the claims of recent labor movements. The series documents and circulates many of the working conditions and structural inequalities faced by fast-food, hospitality and retail workers under late capitalism. In effect, Undercover Boss contains a salient dialectic: the “benevolent” boss that “resolves” the quandaries of late capitalism can only emerge against a backdrop of adverse working conditions, which the series is obliged to address in passing but also in perpetuity for its own success.

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Studies in Media and Communication      ISSN 2325-8071 (Print)   ISSN 2325-808X (Online)

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