What is a Boss?

Alfie Bown

16 November, 2022

Fernando León de Aranoa’s 2021 comedy The Good Boss is just being shown in the US and UK. The film is a critical presentation of work and workplaces that cuts against both liberal and conservative trends in conceptions of work, family and community. It tells the story of the recent history of capitalism in microcosm through a week in the life of a factory boss played by Javier Bardem. Bardem’s character begins the week revered as a traditional conservative boss, a figure of pure patriarchal order. By midweek he has become the failed figure of the master that serves contemporary liberal order, a boss whose castration ushers in a new era and allows others into power. Ultimately, the film shows us that this change from uncastrated to castrated master – from conservative to liberal capitalism – has left class politics tragically intact. While a certain form of conservative capitalism celebrated the uncastrated master, liberal capitalism fetishizes a castrated one – but both miss the point of what is needed to build an anti-capitalist social structure.

The Uncastrated Master

At a weighing scales factory, a boss locally famed for keeping his workers happy now faces a disgruntled employee protesting outside the building after his dismissal. To make the problem go away, he offers to double the worker’s severance package. Back at the factory, a senior member of management is distracted and working at half-speed because his wife wants to leave him. The good boss takes the wife for coffee to convince her to stay with the husband and restore order so he can work effectively once more. Later he makes a deal with some young thugs to keep violence in the community down. We know a little about balance in our business, the boss repeatedly insists, and his role is to ensure the micro society around his business maintains its equilibrium.

He does so in the role of economic and familial patriarch. With no children himself, he refers to his workers as his offspring. With senior members of staff, he insists he is a friend or a brother, rather than a boss. Flirting with a new girl taking an internship in marketing at the factory, the boss tells her that the interns are like his daughters before starting an affair with her. Taking his manager to a strip club, he offers to pay for a lap dance to give some distraction from his divorce. While he has sex with his mistress, we see that she has a scale tattoo at the back of her neck. In this sense he is what we might think of as a traditional conservative idea of a master – a healthy balance between virility, libido and transgression on one side of the scale and responsibility, patriarchy and economic power on the other. We might say he represents the figure of the master from a recently bygone era of capitalism, where men could be men and community structure had a degree of hierarchical security. While women and younger men might lack authority, real men enjoyed an imaginary feeling of uncastrated power.

The Castrated Master

By the middle of the week, things have taken a turn. The protesting employee is getting newspaper attention in the liberal press and puts the balance of the business in jeopardy. At home his sexual affair threatens to come out and ruin the stability of family life. The mistress turns out to be a young girl he cared for as a child. An Arabic employee refuses to play ball with the boss’s attempt to balance the scales. Race activism and the MeToo movement lurk in the background of his pending demise. The times are changing, and the white wealthy patriarchal master’s function in society has changed. A pair of scales breaks.

By Friday he is totally castrated. He hides from his mistress at work and reneges on his stubbornness to offer the protesting worker whatever he wants to stop pr