The following is a guest post by Aimee Loiselle, author of Beyond Norma Rae: How Puerto Rican and Southern White Women Fought for a Place in the American Working Class, which tells a history of women industrial workers in struggles over working conditions and pop culture in the late-twentieth century. Beyond Norma Rae is now available wherever books are sold.
Students, writers, and even scholars have an inclination to discuss Hollywood movies as reflections of a time period or community. This framing often leads to shallow evaluations of “accuracy” or oversimplified descriptions of how a movie supposedly mirrors society. While literary and film studies scholars might engage with movies as freestanding texts, historians should not. That approach ignores the historical conditions of production: the high costs with large creative production teams and filming crews, expensive celebrity contracts, and need to reach the widest possible paying audience for the highest net revenues—all of which is run through with intersections of gender, race, class, and citizenship as well as capitalist formations like investment practices, insurance, contracts, advertising, and sales. To fully historicize Hollywood movies, scholars must approach them both as industrial products that result from intense contests between participants with different types of capital and as cultural texts that circulate and interact with other texts and events to shape rather than reflect society.
Beyond Norma Rae starts with the histories of Gloria Maldonado and Crystal Lee Sutton, women workers and union activists in the US textile and apparel industry who are also participants in contests over mainstream media production. Although the women did not know each other or belong to the same union, they were part of a larger industrial context in which Puerto Rican needleworkers and southern millhands navigated and resisted intertwined, but not equivalent, labor markets. This labor history is then connected to each woman’s encounters in the arena of cultural politics, which highlights how categorizations and identities shaped their access to media production and opportunities to be involved in (re)constructing the dominant narrative of the American working class. Only Sutton, an attractive white woman, became the focus of commercial producers, including two women who made the 1979 movie Norma Rae. Cultural theory deepens this study of power, reproduced via capitalist formations in each field of cultural production where the working women fought to gain some control over representations of class struggle. The resulting history argues that even Hollywood directors like Martin Ritt, who envisioned themselves as liberal humanistic creative professionals, made movies that converged with the neoliberal turn of the 1980s and 1990s.
To fully historicize Hollywood movies, scholars must approach them both as industrial products that result from intense contests between participants with different types of capital and as cultural texts that circulate and interact with other texts and events to shape rather than reflect society.
The book’s approach to the development, production, marketing, and distribution of Norma Rae not only challenges the use of movies as reflections of society. Beyond Norma Rae also builds on the scholarship of Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams to argue that when and how a movie’s images and dialogue circulate can lead it into widespread interaction with other texts, audiences, and events to making meanings and affective understandings that shape society. In this case, Norma Rae generated an icon in the 1980s which appeared in both visual and linguistic components and circulated in magazines, television, and websites into the 2010s. In visual form, a young Sally Field as Norma holds a UNION sign overhead with the camera only on her. Fellow union members, allies, coworkers, and neighbors have been cropped out, and since the movie does not contain any reference to the sixteen-year Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) campaign against J.P. Stevens Company, or the longer history of southern labor activism, neither does the icon. Norma stands alone in her rebellion. The linguistic form of the icon appears as phrases like “having a Norma Rae moment” or “going Norma Rae,” which express the essence: a transitory individualist, even personal, oppositional defiance. The repeated visual and linguistic representation of ambiguous individual rebellion without ideology, movement, or even context allowed the icon to work on behalf of different types of defiance, for different desires and purposes.
Although often used with humor, the Norma Rae icon is not simple fun—it performed intricate cultural work that served an ascendant formation of neoliberal individualism. Starting in the 1980s, the icon’s appearances converged with multiplying texts from radical libertarian economists, right-wing politicians, and evangelical activists who were producing channels of discourse, imaginaries, sound bites, and images with narrative and affective emphasis on the generic private individual and oppositional defiance. This timing meant the icon contributed to an aspirational discourse of the individual made free by combative self-sufficiency and did cultural work to make neoliberal political and economic projects more rationalized and alluring. Even as a totally different type of text with roots in unionizing, the icon merged with expressions of hyperindividualism in a cultural process that pulled on their overlapping facets.
Norma Rae generated an icon in the 1980s which appeared in both visual and linguistic components and circulated in magazines, television, and websites into the 2010s.
Three white men demonstrate three cultural channels that helped to form neoliberal individualism during the 1970s and 1980s: Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Billy Graham. Their prominence—like the Norma Rae icon—works to obscure histories, organizations, and collaborative efforts that made their celebrity possible. Their popularity bloomed from decades of clubs, businesses, and media, and their contributions converged with many others. But Friedman, Reagan, and Graham were especially talented at disseminating narrative and emotions through discourse, catchphrases, and imagery. Their amiable yet commanding appeal allowed them to reach a global audience with ideas that had extensive sources.
Radical libertarian economists, in particular, were crucial contributors who translated cerebral neoliberal theory and extreme practices—austerity budgets, regressive income taxes, tax cuts for wealth and inheritance, open global capital and trade markets, elaborate regulation of monetary policy and currency, deregulation of employment conditions and financial oversight, anti-union rules—into appealing popular rhetoric. They built on previous efforts by conservative groups like the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), US Chamber of Commerce, and Business Roundtable to further orchestrate government agencies and programs for private business and to undermine labor’s political power. Friedman was especially effective at converting policies into, and obscuring their details with, catchy phrases he developed via popular magazines, television appearances, and focus groups after his public talks.
When knotty world conflicts and complicated economic crises in the 1970s and 1980s hit households that had expected prosperity and security for generations, radical libertarian economists, right-wing politicians, and activist evangelicals offered firm assurance. They said each individual could improve his or her situation and save the nation through defiant aspiration, choices in the market, hard work, and a personal relationship with Christ. They shared these ideas in impressions and tones people could inhabit imaginatively in their everyday lives. The impressions, tones, and affect were similar to those carried by the Norma Rae icon. As its appearances multiplied in the 1990s and 2000s, the icon conveyed its individualist rebellion to new audiences who had been immersed in the neoliberal cultural projects of the 1980s. The subsequent mainstream cultural formation of neoliberal individualism served an overall neoliberal turn that included political-economic and governance projects that caused worldwide working conditions to deteriorate and transferred more wealth to the global elite.
Aimee Loiselle is an assistant professor of history at Central Connecticut State University who specializes in the modern United States as a hub for transnational labor with an interest in women manufacturing workers, gender, race, and popular representations of work.