Why Corporations Love Making Movies About Evil Corporations
A good sequel to The Matrix would be one in which it turns out the movie The Matrix was itself part of the illusion, inserted into our world by the machines. What better way to lull people to sleep than to feed them dreams of rebellion? The only problem is that it'd be a little too on the nose.
Corporations today love selling stories about fighting back against big business. Superhero satire The Boys makes a big deal about Vought International being an evil irresponsible corporation that manipulates the public. The Outer Worlds, a video game released this past October, tasks the player with righting centuries of corporate greed and mismanagement with giant hammers and shrink rays. The sitcom Superstore has spent the better part of two seasons showing its retail workers being exploited by their parent company and fighting to unionize.
Even Disney is on board. The villain of The Incredibles 2 is an evil billionaire controlling people via ubiquitous screens that hypnotize them (yeah, the symbolism isn't exactly subtle). As trends go, this is about as insidious as they get.
Corporations Can Profit From Anything, Even Anti-Corporate Rebellion
The Boys is an Amazon show -- it's co-produced by the very same kind of monolithic company it's satirizing. Obsidian, the company behind The Outer Worlds, was recently acquired by Microsoft, a company that was once sued by the federal government over its monopolistic practices (there are rumors that future games are going to be Xbox exclusives). NBCUniversal, home of not just Superstore but Rachel Maddow, is actively fighting to keep its news division from unionizing. Disney, of course, is openly on a crusade to own every profitable film franchise.
So why exactly are so many giant megacorporations willing to produce media with strong anti-corporate sentiment? Why put something on the air that specifically promotes actions to be taken against them?
Let's take Superstore. The show follows the employees of fictional Walmart knockoff Cloud 9 as they learn to laugh, love, and live despite minimum-wage paychecks and the fact that they all call Missouri home. It highlights the human costs of inadequate maternity leave, shit insurance, and no paid sick days, all of which prompt the workers to start organizing. After the evil corporate higher-ups get wind of these efforts, they sic a team of ICE agents on the store and undocumented employee Mateo is arrested -- a testament to the depths corporations are willing to sink. The Season 4 finale ends with a declaration of unionization, clearly presented as a victory.
All of that seems somewhat antithetical to NBCUniversal, a company that really doesn't seem to hold unions in the highest regard. Aren't the suits at 30 Rock worried that their own employees might get ideas? No! Not at all!
Corporations Aren't Worried About Backlash. Why Would They Be?
Union membership in America is in the toilet and swirling ever lower. As of 2018, only 10.5% of American workers are unionized, the lowest that number has ever been since unions have been a thing. Retail workers (like in Superstore) can't even break 5% membership. Between "right-to-work" legislation, a failure to enforce antitrust laws, and good old-fashioned exploitation of the dire straits of the working class, many are so defeated from the jump that they don't even bother to toy with the idea.
So why show it on TV? Why make it look not only good, but doable? Because they know they face no risk of it actually happening. Plus, allowing pro-union, anti-corporate sentiment to air makes it seem like they've done something. It's the equivalent of your dad wearing a Harvard sweatshirt, despite no one from the family ever having gone there.
Corporations aren't stupid. They know that, by and large, the public hates them -- or rather, likes the idea of hating them. We're all still watching TV and playing video games and signing up for Disney+, never mind getting pissy when our Amazon purchases don't ship out today, goddammit. So the anti-corporate plots all wind up being the equivalent of Deadpool making jokes to the camera about how superhero movies are stupid. It's just a way to add street cred, an edgy flavor to make us feel like we're too cool for the product we're actively consuming.
The Fantasy Of Revolution Winds Up Being A Replacement For The Real Thing
Look, I haven't actually tried to foment a rebellion, but it certainly seems like it's a helluva lot easier to watch an angry TV show and feel vindicated and heard than it is to actually go out and affect real lasting change. And media corporations know this. They know that we are paralyzed into inaction, too desperate to fight back, that no one's really willing to risk their livelihood, their food and shelter, and/or the well-being of their children for a principle. So instead we're content with the fantasy. It scratches the itch just enough to keep us from rioting in the streets. Don't we always joke about how the people most likely to complain online about Bad Things are the ones least likely to actually do anything?
If Microsoft was legitimately concerned that someone might plasma-sword their way through Bill Gates' office, there is not a chance in hell that The Outer Worlds would have been released. The same goes for Fox releasing the anarchist wet dream that was Fight Club 20 years ago, the same year Warner Bros. released The Matrix, a film literally about how the modern world is a fantasy meant to keep us pacified. In 2006, V For Vendetta spurred Anonymous into adopting the Guy Fawkes mask as their symbol, presumably not knowing that they were paying Warner Bros. a cut of every mask's sale.
Creators And Activists Have No Choice But To Play Along
Fine, so there's literally nothing that Big Business can't swallow up and turn into product, even anti-consumerism itself. But why do anti-corporate creators keep siding with the corporations? If you're making a show or a game critical of giant conglomerates, why team up with one? Because creators, like consumers, don't have a choice.
When Obsidian Entertainment was purchased by Microsoft, Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart was asked why they went forward with the acquisition. He explained that it was the only way to get the funds necessary to make The Outer Worlds. The push from Xbox, and its inclusion on their Game Pass, also put the game into the hands of more people than probably would have played it otherwise.
The same goes for Superstore. Network television might be on the decline, but it's still the biggest outlet there is. If you want to get a pro-union sitcom in front of the most eyeballs, NBC's going to be your best bet, even if they don't really believe in the messaging. Sure, you could maybe try to crowdfund the thing and just put it up on YouTube. You know, the platform owned by that scrappy indie outfit we know as Google?
And that, really, is the true irony of this situation: All channels of mobilizing action against a corporation leads you right back into the arms of one. Get a hashtag trending on Twitter (market cap $23 billion), organize a protest on Facebook ($573 billion), record a revolutionary podcast and get it up on iTunes ($1.2 trillion), or do all of them at once. They'll all be happy to have you. It's all just more user engagement, more collected data, better targeting for next week's ads. Maybe you'll start seeing banners for anti-corporate T-shirts. Revolution is, after all, great for business.
For more, check out If Every Fictional Company Held A Job Fair:
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