By the end of the third episode of The Fairy Jobmother, its narrative formula is clear. Unemployment, the programme suggests, is not the result of social factors (the concentration of capital in a few global corporations whose interests are served by maintaining competition for low-paid labour, the haemorrhaging of the public sector, the exporting of manufacturing, the uneven distribution of working hours, precarity etc.) but rather of personal failures. The UK, we are led to believe, is in the grip of an epidemic, not of poverty or insecure work, but of morally weak welfare-dependent individuals who can't be bothered to take their places as productive citizens. Given a short sharp shock, these people can be brought out of their self-induced torpor and empowered to realise their dreams. In a language familiar from private welfare-to-work schemes, we are told that the barriers to work are not external, but inside ourselves, in the forms of “confidence” and “self-esteem”, in not projecting the right sort of appearance or accept-anything attitude. What’s more, welfare is not a safety net but a system in which people get “trapped”, and which needs to be got rid of in order for us all to be truly free.
This approach obviously chimes in with the current liquidizing of the welfare state, and the resurgent stigmatising of the unemployed under cover of rehabilitation. Unemployment is viewed at best as a lifestyle choice, at worst a mental disorder, rather than an inevitable effect of a economy which routinely leaves dozens of applicants to fight over even the most poorly paid, tenuous job.
The character of the Fairy Jobmother herself is played by Hayley Taylor, last seen on Benefit Busters chivvying a group of single mothers into unpaid work trials at Poundland in her capacity as ‘tutor’ for private welfare-to-work provider A4E. Having been given her own somewhat implausible makeover and tooled up with some half-baked psychological exercises, Taylor now gets the opportunity to bully the jobless in their own homes, showing that there is no refuge from the jobseeking discourse, and, above all, there can be no excuse for not getting a job.
The story begins by setting up the conflict which is played throughout for comic effect: each week the participants - who, let us remember, have volunteered to take part in the programme, indicating just how desperate they must be to find work - are introduced with some predictable out-of-context soundbites: “There’s no point in working”, “I’d just rather lie in bed and do nothing” etc. As if by magic, the Fairy Jobmother then arrives and installs herself inside their home, where she turns her nose up at their meagre way of life, despises them if they get up later than her, and treats them like recalcitrant children. As Taylor explains in her introductory speech, she believes it is the “security” of welfare benefits which stops people “moving forward”: “the system makes it too easy for them.” So begins this particularly spiteful variant of the usual Reality TV script of contrived confrontations and reconciliations. Unemployment becomes a topic of entertainment, and the mundane and mostly futile administrative task of finding a job is turned into a kind of spiritual quest, a journey of self-discovery which reaches its happy-ever-after ending in a warehouse or on a retail sales floor.
It should be acknowledged that there are moments when this unpleasant domestic intimacy causes the series to stumble across a distinctly unfunny truth, especially regarding money. Living on welfare is not the easy ride Taylor imagines. The tabloid emperors-on-benefits myth is found to be utterly unsubstantiated in all three cases, and the Jobmother’s comparative cash calculations are soon revealed as irrelevant, even though the rewards of low-paid work are marginal. In one episode one can almost sense her disappointment when she opens the fridge to find it empty, and not stacked with ready-meals or booze. There are no plasma screens or nights out to counterbalance the poverty, and even Taylor is chilled by the vampiric presence of the neighbourhood ‘loan man’. But these insights are not allowed to divert the programme from its pre-set route.
Undeterred, the Jobmother rolls out a hotchpotch of crude pseudo-therapeutic interventions. Just as she opens up her hosts’ cupboards, she also pokes around in their minds, exposing their fears and playing on their insecurities. With the second family it soon becomes apparent that she is out of her depth here, as lack of work is the least of their problems. At the end, while the daughter gives thanks to Currys for a job as a sales assistant, the mother is offered a long-overdue course of counselling (which she could not otherwise afford), by which we are presumably asked to view the whole process as somehow worthwhile and not gratuitously traumatic.
On another occasion Taylor takes a penniless young woman to a cafe in order to show her all the signs of consumption she is missing. She makes her compare herself to a nearby woman who has a job and tells her she could have the same material rewards if she were to “stop hiding behind ... the fact that you’re a mum” (being a mother is just an excuse for economic inactivity!). Having cynically drawn attention to her lack of money, she makes the woman cry in order to then console her, telling her: “you can be whoever you want to be.” This is a recurring strategy. In the same episode she winds up the husband, making him angry in order to then admonish him, telling him not to raise his voice, as if he was in an A4E training room, not his own kitchen. As well as generating tawdry gobbets of entertainment, such exchanges lay the foundations for the Jobmother’s disciplinary-ideological role, showing how the barriers to work are supposedly internal, not external. Anger/sadness is portrayed as an irrational symptom (“He can’t face up to a lot of things”) rather than a rational response to social circumstances.
Having completed her observations, the Jobmother diagnoses her subjects as holding themselves back and being “stuck” in the benefits system. She arranges various days of work experience, which provide lots of some cheap and cheerful visual material and give the illusion of her approach bringing swift results (but don’t the TV producers and publicity-seeking employers ultimately gain more from this ‘work experience’ than the unemployees?). Having switched from caring counsellor to harsh interrogator, she is now in full-on Pauline Campbell-Jones mode, complete with ridiculous ‘Hayley’s drive to life!’ motivational roadmap: a picture of her fairytale world, far removed from reality.
Significantly, despite Taylor’s insistence that “the jobs are out there” only one of the three programmes includes any actual ‘jobseeking’, beyond made-for-TV work experience and confidence-building makeover exercises. A redundant warehouse manager (who does not even qualify for Jobseeker’s Allowance because his wife works full-time) is subjected to a regime of intensive job searching, while his understandable ambivalence after three years of rejections is used as a stick with which to beat him. “He has to get this job himself,” the Jobmother tells us in her best matronly voice. Yet none of the jobs that inevitably materialise in the series can be traced to any real applications, but seem rather to appear out of nowhere, with a wave of the Fairy Jobmother’s wand. “She’s heard about an opening at a local kitchen design company...”, “Hayley's introducing him to a recruitment agency who think they can help...”, “She’s heard of a couple of job vacancies...” The potential jobs are introduced over montages of purposeful walkabouts, but exactly how these vacancies were discovered is not explained.
How has she “heard of” them? Were they advertised anywhere? Were they set up in advance, or did they spontaneously spring up in the local area? Were the presence of the TV production company and the promise of positive publicity for the respective employers not factors in their discovery? Were all the other candidates for these positions also accompanied by camera crews during their interviews, in the interests of fairness? Unless there were no other candidates, in which case, why not?
The programme gives the impression that jobs are waiting to be picked like ripe fruit if only the hapless sofa-bound jobseeker would go out and look for them, and the viewer is asked to connect the earlier psychological shakedown or jobseeking frenzy with the appearance of these jobs, whereas in fact no real link is discernable between them. Such a connection, like the character of the Fairy Jobmother herself, is not real, but magical. Just as she descends from TV-land, these jobs fall from the sky like gifts from the capitalist gods, deus ex machina rescue-packages and plot resolution devices.
The participants’ motives for volunteering to taking part in the series now become apparent. The pay-off for enduring all this contrived humiliation is a chance of work and income which is desperately needed but would otherwise be unobtainable. While Taylor harangues the out-of-work husband for not trying hard enough and tells his wife he has deceived her about his efforts to find work, the couple sit together, stoically accepting this televised indignity because there will hopefully be a job at the end of it (just as, presumably, the promise of counselling was dangled in front of the depressed woman). And who can blame them? If you have a family, or your home is on the line, what wouldn’t you do to protect them? I certainly wouldn’t rule it out myself. They knew, after so many failed applications and in such a bleak environment, that this would probably be the only way to grab the attention of an employer. The rule of the makeover narrative means that, if you go along with it and play the role expected of you, it must succeed. All the resources of television and PR are poured into ensuring that it does.
Sure enough, in the preparation for interviews for these miraculous jobs the programme moves into familiar TV makeover territory. Regardless of the actual job, interview preparation becomes a kind of all-purpose theatrical rehearsal. Indeed, in today’s competitive human marketplace job interviews are routinely framed as talent show auditions, in which one plays a synthetically smoothed out and superficially enthusiastic version of oneself and fields generic, meaningless questions as if from a script. Of course the programme embraces this idea of style over substance and takes it to ludicrous lengths. So the jobseekers undergo coaching in speech and body language (“Never say ‘Hiya”’, “the walk is your biggest issue”), expensive hairdos and even cosmetic dental work to suppress their real identities and make sure they make the right televisually enhanced impression for that once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity.
After edited highlights of the interview itself, its back home for the predictable finale: the obligatory nervous finger-tapping waiting scenes anticipate the call from the employer and the job offer, which is greeted with squeals of delight and tears of relief, as if the candidate had won The X Factor. Hugged by her grateful subjects, the Jobmother then disappears back to her magical realm, where the minimum wage is a living wage, all jobs are life-enhancing, no-one needs welfare because everyone just makes the effort, and a dozen people fit into every vacancy.
Beneath its garish docu-comedy characterisations, The Fairy Jobmother conveys an aspirational message which is as serious as it is unrealistic and damaging: that under our current economic conditions anyone can become whoever they want to be, and all limitations are self-inflicted. The stereotype of the self-sabotaging welfare junky is reinforced, using those very people who are most desperate for work. The more these individuals are superficially transformed, the more society is allowed to stay the same.