Freelancers on the Big Screen
A good measure of the widespread adoption of a trend, an idea, a person, or anything is how often we see it on our screens. Movies, television, books, and all other media not only teach us, but they reflect how we’re collectively thinking and feeling. Freelancers, despite their rapid growth and adoption, still haven’t been understood and accepted into the minds of all Americans. How many movies or TV shows can you name that feature, or even mention, freelancers or freelancing? Part of the reason freelancing hasn’t fully entered our collective psyche is because there are still a wide variety of ways people define freelancing. There is no agreed upon definition of a freelancer, not by a long shot. We’re going to examine some of the better representations of freelancers on screen and determine how accurate we feel they are to true freelancing.
Perhaps the most common occupation we see depicted in a freelance (or semi-freelance) capacity is that of the writer. The journalist, the creative, the traveling writer is a common screen trope, partially because people see it as glamorous. It ain’t that glamorous. One of the most well-known on-screen writers of all time is the queen of New York herself, Carrie Bradshaw. Carrie, for much of Sex and the City, sells her pop journalism to magazines and yet somehow drinks a $12 cosmopolitan every night. Rarely is Carrie ever struggling financially despite being in an incredibly volatile (and not particularly high-paying) field. Despite the inaccurate depiction of a freelance lifestyle, Carrie is technically a freelancer. She pitches her services to potential clients (in her case publications) and if she lands the gig she does a job or a few jobs for that client, and that’s it. The relationships aren’t ongoing, they’re temporary, often with a few different jobs or assignments going on at once. This dynamic is actually fairly accurate to freelancing. Carrie eventually gets hired as a writer at Vogue at which point she stops being a freelancer and becomes an employee.
One of the more frequent mistakes people make when depicting or thinking about freelancers is categorizing them as entrepreneurs. There is certainly overlap, but they are two different things and two different kinds of careers. This misunderstanding might lead people to think that The Social Network is a movie about freelancers. It is not. It is a movie about a group of entrepreneurs starting a business, and selling that business. They may be their own bosses, but they become other people's bosses as well. They are basically just burgeoning business owners.
An entrepreneurial classic that is slightly more reflective of freelancing (though still on the border of freelancing) is The Merchant of Venice. The Shakespeare play (which actually has a solid movie adaptation starring Al Pacino) is pretty accurate to the lifestyle of a freelancer. Financial strain, careful budgeting and saving, and savvy spending are all experienced by Antonio, and are essential parts of the freelance lifestyle. Antonio is an independent merchant who owns his business and sells goods and services to clients. He works for himself and plans to stay that way. That is what a freelancer does. The reason Antonio only borders being a freelancer is because he has people working for him. Now depending on whether the people who work for him are his employees, or are freelancers themselves, would determine whether he is a freelancer or an entrepreneur. If they are his employees, he’s an entrepreneur. If they’re freelancers, then he’s a freelancer.
As the sitcom format has evolved so have the occupations of their main characters. If audiences are going to watch these characters week after week, they have to feel relevant to their own lives, and the world they’re in. As work changed from punching time cards every morning to finding a new client every night, our favorite protagonists had to evolve as well. We went from watching Mary Tyler Moore and George Jetson to Ilana Glazer and George Costanza. The thing is though, this new breed of protagonists generally aren’t freelancers, even though some may think of them that way. George Costanza had way more jobs than Mary Tyler Moore throughout his series, but they were all full-time jobs when he was at them. He was never working multiple jobs at once. A character like Kramer or Phoebe Buffay on the other hand may have been more like a freelancer. Unfortunately, those characters also propagated the idea of the freelancer as a kooky outsider in which no one ever knew what they did for a living. While those characters might have actually been freelancers, they didn’t do a very good job at illuminating the lifestyle. In fact they did the opposite, they made it more opaque.
A more accurate portrayal might be the stars of Broad City: Abbi Jacobsen and Ilana Glazer. Both these broads have a few income streams going on at once, some of which are permanent, and some are temporary. Would these girls be considered freelancers? Borderline. They’re probably closer to what we would call a temporary or diversified worker. Although, what they do a great job of on Broad City is to illustrate the lifestyle of a young freelancer. Fiscally savvy, always searching for new work opportunities, dealing with some understandable stress, and having a blast.
We aren’t there yet, but one day all the protagonists of your favorite movies and TV shows will be freelancing.