REVIEW — “The Assistant”
Despite feminist milestones and social justice achievements in the past decade, gender inequality and hierarchical sexual exploitation rampantly persist. In the latest illustration of the female experience in a patriarchal work setting, Kitty Green’s “The Assistant” hauntingly encapsulates the exploitative power dynamics and alienating office environment that facilitate sexual abuse in professional contexts.
Portrayed by Julia Garner, Jane is as much a protagonist as she is not. Chronicled throughout the film, her assistant work-life is plagued with trivialities and instances of neglect that serve to emphasize her insignificance. In a setting wherein respect and importance are analogous to position and paycheck, Jane’s bondage to irrelevance is evidenced as she is ignored and reprimanded by co-workers while delivering documents, handing out mistaken lunch orders, and operating as the office custodian. From her habitual arrival at dawn, Jane marginally exists as a copier, a shredder, a telephone, and a broom until nightfall embraces the relentlessly somber and estranging workplace.
“The Assistant” fantastically reconstructs a realistic white-collar environment, one that merely allocates conversations of capital gain and is completely devoid of any human interaction. Telephone lines, keyboards, and mouse clicks fabricate a mechanical atmosphere that fulfills the cubicle’s lifeless ambience. The cumulation of machinery and incessant background phone conversations, exclusively centered upon arranging meetings for the boss, assembles a robotic tone reflective of the workspace’s alienating and dehumanizing nature: Upon entry, one abandons their humanity and becomes yet another gear in an apparatus of capital gain.
Green emphasizes the workplace’s grotesque inhumanity through minimized dialogue and atmospheric office sounds, thus using mundane elements to normalize the environment’s pervasive alienation. Through perspective, Green juxtaposes human nature with this standardized abnormality: The crushing dehumanization so obvious and unnatural to the audience is ordinary to the workers. Economic efficiency is the only function stressed in this primarily masculine cubicle, and recognition strictly comes with profitability.
Hence, as a female assistant, Jane is at the bottom of the hierarchy; she is practically invisible. The little self-worth with which she stands her ground is dismantled by her boss after she refuses to lie to his wife. Once more, Green stresses the theme of dehumanization as Jane is reprimanded–and obliged to write an unreasonable apology email–for behaving morally, for being humane.
“Go back to what you’re good at: ordering salads.” Reminding Jane of her hierarchical position and cosmic unimportance, the boss shatters her self-esteem. Successively, Jane’s discouragement is demonstrated as she allows the other male assistants, equal in rank, to mansplain and dictate her apology email. Stressing Jane’s powerlessness as a female, the film continues to accentuate her insignificance along with the workplace’s patriarchal order.
Once again, this hierarchy is aggrandized further when, in the office’s only instance of conversation, Jane’s suspicions are lightheartedly corroborated by the higher-ups: The boss lures naïve women with his hiring power and sexually exploits them beyond the frame. Refusing to sit idly by, Jane’s moral remnants suffice to timidly denounce the matter to HR. Yet, as foreshadowed, her final stand against the patriarchy crumbles when the climax reaffirms the office’s power dynamics.
Jane’s visit to Wilcock in HR—the film’s most impactful scene—replicates previous patterns: she is utterly belittled, neglected, and ridiculed by another authoritative male figure that coerces her into docility. Revealing himself as the boss’ accomplice, Wilcock replies to Jane’s shy denouncements with misogynistic discouragements and intimidations, assuring her that she will be fired for her accusations. But Jane feels too impotent to react to the injustice. She lacks the self-esteem to envision a future beyond the company, so the threat of losing her job symbolizes economic instability and professional suicide. These fears catapult her insecurity and extinguish her rebellious capacity, tormenting her to an extent that she feels obligated to conform. And when her boss’ reprimanding call arrives, that is exactly what she does: apologize and write yet another e-mail commanded by men.
Repeating these hierarchical patterns, “The Assistant” fantastically foreshadows and explains Jane’s conformity. Green utilizes her character as a thematic trope to describe why women fail to rise against patriarchal authorities, why sexual exploitation goes unreported, and, at a larger scale, how power dynamics maintain hierarchical orders.
Symbolizing minorities of class, race, and gender, Jane folds to a power structure that relentlessly belittles her; one whose suffocating control is a constant reminder of impotence. She is manipulated into feeling insignificant and believing that this position is her only lifeline and professional hope. Hence, she refuses to sacrifice her career and material wellbeing, even if it is to report her boss’ extortions and rise against the patriarchy. Yet, Jane’s failure to resist began when she recurred to HR for help. Revealing Wilcock’s corruptive nature, Green reminds the audience that change cannot be made within the very system that rulers control.
“The Assistant” powerfully depicts the real power dynamics that empower immorality and belittle those who dare defy them. Chronicling a day in a female assistant’s life, the film analyzes the capitalist hierarchy that denigrates and alienates workers (and women) like Jane. Through its wonderful recreation of a patriarchal white-collar work environment, “The Assistant” powerfully encompasses the crushing dehumanization pervasive in so many people’s lives. And its conclusion, portraying Jane’s stale conversation with her father, is a reminder that this alienation extends beyond the 9 to 5 work schedule into the fundamental pillars of American society.