With Flashdance, Hollywood made a complete break with the realities of the working class. The film was released in 1983. Ronald Reagan was president. Unions were under fierce attack. A new kind of American subject was emerging. Nothing like Flashdance had existed. You only have to watch Saturday Night Fever to see how dramatic the change in depiction of working-class people was. In that film, which was made six years before Flashdance, and which starred John Travolta (as Tony Manero), the working class was still grounded and had no illusions about its social position. Work sucked. Work was alienating. Work was all about exploitation. Disco dancing at the nightclub was about something completely different than earning your daily bread; it was the time the worker had for him/herself and, as such, was distinct from employment-time, in which the hours are owned by the master.
You're not you at your job; you are you when you're having sex at home, or having dinner with your family, or walking your dog, or dancing at a nightclub. The job pays the bills; the recreation sustains the soul. And what is always clear is that serving the market is not your whole life. You are indeed in a struggle with its priorities. What you want is more time to yourself, and what the market demands is more and more of your time devoted to its one concern—the extraction of surplus value.
Even if there's a truce between your needs and that of your job, as was the case for much of the second half of the 20th century (the prosperous period between 1947 and 1973 that's described as "the thirty glorious years" by popular French economist Thomas Piketty), the very fact that there was no resolution between market forces and labor power was actually bad for the owners of capital (investment money). If you do not like what you do for a living, there is always the potential for revolt, even if the wages are high or rising. Feelings of resentment constantly eat at the soul of the worker. The enemy is undoubtedly the boss.
In Saturday Night Fever, which was screened in 1977, the hero is 19, is handsome, and hates his job at a hardware store. In the nightclub, John Travolta's character is not a fantasy. It's actually who he is. The colorful disco lights, the arm pointing to heaven, the bright-white suit—this is him. This is not his boss. This is a conflict.
By 1983, Flashdance presents a worker, Alexandra "Alex" Owens (Jennifer Beals), who is 18, is beautiful, and has a job/recreation (or work/self) relationship that's hardly troubled. Alex, who lives in a huge warehouse and is an urban cyclist, is by day a welder in a massive industrial plant and by night a dancer at a bar/club/restaurant called Mawby's. The place is for working-class men. They come to eat hamburgers, drink beer, and watch young women dance on a small stage. And that's all the women do—dance. Their clothes stay on. The stripping happens at a nearby joint with the exotic name Zanzibar. At that place, the working-class men get lots of tits and ass; at Mawby's, they get the kind of gaudy (or god-awful) pop dancing that's big in music videos (this is the golden age of MTV).
Alex's main ambition, however, is to attend the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory. She wants to be recognized as a serious artist. But the chances of her getting into the conservatory are zero because she has no formal training. Her friends at Mawby's also have big dreams. One wants to become a professional figure skater, another a rich and famous stand-up comedian like Richard Pryor. These dreams, of course, go nowhere. Unlike Travolta's, the working-class ambitions in Flashdance are not about grace but fame.
Another odd thing about Flashdance, which is set in the industrial areas of Pittsburgh, is the laborers at the plant have no idea they're living in a period of deep deindustrialization, that jobs like theirs are being shipped to Asia and Mexico. These workers love their boss, Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri), to bits. They are also fine with the fact that he is fucking one of their own, the 18-year-old welder, Alex. And it is here, in the nature of the relationship between the boss and his employees, that we really see what separates Flashdance from the long and bitter history of labor relations in the US.
The boss—the owner of the means of production, the man who will most likely lay off workers and relocate the plant to China—is interested not only in the time his employees sell to him but also the time they have to themselves. If not at the plant, he is at their clubs, or in their homes, or in their dreams. He uses his connections to get Alex into the conservatory. At first, she resists his assistance and proudly proclaims her independence. She can do it on her own. Her time is hers alone. (This is the film's momentary relapse into the older social order of Saturday Night Fever.) But Alex's boss gives her a reality check by basically telling her that if she doesn't give him her dreams, she will never be who she really wants to be, herself. Alex, of course, relents. And the movie ends with the boss owning everything about her. He has her work, he fucks her at her place, he claims the affection of her dog, he powers her fantasy. Is this not the condition of labor in our postindustrial moment? Labor under the economic regime called neoliberalism? A regime politically initiated by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher? There is now a smooth surface between work and play (self-creation), between the time for money and the time for the soul. Your whole life is devoted to the desires of the market, of the master.
To conclude: The main ideas for this piece were drawn from a new book, Willing Slaves of Capital, by a French economist, Frédéric Lordon. The key passage is this: "Employees used to surrender to the master-desire with a heavy heart, or while contemplating external joys in which the latter's plans played no role. To cut a long story short, they had other things on their minds. But if their attitude changes from reluctance to 'consent,' they will be moved differently. Differently means more intensely." This difference is at the core of Flashdance.