As filmmaker Maya Gallus notes, waitressing is a rite of passage for many women. But as anyone who has gone through that rite can tell you, the considerable physical, social, and emotional work it entails must be learned. If women tend to learn the skills of caretaking earlier than men, those capacities are nonetheless no more natural than is the authority exercised by male waiters in black tie.
Gallus’s 2010 documentary Dish: Women, Waitressing, and the Art of Service, should prove informative for viewers who have never waited tables, and may open the floodgates of anecdote for those who have. The filmmakers visit establishments across the class spectrum and around the globe, including high-end Parisian restaurants, rural Canadian truck stops, and high-concept Tokyo maid bars (though the scenes in Japan seem the least developed of the film). The interviews focus on women waitresses, but we also meet maitre d’s, male waiters and customers, and women who are managers and owners of restaurants.
The film was inspired not only by Gallus’s interest in revisiting her own first job as a banquet waitress, but also by her reading of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America. In North America, servers make less than minimum wage, and rely on tips to make a living, whereas in Europe they are paid a living wage as well as benefits. (The film omits mention that those in the United States are at an even greater disadvantage, without Canadian access to health care, and may resort to sneezing in the customers’ food in order to avoid risking an unpaid sick day.) The documentary does not offer as forceful a thesis as Ehrenreich’s text—the Canadian, French, and Japanese workers we meet in the film are all getting by, and some have even saved up to buy a home, invest in a business, or put a child through college.
Instead, Dish attends more to the disparity between men’s dominance of serving at the most expensive restaurants and women’s prevalence as servers elsewhere; to the psychology of customers seeing waitresses as surrogate wives / mothers / girlfriends / servants; and to the ways that waitresses negotiate their relations with customers, coworkers, and their own aspirations. Most heartening is the mentoring provided by a rare female maitre d’ to a young server facing harassment from male coworkers.
More a portrait of the wide variety of women who wait tables than a thesis-driven argument, Dish particularly uses editing to disrupt many of the generalizations its subjects offer—for instance, after a waiter tells us the trays are too heavy for women to carry, we see his female coworker carrying just such a tray; after a French restaurant director claims that it’s North Americans who see their work as a job rather than a career, we meet a French woman maitre d’hotel discussing her job as, precisely, a job; after a waitress tells us it’s an occupation only for the young, we meet a 69-year-old waitress; after another tells us that sexuality has nothing to do with the amount of her tips, we cut to a worker at the Canadian equivalent of Hooters, and later to one working topless, both of whom are lucidly matter-of-fact about the sexual image they are selling.
Be sure to stay through the closing credits for stories of literal dreams, both nightmares and wish-fulfillments, that invade the sleep of waitresses. Filled with sharp observations about the social dynamics of customer relations and workplace solidarity, Dish should be an excellent starting point for discussions of gendered and class-stratified labor.
For more information about Dish, visit http://www.dishdocumentary.com/
Frann Michel is Professor of English at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, where she co-founded the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, and also contributes to the programs in American Ethnic Studies and Film Studies. Some of her work for KBOO community radio can be found at http://kboo.fm/blog/1001.