Dish: Women, Waitressing, and the Art of Service. Directed by Maya Gallus. New York: Women Make Movies, 2010. 58 minutes.

Tea & Justice: NYPD’s 1st Asian Women Officers. Directed by Ermena Vinluan. New York: Women Make Movies, 2010. 55 minutes.

Reviewed by Katrinell M. Davis

Documentary films by Maya Gallus and Ermena Vinluan offer compelling portraits of the complex reality of workplace inequality within pink- and blue-collar jobs. Maya Gallus is an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has a long history directing films that display the salience of gender relations, social norms, and economic boundaries throughout the world. From films like Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of the Angels (Toronto: Red Queen Productions, 1991) to Girl Inside (Toronto: Red Queen Productions, 2007), Gallus’s films present portraits of women situated within the struggles and challenges that manifest in their lives. In Dish, Gallus documents the experiences of women workers employed in Toronto's truck stop diners, Montréal’s “sexy restos,” a Parisian super-luxe restaurant, and Tokyo's "maid bars." She provides an interesting perspective on the workplace opportunities available to food service workers as well as how these workers navigate the demands of these jobs.

Gallus begins this exploration into food service work by following waitresses employed at a 10 Acre Truck Stop in Belleville, Ontario. While serving up delicious veggie omelets, hash browns, and other breakfast favorites, Gallus’s first interviewee, Pam, shatters the perception that most waitresses hate their jobs. Describing waitressing as an acquired skill that requires friendly hospitality, Pam contends that food service work is not a “bottom-feeder” job that is easy to perform. Pam has been a waitress since age twelve. Coming from a poor family, she needed to earn money so badly that she lied about her age to get the job. Since her mother was also a waitress, serving food was something that she knew she could do to help provide for her family.

Although Pam is content with her job, she does acknowledge the sexual division of labor within the truck stop. But, Pam clearly values her job and understands the role she plays in the minds of her customers. She mentioned that truck drivers want a woman to serve them. As she put it, when they walk into the restaurant, they want “[their] wife to look after [them], [their] wife to make [them] dinner, or [their] wife to smile at [them]. And she’s not there. So we would be the substitute.” In Dish, Gallus also documents the cross-national conditions and consequences of sex typing within food service work. With the exception of the fine dining restaurant in Paris wherein men are primarily employed as servers, Gallus illustrates how women who work in this industry are expected to be physically appealing, welcoming, and subservient to their patrons.

Dish does a great job overviewing the conditions that shape the work lives of women employed in food service. Given the contrasts provided in the documentary, it is likely to motivate rich discussion. This film would be extremely helpful in a class discussion in which students are considering variations in the food service industry with regard to cross-national differences in employment opportunities. In addition, Dish is likely to motivate class discussions about the nature of the divisions of labor within food service jobs. For instance, based on the documentary, students may be interested in asking, why are the lowest paid positions in the food services industry reserved for women? Why are male workers concentrated in high-end dining? And how do job demands and the social history of high-end food services help ensure male dominance within fine dining restaurants?

Exploring the gendered and racialized dynamics in a different kind of service industry in Tea & Justice, Ermena Vinluan skillfully captures the experiences of three Asian American women employed by the New York Police Department (NYPD). The film features Detectives Chan and Leung and Officer Ormsby, all of whom share how they gained access to the job, handled assumptions regarding their capacity to perform the job from family, colleagues, and friends, as well as how they have navigated this career as Asian American women. Before becoming a police officer, Officer Ormsby worked for a Japanese firm in which she was expected to pour coffee for her male bosses. Detective Chan mentions that her desire to join the police department was motivated by her interest in building a bridge between the NYPD and the Asian community. In addition to sharing these women’s stories of perseverance, Vinluan also documents the history of women police in New York City and provides interviews with native New Yorkers about their views on Asian American women police officers as well as their opinions about the nature of diversity within the New York Police Department.

Tea & Justice offers engaging commentary and useful illustrations that enhance the filmmaker’s thoughtful analysis of the history of race and gender inequality within the NYPD. Similar to the respondents in Janice D. Yoder and Patricia Aniakudo’s (1997) study on African American female firefighters and Susan E. Martin’s (1994) study of African American police women, the Asian women officers in this documentary expressed problems with hostility and harassment from male coworkers as well as the public1. They mentioned that they had to earn their male coworkers’ respect because some were threatened by their presence, while others adjusted only after learning that the women had what it took to perform the job.  Although Detectives Chan and Leung, as well as Officer Ormsby, maintain that they have overcome their male coworkers’ suspicion and distrust, Vinluan reports that women officers still contend with high rates of sexual harassment on the force. Therefore, despite these women’s perceptions, Vinluan argues in Tea & Justice that women officers in this male-dominated workplace continue to face formidable challenges on the job.  Due to the richness of the insight offered in Tea & Justice, I recommend this film for classroom use, particularly in women’s studies, sociology, or labor history classes that examine how the intersection of race and gender shapes employment outcomes in the postindustrial era.

1 Susan E. Martin, “‘Outsider within’ the Station House: The Impact of Race and Gender on Black Women Police,” Social Problems 41, no. 3 (1994): 383-400; Janice D. Yoder and Patricia Aniakudo, “‘Outsider within’ the Firehouse: Subordination and Difference in the Social Interactions of African American Women Firefighters,” Gender & Society 11, no. 3 (1997): 324-41.

Katrinell M. Davis is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Vermont.  Her research interests concentrate on links between social stratification, the actions of state and labor market institutions, and the changing expressions of racialization within American society. Her recent work explores the institutional features of the postindustrial-era U.S. labor market and how these factors affect the employment opportunities available to low-skilled African American women workers. At UVM, Davis teaches classes on race and ethnic relations, as well as courses exploring the intersections between race, gender, and work trends within the American labor market.