Being told to watch a rom-com in order to understand what’s going on with diversity in the workplace probably wasn’t on your employee engagement bingo card. But if you want a snapshot of what your employees might actually be thinking about what’s going on in the office, virtual or otherwise, then watch Fire Island, released earlier this month on Hulu.
Epic comedian Joel Kim Booster wrote the screenplay and stars in the film. It’s another movie based on, yes, the plot driving Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, only the property in question is in danger of being sold or even foreclosed, not entailed as there is no male heir; unlike Austen’s Hertfordshire, there’s no St. Albans Abbey, but there is an Ice Palace; and instead of balls at which polite society waltzes in poofy outfits and tut-tuts over status, there are tea dances where the tut-tutting is over six-pack abs and who does or doesn’t belong.
So why stream this film, which also stars SNL’s Bowen Yang? The heartache and resentments mixed in with plenty of light and hilarious moments really aren’t all that different from what might be going on at your organization: It’s just that there’s a very good chance your workplace has much fewer light and hilarious moments. Caution: If you haven’t streamed the movie, there are some spoilers to come.
Let’s start with Booster’s Noah (Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet), who’s smart and usually nails it when it comes to observing what’s going around him. But his harsh comments often get in the way, and if he worked for a company, his HR file would probably be thicker than his employer's code of ethics.
Then there’s Yang’s Howie (Austen’s Jane Bennet, Elizabeth’s sister), who’s far more low-key than Noah, and is probably a more reliable and dedicated employee, only that he feels so beaten down for being overlooked for his accomplishments (and, sadly, for what he perceives as his looks).
Like Austen’s Bennet sisters, Noah and Howie are close, only with one twist: The first, obviously, is that they are both Asian American, and the bond started to form when they worked together years earlier at bougie Sunday brunches, where they served bottomless mimosas to entitled and racist white patrons. Yes, now you’re starting to get it: You’ve got employees that haven’t been told as such explicitly, but they’re being typecast, constantly expected to act a certain way due to their background, but the rewards and recognition aren’t coming their way.
Added into the mix is Conrad Ricamora’s Will (Austen’s Fitzwilliam Darcy), both of whom are successful (well, one was born into wealth, the other earned it through hard work). In the case of the uptight Will, he’s not too keen on Noah, and for fans of Austen and the movies she inspired, here’s where it gets fun.
Just as Darcy describes Elizabeth with the backhanded, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men,” Will’s first impression of Noah is summed up with a biting comment that Booster’s character is “not hot enough to be that annoying.”
But just like the protagonists in Austen’s classic, as Darcy and Elizabeth slowly become closer, so, too, do Noah and Will, as they realize the assumptions they had made about each other after meeting for the first time were way off-base.
Fine, call this out for being a stretch, but if they worked within a U.S.-based company, Will could be the company’s chief sustainability officer with Noah running diversity programs: And both are tired about the company’s proclamations about ESG performance while, in truth, hiring people of color has stalled, while emissions are more the result of masterfully cooking the carbon accounting books instead of meaningful GHG reductions.
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As for matchy-matching Booster's characters to Austen's, we're almost done — just watch the film and have fun figuring out everyone else.
But, we have to mention Dex, the hot guy (among many in the movie, self-assumed or otherwise) in Fire Island who wins some sympathy at first, but like Austen’s George Wickham, this fellow has a long history of nefarious behavior. It turns out that the problem with Dex isn’t his OnlyFans account, but that he exploits guys — and is about as morally bankrupt as Wickham, who had a long history of scamming people out of their money. Dex is like the C-suite "bro" executive who Noah and Will would come to despise, as in Dex’s case, the problem isn’t that he uses the company’s digital assets to waste time buying Tom Brady swag on eBay; instead, he mouths off about women, guys who don’t look like him and climate science: And all the while, he’s the company’s public-facing figure touting all of its good work on ESG and DEI.
Dust off that old paperback version of Pride and Prejudice, fire up Hulu on your Fire TV, and we’ll leave the rest going down the rabbit hole of “who would be who at my company” to you. Bottom line: If you’re not seeing the facial expressions and signs of exasperation of the characters of Fire Island in how your own employees interact with you and each other, there’s a good chance you’re not paying attention.
Sidebar: As for Fire Island — as in the real place, which was where much of this movie was actually filmed — well, here’s your climate change reminder: There’s a good chance that rising sea levels could put the popular resort area under water in 50 to 60 years.
Image credit: Hulu pressroom
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.