Unpaid Internships Are a Rich-Girl Problem—and Also a Real Problem

Pop culture has portrayed wage-free internships in fashion and art as the territory of spoiled young women—which makes it easier to ignore their real injustice.

unpaid interns bravo tv.jpg
Unpaid interns, as seen on Bravo's reality TV show 'Gallery Girls.' (Bravo)

Fashion-industry blog Fashionista reported earlier this month that Occupy Wall Street's "Intern Labor Rights division" had made plans to protest unpaid internships in the industry at New York Fashion Week.

Illustrating the story was a photo of former reality-TV-star-portraying-an-intern Lauren Conrad, cheerily steaming some clothes in Teen Vogue.

If we were to pick the major social-justice issue of our time, it would probably not be whether Conrad was properly compensated at her "internship." But that's part of the problem: The longer unpaid internships are associated with rich kids and chic but low-grade tasks like hauling designer clothing across Manhattan, the more those who complain about their proliferation are in danger of being seen as clueless, whiny, or spoiled.

To many people, the face of the unpaid intern is already that of a young woman whose survival (and possibly It-bag) needs are already being met, and there's a reason for that. Unpaid internships are mostly taken on by women: Madeleine Schwartz reported in Dissent that three-quarters of the unpaid workforce is female. Unpaid work is also popularly associated with the fashion industry, in part because of shows like The Hills, but also because of the especially glaring hypocrisy of unpaid labor at companies that are not only for-profit, but also producers of expensive designer clothing.

This poor-little-rich-girl image was crystallized in Lena Dunham's portrayal of Hannah Horvath, an unpaid, post-grad intern in New York who, in the pilot episode of Girls, gets cut off by her parents and then fired from her internship when she requests pay. It's a startlingly accurate portrayal of a real-life problem: Interns who complain about not getting paid are often not understood as exploited labor, but as petulant whiners; bratty if they expect their parents to support them, but equally bratty if they ask their bosses to pay them.

Unpaid work exists, of course, well beyond creative fields and coastal glamor. One can be an unpaid intern with a Nebraska police department, or at a Minnesota restaurant. Young adults in general, particularly students and post-2008 college graduates, face a "job" market that doesn't necessarily promise an ability to pay one's own bills. But if unpaid internships continue to be so closely associated with Carrie Bradshaw wannabes, it's understandable that the issue would be ignored in favor of the plight of tomato farmers.

While many understand the intern to be well-off and female, the issue has traditionally been discussed in terms of class, not gender. But that's begun to change since Schwartz's essay. Schwartz draws a connection between unpaid office workers today and unpaid housework of mid-century married women—even when they worked outside the home, women were underpaid back then, too, and for a similar reason. They were "secondary breadwinners; they didn't need full-time jobs," she writes. "Any financial compensation—'pin money'—was incidental to their crucial place within the household." And like yesterday's housewives, according to Schwartz, today's interns must demonstrate "flexibility, submission, gratitude."

Back then, middle-class married women were sometimes viewed as greedy if they demanded appropriate pay for outside work—regardless of their household income—because it was assumed that they would still be living comfortably otherwise. Women as dependents became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a writer based in Princeton, New Jersey. She holds a doctorate in French and French Studies from New York University.

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