America is fascinated with the diner waitress. Her image, attitude and demeanor have been showcased with various degrees of authenticity by television and Hollywood since the 1930’s.
When I was scouting potential waitresses to interview for Counter Culture, I asked people if they knew any career coffee shop waitresses. Many people reenacted a stereotype of the wisecracking, gum-smacking diner waitress. I heard a story about a waitress in New Jersey who had a heavy East Coast accent and served customers with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, looking discontented and disinterested. I heard another story about a lifer who wore teal-blue eye shadow and a towering beehive. Although I was completely taken in by these colorful portraits, I had to wonder if these women really existed or if they were exaggerations inspired by Hollywood stereotypes that have not only created the image of the cranky, colorful, downtrodden lifer but have also shaped her into the icon that she is today.
Historically waitressing has carried a stigma that is still hard to shake. Waitresses were not only devalued, but considered to be women of low moral standards and class. In the 1920’s waitresses were often thought of as prostitutes in disguise. In 1945 James West wrote, “…a girl who left her hometown to become a waitress in the regional metropolis was generally assumed to have become a prostitute also.” In addition, when real prostitutes were arrested and asked their profession, they lied and told police they were waitresses to explain the cash they were carrying.
Films like "Of Human Bondage," (1934), featured Bette Davis as a low class waitress with no moral character. She says, "Just because I’m only a waitress doesn’t mean I can’t be a lady.”
Joan Crawford’s wise and efficient waitress in "Mildred Pierce" (1945), was a refreshingly powerful portrait of a woman who used waitressing as a platform for her success.
In "Five Easy Pieces" (1970) a waitress stands up to Jack Nicholson who tries to get around the "no substitutions" policy.
Jack Nicholson: "I'd like a plain omelet, no potatoes, tomatoes instead. A cup of coffee and toast."
Waitress, pointing to his menu: "No substitutions. I don't make the rules,"
Jack Nicholson: "OK, I'll make it as easy for you as I can. I'd like an omelet, plain. And a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee."
Waitress: "A No. 2, chicken sal sand. Hold the butter, the lettuce and the mayonnaise. And a cup of coffee. Anything else?"
Jack Nicholson: "Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules."
Waitress: "You want me to hold the chicken, huh?"
Jack Nicholson: "I want you to hold it between your knees."
Waitress, pointing to the right-to-serve sign: "Do you see that sign, sir? I guess you'll all have to leave. I'm not taking any more of your smartness and sarcasm."
Whether it’s Madge selling dish soap on TV or other memorable waitresses in film such as "Bagdad Café," Michelle Pfeiffer in "Frankie & Johnny" and Helen Hunt in "As Good As it Gets," diner waitresses continue to be a staple in the American media.
Here is Lily Tomlin playing a trailer park waitress in Robert Altman’s "Short Cuts" (1993)
Two of the most famous servers of the silver screen have to be Ellen Burstyn and in Martin Scorsese’s "Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore" (1974), which inspired the hit television show "Alice."
Who can forget the sassy, foul-mouthed waitress, Flo who would smack her gum and scream, “Kiss my grits!”