The (Male) Fantasy in Letter Bee (02)

letter bee 02 gauche re head bee 01

While there are a number of interesting things that happened in the second episode, I noticed something that stood out rather sharply in my mind; related to how I view this show to be a shounen fantasy series. Sure the narrative exists in a fantasy setting, but there is a specific fantasy or myth that plays (or is at least hinted at) in the narrative: the fantasy of the meritocratic organization.

Look here, the postal service in Amberground takes the metaphor of the beehive. The postal workers are called Letter Bees, and the headquarters is called the hive. The metaphor is either loosely used, or aggressively appropriated by a distinctly male perspective.

letter bee 02 gauche re head bee

A bee society is matriarchal. Like other colony type insect societies, it is headed by a Queen and are populated primarily by female workers. The males are usually drones who only exist to fertilize the queen. Amberground’s postal service is a co-ed organization, with a generic title which isn’t clear yet if it is an official position or merely a skill ranking: the Head Bee.

Light and Blue Night Fantasy (DVD special) tells us that the current Head Bee is male (the TV OP should make this clear as well). While this upsetting of the matriarchal bee society may be indeed read as a male co-opting act. The concept of the meritocracy (which all minority groups claim to want) is another. Why do I say it is male? Simply because government as we know it, as it has been practiced, and specifically the government of agencies, organizations, and corporations are historically male constructs. I am not making an essential claim to their maleness.

Moving on: I also call this a fantasy because meritocracies rarely exist. This is easy enough to get and I won’t elaborate on it here. However, I will go into why they actually fail to work more often than we care to admit.

It is very rare to see an organization wherein the chief executive officer/president is also the best practitioner of what the organization does. The Head Bee is the best Letter Bee in the office. But in reality, is the head of the post offices in the world the best couriers? Is the CEO of FedEx the best courier in their payroll? Is the head of a record company their best musician? Can the CEO of Ford, Porche, or Toyota build cars in their own shop by themselves… or even design them?

It’s tempting to think that there is something essentially wrong with this, but I want to share something called The Peter Principle (Wikipedia):

The Peter Principle is the principle that “In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.” It was formulated by Dr. Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 bookThe Peter Principle, a humorous treatise which also introduced the “salutary science of Hierarchiology”, “inadvertently founded” by Peter. It holds that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their “level of incompetence”), and there they remain, being unable to earn further promotions. This principle can be modeled and has theoretical validity.[1] Peter’s Corollary states that “in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties” and adds that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence”.

The positions of authority often require a broader skill set than that of a front-line employee. The scope and consequences of decisions are greater. Even if the CEO of say, McDonald’s is the best ever at flipping burgers and preparing fries with that, his or her skills will deteriorate for lack of practice because most of her time is spent behind a desk or in conference rooms.

But there might be cases wherein this hasn’t or don’t apply!

For you history and industry buffs:

While I don’t think the best mangaka runs the show at Weekly Shonen Jump, isn’t Tezuka Osamu the head of his own studio? How about Miyazaki Hayao at Studio Ghibli? How about Anno Hideaki at GAINAX? Now these studios may have upcoming directors and animators climbing up the ranks, but these will be in the same position as Gauche in Letter Bee. Like him they’ll have to take the leadership position by their own hands. But I didn’t do the research. You tell me.

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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21 Responses to The (Male) Fantasy in Letter Bee (02)

  1. I think that the Head Bee will be like this – they aren’t the ‘producer’ (i.e. they don’t have the cash), but they are the ‘director’. They are the most trusted at what they do, and therefor command the most leeway. Miyazaki, I imagine, is not funding his films himsel, but being the most trusted name in animation, he will be given whatever funds he needs. To give a western example, James Cameron is a director who will keep demanding more budget and keep getting it.

    I think that’s what we can expect the Head Bee to be like, but who knows. Actually, didn’t they say this whole postal service was military-commissioned? Doesn’t the military kind of use meritocratic leveling?

    Oh, and ‘levelling’ gives me another thought – you could apply that male fantasy to any RPG – the more merits you have, the more you level up and become the best.

    • Corporations… the cash they have to buy or make things aren’t ‘theirs.’ They belong to the investors. The producers and directors aren’t necessarily the ‘owners’ of the companies they run or work for.

      The military may be built on something similar to meritocracy, but the generals aren’t necessarily their most badass fighters (unless they’re Takeda Shingen).

      As for RPG’s, again you become the most badass guy in the world but that doesn’t mean you’re the chief of the organization necessarily.

  2. Ryan A says:

    And in the Super Peter Principle, the head honcho is actually becomes the main antagonist… hmm. I sometimes think that is an archetype, often something to expect in shounen, but idk. Maybe I should watch these episodes XD

  3. BobaFetish says:

    From a real-world perspective, it’s a sad-but-true fact that the best or hardest workers are often not promoted to higher responsibilities. This is one of those Dilbert truisms that applies to many industries. If you are the best at what you do, why would it make sense for higher-ups to take you away from that and put you in management? It’s “better” to promote someone who’s incompetent but has just as much management potential. I know several people who will never progress, except from Junior Knickerbocker to Senior or Lead Knickerbocker… and it’s not because they’d make bad management. It’s because they’re too good at what they do.

    • BobaFetish says:

      I should clarify because I realize I sounded way too negative. The opportunities for Worker Bees to become Head Bee are there. It’s just that progression depends on a whole different set of skills than the set of skills that determines whether you’re the best Letter Bee, and this is not immediately obvious to most Letter Bees.

    • Yeah I totally get what you mean. The key alternative is to design wide salary band compensation systems that put the money where the excellence is, and not only where the most consequential actions are made. This way, the great performers wouldn’t be in a hurry to leave their practice just to make more money by being less effective managers which causes all sorts of harm too.

  4. animekritik says:

    corporations depress me….deeply.

    • Shance says:

      It just shows how human behavior greatly degrades the essence of the work. Sure, the essential part of the work is how it would influence oneself as well as others, but considering the current organizations work, this is not so. Influence to get the top position is merely something that can be achieved so as long as you can get people’s approval, without any regard to any work done, if there is any. Worse, the best ones are the ones kicked off the position and are replaced with rotten, sly bastards who’d do anything to get the position.

      See also: betrayal, government, democracy, monopoly, etc.

  5. Deckard says:

    I don’t think Peter’s Principle is as sound as you make it because in the form quoted it doesn’t mention underlying assumption. These are very strong thus severely limiting to Principles generality. In particular, if the Bees organisation is sufficiently small and narrow in duties, the Head Bee may well be the most capable practitioner.

    Almost universally, within an organisation different levels of responsibility require different number of staff. In mail delivery, there is only on CEO and numerous postmen; think about this as a pyramid with CEO being the top (narrowest) and postmen bottom (widest).
    Let’s assume, for simplicity, that there is only one skill relevant to all positions within the organisation (ability to deliver mail) and progressively higher positions require more of that skill. Now start filling the pyramid with members of the organisation. You will begin at the base of the pyramid filling it with the least capable people and progress towards the top where the most capable will be placed as CEO.

    Note that if someone within the organisation cannot be promoted while he is competent than the Principle is violated since it requires that “members are promoted so long as they work competently”. If the Principle holds for the organisation, then person just below the CEO (arguably, so must be CEO) is incompetent. Furthermore, because none of the people just below the him can be promoted (there is no empty space above them in the pyramid), these people are incompetent by virtue reaching their promotion ceiling; etc until everyone within the organisation is declared incompetent so long as we believe that Peter’s Principle applies to the organisation. The absurdity implied by the Principle should be obvious.

    What this principle relies one is that people become incompetent sooner than they reach promotion ceiling. Note that the principle as quoted by ghostlightning specifies “Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent” implying the that competence is a 0 or 1 (i.e. binary) variable. Thus, the Principle does not talk about degree of incompetence, but about incompetence vs. competence.

    An important note to the above argument is what exactly is competence. Because in the Principle competence is binary variable, the definition has to reflect that. One definition is that at each level a certain – limited – amount of skill is required and person is considered competent if his amount of skill is higher than the limit of the position. Of course, this definition further undermines the Principle since it imposes another very strong assumption: CEO has less skill than is required by his position.

    In case of the Bees organisation, it is difficult to claim that it is a meritocratic fantasy because we (at least I am) unaware of the size of the organisation and its structure. If it is sufficiently small in size and narrow in its duties than the most capable practitioner may well be the CEO. Note that example ghostlighting gave (Ghibli, Ganinax) are all very narrow is tasks they perform and small in size. Furthermore, Bees organisation is not necessarily build along patriarchal lines because it relies on the strength of heart, not physical strength.

    I hope i didn’t mess up somewhere; though I probably did.

    • The logical underpinnings of the principle does indeed seem problematic. Binary constructs are deconstructed easy enough.

      About the simpler organization, it is easier to maintain a meritocracy. Good stuff here in your comment. Thanks.

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  7. animewriter says:

    I have to agree with the concept of the Peter Principle, I spent 23 years in the US Army (one of the largest bureaucracies in the world) and while, for the most part, the US Army functions as a meritocracy I’ve seen the Army terminate two different testing and evaluation programs because they didn’t “like” the people that were scoring well in those programs, and because those programs were scored on a objective standard vs. an subjective standard, meaning they couldn’t “fix” the results. I’ve sat on many promotion boards and selection boards where I’ve seen people not getting selected for advancement because the real “unspoken” reason was that the higher ups were afraid that person would eventually replace them.

    I now work for a large “not to be name” organization where they often pick the worse workers they can’t find a reason to fire or demote, and promote them to low level management levels with the thinking that “since they’re worthless at their current position, we can move them up and out, because most of the good workers won’t listen to them anyways, and we can get a much more efficient worker to replace them at their old job”.

    • While the logical underpinnings seem rather easy to attack (see Deckard’s excellent comment), life experience and anecdotal evidence make Peter sound very compelling.

      What you said about the US Army is pretty damning evidence. If part of the mandate of management is to review and select individuals who are best fit for the job (which includes their jobs), then they indeed show incompetence by digging trenches and fortifying their own positions at the expense of organizational development.

      I’m not sure what to think about your second example. It seems to me like a good compromise… but if I were an investor/shareholder of your company, I’d be concerned how my money is being spent to pay a guy that has no value — which may reflect on the competence of the decision makers too.

      • BobaFetish says:

        The ideal solution in the second example would be to promote qualified people to those positions – even low level management has an effect on your division’s performance, and your low level managers are your candidate pool for mid level managers =(. Then when layoffs come around *cough 2001, 2008-9* you have an excuse to get rid of the dead weight. Of course, things don’t work out ideally in big organizations…

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