Cardboard Box of Unemployment

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A trope common in western media, the Cardboard Box of Unemployment has been used by generations of the recently laid off to remove their personal possessions from a former Office, locker, or desk after being discharged from their duties. Like a pink slip, it's visual shorthand for "this character was just fired." The sight of a cardboard box stuffed with books, papers, and personal items- like potted plants and family photos- can also indicate that someone's merely been demoted and thus forced to move to a smaller office, but the sentiment (that their employment status has changed for worse) remains the same.

Oftentimes, this is the result of a disgruntled employee working under a Pointy-Haired Boss snapping and telling said boss to Take This Job and Shove It. It's also the indispensable accessory of every Fired Teacher, or can be used to show that someone is a Reluctant Retiree: if they knew their retirement was imminent and didn't start packing up their personal items in advance, they're likely to work up until the last minute before grabbing a spare cardboard box to cram all their stuff into.

Not to be confused with the Cardboard Box Home (which is where an impoverished person lives in a box), or Bankruptcy Barrel (which is where an impoverished person wears a barrel). Similar to the Bindle Stick, which holds a character's few possessions after a loss of wealth or status.

About half the examples listed below are Bankers Boxes; sturdy, stack-able, standardized storage boxes found in white-collar workplaces the world over. (Available in white, tan, and faux wood-grain, they even come with convenient handles!) Truth in Television comes into play in that they're so cheap and abundant no employer is going to complain if a recently terminated employee takes one home with them.


Examples

Film - Animated
  • As anti-predator sentiment hits a boiling point in Zootopia, Officer Benjamin Clawhauser (a cheetah) is transferred away front desk duty at the police station. Judy watches him packing his "I Heart Gazelle" coffee mug and snow globe into a box for the move.
    Officer Clawhauser: They thought it would be better if a predator - such as myself - wasn't the first face that you see when you walk into the ZPD. They're gonna move me to records. It's downstairs. It's by the boiler.

Comic Strips
  • In Alex, black bin liners [i.e. garbage bags] are the container of shame. Sacked bankers are required to pack their personal belongings in a bin liner and are then escorted from the building by security so they can't steal anything.
  • The eponymous Dilbert of Dilbert has been fired before. This particular strip plays the trope straight, showing Dilbert with a "box full of junk" as he tries to give his Pointy-Haired Boss a Take This Job and Shove It after he's been fired. (It doesn't go so well for Dilbert, to the extent that the strip manages to throw in a Vomit Discretion Shot between the second and third panels.)

Comics

Film - Live Action
  • After the protagonist of American Beauty succeeds in getting fired from his job, we see him leaving the office carrying a box with his belongings hoisted triumphantly on his shoulder.
  • In Bruce Almighty, reporter Bruce goes ballistic on live TV when he finds out his co-worker Evan was promoted to the position Bruce wanted. The next scene is Bruce literally tossed out of the WKBW-TV 7 building, followed by security throwing a bankers box full of his personal items at his junk. Later, Bruce uses his newfound divine powers to cause Evan to have a similar on-air breakdown. Bruce is promoted to Evan's position, and though initially happy at the downfall of his rival he has a change of heart after he sees Evan clearing out his office and offers Evan his job back.
  • In Donnie Darko, Donnie's teacher Ms. Pomeroy is fired from her job for discussing offensive literature. There is a shot of her leaving the classroom with a box full of books, a desk lamp and a U.S. flag.
  • Happens in Ghostbusters (2016), when Erin is fired from her job (after Abby and Jillian post the video of her covered in ectoplasm and shouting that she believes in ghosts). Abby and Jillian are terminated shortly after, but they forgo the bankers boxes and start wheeling equipment out with carts.
    Erin: Kids, hello. I didn't get fired. Even though I have the old plant in the box.... Margaret, hi. Just taking my plant out for some air. Just like to carry it in this box with all my other personal stuff.... Samantha. Hi. How are you?... Sometimes, I like to put all my stuff from my office in a box and just do some exercises and just use it as weights.
  • Hidden Figures: After Katherine is told she's no longer needed in the Space Task Group now that NASA's IBM computer is performing calculations for them, she packs all her desk items and a few gifts from coworkers into a box and leaves.
  • It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie implies this trope: the Big Bad is trying to take over the Muppets' theater, and snidely tells them that if they need help moving out, there are discarded boxes behind a nearby business that they can use.
  • Looney Tunes: Back in Action has Daffy Duck go into histrionics while arguing to the Warner Brothers that he's much more bankable than Bugs Bunny. Unmoved, the brothers have a yes-man bring in a box of personal effects. Daffy recognizes the contents.
    Daffy Duck: Say, that looks like the stuff from my office.
    Brother #1: You don't have an office.
    Brother #2: Not any more.
    Daffy Duck: [breaking fourth wall] Symbolically, this is bad.
  • Though uncommon in German media, bankers boxes show up here and there thanks to Eagleland Osmosis. One example can be seen in the Stromberg movie. Near the end of the film, the protagonist gets fired from his job at an insurance company and can be seen leaving the office with a bankers box holding a globe, a trophy and an honorary certificate.

Live-Action Television
  • Invoked and then downplayed in Agent Carter. Peggy is told to pack her things after the SSR catches wind of her vigilante investigation and fires her. However, she was given so few responsibilities from her sexist coworkers that there isn't much to pack.
  • In Breaking Bad episode "Green Light", Walt gets fired from his teaching job and we see him carry a box with his work items into the parking lot. He places it on top of Jesse's car where it is forgotten. When Jesse speeds off the box crashes to the ground, much to Walt's chagrin.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "Turn Left", Donna is downsized from her clerical job. She leaves with a cardboard box containing her possessions... along with some other items that aren't technically hers but she decides to take as compensation.
    Donna: Hole punch. Having that. Stapler, mine. Toy cactus. You can have that, Beatrice. Catch.
  • Occurs in The Flash, when Barry makes a deal with Julian: Julian won't turn Caitlin over to the police for her Killer Frost spell, and in return he demands Barry resign from CCPD. In the next scene Barry packs his desk into a box.
  • Grimm
    • Invoked in "Fugitive," the sixth season opener. Detective Hank and Sergeant Wu return to the precinct to keep tabs on the search for Nick, only for Officer Franco to inform them that Captain Renard is on the warpath. Hank notes that it "looks like he's cleaning out his office." The next shot of the interior of Renard's office reveals that he's got a bankers box on the console next to his desk, which has been emptied of his [sparse] personal effects.
    • Happens two episodes later in "Oh Captain, My Captain," when Captain Renard has demanded Detective Hank and Sergeant Wu's resignations for their role in arresting him for the murder of Rachel Wood. Both Hank and Wu are shown with bankers boxes on their desks, and later announce to Nick that they are "officially unemployed." It doesn't stick, seeing as Nick gets them their jobs back by the end of the episode.
  • Leverage: Invoked in an episode where the team is trying to keep a company from covering some scandal on a plane, Hardison is sent to infiltrate the offices and steal the information directly. He does this by calling a bunch of meetings, then faking sickness to dump presentations on hapless stooges while he hacks the computers. At the end he puts a bunch of stuff (including the drive with the information he needs) in a cardboard box then makes a show of leaving, yelling about all he's put into this company and for them to just cut him off like this. And on his birthday too! As he does, a pair of office staff watch him go.
    Female Coworker: He was always so sensitive.
    Male Coworker: I never liked him.
  • Mad Men is bursting with examples, as it's set in the heart of white-collar corporate Manhattan during the 1960's:
    • Inverted in the first episode, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" as Peggy Olson arrives at her new job at Sterling Cooper carrying a cardboard box with her work supplies in it.
    • Happens again when she's promoted to junior copywriter in ''The Wheel". As Joan shows her to her new shared office, Peggy caries a bankers box full of items from her desk in the secretary pool.
    • And again when Peggy fires Joey Baird in ''The Summer Man" after he tapes a demeaning cartoon to Joan's window. Joey attempts a Take This Job and Shove It when he grabs a bankers box Peggy's currently using to store files, dumps it out, and takes it with him, but it mostly serves to characterize him as a petulant Man Child.
    • Played with twice in the episode "Lost Horizon", when Peggy Olson moves into a new office at McCann carrying a bankers box full of personal trinkets. The first attempt at the move is a false start, but by the end of the episode the move-in is played much more triumphantly. (The box used in filming the scene was later auctioned off as memorabilia.)
  • Happens in Prison Break: After Warden Pope discovers burns on Micheal, he pins them on Roy Geary, a corrupt guard who'd been shaking down inmates and stealing their possessions for months. The warden searches Geary's locker, finding several stolen items. The next scene is Geary being marched out of the prison, carrying his belongings in a box.

Web Original
  • Played for Laughs in season 10 of Acquisitions Incorporated, where the Bad Boss Omin learns that one of his underlings unwittingly assisted in Viari pulling a fast one on him. Omin has this to say to his (now ex-)employee:
    Omin: Put everything you like and care about in a box, and when I come back, we will talk about what happens to the box.

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