The conservative progressivism of “Working Girl”: An ’80s feminist fairy tale.

working girl poster

A couple of weeks ago when I did an article about Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, it occurred to me how strange it was that movies were generally much more progressive about sexuality a generation ago than they are today, as evidenced by the recent Fifty Shades of Grey movie. After I wrote that article and re-watched an old favorite movie of mine, I realized that same argument can be made about feminism. The movie that got me thinking about that was Mike Nichols’s 1988 comedy-drama Working Girl, and with all the talk in our modern society about the empowerment (or disempowerment) of women in media, this film is definitely worth another look today.

I saw Working Girl for the first time in the theater shortly after it came out in December 1988. I’ve seen it many times since then but it had been at least two or three years since I watched it, and I’d forgotten what a well-crafted, enjoyable, uplifting and intelligent movie it is. It has faults, sure, both in its message and its execution, but it does have something worthwhile to say about women in the modern American workforce, especially the white collar workforce. Not long ago, just after she won her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Boyhood, Patricia Arquette ignited controversy by addressing the gender pay gap in her acceptance speech. On the one hand it’s astonishing that the idea that women should be paid the same as men for the same work is controversial in America in 2015. On the other hand perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the factors that make it controversial remain so entrenched. It is exactly these factors, and many related ones, that form the subtext of Working Girl, and which help make it as topical and fresh today as it was in 1988.

Working Girl is the story of Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith), a secretary with bulletproof eye-shadow and immense 1980s hair who works at a major Wall Street financial firm. After being sexually harassed by her lecherous boss (Oliver Platt) she gets a new job working for a woman, the poised corporate M&A expert Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) who waxes eloquent about teamwork and empowerment. When Katherine goes to Europe and breaks her leg skiing, Tess holds down the office, and in doing so discovers that Katherine was about to steal an idea that Tess had about a big merger deal and pass it off as her own. Incensed, Tess begins impersonating an executive and working on the deal herself, together with veteran corporate strategist Jack Traynor (Harrison Ford). Over the course of the deal Tess and Jack fall in love–then just as Katherine is about to come home Tess discovers that she (Katherine) is Jack’s ex-girlfriend, but not quite ex because he hasn’t technically broken up with her yet. Now Tess must hold together her own deal and her love life, while the exposure of the truth of her status as a secretary threatens both.

One of the first things I noticed on this re-watching of Working Girl is how quickly it passes the Bechdel test–I think I counted 30 seconds from the first credit on the screen! The Bechdel test is the now-famous measure of gender inclusion in movies (and really any kind of media), which asks 1) are there at least two female characters with names, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man. There are lots of great female characters in the film, such as Tess’s over-the-top best friend Cynthia (Joan Cusack, who got an Academy Award nomination), and they talk about men a lot less than you would think. The major preoccupation of the women characters, especially Tess, is a nebulously-defined sense of “getting ahead.” It’s not clear what this means except it definitely has to do with working one’s way up the corporate ladder. Tess laments to a (male) executive, “You can bend the rules plenty once you’re upstairs, but not while you’re trying to get there.” Working Girl‘s corporate universe is clearly defined by a sense of inequity enforced by exclusionary “rules,” but how this inequity breaks across gender and class lines is much less clear.

“Let The River Run” by Carly Simon, the song from the film Working Girl, won an Oscar for Best Song. This audio of it includes stills and brief clips from the film.

What struck me about Working Girl is how its plot and characters are arrayed against each other as much on class as by gender. Tess is treated unfairly–pimped out by her boss to a smarmy arbitrageur (a cameo by Kevin Spacey), for instance, or turned down for the “entreé program”–but is it because she’s a woman, or because she’s a lower-class woman? She lives in an apartment in Queens, has a blue-collar boyfriend (Alec Baldwin) and wears sneakers to walk to work from the subway. Katherine, by contrast, lives in a posh Manhattan townhouse bedecked in Andy Warhol-esque art and baroque furniture, went to Wellesley, lords over a corner office and is wealthy enough to buy $6000 cocktail dresses and jet to Austria for a weekend. Tess clearly wants to be in Katherine’s league, but the film leaves largely undefined whether she sees material wealth as the sine qua non of “getting ahead,” or whether it’s a means to respect and recognition as a woman. It could be both or either. Maybe Tess herself doesn’t know. This is an interesting and thought-provoking aspect of the movie.

For what certainly should count as at least a progressive rumination on women in the corporate world, Working Girl is clearly a product of its time, and that time was the conservative 1980s, so its progressivism is limited by an essentially conservative world view. Capitalism and its values are never questioned. Indeed, the whole plot hinges on Tess’s acceptance of career mobility in a corporate structure as a validator of her self-worth. Interestingly, the movie leaves alone any hint of touchy dilemmas about balancing careers with family or children. Tess never talks about kids, and although Katherine wants to be married, we sense her real objective is simply to snare Jack Traynor and marriage seems like the means to that end. Other major gender issues, like the pay gap, are also unmentioned. It’s abundantly clear that director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) did not want Working Girl to be political. It’s feminist, yes, but its feminism is much more earthy and practical than ideological. Though it could be criticized, and fairly so, for punting on tough issues, it’s definitely not apologetic for staking out the territory it claims confidently and with style.

Sigourney Weaver won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Working Girl. Here is her acceptance speech. She was also nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to Geena Davis.

Working Girl is also a great movie, as a movie. Its comedy has exactly the right tone and timing, its drama is carefully restrained, and its characterizations are rich and memorable. The onscreen chemistry of Griffith, Ford and Weaver is simply magic. Nichols makes the whole thing play like a 1930s screwball comedy fast-forwarded 50 years and given something of a feminist conscience. It is a fairy tale–the cheerful, glib and glitzy corporate nirvana portrayed in the film is a long step from dreary reality–but as a viewer you don’t end up minding it. Movies are supposed to be fantasy and escapist fun. What Working Girl does is take that escapism and add just a little bit of real progressivism. And there’s the marked contrast with today’s gutless Hollywood: as tame and non-threatening as Working Girl is, I seriously doubt a movie like this could be green-lighted at a major studio today. Some executive would veto it as “too controversial” or declare “nobody wants to see that.” Thus Hollywood’s past is probably more progressive than its present, which is a sad state of affairs.

The poster for Working Girl is copyright (C) 1988 by Twentieth Century Fox films. I believe my inclusion of it here constitutes fair use.
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