Female buddy movies: “Nine to Five” (1980) and the history of feminism

31 December 2013

tumblr_m0sgcsmwac1r1c3jbo1_500So far in my Female Buddy Movies mini-marathon, I’ve covered four key aspects of the genre: the wedding/bridesmaid movie (Revenge of the Bridesmaids), the Very Pink/ girlie comedy (Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), the boarding school dramedy (The Hairy Bird), and the field-defining roadtrip movie (Thelma and Louise). Clearly what we need next is a female buddy picture set in the workplace.

After all, isn’t it always the workplace where we become feminists — because there we witness what horrors still await us in a man’s world?

gettyimages_159836102When Nine to Five originally opened in 1980, I was too young to be fully conscious of its cultural reception, but my hazy memory recalls a lot of hubbub about this overtly feminist comedy. Sure enough, Vincent Canby’s original New York Times review calls it “a militant cry for freedom” that waves “the flag of feminism as earnestly as Russian farmers used to wave the hammer-and-sickle at the end of movies about collective farming.”

That statement is so over-the-top that it makes me want someone to write a cultural history of this film to explain how anyone could describe it as “militant,” but this film is still so full of comedic satisfaction that I want to eat it.

MSDNITO EC008

I mean, look at Judy Bernly (Fonda), the divorcée whose husband just left her for his secretary, and who has just shown up for her first day of work at Consolidated Companies. “We’re gonna need a special locker for the hat,” says Violet (Lily Tomlin) in a sardonic aside as she shows Judy the ropes. She looks more like a 1948 working woman than one in 1980, and everyone producing this film surely knew that; her comical naïvete is meant to reassure us that she’s no strident feminist.

Nor is the curvaceous Doralee (Dolly Parton), who has put up with their boss Mr. Hart (Dabney Coleman) and his sexual harassment for years. As he pretends to apologize, she says sweetly, “Oh Mr. Hart, you didn’t make a mistake. You see I’ll just have to remember to check, the next time I’m asked to go to work at a convention that there is a convention going on.” Little does she know that the whole office believes she really is sleeping with him, and that it’s all due to his loose lips.

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Violet’s most likely to mount a militant campaign, but she’s been waiting for a promotion from Hart for weeks — and she made up her mind to be a good girl in the meantime.

But he gives the promotion to a man rather than to Violet, and she finally loses it. “The company needs a man in this position,” he explains. “Clients would rather deal with men when it comes to figures.”

Violet is livid. “Oh, now we’re getting at it. I lose a promotion because of some idiot prejudice. The boys in the club are intimidated, and you’re so intimidated by any woman who doesn’t sit at the back of the bus.” Unmoved, Hart simply responds with a “Spare me the women’s lib crap, okay?” This is what the film does honestly — shows what women suffer in the workplace, with less-qualified men puffing and preening and taking credit for their work. When Violet reveals that Hart has let the whole office believe he’s sleeping with Doralee, the three women storm off to a bar.

Picture 9Then they get spectacularly stoned (ah, remember the good old days, when ordinary non-stoner movies featured scenes of the characters getting baked?) and spin out fantasies about what they’d do to Hart if they could.

But that’s the thing. They only fantasize about giving Hart a taste of his own medicine, or hunting him down with a gun, or popping him out the window of his skyscraper office. If this film rises to “militant” it does so simply by showing the women’s rage alongside their helplessness to change anything. They can fantasize all they like and have achieved only a comforting, marijuana-stoked friendship — and the satisfaction of having told Hart he’s a “sexist egotistical lying hypocritical bigot” in their dreams at least.

9to5still3Ultimately, of course, they take a far more aggressive revenge on Hart, but only as a result of accident, misinformation, and misadventure. Even when they finally kidnap him to keep him from sending them to jail, discover he’s guilty of embezzlement, and seek out proof, the scenes have a goofy, picaresque feel.

But the women achieve something important while they’ve got Hart strung up and away from the office nevertheless: they make their workplace more humane. With Doralee’s ability to forge his signature, they create a blanket equal pay policy, a day care center, give employees the ability to work flexible hours, and allow some workers to share a full-time job. Less radically, they also paint the place and grant everyone permission to personalize workspaces with photos.

MSDNITO EC005Hart ultimately gets his due, of course, but only because he once again takes credit for their ideas.

So this is “militant,” circa 1980: a film in which none of the women becomes CEO or chops off anyone’s balls, but instead perks the place up with some cheery paint and secretly improves the office’s efficiency by 20% without getting credit for it. See what I mean? We need some kind of time capsule to go back to find how someone like Canby could find himself so alarmed by the implications of female empowerment in Nine to Five. I wonder how Canby might have responded to all the whoop-ass in Charlie’s Angels (2000)?

fee1604aa57949107e69d195604b3425Don’t get me wrong: I love this film and can understand perfectly how its campy delights, like John Waters’ cult classic Hairspray (1988), gave it such a healthy revival as a Broadway musical later on. All this huffing and puffing has to do with its apparent reputation at the time as being a feminist milestone — a reputation that’s difficult to reconstruct now. Maybe in 30 years we’ll shake our heads at the hubbub over 2011’s Bridesmaids (whoa! women can be funny? and men will file out to see a film about women?) in the same way.

In the end, it’s probably a remarkable thing that a film compared to Soviet propaganda in 1980 can look so utterly restrained in 2013. For my own part, I’m going to hunt down a way to slip in “a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” as a descriptor into one of my conversations over the next two or three days — simply as a tribute to Violet, Doralee, and Judy.

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5 Responses to “Female buddy movies: “Nine to Five” (1980) and the history of feminism”

  1. Becky Says:

    One of my favorite movies of all time. Don’t know how it has “aged”, but at the time, it was priceless. This trio was great together, and thanks for reminding me how much I liked it!

    • Didion Says:

      It’s still great. Lily Tomlin remains one of my favorite comedians ever, and oh, Dolly Parton … I could listen to her all day. Do you remember why it was that people found it so strident in 1980?

  2. Servetus Says:

    my mom and I just loved this film. I think I saw it a few years later, though. I still think of it with affection if I see it somewhere and stop to watch pieces of it. I remember thinking it was very radical …

    • Didion Says:

      Oh, how I wish you’d watch it again and tell me why. I wonder if it’s because they’re not only willing to name the enemy, but call him on his bullshit?

      • Servetus Says:

        I think — somehow the women’s problems seemed so real / quotidian. Also, they didn’t hurt the boss, they just kept him tied up. I think it must have had something to do, too, with the atmosphere of the early Reagan years which were very much “now we are going to get rid of all of these things that have been plaguing us, Vietnam Syndrome, feminism, etc.”


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