So 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?
When 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.
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.
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.
Then 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.
Ultimately, 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.
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)?
Don’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.
15 May 2011
According to Maureen Dowd’s NY Times column today, the fall TV lineup ricochets back and forth between a group of shows featuring strong women (because female viewers flock to these shows) and a bunch of shows that learned only one thing from Mad Men: that it must’ve been awesome in the 1960s before feminism. No fewer than three new shows are set in those glorious earlier times — including one called Playboy Club (gawd) and another about stewardesses in 1960 (because we’ve never seen that before). Dowd quotes a top producer who calls it “Hendricks Syndrome”:
“All the big, corporate men saw Christina Hendricks play the bombshell secretary on Mad Men and fell in love. It’s a hot fudge sundae for men: a time when women were not allowed to get uppity or make demands. If the woman got pregnant, she had to drive to a back-alley abortionist in New Jersey. If you got tired of women, they had to go away. Women today don’t go away.”
That’s not all the 60s had going on. So, attention, HBO/AMC/Showtime/TNT: have I got a pitch for you! It’s about the 60s, and it’s the most original show idea in years featuring two perennially popular female stars! It’s a mashup of Nine to Five and Glee and Mad Men! It has Broadway and show tunes and history and workplace conflict, and I’ll entertain all offers for the rights to this fantastic plot!
My dramedyical will star Dolly Parton and Kristin Chenoweth (the musical theater star of Wicked; how has Hollywood missed these women’s striking resemblance, considering their shared singing talents?). They are mother and daughter, both divorced, living in New York in 1965 in a small rent-controlled apartment. More precisely, they live in Chelsea in a neighborhood full of gay men before Stonewall made it popular to talk about gay rights, and both women have large circles of gay male friends spanning several generations.
Chenoweth is trying to make it as a singer like her mother used to be, but Broadway finds her too blonde and too 1950s for the moment. The biggest play that year is the multiple award-winning Fiddler on the Roof; despite her cringe-making attempts, Chenoweth has not persuaded anyone she can “play Jewish.” Moreover, Broadway producers already have their favorite daughter-of-a-star: Liza Minnelli, the 19-year-old daughter of Judy Garland, who has just won a best-actress Tony for Flora the Red Menace (sparking just a little jealousy from our heroines). To make it worse, her gay friends have no sympathy for her kvetching about Minnelli, as many of them have adopted Garland as an idol.
With rent monies dwindling, mother and daughter both take nine-to-five jobs as secretaries — but these wannabe divas have a hard time with the easy sexism of the office workplace. Unlike the character she played in Nine to Five (1980), Parton is no sweetie-pie pushover with a sugary accent; she’s pissed off that she’s 65 years old and working in a demeaning job. She’s accustomed to receiving unquestioning adoration from men instead of this “take my hat and get me a cup of coffee” bullshit.
In addition, after years in musical theater, Parton has never spent much time around straight men — she assumes all men are gay until proven straight. This offers innumerable opportunities to tell her boss that “your ‘wife’ is on the phone.” Moreover, even two years after the Equal Pay Act of 1963, secretaries’ wages are lame, noticed especially by our two stars who make multiple references to how much Minnelli is making for a not-so-successful play. Their paychecks give them the opportunity for a little righteous indignation … and perhaps proto-feminist collective anger.
This isn’t just a story about women — it’s also a story about gays and lesbians. Parton and Chenoweth get locked up by the cops one night after belting out show tunes with their friends at their favorite bar because the bar owner had missed a “protection” payment to the local precinct. Parton has former lover, Elizabeth Peña (who’s so beautiful I don’t understand why she doesn’t get more parts), who now works with Cuban immigrants and gets a little bored with the esoteric musical theater mindset of Parton’s Chelsea world. One of Chenoweth’s best friends, Sal (Bryan Batt, above, who played Salvatore Romano in Mad Men) is trying to balance a closeted office identity with an increasingly confident role in a neighborhood “homophile” group, a splinter of the defunct Mattachine Society. The real-life figure of Harvey Milk appears in several episodes before he moves to San Francisco.
I don’t know about you, but I’d watch every episode of this show. Looking at the world of the 1960s through the eyes of women who didn’t accept the ugliest effects of sexism is an awesome idea. Contact me today with your offers and lucrative contracts!
23 October 2010
Sometimes all I need is a few videos of women kicking the shit outta music to make me happy.