The Hours Might be Different, But How Much Has Truly Changed Since Nine to Five?

Nine to Five is available to watch for free on BoB.

Whether you watch it for the comedy, the kick-ass female cast, or simply because of Dolly Parton’s classic hit song, there is no doubt that Nine to Five still appeals to us today. Especially on the back of its recent run as a Broadway Musical. But, forty years later, maybe we should be asking ourselves why we are still able to empathise with Judy (Jane Fonda), Violet (Lily Tomlin) and Doralee (Dolly Parton)?

Gif Source: Giphy

Nine to Five is full of contradictions. It’s a film that promotes feminist ideals whilst undermining them. Perhaps we are obsessed with rewatching it today because it gives us a taste of girl power without pushing us far enough out of our comfort zones to demand it. Ryan Gilbey writes in his article for The Guardian, “the cartoonish approach of 9 to 5 reduces the realities of workplace sexism and harassment to the level of the innocuous”. The film’s villain, Mr Franklin Hart Jr., is not deemed bad enough for groping and belittling his female employees so they make him “an embezzler as well as a creep”. This is unsurprising considering that the film’s screenwriter, Patricia Reznick, has noted that sexual harassment wasn’t a term that existed at the time when the film was made. Maybe this is why the film struggles to make a convincing case. Despite their efforts to conquer their boss, Mr Hart does not change after the women kidnap him – he’s still the same idea-stealing sleaze-ball that he was before. However, now he’s even worse because this time he has a motive. 

On top of this, Doralee’s bright, low cut outfits are exaggeratedly contrasted against Judy’s stiff pastel blazers. This is blatantly used to suggest that she is as promiscuous as the office rumours say. What I found most interesting about this was that despite the film emphasising the increasing agency of women in the workplace by giving them access to certain taboo acts, such as heavy drinking and smoking weed, Doralee quickly becomes isolated when they believe that she is having an office affair. This draws on a comment made by scholar Nancy Hewitt on American sisterhood in the 1980s, stating “the women’s movement itself has been accused of forming its own exclusive community, characterized by elitism, ethnocentrism, and a disregard for diversity”. 

In the women’s power fantasies, they assume the roles of hunter, cowgirl, and princess. These little reminders expose the audience to the reality of the workplace in 1980s America. I wish that the film had given this reality the attention it deserved. As a modern viewer, I can’t help but notice that these women are internalising ideals of their own patriarchal oppression, despite their exciting fantasies. The truth of this makes their position on the hierarchical ladder much harder to escape.

Gif Source: Giphy

Moreover, when Doralee finally gains power in the workplace, her first call is to dress-up the workers’ desks, allowing the women to have flowers and personal items in the office. This shows that even when she has authority, others reduce Parton’s character to an air-headed secretary to excuse their misogyny. This could not be clearer then when the company’s chairman, Russel Tinsworthy, becomes the authoritative voice to approve the changes that the women have made in the office, such as offering flexible working hours and on-site childcare, deeming them a social and economic success. The need for reassurance from a male figure, followed by a throw-away joke about equal pay when Tinsworthy states “that equal pay thing though, that’s got to go”, is a sharp reminder of the era that the film was made in. Whilst the film promotes the idea that when women are treated equally both workers and businesses prosper, its optimism is frustrating. In reality, Hart’s tragic disappearance in Brazil is as unrealistic as Violet being promoted to his position in his absence.

We only need to look at today’s statistics to know that this is true. A study in 2018 found that women are only represented in 29% of senior management roles worldwide. Moreover, the demographic of women in these roles is overwhelmingly white. It was unsurprising then when Reznick stated, in an interview with Quartz at Work in 2017, that the film was pretty much re-written by director Colin Higgins, originally intended to be a much darker comedy in which the women actually try to kill Hart rather than fantasising about it. 

Perhaps a little more darkness is what this film needed. When Judy’s ex-husband Dick mistakes the trap the women have set for Hart as a BDSM sex craze the audience laugh. But, if they hadn’t secretly known that this was not the case, would they still have found it funny? Especially, as it was such a progressive idea for its time. Frankly, the film would have been a lot more shocking if it wasn’t cloaked in so much fantasy. 

Gif Source: Giphy

Nine to Five is a film that presents its women as both pioneers and dreamers, airheads and psychopaths, sexual and prudish. However, sadly one is always at the expense of the other. At its heart, this film does what Fonda initially asked of it: It cloaks a sociopolitical message about equality in the workplace in a plot that’s funny, full of energy and just a little bit scatty. It’s far away from reality whilst it’s simultaneously right in the middle of it. I believe that this is why it still appeals to so many of us today. The film is obsessed with cloaking reality, and watching it forty years down the line it’s easy to see how far we still have to go to achieve equality in the workplace. 

Molly Rymer

Featured Image Source: Megan Shepherd

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