On 19 October, the Guardian ran an opinion piece that scoffed at the notion that 1980s classic 9 to 5 could be regarded as anything approaching a feminist comedy. Anyone who has seen it, asserts the feature’s writer, Ryan Gilbey, “knows that the film bears the same relationship to feminism that Jurassic Park does to palaeontology”.
He goes on to argue that the film does nothing more than “reduce feminism to caricature”.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
Taken at face value – and squinted at through the narrowest of contemporary lenses – it may be easy to dismiss 9 to 5 as a fluffball 80s romp; a twee, toothless tale of female friendship that has little to do with the advancement of gender issues.
Yet while some details are, admittedly, of their time – oversized glasses, smoking in the office, an unwieldy Xerox machine the size of a small car – the central conceit remains as fresh and relevant as ever.
As written by Patricia Resnick and directed by Colin Higgins, 9 to 5 remains the most rallying kind of socialist feminist fantasy, a rousing exploration of the potentially transformative power of sisterhood, solidarity and unashamed, unrestricted ambition.
This is made obvious in the film’s most striking sequence. Here, fuelled by drink and a burgeoning sense of injustice, colleagues Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin), Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda) and Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton) bond over their revenge fantasies against their odious, incompetent and perverted boss, Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman).
And it doesn’t end there. After a series of unfortunate events involving coffee, rat poison and a bump on the head, the trio kidnap Franklin and keep him under lock and key, using his absence to bring about sweeping changes to their working environment.
The rehiring of unfairly fired female employees, an on-site creche and, fundamentally, the immediate adoption of an equal-pay policy transform the drab, testosterone-fuelled offices of Consolidated Companies into a veritable utopia of gender equality.
It’s fair to say that the film contains some moments that may initially make a modern viewer wince. As a newly divorced woman re-entering the workplace, for example, Judy seems a fool, a klutz, whose real-world experience doesn’t translate into being able to answer the phone or make a photocopy.
That this is more to do with confidence and lack of support than individual ability is, however, glaringly obvious.
Similarly, Doralee is almost cartoonish in her pneumatic looks, which not only attract Franklin’s unwanted attentions but lead everyone else in the office to suspect her of having an affair with the boss – which turns her into something of a social pariah.
As the narrative unfurls, however, the audience is invited to see through such one-dimensional generalisations to the whip-smart, astute agitators who lie beneath.
In his Guardian piece, Gilbey suggests that Franklin is nothing more than a “Carry On buffoon” – that the character is revealed to be an embezzler, as well as a sexual harasser, is proof that the film believes his behaviour towards women is not enough to make him a villain.
In fact, Franklin’s all-around failings work to compound the film’s central point: that no matter how appalling a man is – how crude, incompetent or criminal – he will still find it easier and quicker to climb the professional ladder than any equally qualified woman.
In this case it’s Violet who gets particularly short shrift. Exceptional at her job, and having previously trained Franklin, she’s repeatedly overlooked for promotion. As Parton’s rousing, on-the-nose theme song points out: “They let you dream just to watch them shatter, you’re just a step on the boss man’s ladder.”
Indeed, all of this pointed characterisation is crucial to the film’s central point about the skewed nature of gender politics. It shows a system that continually rewards men, however much of a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” he may be, and which ring-fences women based on their looks or social status.
Four decades on and it’s a sad fact that modern women are just as likely to be slapped with narrow labels like ‘mother’ or ‘victim’ or ‘slut’ or ‘difficult’ rather than be defined by their individual skills and achievements.
And on this note, another reason why 9 to 5 is so essentially, obviously feminist is the way in which it helped usher in a new age of working women on screen: women striving for economic independence and defined by something other than their relationship to the men around them.
The film paved the way for movies like Baby Boom (1987), Broadcast News (1987) and Working Girl (1988) – films whose female protagonists go even further in their search for professional success and are given increasing autonomy to act like the men around them.
There can be absolutely no doubt, then, that 9 to 5 remains a clarion call for the women’s movement – a wry, knowing assault on the patriarchy and a punchy acknowledgement of the fight for equality that had been gathering steam since the 1960s. That it couches its messages of equality, liberation, activism and sisterhood in something of a knockabout comedy doesn’t dilute its message. Instead, it actively serves to highlight and ridicule the farcical social doctrines that have worked – and continue to work – to keep women firmly in their place.
And yet it’s a film that knows its limits, or, more accurately, reflects the frustrations of the time in which it’s set. Despite the fact that, by film’s end, the women have used their tenacity and skills to bypass ‘the man’ and bring about real change, they see Franklin take all of the credit and watch as their idea of equal pay for all employees is unceremoniously quashed.
But Violet, Judy and Doralee are certainly not beaten. “We’re only just beginning,” says Violet as the credits roll and, with a #MeToo era sequel in the works, it’s clear that not only does 9 to 5 remain as potently feminist as ever, there is still plenty more to say.
9 to 5 is back in cinemas from 16 November 2018.
Comedy Genius is a season of side-splitting film and TV, at BFI Southbank, on BFI Player and at venues across the UK, from October 2018-January 2019.
A Jane Fonda season also runs at BFI Southbank through November-December.