After the revolution that was second-wave feminism in the 1970s, the 1980s was considered a time of complacency. Women achieved what they wanted, right? With the idea of women in the workforce no longer taboo, the challenge was the difficulty women found with rising up the corporate ladder, being taken seriously in predominately male fields, the complications inherent in dwindling education for women, and the ever present fear that women would become too “masculine.” (Shoulder pads, everyone?). 20th Century-Fox’s recent Blu-ray release of the late Mike Nichols’ 1988 drama Working Girl acts as both a time capsule of heinous 1980s hairstyles and fashion faux pas, as well as a reminder of what the work force looked like for women before sexual harassment laws and the like, and the continued struggles of finding one’s identity and place in the world.
As I mentioned above, the 1980s saw a boom in the rates of women in the workforce; and not just working in general, but actually rising up into corporate leadership positions. However, that didn’t mean sexual harassment wasn’t running rampant – the infamous Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings would happen three years later – or that, in general, women were finding work a cakewalk. The late-80s tried hard to capture, and cash in, on the working woman’s experience (see Murphy Brown). Director Nichols shows the sweet with the sour within Working Girl with the general intention of depicting a moment in time wrapped within a rather generic romantic comedy.
Perpetual secretary Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith channeling Judy Holliday) ends up working for Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), a situation that Tess believes will yield big dividends for her. Unfortunately, Katharine ends up stealing one of Tess’ ideas, passing it off as her own. When Katharine breaks her leg skiing and is laid up for several weeks, Tess uses this as an opportunity to “make it happen” by taking her idea back and pitching it herself, with the help of fellow colleague Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford).
Remember when Harrison Ford was in complex dramas like Regarding Henry? Or Sigourney Weaver’s roles post-Alien? And Melanie Griffith in general? Yes, a lot of this is steeped in the late-1980s, right down to the cast trying to find their own cinematic personas after the films that had launched them into superstardom. All of the leads are fantastic and further Nichols’ vision of capturing the world of high business, but the standouts are the women.
Tess hasn’t the benefits of a high-class education, yet dreams of living life on her terms. She doesn’t want to be a professional wife to her boyfriend, Mick (Alec Baldwin…I always forget he’s in this). When he proposes to her she says “Maybe,” telling him she wants to see how her career turns out before planning the rest of her life. Griffith channels part of her own persona with the role of Tess. Much of the character’s problems stem from her inability to be taken seriously because she’s pretty, sounds like a ditz, and is under-educated. Again, shades of Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday abound. But Tess isn’t stupid. When she’s practically pimped out by her boss (said boss is Oliver Platt and the date is a super manic Kevin Spacey), she doesn’t take it lying down and calls him out. Tess plays on the fantasy many women wished they could go forward with in an era where sexual harassment and “business meetings” were seen as the only way for women to get ahead. Griffith always remains sweet with enough hard-biting sass to make an impact. The movie revels a bit too much into getting Griffith in her skivvies, with a “tit for tat” moment of Ford disrobing, that only reminds audiences that men won’t see female leads without a little skin (please note the sarcasm in that statement).
Tess’ main foil is Sigourney Weaver’s Katharine Parker (is it coincidental that she’s Katharine with an “A” a la Hepburn?). Weaver’s razor-sharp as Parker, a blend of backstabbing business acumen with tenacity and understanding. Tess thinks the two will bond because they’re both women and Katharine is a woman in power, but the script relies on Showgirl rules: “There’s always something younger and hungrier coming down the stairs behind you.” Katharine is the woman who’s too masculine to be supportive, and the ending rectifies that by having Tess do better by her assistant. But, there’s no denying that there’s a reason Katharine has the position she’s attained; she’s worked hard at doing what needs to be done. It’s ugly to watch two women who can’t work together, but the intent is that business has no gender. And remember, women continue to be told they can’t support each other when it comes to jobs and men, a reminder that was beaten into the heads of women in the 1980s. It would have been easy for the script to make Katharine incompetent or overly sexual as means of moving up the corporate ladder, but instead she’s just painfully competitive, a barracuda.
That leaves us with Ford, actually the most boring member of the group. In a rare twist of irony, Ford becomes the bland romantic love interest, a role generally reserved for a female. Jack Trainer does a few sleazy things that are meant to be forgivable because he’s Harrison Ford: he takes a drunken – and slightly drugged – Tess back to his house where he undresses her before tucking her into bed; for the most part, though, Ford’s charm negates the creep elements and he’s really there to be the love interest “prize” for Tess at the end.
Strip away the hairspray and weird ties and what you have is a snapshot in time, a world after second-wave feminism. Griffith and Weaver are the reasons to watch this, and maybe Ford if you enjoyed his movies from that period. The question is will we ever see a movie like this again? One that captures the zeitgeist and leaves us to ask how we can make it better?