Girls on Film: The complicated legacy of Working Girl
On its 25th anniversary, a look back at Mike Nichols' Working Girl, which is notable for both its feminism and its many problems
Mike Nichols' 1988 romantic comedy Working Girl — which turns 25 this week — doesn't start like most Manhattan-centric power stories do. The camera doesn't pan past the city's skyscrapers, whose "strong verticals" have repeatedly been described as phallic. Instead, his camera focuses on the Statue of Liberty, slowly rotating around the "Mother of Exiles" who lifts her lamp to the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." It is only after we see the statue from all sides that the camera moves beyond her, to a brief glimpse of the towers that overlook her, before zeroing in on the film's bumper-haired, bangles-laden heroine, Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith).
Tess is a dreamer stuck in an oppressively sexist world. She focuses on improving herself in an attempt to break beyond her secretarial barriers and become a professional success. The men, meanwhile, treat her terribly. Her male co-workers treat her like a prostitute, sending her to business meetings that end up being ploys for sex with the vaguest promise of professional advancement. Her boyfriend doesn't treat her much better, as he gifts her with piles of lingerie and never a present she "can actually wear outside of this apartment."
As our plucky heroine, she doesn't take such matters lying down, and is fired for taking revenge on the men who wronged her at work. Her headhunter is exasperated, but sees her potential and decides to give her one last chance after three strikes: She will be Ms. Katharine Parker's (Sigourney Weaver) secretary.
With an introduction like that, it's no surprise that Working Girl inspired future feminists and has been described as a "revolutionary" work of the '80s. It touches on imbalance and the struggle to both be professional and maintain your personal pride. It is a modern Cinderella story — but instead of following an unfortunate young woman tasked with solitude and servitude, our heroine is a professionally focused woman who happens upon a glass slipper of luck and transforms herself into a new woman, wowing the masses with her new potential while still nabbing her Prince Charming.
What follows, however, makes it no more of a surprise that feminist writer Susan Faludi and other women saw problems with the tale.
At first, Katharine seems like the answer to Tess' prayers. She is warm, conversational, open to ideas, and free of the sexism that defined Tess' previous gigs. But while her boss is bed-ridden overseas, Tess discovers that Katharine is about to steal her own gangbusters business idea (as higher-ups have been known to do from time to time). As Katharine sits, immobilized and clueless, Tess gets her revenge, upset that her would-be mentor isn't planning to share the credit. She uses her boss' home, office, and belongings to put her business plan into action — with Katharine's colleague no less — before the executive can steal it.
Her boss hasn't stolen the idea yet, but Tess takes anything and everything she can from her in an act of retaliation and greed. (Even, unknowingly, the man Katharine dreams she will marry: Harrison Ford's Jack Trainer.) One can't really blame Katharine for claiming ownership once she catches on; her trusted assistant just stole everything she could in an attempt to undermine her.
There are other issues. Tess is a breathy-voiced post-feminist with "a head for business and a bod for sin" who struggles to find the balance between them. She spends an inordinate amount of time in skimpy lingerie, and falls for her "prince" after he lies to her and gets her drunk so that he can sleep with her. (He's absolved of these actions when he takes off her dress and puts her into his bed to sleep alongside him, rather than to have sex.) Tess' successful idea comes from gossip columns, and her emotional hotheadedness repeatedly gets her into trouble, especially when she lashes out at her would-be mentor. Even her head for business seems suspect, as the film's happy ending lays the framework for her personal assistant to walk all over her in a self-perpetuating cycle of boss versus secretary showdowns.
What starts as an inspirational journey becomes a professional cat fight of woman versus woman, full of sexy flirting and emotional outbursts. But it's not a bad — or good — thing. Working Girl's great power does not rest in a strong and unwavering feminism (especially when you consider how retrograde it is compared to other similarly themed movies filmed in the '70s, like 9 to 5); it thrives in its provocation of critique.
Working Girl reminds us that Hollywood generally likes to balance progressiveness with the recognizable and often regressive. Working Girl strove to present a modern scenario within an old-world context. The businesswomen (figuring out the actions, attitude, and presence that would bring them success in a man's world) were matched with the tropes of fairy tales: The powerless ugly duckling who becomes a sexy, irresistible swan in a power battle with the evil witch and ends up coming out on top. There are aspects to appreciate, or be inspired by, just as there are aspects worth critiquing.
It's an excellent lesson to remember in pop-cultural context that seems hell-bent on all-or-nothing hatred and all-or nothing fandom. Fence sitting isn't allowed, even though nearly all of us live in the gray area.
People are often inspired by some pretty questionable material whose problems only become obvious with age and experience. Narratives will always seem more progressive when they're released, and much less so 25 years later, when society has evolved.
It's evolution, dear cine-Watsons. As the years roll by us, things that seemed perfect at the time are destined to become imperfect, and the beloved often becomes (at least slightly) problematic. Take the "do-no-wrong" fervor for Joss Whedon. After piles of praise, theses, and texts on the feminism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a long-running sentiment that Whedon is the perfect feminist — or not, because he doesn't like the word — the discourse is slowly becoming more critical. Things change.
In Working Girl, Katharine shares a quote from Coco Chanel: "Dress shabbily, they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, they notice the woman." Tess takes the advice to heart, shearing off her horribly permed hair, tossing her cheap bangles, and chiseling away her outer-borough edges to become a version of herself that the professional world can embrace. Her success comes from playing the part, which is essentially what Working Girl, and most other films, set out to do: Smooth the edges of their progressive plan and make it a familiar framework that won't be flawless, but can inspire future evolution.