At the tail end of the 80s a film came out chronicling the plight of the modern woman to achieve success in both her personal life and her professional life, and the obstacles in both. Appropriately called “Working Girl” starring Melanie Griffith as the titular lead, Harrison Ford as the love interest, and Sigourney Weaver as the antagonist/sensei, it dealt with the catch-22s of being a working woman.
Griffith starts the movie as an overly capable and reliable secretary who is grossly taken advantage of and sexually assaulted when she tries to get ahead in her career. As she goes in for yet another placement, we see she’s quit multiple jobs, making her look temperamental and unreliable.
She finds employment under Weaver, and there’s almost a relief in this. A woman working for another woman. A Senior executive, a female who managed to get ahead, surely she’ll help pave the wave for this fellow corporate climber.
Instead, we discover that Weaver is simply out for herself, and in the dog eat dog world of male corporate scrabbling, she’s simply joined the fray and sees Griffiths as easy meat. She takes advantage of her ideas and inspirations, and gives no credit to our poor working girl. Simultaneously, Griffiths catches her live-in boyfriend, played by a slimy Alec Baldwin, having sex with a mutual friend. “It isn’t what it looks like. It is, but I love you!”
With both spheres of her life falling to pieces, it’s up to Griffiths to take the reins, and with artful maneuvering and a little dirty pool come out on top for a change.
Along the way she meets up with Ford who manages to be insecure, noble, and genuine in an environment that encourages men to be anything but. If only this movie was a template for how men should act as well as women.
Ford makes it a point that Griffiths manages to dress like a woman “not like how a woman thinks a man would dress if he were a woman”, taking a dig at the shoulder pads and professional suits of the time. But it strikes too at the fine line women were required to walk of being perceived as both female and professional. How else to do it and be taken seriously but then to pretend you’re a man?
It’s not difficult to understand why Weaver chose to go the route she did. It was safer, easier. As she parries sexual advances from men over cocktails, she notes to Griffiths that “today’s junior prick is tomorrow’s executive”. Reminding us yet again of that fine line women must walk to be sexual object enough to be counted in for the next business talk.
But Tess doesn’t have the smooth corporate talk down. She’s honest, candid, smart, but straightforward. As such her aspirations and gumption are repeatedly talked down and disparaged. Her business degree earned at night school is worth nothing, and her soft voice and willingness to take direction is taken advantage of. If you can’t play the game…
In the private sphere as well, Griffiths can’t do anything right. For her birthday her boyfriend gives her lingerie prompting her to respond, “just once I wish you’d give me something I can wear outside the apartment”, supporting that once again, she’s perceived as less than, an object of sexual delight, not a person. Cheating on her means almost nothing. As seen by the women in her life who encourage her to go back to the man who cheated on her, though there’s no sign of change on his part.
Of course, by the end, things are looking up. She’s being taken seriously at work, and she’s being treated like a human in her relationships. But the next question is, as she advances, how will she treat the next generation? How will she treat men? Will she, with vengeful glee, wreak havoc on them as they did her? Will she grind more lowly women under her foot because she now has the power?
Sure, the hair is big, the outfits hysterical, the technology dated, the very feel of the picture a dirty 80s movie in the best way, but watching it this year felt eerily modern.
Women who still compete with women for those few select positions for women, women who parry thrusts from men in almost every aspect because to confront directly is to risk everything. Women who gradually become more and more bitter as the challenges erode their kindness, their generosity, their desire to play fair.
It’s a great romantic comedy of the time, sure, but today, it feels like just a bit more.