Welcome to our new series: Reel Women! Every month, we’ll offer a few films—classic, indie, campy, award-winning, forgotten, beloved, bad—that feature powerful, resolute, angry, conflicted, hilarious, shallow, deep women. This series stretches beyond the Strong Female Protagonist trope—our leads can’t kick ass in heels without smudging their lipstick. They don’t throw off pithy one-liners after they’ve pulverized the foolish men that Underestimated Them, and their strength doesn’t serve as justification for their presence in a male-driven movie. They’ve got bad hair and mean families and do stupid things in pursuit of guys that aren’t good for them. We’re here to celebrate the results—sometimes brilliant, sometimes cringe-worthy—when women are given the opportunity to carry a movie.
These films are best experienced with other women. So assemble your coven, and queue it up!
First up to bat: Working Girl.
In many ways, Working Girl is the wicked step-daughter of 9 to 5. Produced only 8 years later, it seems already to be looking back with contempt at intra-office sisterhood. In less than a decade, the secretary’s fantasy transforms from righteous punishment of a boneheaded misogynist male boss to the strategic usurpation of the job and boyfriend of a Mean Girl female boss. In some ways, this represents a kind of progress—women can be bosses now as well as secretaries. At the close of the 70s, even after so much feminist agitation for workplace reform—over the course of a few decades, The Equal Pay Act and Fair Labor Standards Act (1963), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964), Title IX (1972), and the Pregnancy Descrimination Act (1978) among others were instituted to address gender inequity—women were still relegated more or less to the role of secretary and subject to all sorts of violence and discrimination in the workplace. But by the end of the 80s the Working Girl, with her sneakers and shoulder pads, had become a powerful trope that suggested both women’s increasing professional power as well as the fear that their desire to “have it all” might undermine their femininity. As Harrison Ford’s character Jack says to Melanie Griffith’s Tess during their first encounter, “You’re the first woman I’ve seen at one of these things that dresses like a woman, not like a woman thinks a man would dress if he was a woman.”
But in other ways, the rise of the Working Girl at the expense of the secretarial sisterhood signals a shift away from professional equality toward an ethos of individualist success that has no room for something like community. Where three women in 9 to 5 not only teach a much-needed lesson to an incompetent man but also successfully run a corporate department as a team, Working Girl represents the heights an ambitious woman may reach when she’s willing to leave other women behind.
There are moments in Working Girl of non-competitive female connection, but they are few and far between. Tess’ best friend Cynthia, played by the sparkling and wacky (and so much better than her brother, I don’t care what any of you say!) Joan Cusack, sticks by her side and throws down tough truth bombs when Tess’ ambitions seem to outpace reality. “Sometimes I sing and dance around in the house in my underwear,” she tells Tess, “Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.” But, for the most part, Cynthia is there to remind us with her Midwestern solidity and real talk that a girl with green eyeshadow and feathered hair will never make it in the world of double-breasted power suits.
The lesson of Working Girl is that sisterhood is best left to the secretaries.
The film actually rehearses the language of female solidarity only to reveal it as stale and empty. The central female relationship between Tess and her manipulative boss Katherine, played by Sigourney Weaver, is one predicated on deep animosity and competition veiled—at least at first—by the rhetoric of sisterhood.
During their first meeting, Katharine lays out some “ground rules” which include a dress code authorized by Coco Chanel—“Dress shabbily,” Katharine declares while eyeing up Tess’ jewelry, “they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, they notice the woman. Coco Chanel.”—And an emphasis on teamwork. “I consider us a team. Tess. I want your input. I welcome good ideas and I like to see hard work rewarded….It’s a two-way street on my team.” But female teams in Working Girl don’t seem to work. Katharine steals Tess’ ideas and Tess steals Katharine’s clothes, house, job and boyfriend. It is the All About Eve of the yuppie generation, and like many things that don’t surprise me about the yuppie generation, this version celebrates Eve Harrington dethroning Margot Channing.
Rather than sisterhood, we’re offered male partners and mentors whom Tess can trust and run to when the women in her life get too catty. The business plot includes a fatherly corporate type who can see through Katharine’s machinations and finally gives Tess the credit (and the job) she deserves. This is a far cry from 9 to 5 in which both the bosses and the husbands are witless at best, and downright malevolent at worst. In Working Girl, there is only room for one woman in the corner office, and you can either be her or be her secretary.
Harrison Ford as the moderately charming but pretty forgettable love-interest/trophy is the least interesting part of this movie. He exists, on one hand, as the reward for Tess’ plucky go-get-‘em attitude, and on the other, as the heaterosexual object of desire that secures her femininity in the midst of her ambitious ladder-climbing. He might be the least suave rich investment executive in Manhattan in the late 80s. He mixes Scotch with Tequila, he has the smallest bed any bachelor living in a historic walkup has ever owned, and his closed-mouth kisses look deeply uncomfortable. His character is, in other words, the embodiment of what a pubescent boy thinks game looks like.
Sigourney Weaver’s Katharine is, for me, the best thing about Working Girl. She is the Mean Girl par excellence, and in the version of this movie in my head, she is Christian Grey to Tess’ Anastasia Steele. She wears full-length mink coats, uses fainting as a business tactic, and proves just how milquetoast Harrison Ford is standing next to her.
Her scenes with Melanie Griffith sizzle because the chemistry born of female aggression, in the world of Working Girl, is so much more potent than the desire born of heterosexual love. This movie conjures up the very thing it attempts to discipline: a world in which female relationships—competitive, destructive, erotic—are more vital and compelling than the men offered to replace them.