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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Forty Years Later, ‘9 to 5’ Still Speaks the Truth

It’s been four decades since the iconic Dolly Parton-Jane Fonda-Lily Tomlin film dropped, and it’s as relevant as ever.

Forty years ago, the sound of a typewriter—originally conceived of when Dolly Parton walked around clacking her acrylic fingernails against one another—introduced 9 to 5, the iconic song and film of the same name. Both encapsulated the hopes, desires, disappointments, and challenges working women wrestled with throughout the 1970s. Pouring themselves “a cup of ambition,” three iconic characters from different walks of life marched in their high heels to their office jobs, thinking they might “deserve a fair promotion” only to find out that they were “just a step on the boss man’s ladder.” Their ideas were being used, without credit, and they could find consolation only in the reality that they were “in the same boat with a lot of [their] friends.” When the film 9 to 5 premiered on December 19, 1980, it captured the grievances of working life and emancipatory possibilities of class consciousness in what would become an unlikely classic in the historic labor film archive.  

In 9 to 5 Jane Fonda’s character, Judy Bernly, arrives to work at an ominously tall office building. Judy is newly divorced, and new to the workforce. Because the social order in the capitalist society of the time is structured around men receiving salaries and benefits, this is the first time Judy is fending for herself.  Wearing oversized glasses, she gets stuck in a closing elevator when she realizes belatedly that she is about to miss her stop. Office supervisor Violet Newstead, played by Lily Tomlin, is rather unenthusiastic about helping Judy settle in, eying her naivete. Violet, after all, is a widow and mother of four, awaiting a long overdue promotion. She offers little reassurance to a flustered Judy: “Don’t worry, you’re gonna get the hang of it. Then you’ll really be sorry.”

Judy soon discovers some of the reasons Violet warned her about the working conditions at the nebulously named Consolidated Companies. Office policy dictates that personal items, plants, and photos on desks are forbidden. Alienation is central to the efficiency ship run by Vice President Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman). Hart, who achieved expedient career advancement despite being Newstead’s former trainee, is a typical chauvinist boss. He harasses his secretary, Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton), on a regular basis, and literally throws himself on her in one of the earliest scenes. Swiftly, in its introductory sequence, 9 to 5 makes clear that sexual harassment is a workplace issue, and that Hart’s bigoted actions are not a mere result of his individual patriarchal proclivities—they are an integral part of the exploitive foundation upon which Consolidated Companies rests. Contemporary viewers will find what comes next to be eerily relatable, as Fonda, Tomlin, and Parton struggle against the many-armed monster of corporate patriarchy. 

When rumors swirled that a sequel to 9 to 5 might be written in 2018, many thought a similarly star-studded production would be particularly well suited to the #MeToo era. After former Charmed star and liberal feminist darling, Alyssa Milano, was mistakenly credited with launching the #MeToo “movement” in late 2017—it was later recognized that Black activist and educator, Tarana Burke, had used the phrase in 2006—many praised celebrities for speaking out about sexual harassment (and often burnishing their personal brands in the process). While #MeToo has been helpful in elucidating the magnitude of predatory behavior, 9 to 5 captured something that the celebrity-centric movement has largely missed—working class women bear the brunt of workplace sexual harassment.

While raising awareness about sexual harassment at work is important, building power through organizing and unionizing is an vital source of social and structural change, as Alex Press has argued in Vox. Notable cases of workplace organizing did occur around #MeToo, like when hospitality workers in Chicago organized around sexual harassment in 2017, or when McDonald’s workers launched direct actions around the United States and filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) about workplace harassment in 2018. But the EEOC had already issued guidelines clarifying the unlawfulness of sexual harassment in 1980, the year 9 to 5 was released.  Workplace sexual harassment has obviously not become less of an issue since then, demonstrating that legislation alone is often insufficient to advance the interests of workers. To really make workplaces safe and equitable, we must see the oppressions of patriarchy and capitalism as inextricably connected. As the heroines did in 9 to 5, we should understand that the personal is often professional.

Although the roles portrayed by Parton, Tomlin, and Fonda reflect their unique megastar personalities, they simultaneously embody more universal archetypes of working women. And as the plot progresses, the friendship and solidarity that develops between the three women becomes increasingly familiar to anyone who’s leaned on the support of sympathetic colleagues to survive a terrible job. As with many workplace friendships, commiserating about lousy conditions provides the bedrock of the relationship. When their female coworker gets fired for speculating about employee salaries and a sense of helplessness pervades the office, the three protagonists cope by sharing laughs, stories, and fantasies of overthrowing their narcissistic boss at a “pot party” in Doralee’s home. 

Here, 9 to 5 spends several minutes indulging in each woman’s revenge fantasy. Judy dreams of Hart running for his life, as the entire office hunts him down with dogs and torches in tow. After confronting him with a rifle in hand and calling him a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” she fires at him as he runs throughout the office, and eventually shoots him while he hides in the restroom. Doralee envisions a Western-style scene in which she rides into a rural office on a white steed and spends a solid minute making lecherous comments about Hart’s physical appearance. When he refuses her more aggressive advances and runs, she lassos him, ties him up, and leaves him to roast over an open fire. Violet’s fantasy includes a Disneyesque fairytale sequence in the office where she, dressed as Cinderella with cartoon animals at her side, poisons Hart’s coffee because he’s (once again) a “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” Then she throws him out the window and liberates the other women office workers. 

Although these particular fantasies are clearly tongue in cheek, they also depict a critical step to building collective power. Imagining the overthrow of a boss not only inspires camaraderie among working women from different backgrounds, it allows them to break out of an archetypical submissive position and develop—through humor, exaggeration, and absurdity—a collective class consciousness. 

The film’s politics are somewhat haphazard from here. The next day after the “pot party,” it appears that Violet has subconsciously acted out her boss-poisoning fantasy when he is found unconscious in his office (in reality, Hart had knocked himself out by leaning too far back in his chair).  After a series of comical misunderstandings, the three friends kidnap their boss and hold him hostage. However, no “revolutionary justice” is meted out—they do feel horrified about what they have done, and treat him quite well given the circumstances. 

Meanwhile at work, the women take advantage of Hart’s absence to implement a slew of policies they had long dreamed about— including flexible hours, childcare, and equal pay. Morale and productivity skyrocket, and the women see Hart’s presence is less necessary than perhaps previously thought. Doralee wryly notes that Hart is utterly unmissed: “I never realized how unpopular Hart really is. Nobody wants to see him face-to-face.”  

Yet once again, 9 to 5 stops short of endorsing an outright leftist worldview. The film’s climax comes when Consolidated Companies’ big boss stops by for a surprise visit: Hart, having just made his escape, blackmails the women into appearing at his side with the intention of making them scapegoats for the chaos unleashed in the office. Instead, the big boss—a tall and imposing patriarch with a deep voice, neat beard, and crisp white suit—is impressed by the changes and decides to “reward” Hart by promoting him to a remote Brazilian post, thus clearing the way for the women to thrive. It’s an on-the-nose liberal deus ex machina, but a satisfying one—the film grossed over $103 million at the box office, making it the 20th highest grossing comedy of all time. 

Despite the film’s resonance with the public, highbrow pundits ignored its political value. Vincent Canby of the New York Times was largely dismissive upon 9 to 5’s release, stating that the film “begins as satire, slips uncertainly into farce… and concludes by waving the flag of feminism.” He asserted that the film was characteristic of “several other feminist comedies, depend[ent] on enthusiastic, unabashed sexism.” Roger Ebert was more positive, but focused his review on how the film belonged in “the tradition of 1940s screwball comedies… about improbable events happening to people who are comic caricatures of their types… [with] a dash of social commentary.” Ebert was not entirely wrong, but his playful review also did not acknowledge the real political seeds the film planted in the viewer’s mind. 

While 9 to 5 is comical and has absurdist tones, Ebert and Canby could not comprehend that the ideas and events depicted were, in fact, steeped deeply in historical and material reality. Perhaps this is because Ebert and Canby—as upper class white men in positions of authority— were situated in positions more similar to that of Hart’s rather than the female workers he harassed and exploited. In any case, 9 to 5 borrowed as much (or more) from reality as it did from imagination. 

Even the name of the film was more political than it might appear at first glance. It came from a women’s labor organization called 9to5, founded in 1973 by labor organizer Karen Nussbaum. As is eloquently elucidated in the podcast episode “Dolitics” in the series Dolly Parton’s America, Nussbaum had met Fonda when the actress was earning the moniker “Hanoi Jane” thanks to her anti-Vietnam War activism efforts in the Indochina Peace Campaign. As Nussbaum sought employment to support her activism as a clerical worker, she very clearly experienced how women’s rights were worker’s rights. She connected with working class women—waitresses, hospital workers, clerical workers, and others, joining with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) two years later to form Local 935 of the SEIU in Boston. 

The 9to5 organization focused on the effects of automation, pay inequalities, medical leave, and sexual harassment and discrimination. To address these aims they used independent research to produce original reports, as well as cultural and comedic forms to advance their causes. These included an annual “Bad Boss Contest” on the Phil Donahue Show, where activists shared stories about their horrendous working conditions and their boss’ near-incomprehensible infractions. In general, the concerns of 9to5 the organization aligned closely with the subject matter of 9 to 5 the film.

The working women of 9to5 didn’t just provide abstract inspiration for the film, they also supplied some of its most subversive ideas. When Fonda took an interest in producing a film about women at work after learning of these stories through Nussbaum, they arranged a meeting with some Hollywood bigwigs and 40 clerical workers. Here, women shared anecdotes about the discrimination they faced, and the brutal fantasies they had of “getting even” with their bosses. The revenge scenarios they shared went beyond the whimsy of those depicted in the “pot party” sequence in the film; many were too gruesome to make it to the silver screen. In an early version of the script, screenwriter Patricia Resnick attempted to include some of these but was overruled by co-writer and director Colin Higgins (along with Warner Brothers executives), turning Resnick’s vision of a dark comedy into one that was much lighter. 

It turned out the truth of women’s workplace experiences were more shocking than the fiction portrayed in 9 to 5. It was the sheer absurdity of workers’ lives that reviewers like Canby and Ebert did not fully grasp. The “farce,” “improbable events,” and “comic caricatures” were in fact not that unusual for women working in the United States at the time. The reviewers’ dismissal of 9 to 5’s veracity was in large part due to the fact that they did not live in the worlds of these characters; perhaps as media luminaries they could not imagine a scenario where your boss would buy you a scarf, make you try it on in front of him, and make lewd remarks about how good it looked on you. In other words, male reviewers of the time just didn’t have the lived experience to understand what the film was really about.

Leftists are sometimes skeptical about appeals to “lived experience” because it can be used as a cover by liberal feminism to pretend that representation alone in political and cultural spaces automatically means the interests of certain communities will be prioritized. We see this play out in the media when establishment politicians like Kamala Harris are celebrated because of their lived experience, while other  progressive politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are criticized because of theirs. However, lived experience does have irreplaceable value when it gives insight into aspects of daily life that too often go unexamined. And perhaps this is why 9 to 5 still feels so relevant today—because millions of ordinary workers see themselves, and their lives, represented in the characters played by Fonda, Tomlin, and Parton.

It’s important not to oversell things, of course. While 9 to 5 has more substantial politics than reviewers realized at the time, it’s far from a liberatory manifesto. The film does not address critical issues of race, save for an introductory scene when Violet introduces Judy to a Black man who works in the mail room and expresses frustration at his own lack of opportunities for advancement. Nor does it show much curiosity about other forms of oppression, such as those based on sexuality, ability, or nationality. The film was ahead of its time, but it had plenty of blind spots.

Still, 40 years after 9 to 5 was released, its analysis of U.S. workplace culture still holds up. There is still too much sexual harassment, and still too little worker power. While it’s a stretch to call 9 to 5 a “leftist” film, it does make a powerful case for left ideals and it understands feminism to be a project of solidarity-building that confronts male dominance and corporate profit at once. It recognizes that talking with your coworkers—even having the occasional “pot party”—can be just as radicalizing, if not more so, than reading Marx. For all its faults, 9 to 5 is a wildly entertaining film with a more inspiring vision of feminism than most on offer. It imagines a world where big-time stars use their platforms to advance the goals of working women, with the result being a better life for just about everyone*. 

*Except asshole bosses.

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