Viv Wilby considers three films from 1980 which reflect how women’s roles were beginning to change.
‘Sexist egotistical lying hypocritical bigot.’ That’s how the three heroines of 9 to 5 label Franklin J Hart (Dabney Coleman) their bastard of a boss. The taunt comes first in their fantasies and then finally, with sweet satisfaction, in reality as they see him brought low before the chairman of the board. It’s a phrase that, as a young girl growing up in the 1980s, I would try to learn and fire off in that rapid, rat-ta-tat-tat delivery. I didn’t even know what most of the words meant. It didn’t occur to me there might be something groundbreaking in this little run of invective, that a mainstream Hollywood comedy about women coming together to defeat an autocratic and bullying manager was reflective of wider societal changes.
I recently watched 9 to 5 again on Netflix one Sunday afternoon when I was bored. It’s a slick, well-tooled Hollywood comedy that still holds up today. I find the body-snatching farce in the middle act a little flabby and tedious these days, but that’s about all I can say to criticise it. But what really struck me – and I think one of the reasons why it still holds up – is how feminist it is. How very engaged it is with real feminist concerns, concerns that are still valid today.
It’s interesting that the rank-and-file workforce of Consolidated Inc. is presented as entirely female, with men in managerial roles. A big contrast with say, The Apartment, 20 years earlier, another comedy of corporate life, but one in which the office workforce is presented as overwhelmingly male. It’s also interesting that the theme song, which has become the anthem of the corporate drudge, is a woman’s song and has not (to the best of my knowledge, point me to the Michael Buble cover if you will) been claimed by men. So by 1980, the workplace was as much a female space as a male one. Progress? Perhaps, or maybe it just opened up a new front in the battle for equality.
It is Hart’s misogyny that stops capable supervisor Violet (Lily Tomlin) from progressing in her career. He subjects his secretary Doralee (Dolly Parton) to a campaign of petty sexual harassment and (even worse?) isolates her from her co-workers by encouraging rumours of an affair. He bullies and belittles naive newbie Judy (Jane Fonda).
But once the women come together to overthrow Hart and usurp his power, they are invincible. Creative, organised, fearless, their plan to oust him from the company hierarchy is a triumph of teamwork. What’s really striking though, is the way they use their newfound power to improve the lot of their fellow (exclusively female) co-workers. At first in small ways – pot plants and family photos are permitted on desks, but then in comes flexible working, on-site childcare facilities and equal pay. The effect on a previously depressed and downtrodden workforce is liberating and rejuvenating and, importantly for this business-based comedy, it makes them more efficient and productive. Sisters doing it for themselves, and the shareholders.
Perhaps it was just Hollywood catching up with women’s lib a bit late, but what I like about 9 to 5, what I think it admirable, is that it doesn’t just use ‘women’s lib’ as a hook to hang a boilerplate comedy on, in the way some recent Hollywood comedies have used the financial crisis. There’s real engagement with real-world problems (in terms of the workplace reforms mentioned above) and the film eschews, for example, romance. It would have been easy to put in a love interest for divorced Judy or widowed Violet but the film doesn’t. Indeed, a key moment for the character of Judy is when she throws out her unfaithful husband when he comes crawling back to her. And 9 to 5 retains its bite and its engagement with the real world in a bitter note that comes right at the end. Surveying the women’s changes at the end of the movie, the chairman of the board declares himself more than satisfied, except for one thing. That equal pay will have to go he mutters under his breath.
How to Beat the High Cost of Living is another film of 1980 about three women coming together to execute a plan that will change their lives. It also features Dabney Coleman, although this time as a nice-guy cop. It’s more of a B-list proposition than 9 to 5 and in no way as successful. It’s rightfully the most obscure of the three films discussed here.
Susan Saint James, Jane Curtin and a pre-mega stardom Jessica Lange are our heroines but this is a film (as the title suggests) much more about economics than sexual politics, or rather the interplay between them. The three women are suburban housewives in a small Oregon town, although Lange’s character runs an antiques business, so you could say she works. But the business is failing and heavily subsidised by her husband, which has caused him tax problems and he decides to sue her. Saint James is divorced, raising two kids and struggling to find the money to marry her new partner. Curtin gets home one day and finds her rich architect husband has left her for a younger woman and she hasn’t got money to pay the bills. So the three get together to plan a robbery; they intend to knock off a giant moneyball that has been erected in the local shopping mall as a PR stunt.
But the film isn’t really about the heist; we’re almost 40 minutes into the film before they even hit upon the plan. It’s about women’s lives at that particular point in time, in the dying days of the Carter administration. What’s notable about the film is how drenched it is with references to the hyper-inflation of the late 1970s, the Iranian oil crisis, the incipient rise of Ronald Reagan. The women’s lib movement also gets referenced, and gets fairly short shrift, just something else to excuse and legitimise women’s innate peevishness and shrewishness. I bought the ‘a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ t-shirt, says Curtin’s character, and all it did was drive my husband away. Women’s lib has been no friend to women, the film suggests. All they need is a good man, and indeed by the end two of the women are settled with new partners and Lange is reconciled with her husband who has magically made those nasty tax problems go away.
How to Beat, is not very nice about women. Where the heroines of 9 to 5 are witty, smart and compassionate, the heroines of How to Beat are bitchy, vain and easily distracted. The heist almost comes unstuck at several points because of their bickering, their fear of rats (for god’s sake!), their unwillingness to get their Calvin Klein jeans wet. Much of the film is played like a broad sex comedy: Lange’s husband (played by Richard Benjamin) is a randy vet who can’t keep his hands off her; there are some ill-advised opening credits, in which crude cartoon versions of the three women repeatedly have their clothes sucked off them to leave them running around in bras and pants; Curtin’s character creates a diversion during the execution of the heist by performing an impromptu striptease. So yeah, not exactly a feminist film, but an interesting one in the way it reacts to feminism, the way it explores the overlap between sexual and economic power and the way anticipates the every-man-for-himself ethos of the 1980s.
Private Benjamin is another 1980 release, and like 9 to 5, a big comedy hit, earning its star Goldie Hawn an Oscar nomination. And again it’s about women’s experience, women’s choices, women’s agency. Unlike the 9 to 5 and How to Beat, though, it’s focused more on the experience of an individual – spoiled rich girl and aspiring housewife Judy Benjamin – than women as a group.
Widowed on her wedding night when her workaholic husband expires immediately after sex, distraught Judy joins the army. While much of the comedy comes from her struggle to adjust to the privations of army life, Judy gradually comes to realise that it offers her a freedom and independence she’s always been without. Her story is complete when she rejects marriage to a handsome, but controlling and philandering French doctor (Armand Assante) for whom she has given up her promising army career, and casts her wedding veil off her head into the sky where it is borne away by the wind and she strides away into an uncertain future.
But Judy Benjamin’s story is a classic American tale of an individual’s self-discovery and self-actualisation. Perhaps this reflects the film’s very obvious construction as a star vehicle to showcase Hawn’s ditsy charm rather than an ensemble comedy. There’s some playful flirting with some of the feminist topics of the day, most notably the elusiveness of the female orgasm. But, unlike 9 to 5, the primary antagonists of Private Benjamin are not men but other women: Eileen Brennan’s disapproving Captain Doreen Lewis and PJ Soles’ two-faced recruit.
The film’s most serious moment comes when Judy is sexually assaulted, 35,000 feet in the air, by Colonel Thornbush, head of the elite parachute regiment she is assigned to as she prepares to make her first jump. But the incident is quickly played for laughs; it’s the spur she needs to jump out of the plane. And while she later squares up to Thornbush and tackles him directly about the incident, she doesn’t expose him so that he can’t do it to other women, but rather uses as leverage to get herself a cushy posting to Europe. Private Benjamin is full of these odd tonal shifts. Scenes often come over more like skits, conflicts are cartoonish (putting blue dye in Capt Lewis’s shower is not very sisterly) and consistent characterisation is junked if it gets in the way of a laugh. Nothing Judy does is for other women. The army, it seems, already offers good and fulfilling careers to women. You just need to play the game in the right way.
When I set out to do my little bit of research for this blog, I had expected to find other films of the time celebrating women’s power and friendship but I didn’t really find them, at least not in the way I expected to. Maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong place, do tell me if so. The issue of the moment seemed less feminism – what women can do for each other – and more individualism – what a woman can do for herself. Fast forward to the end of the 1980s and Working Girl (which I like a lot) to see the ultimate expression of female empowerment expressed as individual advance and enrichment. So it seems that 9 to 5, a tale of women coming together to defeat a common enemy, whilst improving the lives of other women into the bargain, really is a one off. All the more reason to treasure it.