What a way to make a living… Revisiting the classic film 9 to 5 in 2018. So much has changed. But too much remains the same. We’re only just beginning!
“You’re a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” These words ring out strong from 1980’s perfect comedy film 9 to 5. They could surely find just as many targets in 2018. To my shame, I’d only seen 9 to 5 the once before last weekend, when I caught its current run at London’s BFI.* This meant I could view it again with almost fresh eyes.
I can’t recommend this film sufficiently highly. 9 to 5 is funny. Its story is remarkable for a 1980 mainstream comedy. Three put-upon women reject the order of their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss, taking over their workplace and reorganising it into a more compassionate, flexible and inclusive model – one that also happens to bring an immense productivity boost.
The three central performances from (alphabetically) Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin are perfectly judged. These women embody the film’s big heart. That heart burns with a pure outrage at the way things are, and with a determination to make everything better. But to do so with decency. This core decency is most explicit in Tomlin’s remorse when she mistakenly thinks that her stoned fantasies of poisoning their boss have become reality (as awful as he is, no one deserves that).
9 to 5 is perfectly paced. It accelerates from the slightly exaggerated reality of its opening scenes** into outright craziness, farce and fantasy. But the film remains grounded in the bitter reality of 1980’s workplace, tempered by the belief that what is wrong can be changed.
That 1980 reality is in your face from the start. Big hair. Cigars alight in the office. Blatant product placement for bleeding-edge photocopier tech supplied by Xerox.***
So much has changed since then. But too much remains (pretty much) the same. The ending of 9 to 5 is bittersweet. The film gives the women much of what they seek to achieve. But the (male) Chairman of the Board then decides on a whim not to grant them equal pay. Unperturbed, Fonda, Parton and Tomlin end the film with a toast, celebrating what has been achieved so far and confident that so much more is possible. Their toast?
“We’re only just beginning!”
The thrashing of a wounded beast
Why did inequality ever exist? Why does inequality exist now?
It is obscene that a film like 9 to 5 needed to be made as late in the day as 1980. We should have been doing so much better by then.
It is obscene that so much of 9 to 5 remains timely. We should be doing so much better by now. There has been so much progress. But not nearly enough.
Speaking about 9 to 5 this month,**** Jane Fonda argues that those currently at the top of the US political tree would like nothing more than to roll back what progress we have made:
“We’re in a real crisis. The beast that is patriarchy is wounded and there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded beast. Trump, Fox News and the Kavanaugh hearings all represent the thrashing of a wounded beast.”
Fonda is currently working on a 9 to 5 sequel, which will see her, Parton and Tomlin return as heads of a successful business who help younger women struggling through this #MeToo era.
You can’t reach good ends through evil means
A 9 to 5 sequel could not be more timely. The commitment to decency that drives 9 to 5’s central trio is something sadly lacking from today’s world.
‘Twas ever thus. Just this week, I happened across a New Yorker article on the chilling relevance to today of Martin Luther King’s Christmas Eve sermon in 1967. King said:
“If we don’t have good will toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves. There have always been those who argued that the end justifies the means, that the means really aren’t important. But we will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognise that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.”
A commitment to decency, a belief that the means represent the end in process, goes against the brutality of so much of modern political discourse. Writing on politics.co.uk this week, Bex Coates of UCL argues that “the zeitgeist is angry, aggressive, brash, brutal. Trump reflects all of these traits.”
Coates believes that the best response to this brutal, aggressive zeitgeist is its opposite. Decency. Good manners. Generosity. She says:
“Engage in good faith. Don’t allow yourself to be baited. Reject the establishment vitriol. Ad-hom is so mainstream it’s boring. Decide to engage with the idea, rather than the personality. Less ‘fuck you’ and more ‘fuck that’. Decide to be considerate, respectful, principled, kind and generous. Be everything the establishment isn’t. Polite is the new punk. Fuck the system. Be nice.”
Now these are words I can get behind.
We’re only just beginning
* 9 to 5 is on at the BFI until Thursday 29 November 2018
** Watching 9 to 5 last week, I was struck by a number of apparent visual and storytelling parallels with Mad Men. Was this conscious or coincidence? The elevator scenes and general office layout (especially the tiny coffee area) of 9 to 5’s Consolidated Companies brought to mind the offices of Mad Men‘s Stirling Cooper. 9 to 5’s Chairman of the Board seems at least sartorially similar to Mad Men’s Coop. And 9 to 5 begins by following “new girl” Fonda as she arrives for her first day in the office, just as Mad Men’s first episode follows Peggy Olson on her first day at Stirling Cooper.
*** Besides product placement, 9 to 5 gave rise to at least one rather strange merchandising tie-in. Hearing the theme song ring out at the BFI last week, I was reminded of an early 1980s children’s TV advert for a toy electric typewriter. This being the age of YouTube, I was able to find that very ad when I got home. The toy typewriter in question was the Byron Petite 990. The advert in question is more than a little odd. Empowering young girls to seize control of the means of production or cashing in on the film and song and completely going against the film’s core feminist principles? Gentle reader: You decide.
**** My thanks to my friend Charlie Eastabrook for finding and sharing the Jane Fonda interview link.
- There are significantly worse ways to spend your time than watching 9 to 5, or diving into the epic wonder of Mad Men.
- I do not own the copyright for any of the images from 9 to 5, and will remove them from this post immediately if required.
- Martin Luther King image via Wikimedia Commons.