9 to 5: We're So Pretty. . . Pretty Vacant!

Nine To Five directed by Colin Higgins, story by Colin Higgins, Patricia Resnick, starring Lily Tomlin, Jane Funda, Dolly Parton

Reviewed by Caitlin Manning

Submitted by ludd on January 20, 2010

When I went to see the movie the day it opened in San Francisco, I got the impression that, like me, many people in the audience were office workers, curious to see how the film portrayed a world that was very familiar to them, We'd been hearing about the movie for weeks, thanks partly to Jane Fonda's propaganda on its "feminist" themes, and its relevance to working women.

The action is instigated by the humiliations and frustrations suffered by women at the hands of their male boss. Three secretaries work in the same office of a large corporation: Dolly Parton, as a wholesome, down-home sex-bomb with a wholesome, down-home husband; Lily Tomlin, as a wised-up, hard-working widow with a family to support and repeatedly frustrated executive ambitions; and Jane Fonda, as a marmish, naive middle-aged divorèe newly thrown into the working world when her husband jilted her for his swinging secretary.

In several all-too-typical sequences we see how these women are wronged by their boss, a caricature of back-stabbing, slave-driving, male chauvinist idiocy. He constantly insults and offends his underlings and forces them to do demeaning favors for him. Worse still, he fires one unjustly and covers for his own incompetence by taking credit for the ideas of the Tomlin character, who, by contrast, is super efficient and bright.

From the very beginning, though, poignant depictions of the miseries of office work are lightened up with absurd exaggerations and knee-slapping humor. The emotional impact of seeing one's own experience more or less accurately portrayed as a common plight is dissolved in hilarious fantasy. Not that zany farce and serious social comment can't mix. A play like Dario Fo's We Ca, It Pay, We Won't Pay, performed by the S.F. Mime Troupe last year, is one example. But socially conscious comedy has to be careful of what it makes audiences laugh at, and Nine To Five isn't.

For instance, it doesn't take a feminist to see that Dolly Parton's casting is a classic case of spectacular sexploitation. It was clearly not Parton's acting that got her this role. Although her charismatic personality goes well with the wry, gutsy lines in her part, she delivers all her lines in the same flat tone. Ostensibly, the movie attacks the on-the-job sexist abuses that have been important targets for the women's movement. But the fascinations of Parton's figure were clearly not lost on the director. The way she is filmed, always in astonishingly high spiked heels and skin-tight tops revealing several inches of cleavage, is calculated to direct the viewer's attention to her voluminous chest.

In fact, the film's critique of sexual oppression is as shallow as Parton's cleavage is deep. The drooling sex-maniacal boss is masculine evil incarnate, and Parton, despite her provocative dress, is merely his upstanding, innocent victim. I don't mean to imply that women aren't sexually victimized, at work and elsewhere. But the reality of relations between the sexes is a lot more subtle. Sure, it's sad and frustrating that women can't dress in an even mildly "sexy" way, or show warmth and openness, without provoking unwanted aggressive come-ons or verbal harassment. On the other hand, women are often complicit in their own oppression by creating and using "sex object" images of themselves. But this film doesn't help us understand either problem.

The "fantasy" sequence*--as if the whole film wasn't fantasy to begin with--are likewise two-dimensional. The three women get stoned and one by one describe how they'd like to avenge themselves on their boss. A potentially great device, both for showing the deep contradictions in worker's feelings about their collective plight, and for introducing possible resolutions to it, is wasted on silly wish-fulfillment.

Tomlin's fantasy, complete with Disney-cartoon animals and Tinkerbelle glitter, at least has the grace to admit it's a fairy tale. But Parton's fantasy is a simple role reversal. She imagines having the same power over her boss that he holds over her in reality--the power to treat him like a slave and humiliate him sexually. As though we would be any freer if women were just as sadistic and sex obsessed as men like him! Fonda's, where she appears as a cool slick "white huntress" whose bullets send video display terminals flying satisfyingly apart in showers of glass, isn't much better. For one thing, her acting is dreadful. Throughout the movie, she just can't help playing herself, which is not what the script calls for.

According to the hype, Fonda was a big mover behind this production. She has the reputation, especially since teaming up with Tom Hayden, of being the most "political" of Hollywood actresses. That she could have insisted on the political value of this film is another example of the depth of her political thinking. It isn't only that Fonda talked it up as feminist when it's so obviously sexploitative. The whole plot trivializes the situation of office workers, especially the resolution. The women kidnap their boss and chain him in the bedroom of his mansion, while they transform the office to their liking. They bring in flowers, redecorate in bright colors, introduce flex-time, a day-care center, and an AA program for employees. These changes make everyone happy and result in a 20 % increase in productivity, to the great pleasure of 'he Chairman of the Board. The movie ends triumphantly for the secretaries when the boss, ready to turn them in to the police, is forced to acknowledge and support the improvements and the indispensability of his secretaries in front of the Chairman of the Board, As a reward, the boss is dispatched to Brazil on a special corporate assignment. Justice prevails and everyone lives happily ever after.

Once again, the problem is not so much that this is fantasy, but how the fantasy meshes with the more "realistic" themes in the movie. The way the secretaries go about getting what they want is so preposterous that top management's eventual benign acceptance of their reforms (except for wage equality) doesn't seem preposterous enough. More important, though, the film ignores the ways in which clerical workers are fighting to improve their condition in the real world. Instead, it focuses on the hilariously improbable adventures of three individuals. In this way it obscures the real nature of the conflict hinted at in the early scenes--the conflict between managers and workers in general, between classes.

The barriers which prevent workers from joining to fight for their desires, the forces which divide them and instill a sense of powerlessness and resignation are complex and operate at many levels at the workplace. They involve the structure and nature of work itself: wage policies, job hierarchies, division of labor, favoritism, traditional paternalistic ideologies, misplaced loyalties and fear. The problems of office workers are not dispelled simply by replacing an evil, incompetent boss with a benevolent and efficient one, even if it is a woman. And contrary to the postscripts which sketch the futures of the three heroines, most clerical workers are chained to their form of employment with little chance of escape. Even the fulfilled aspirations of the triumphant secretaries are basically accommodations to the existing set-up: Tomlin gets her promotion, Fonda gets married again and presumably quits the workforce, Parton becomes--guess what?--a country western star.

Despite its title, Nine To Five never questions the fact that most of us have to spend forty-plus hours a week doing jobs which are of no value to us except as a means of survival. It criticizes bad bosses but not bossdom, bad working conditions but not the condition of wage-work itself. In this sense, maybe the Chairman of the Board's acceptance of the reforms engineered by the heroines isn't so preposterous after all. Daycare centers, flex-time, job-sharing and pretty offices may cost a little more, but if they cut absenteeism and stimulate huge increases in productivity, management will come around all right.

Finally, what is particularly offensive about this film is that it uses real problems -- my problems-for purely escapist purposes. By presenting conditions which are a daily source of anxiety and despair to millions (and not only women), the film hooks its audience, but only to get a laugh. It exploits rebellious feelings of an increasingly important group of workers in a period of rapid change and emerging self-consciousness.

We can watch Nine To Five and go home chuckling to ourselves thinking about how these secretaries, whose concerns we can identify with, finally get their own. But we know very well, even though the movie does its best to help us forget it, that tomorrow or the next day we're going to have to go to work just like any other day, and the all's-well-that-ends-well message has little to do with what we will have to face when we get there.