1980s

Having It All: The Career Woman Takes Over

Career Woman Movie Essay - Big Business

The “Volcker Shock” introduced by Chair of the Federal Reserve Paul Volcker in August 1979 was a direct attack on inflation by targeting the quantity of money in circulation. The effect was to trigger the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression — unemployment peaked at 10.8%, interest rates were pushed up to 20% by 1981 and the median family income fell by 10%. But the impact was not just economic. The pressure placed on the traditional family unit hastened a reconstitution which presented new opportunities for many who had been locked out of the old economy. Women began to enter the labor force in greater numbers — rising from 30 million in 1970 to 56 million by the end of the 80s, while the percentage of female managers rose from 16% in 1970 to almost 40% by the end of the 80s. By the middle of the 80s, Volcker’s economic shock therapy had begun to work, but its social impact was irreversible. In an unforeseen twist, the demands that the women’s movement had made through the 60s and 70s had been helped along by monetary policy. 

9 to 5 (1980) explores the new parameters of workplace politics on a comic scale, but it has its own insights into the ways corporate America was forced to diversify, and the birth pangs of the nascent career woman. Its three female protagonists constitute a continuum of liberation: Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda) is a recent divorcee who is entering the workforce for the first time as an admin assistant at Consolidated, and retains a deference for authority. Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin) is a widow with four children whose work at Consolidated is not being appreciated; she is defiant, but weighed down by her obligations. Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton) is a married secretary who is clinging to her career foothold at Consolidated, aware of how quickly she could be plunged back into the ranks of the economic underclass — like the anonymous cleaners who haunt the edges of the frame. All three women align upon a shared insubordination in the face of their “sexist egotistical lying hypocritical bigot” boss, Frank Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman), who preaches a form of “teamwork” which redounds to his own glory.

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What is perhaps most interesting about 9 to 5 is that it is presented as a gender revenge story, when it is in fact a class solidarity story. It is only when the women unite upon their shared grievances that things begin to change; they form an alliance of precarious workers who try to force their way out of the ‘”pink collar ghetto,” as Violet describes it. The women learn to discern the realities of power, and to confront it on its own terms. But fissures in this compact are already visible. The moment a stratum of professional women got their feet under the tables of corporate boardrooms, they were integrated into an elite which could countenance broader representation in the interest of protecting its class interests. This is typified by the career woman Roz (Elizabeth Wilson), an ambitious admin assistant who has been inculcated with the logic of the existing hierarchy, and strains to secure her own slot within it. Roz advises Violet of the need to “clamp down on any signs of unionization,” and seeks to insinuate herself into Hart’s good graces by feeding him intel on her fellow employees, resulting in one of them being fired for speculating with one of her workmates about the vice president’s salary in relation to hers.

The female protagonists wage a war to feminize the workplace; to divest it of the predatory spirit with which Hart and his ilk have imbued it, to tilt flexibility towards the needs of the worker rather than the imperatives of management. Initially, the office is a space which demands the career woman entering it to forswear her femininity, to integrate her body into the mechanism — Judy’s slapstick misadventures with the Xerox machine enact this belittling of the individual. 9 to 5 speaks to an ambivalence surrounding the promise of “having it all” — there is an exhilaration at the new possibilities arising out of the disintegration of traditional gender roles, but equally a weariness at having to be all things to all people, to maintain roles as homemakers while also being “manpower.” Capital’s endless adaptability is underscored by the resolution. The great irony of 9 to 5 is that when Hart is held captive and the women take over the office, the changes they institute are welcomed by the chairman of the board (Sterling Hayden), who heralds the resultant rise in productivity. Capital will accept any adjustment which aids the bottom line; it sets out to keep people working by making the company inseparable from their lives. There remain lines that cannot be crossed; equal pay is still off the agenda in this career woman film, but Violet reminds her co-workers that “This is just the beginning.”

In Baby Boom (1987), J.C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton) is a high-flying management consultant at a top Manhattan firm. Nicknamed the “tiger lady,” she is the epitome of the “tough, cold career woman.” When the prospect of becoming a partner in the firm emerges, Wiatt is adamant that “I don’t want it all.” She and her investment banker boyfriend, Steven Buchner (Harold Ramis), are content to place their careers at the center of their lives: they work 80-hour weeks, and even slot sex into their schedules with maximal efficiency. Wiatt is a new kind of career woman, bursting out of “the pink ghetto” and into the executive suite, part of “three generations of women” who “have turned a thousand years of tradition on its ear.” But when her English cousin dies in an accident, Wiatt discovers that she has been left something in the will — his orphaned toddler, Elizabeth (Kristina Kennedy). The two Ivy League Summa Cum Laude graduates must come to grips with this sudden intervention into their ordered life. The child torpedoes Wiatt’s bid to become a partner. She is leapfrogged by her ambitious underling, Ken (James Spader), warned by her boss, Fritz (Sam Wannamaker), that “You can’t have it all” and told that she has “gone soft,” betraying signs of becoming an “irrational woman.”

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Buchner cannot take the heat, and leaves Wiatt on her own when she refuses to give the child up for adoption. Wiatt is haunted by visions of Elizabeth “in frosted lipstick wearing a Dairy Queen uniform” when she sees the prospective adoptees. Wiatt becomes the dreaded single mother, the bête noire of the conservative right, epitomized by Ronald Reagan’s invocation of the “welfare queen” used to justify cuts to government assistance programs. But Wiatt is an upwardly mobile variant on the stereotype; she is protected from society’s more intense censure by her status and means; this career woman has the resources to leave the rat race, buy a farmhouse in Vermont and begin her own business selling gourmet baby food. Wiatt becomes an avatar for the kind of lifestyle entrepreneurism which proliferated as people were encouraged to conceive of themselves as Homo Economicus, heeding the neoliberal injunction to financialize every sector of our life, to refashion ourselves into a brand. Baby Boom peddles the fundamental myth that with enough grind and hustle, you can recast yourself as the CEO of Me Inc.

Wiatt occupies a goldilocks zone of opportunity and circumstance; the career woman takes a circuitous route to having it all, playing out a redrafted fairy tale of empowerment in which she embraces the demands of motherhood, achieves success on her own terms and finds her prince in local vet Jeff Cooper (Sam Shepard). The outcome of Baby Boom is presented as a secret ideal for every woman who is being forced to choose between being a partner and a mother — the women who have taken Wiatt’s place at the table listen enviously as she turns down the offer to buy out her company, and explains the life she has created. But Wiatt has the kind of financial latitude that the women in 9 to 5 can only dream of; she is afforded the material freedom to turn her back on corporate life when it stands in the way of self-realization, shaking off the stigma of her new social status and forging a new career woman position in the marketplace. Elizabeth’s image is used on the packaging of “Country Baby” baby food; the child is integrated into Wiatt’s conception of dynamic motherhood, merging the strands of her life into a single revenue stream.

By the time of Big Business (1988), the ruthless career woman had become fixed in the public mind via the shoulder-padded machinations of TV shows like Dynasty, and Jim Abrahams’ comedy took advantage of that recognition. The chairwomen played by Bette Midler in Big Business is the next evolution of the striving character played by Lily Tomlin in 9 to 5, who is the dizzy twin to Midler’s boardroom tyrant in Big Business. Its play on The Comedy of Errors underscores the degree to which opportunity is still largely determined by accident of birth. Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) understands this all too well in Working Girl (1988); the career woman has attained a bachelor’s degree in business by taking evening classes, but works as a secretary for a Manhattan stockbroker, and is dismissed as a bimbo. The avenues open to J.C. Wiatt in Baby Boom are closed off to Tess, and it requires the kind of ingenuity employed by the female workers in 9 to 5 for her to infiltrate the executive suite. Tess believes she has found a kindred spirit in Katharine Parker (Sigourney Weaver), an associate in mergers and acquisitions who offers a glimpse into this previously forbidden world. When Parker breaks her leg while skiing, Tess has the opportunity to step into Katherine’s shoes, and prove her worth.

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Working Girl is another instance of class shading gender. Parker is the spirit of a predatory capital which is able to wrap itself in the language of freedom; she presents exploitation with a patina of implied sisterhood. Tess falls for the idea of Parker’s career woman mentorship; the absence of the “chasing-around-the-desk crap” convinces her of a parity that doesn’t exist. Tess fools herself into believing that Parker is an ally, but the class chasm cannot be bridged; the “two-way street” Parker promises Tess turns out to be more of a gated community. Both women are entering their thirties, but the blueblood Parker is the image of culture and connections, while Tess has been trampled to the bottom by Harvard grads on a career trajectory. Parker repeats the mantra of making it happen under your own steam and getting what you deserve out of life, but her upbringing affords her a clear view of her aspirations. As with Frank Hart in 9 to 5, Parker speaks of teamwork, but always with the understanding that she is the quarterback, leading the team towards a glory whose reflection will fall most flatteringly upon her. Working Girl begins as a Reaganite take on Pygmalion, with Parker schooling Tess on the etiquette of getting ahead, with the aim of turning Tess into the perfect instrument of her will.

The parvenu is invested with the confidence to pretend, and Tess sets off on a highwire act of imposture, transgressing invisible boundaries which bring her into contact with Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), a mergers and acquisitions associate whose relationship to Tess is predicated on a more traditional power dynamic, that of sexual attraction. As Tess and Trainer pursue the merger plan originated by Tess, business becomes indistinguishable from desire; the deal becomes an erotic dance; one merger begets another. Yet for all the Horatio Alger rhetoric of “hunger” and “gumption,” it takes a prince to rescue Tess. When the career woman is revealed to have been posing as an associate during Katherine’s convalescence, it is Trainer’s feelings for Tess which thrust her back into the fold. Parker’s allegiance is revealed to be a sham; she tells Tess: “This is business.” Nothing trumps the pursuit of profit; there are no sisters in this cutthroat world. Working Girl ends on a paradoxical note: it promulgates the idea that career women are bound only by their own limitations — thus transferring failure onto the individual — while resolving the story with a benevolent patron performing a hostile takeover to secure the possession of Tess’s gifts. Griffith’s career woman protagonist gets her voice heard, but she is boosting established signals, amplifying the forces consolidating the economy, yet willing to show a different face in so doing.

As recession began to hit the job market in the early 90, it was inevitable that there would be a backlash, that male resentment would boil over into persecution fantasies. The male characters in Disclosure (1994) stare down the barrel of obsolescence, and lament that their female counterparts are “the next step in human evolution.” Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas) feels mired in domesticity, having to assert to his daughter that “I am the father.” His job at a computer tech firm remains his domain; he is about to be promoted to vice president, and has become “really rich” from an upcoming merger. But Sanders is “passed over” in favor of Meredith Johnson (Demi Moore), an old flame of Sanders’ whose physical allure and aggressive assurance turns heads. Johnson initiates sex with Sanders, then accuses him of sexual harassment, leading Douglas’ character to file a lawsuit against the company. American cinema of the 80s and 90s abounded with unstable women, and it was only a matter of time before one entered the upper reaches of corporate life. Disclosure presents another world from Michael Crichton in which the power structure is threatened by a dangerous invention.

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Paul Attanasio’s adaptation of Crichton’s novel takes aim at corporate PC culture and post-modern relativism — it is the same set of gripes which animates the current “war on wokeness.” Sanders’ chief technician, Don Cherry (Nicholas Sadler), complains that “they’re stronger, they’re smarter and they don’t fight fair,” tapping into the overall mood of male victimhood. Sanders bemoans his status as “the evil white male” who has been inhibited by the climate of the new career woman workplace, unable to articulate his masculine identity in a sanitized milieu. Sanders disputes the notion that “women are oppressed,” asking where his helpline was when he was in need of support. Johnson is a manifestation of male dread, rejecting every shibboleth of traditional gender relations — she is anti-family, she mocks Sanders’ wife and proclaims herself “a sexually aggressive woman.” The career woman has located the points of vulnerability in the male psyche, and sets about targeting them with ruthless precision. Sanders fears Johnson will reduce him to “a ghost with a résumé,” leveraging her sex appeal to advance her career goals.

Disclosure is not quite immune to the tenor of the times: it takes pains to paint Johnson as an anomaly; her ambition is immoderate, and like Katherine Parker in Working Girl, her lack of moderation is her undoing — she is not willing to work hard and wait her turn. Women were still held to a higher ethical standard; when they took their behavioral cues from their male counterparts, they were punished and excluded. Johnson is removed from power for “playing the game the way you guys set it up,” and “the right person” is appointed vice president (Sanders’ staid associate Stephanie Kaplan, portrayed by Rosemary Forsyth). Kaplan played games of her own to secure this appointment, but these were in keeping with the norms of corporate intrigue.

In the 90s, it became clear that there were still limits to what would be tolerated from those setting out to the smash through the glass ceiling. The new language of equality came with conditions attached. A certain conception of the career woman persisted which insisted that where business was concerned, talented and ambitious women had to uphold ideals which spoke as much to the vanities of corporate America as the realities of success.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.