When I first decided to start Beauty in the Movies, one of the films I had in mind was Working Girl, it’s one of the most iconic examples of female empowerment in cinema, and it’s got an awesome 80’s wardrobe to go with it.
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When we were little (way too little to understand most of it) my sister and I watched this movie over and over again. I think mostly it had to do with Joan Cusack’s insanely fabulous hair and make-up, seeing Han Solo as a business man, and also the song “Let the River Run” by Carly Simon which we sang loudly and repeatedly to the intense annoyance of my mother.
Working Girl is the story of Tess McGill, a Wall Street secretary from Staten Island with the brains of a high-powered executive, and as she puts it—”a bod for sin”. Unfortunately, since she is lacking the breeding and ivy league education, all she gets out of her bosses is sexual harassment in the form of set-ups with jerks (including Kevin Spacey) who treat her like a prostitute. Tess thinks it’s a blessing when she ends up the secretary to powerful businesswoman Catherine Parker (Sigourney Weaver) who promises to help her and listen to her ideas, but as many of us with office experience have learned, for some awful reason female bosses can sometimes be far crueler than their male counterparts. When Catherine breaks her leg during a ski trip, Tess discovers that Catherine has been so impressed with her ideas that she is planning to pass them off as her own. In her mentoring of Tess, Catherine gave her secretary the excellent advice that only you alone can make things happen for yourself—and that’s exactly what Tess resolves to do.
Since Catherine already started the ball rolling on Tess’s business proposition, all Tess has to do is contact Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), the broker Catherine was planning to work with, and give herself a makeover in time for their meeting. I won’t go farther than that, you’ll just have to see it for yourself if you haven’t already. Some other reasons to see this film; Joan Cusack as Tess’s best friend Cyn, a brief appearance by Ricki Lake, and even better—David Duchovny as an extra, or as he is referred to in the credits a “Party Friend”, the slicked back hair is not a good look for him.
Working Girl is a Cinderella story of sorts, and though Harrison Ford does make a particularly charming prince, Tess is really the one who saves herself. She could have just accepted her place, she could have been discouraged by listening to her bosses, or her sleazy boyfriend (Alec Baldwin), or even the other secretaries, but she doesn’t, she goes after what she wants.
This movie is loaded with great performances, all three ladies scored Oscar noms for their performances—Melanie, Sigourney and Joan, and Mike Nichols was nominated for best director as well. It’s a rare film that manages to fall into the category of romantic comedy while also being taken quite seriously. It’s Melanie Griffith’s performance that keeps this film from being a typical rom-com, she portrays a mix of vulnerability, ambition, and pride that make her character both believable and sympathetic. While Harrison Ford is adorable and captivating (there is a great scene where he changes his shirt in the office to the delight of the secretarial pool), it’s the ladies that give the film depth. Even the villainous Catherine, played so impeccably by Ms.Weaver, manages to avoid being one-dimensional. Catherine doesn’t purposely want to hurt Tess—but she doesn’t believe it’s her fault if she has to step on people to get to the top.
As I was watching this last night I couldn’t help but think of Mad Men, one of my (and everyone’s) favorite shows. Just as Mad Men is a peek into office life in the 1960’s, Working Girl is the 1980’s equivalent. Obviously Mad Men is far more serious and stylized, but the hierarchy and the struggle for women remains the same. A major issue on Mad Men is whether women are better off trying to behave like men in the office, or if they should embrace their sexuality rather than stifle it. Catherine Parker is a perfect example of a businesswoman who refuses to dress in boxy suits and dull shades to put the men at ease. Besides, if a confident women puts her male colleagues on guard, and draws attention to the fact that she is something different—all the better. For Mad Men fans it’s easy to draw parallels between Tess McGill and Peggy Olson, too bad we don’t get to see the way Tess’s career plays out over the years as we get to see with Peggy.
Tess McGill has become an icon for working women, she represents the struggle to be taken seriously, to go after your goals, and to achieve anything you put your mind to (even in an unconventional way). This film still resonates because women are still second-rate citizens in the business world. As of 2009 only 1.5% of the 2,000 top performing companies worldwide were women. Sadly, that is a huge jump from the 1980’s when there were virtually no female heads of major companies. There is still a huge pay gap for women both in and out of the business world. Even as CEOs of major companies women tend to make less than half the pay of their male counterparts. I wish this film could be looked at as a lighthearted romantic comedy, but the issues that made it powerful at the time still remain more than twenty years later. Sorry to bum you out, but it’s the truth, and a very important one to remember. The gender wage gap exists, and the only way we can ever change that is by admitting that it’s there, I don’t think Tess McGill would have stood for it, so why the hell should we right?
When my sister and I watched Working Girl as kids, I think we both related to it because it’s New York, and as strange as the big hair and blue eyeshadow seem now, at the time that felt familiar, it was what my babysitters and my aunts were wearing. I think my sister took away more from the film than rainbow eyeshadow and shoulder padded suits. We were raised in an apartment in Queens and never had much money, but what we did have was parents who told us we could be absolutely anything we put our mind to (and who let us watch this movie!), so she ended up a high-powered attorney in Manhattan, I consider her a Tess McGill of her own making, and we’re very proud of her. I hope this film continues to inspire young women for a long time to come and I hope it teaches them that they truly are the ones who make it happen, male or female, nobody is going to achieve your goals for you, and that’s a fact.
Have a great weekend everyone!