by Carol Slingo
Cut, no. 24-25, March 1981, pp.
9 TO 5 opened just before Christmas, 1980, and immediately became one of the top grossing films of the season. It did so well that 20th Century Fox Telecommunications told Variety it would have videotapes on sale within two and half months in order to minimize pirate profits: "the fastest legal release for a cassette version of a motion picture after its theatrical bow." The film has been heavily promoted by a trailer packed with oral imagery, fast cutting, and the implication that the story is about an armed uprising of office workers. (None of the footage of the original trailer comes from the film itself.) Many working women are enjoying 9 TO 5, finding it relevant to their lives. A holiday newspaper poll taken in St. Louis theaters gave it "A-" overall by a largely female sample. Jane Fonda, in Boston for a screening to benefit the National Association of Office Workers, told an audience of working women:
Thus many people assume that 9 TO 5 is a feminist film championing the rights of secretaries. The film presents three stars, popular with women, who enact some universal fantasies: telling off a "mean boss," taking positive action without consulting men, and effecting changes in their way of life and that of other women. The film allows female stars to engage in slapstick in such recognizable locations as the Xerox room. It takes a firm stand against the most blatant form of sexual harassment and against disrespect to employed women. Yet 9 TO 5 is divisive and devious. We should examine why it was made now, and what it is really saying under an apparently liberal, frothy, glamorous facade.
9 TO 5 is riddled with contradictory messages, reflecting to some extent the doubts and aspirations of working women in general. Many clerical workers have not examined their status or tried to deal with the contradictions within their own lives: Do they want a short-term, pleasant job while they are young, or do they want full-time professional recognition and pay commensurate with the work? Many women assume they cannot have both. This may be true now. Profit flows from the fact that much of the drudge work is done by people whose hourly worth to any company is much higher than their wage. For such women, 9 TO 5 presents a "liberating" fantasy. They can express their own anger by identifying with the stars, who fight their way to a sort of victory against a bad boss and establish better working conditions for the staff. In presenting their simple situation and its simplistic solution, 9 TO 5 avoids dealing with institutional repression, the nature of power within the corporation and in society. (It is assumed that the prison-like conditions shown at the beginning of the story are a deliberate strategy of the bad boss.) 9 TO 5 highlights some of the everyday humiliations in a secretary's life — giving up credit for a good idea to a superior, accepting criticism for the mistakes of others, performing menial and non-professional service at the boss' command. The answer to these and other conditions is to get rid of "that man," paint the walls orange, and be happy. About pay and professional status, the film is evasive.
9 TO 5 has none of the tension and edginess of the trailer, with the latter's shots of high heeled marchers, a tongue licking an envelope, fingers pounding typewriter keys, equipment and machinery running, a partially eaten hamburger thrust upon a spike, and a gun in the drawer. Instead the film is leisurely, non-specific about workers' actual tasks, and non-threatening in its use of sexual imagery (when in doubt, make a joke). The technological artifacts presented so dramatically in the trailer are referred to only marginally in the film or used as props for slapstick. 9 TO 5 plays like a 1980 version of BLONDIE MEETS THE BOSS, with three Blondies instead of Dagwood working for a lecherous Mr. Dithers. But its implications for these women, and any women now in clerical work are neither genial nor very much fun.
Most of the executives of Consolidated Companies, Inc., a multinational with a branch in Brazil, remain hidden away on the top floor and thus not part of the perceived structure of the company. The secretaries sit on a lower floor at drab, impersonal desks (pictures and flowers forbidden) next to the Xerox room (brand specified) and a kitchen where the vice-president's coffee perks. He stays on this floor to keep both eyes on "his girls." He is Hart, Mr. Hart, or Sir. I will use names the way the film does, because offices are still class-specific about identification: Mr. or Mrs. for upper people, Joe or Annie for the rest. Women who can be called by their first names by any visiting stranger will always remain "girls."
Hart is a comic-strip villain, with slick black hair and suit, slim mustache, and a nasty smirk: "the boss," "that man," the visible oppressor. In 9 TO 5 everything crude or exploitative about U.S. business is embodied in one simple, foulmouthed adversary. As Dolly Parton's character vigorously states, he is "evil."
Hart fills his office with athletic trophies, probably company-won. He talks a lot about teamwork. "You girls never got a chance to play football," he muses. All the while, he is lining his pockets by manipulating corporate inventory through a warehouse scam. His wife, who is shown to be so brainless that she cannot recognize an attempted seduction, keeps busy by going alone on ocean cruises. In her absence Hart pursues his obsession with his secretary Doralee (Dolly Parton). He wants Doralee as his mistress, but she will not give in.
Hart also keeps an administrative assistant, whose two main functions are to terrorize the other non-exempt staff and to report rules infractions and union talk to him. This is Roz, abrasive and mannish, as stupid as Hart's wife. The rest of the office is staffed with "invisible" or at most semi-visible women. They include a Latina, Delgado, who wants part-time work because she misses her children; a middle-aged alcoholic; and unidentified women who mostly gossip. In Vi's animated fantasy episode, these people will be specifically dressed as peasants, and they will be ruled over by Doralee, Vi, and Judy, the nobility, the stars.
Vi (Lily Tomlin) is the senior office manager. She wanted to be vice president, but Hart was promoted over her. Now he plans to keep her out of management forever. He dangles promises of a better job merely to keep her in line, constantly humiliating her in front of the others, demanding that she make his coffee and do his shopping. Vi is a widow with four children, one of whom you see briefly (the son gives Vi a joint when she comes home angry from work). Vi is always on edge. She is shown to be a concerned mother and an efficient manager who knows everything about the business. Her cinematic presentation, with her strident makeup and the harsh colors of her clothing, suggests less agreeable attributes. In fact, it is worth noting that the strong personalities of the three stars override the fact that all three characters are filmically given extreme attributes of Hollywood types: If Hart is a comic strip boss, they are comic strip secretaries.
The story begins when Judy (Jane Fonda) arrives, freshly un-married, ready to work outside the home for the first time in her life. Her husband was seduced by his secretary (whom else?). From her clothes (middle-aged proper, including neck bow and hat) and her expectations, it is likely that Judy took a business course to get this job. Vi is reluctant to train Judy and gives her only perfunctory help, abandoning her to trouble and embarrassment in the Xerox room without clear instructions. Judy is drawn into the gossip about Hart and Doralee. It seems obvious to all the women why their boss hired a Southern, overdeveloped, underdressed woman. No one will talk to Doralee. After a difficult first day, Judy makes an adjustment. 'You'll get used to it" is the kindest thing anyone can say to her about secretarial work.
Nowhere in these opening scenes is the swinish behavior of Hart and his assistant countered by positive reactions from the women. Instead, Doralee learns that Hart has been lying about her sex life. She defends her honor by threatening him with castration by gunshot. This sequence provokes laughter, and is provocative also because the camera assumes Hart's point of view, aiming at Doralee's legs, buttocks, and finally right down her cleavage. The script says women are no longer sex objects. The visuals mock both that statement and this woman.
Doralee's little rebellion parallels Vi's reaction when she learns she will not be promoted but will be stuck in her fetch-and-carry role for the duration of Hart's vice-presidency. Vi then tells Hart,
Her admonition has no effect. At the same time, Judy, after six weeks at Consolidated, suffers an attack of acute injustice when she learns Delgado has been fired for mentioning her salary. She joins the others at a bar. The immediate solution to "we've got to do something" is to get drunk or stoned — i.e. do something pleasant and friendly and fun — and to dream of revenge. They relate their fantasies for murdering Hart, and the warmth of this scene of women coming together to act out their anger leads viewers to accept the fantasies as positive. But the fantasies only provide a catharsis for the three secretaries. The following lowing day they talk about how much fun they had, Delgado being forgotten with the barbecue and smoke.
In Judy's fantasy, she ambushes Hart in the office by night. The maddened office staff, like the torch-carrying peasants in FRANKENSTEIN, chase Hart into his sanctuary, now occupied by Judy. After ducking in and out of rows of machinery, this poor pathetic little boss-monster is shot down by a woman wearing designer bandoliers. The filmic fantasy implies that only in an abnormal mental condition (or later, under stress) would Judy even consider such a thought.
In Doralee's fantasy, Hart becomes her secretary, a whimpering creature to be bullied and tortured. With her whip and little boots, using words like "ass" and "crotch" to verbally assault her "boy," Doralee ropes him on the office floor and roasts him alive. This sequence incidentally reinforces Hart's charge that women are "bitches," and it gives some credibility to his derogation of woman by having Doralee derogate a man.
Vi imagines herself a character in a mock-Disney cartoon, Snow White surrounded by cute little animals and birds. She pours (organic) poison into Hart's coffee to fry his brains, then rockets him out the window. In a Disney-DeMille climax, the office slaves escape their chains, heavenly light fills the darkness, and the three women in medieval horned crowns ascend to the clouds, the peasants cheering.
The fantasies are important on several levels. First, they introduce "humorous" sado-masochistic details, PG-rated whips and chains, and a suggestion of Amazons and dominant women without threatening the audience. All three women have been previously established as straight and monogamous. Vi has four children, Doralee enjoys sex with her good-ol'-boy husband, and Judy has been cruelly abandoned by a man she still has some feelings for.
More than this, in narrative terms, we have been given only superficial characteristics of Vi, Judy, and Doralee, those needed to move the plot. From now on, the three women will relate to each other not as true friends but as allies in a common cause: "get that man." Their fantasies represent the highest state of consciousness of their own exploitation. But these solutions are oriented toward fantastic schemes of violence with sexual content. Ideologically, the fantasy sequences function in the following way — revenge is easy to understand.
Once accomplished, it defuses frustrations. Questions go unanswered in the moment of brief triumph. With Doralee clad in a short Western skirt, cracking a whip and talking dirty, or Judy dressed as the gun-toting Great White Huntress, the questions — what does Hart represent, who runs the corporation — become so remote as to be unaskable. The audience gets the comic message that if that bastard were gone, our life would be okay. Thus, the fantasies.
Judy's stoned image of herself as dominator is especially interesting, because nowhere else in the film does she pursue that role even when it is given to her. When she is forced to shoot at Hart with a real gun, she feels terrible about it. Apologetic and clumsy, she says "yes, sir" to the end. And while Vi might get stoned with two women, she would never share her throne with them, nor does she at the end of 9 TO 5.
In the fantasies, Hart confesses his sins of piggishness and lechery. In fact, he is proud to be the kind of rough team player who keeps his career along by climbing on women's bodies in all senses. He is vulnerable only because he has spent so much time attempting seduction that he forgets to have his chair fixed. The day after the fantasy party, Hart falls to the floor and is knocked out. At the same time Vi discovers that the sweetener she just put into Hart's coffee is really rat poison. She believes she has killed him. The secretarial alliance must deal with Vi's subsequent theft of a corpse from the hospital, a traffic accident, the discovery that the stolen body is not Hart's (Vi was going to dispose of the evidence), and the return of this strange stiff. ("This is awful, so disrespectful," moans Judy.) These sequences speak directly to people's perceptions about women's inability to function in crisis and reinforce them. The sequence is finally resolved off screen, with the film making its joke at the expense of two black characters, cleaning women, who are left to clean up the mess. (And they probably spend some unpaid time talking to the police, since the corpse belonged to an underworld victim.) All the three secretaries can say is how "lucky" they are.
Roz hides in the toilet, puts her feet up on the seat, and by working diligently with ball point pen on toilet paper (a neat trick), spies out the details of the rat poison. The three do not consider that an executive as paranoid as Hart would surely have the ladies' room bugged. Vi, Doralee, and Judy are not even aware that one of the stalls has a locked door. They are, of course, surprised when Hart tries to blackmail them. Not one to be held at anybody's mercy, Doralee reacts by seeking to imprison Hart with no thought about the consequences. The three accomplices must therefore hold Hart captive for six weeks until they can get evidence to charge him with embezzlement.
Since Hart's wife is cruising the South Seas, they are able to rig his own bedroom with a security system. They chain him to it with a combination of sporting equipment and dog accessories. Doralee explains, "I paid for it on your Master Charge" (brand specified). The office, now benevolently run by VI, Judy, and master forger Doralee, is transformed into a comfortable work place, with day care and time sharing. Bright colors and flowers liven up the rooms. The three dispatch Roz to learn French. Something called "equal pay" is begun. The alcoholic takes an instant cure, and the handicapped are hired. Delgado comas back, part-time.
9 TO 5 suggests that these people are greatly privileged to work for such a kind company (master). Happy and bouncy, the staff increases productivity by 20%. Hart is forgotten, his identity reduced to a name on a stack of memos. This is the fantasy of the queens in the clouds, waving down to the adoring masses: In this world of niceness, who would dream of complaining that she is doing the same work, and that pay, "equal" or not, is probably still pretty low? Nobody talks about decent pay.
"Respect" is assumed to be gained with the departure of the two disrespectful characters. Even Judy gets up the gumption to tell off her ex-husband, but only after his secretary has thrown him out, i.e., a woman Judy fears has rejected him. Judy has by now achieved a certain independence and can think for herself. But at precisely this point, when she is "on-guard" at Hart's house, the film shows her in a white silk negligee, legs silhouetted, a untypical costume for that character in any case. Since she could not have known that her husband was waiting outside the door, the implication is that she is wearing this costume to tease Hart. That is a contradictory and disturbing development for the supposed sexual liberation implied by her speech to her husband.
The story now turns from slapstick to a series of verbal confrontations and deus-ex-machina devices. It is difficult to construct a strong general audience plot around corporate practice, computer changeovers, and multinational investments. Movie producers presume that people do not know how these things work and are bored by them. Thus, Hart's wife is brought home to liberate him. He covers his thefts out of his own pocket. It's a far more fitting punishment than six weeks of imprisonment in luxury, but the writers ignore the point, furnishing only one line about his financial loss.
Hart threatens the three women with jail. (Again he calls them "girls.") But they are not placed in jeopardy, because the Chairman of the Board, drawn by the 20% increase in productivity, arrives to reward Hart, who gets credit for the secretaries' achievements. The Chairman happily decides to send this wonder-worker to Brazil, where another exploitable people await him.
Bubbly captions reveal that Judy marries the Xerox rep, Doralee becomes a country singer, and Vi becomes vice president because of her "calmness in a crisis." (Nobody at Consolidated knows how she behaves in a crisis; nobody has seen her in one.) Hart is abducted by Brazilian Amazons, one last joke about the dominance of women.
The extremely light plot of 9 TO 5, the loose editing together of disparate sequences, the ability of the three actresses to project a semblance of humanity into each cardboard role, conceal the offensiveness of such brainless and disagreeable people and events. It is hard to identify the subtext when a box of "Skinny and Sweet" is waved in someone's face, or while Hart is clanking from the security device rigged to the ceiling of his bedroom. There are no really positive women characters in 9 TO 5. The "good" traits of the three secretaries are those of conventional femininity: Vi loves her children and is always helpful, Doralee keeps her husband happy in bed, and Judy is frail and fluttery. She dithers (shades of Blondie). She apologizes. She says "Sir" to Hart right up to the nth time he calls her a bitch and threatens to send her to jail. Doralee is the film's sex object, always obliging. She is not stupid, but ambitious. At the end, Dolly Parton's voice singing the title song confirms Doralee's ambitions: the star above the herd, cracking her whip. Vi herself has many "male" qualities Hart prizes, including aggressive whininess, of which her strident red lipstick is a visual equivalent. The scene in which she tells the harmless candy striper to piss off says more about the popular image of women in business than anything else I have seen recently.
None of these women want to be secretaries. None regard secretarial work as worthy in itself, but more like punishment for "having to work." As soon as they get the chance, they escape the "pink collar ghetto." Marriage for Judy means being supported, not having to punch a time clock or a typewriter. Stardom for Doralee is self-evident and signaled by her wardrobe. Executive status for Vi means being able to tell some other woman to make the coffee, and, of course, to enforce the Chairman's decree that salaries be lowered. At the film's end, the office is shown as a happy place full of blacks, latinos and social misfits who will do the work the white middle class heroines have been freed from.
Hart constantly refers to secretaries as "bitches," dumb," "morons," and "crones." His language is strong, and it is not refuted verbally anywhere by any character. The negative images of people who cannot get higher-paid work and the sounds of these derogations hang in the air. Moreover, while they are trapped briefly in the secretarial ghetto, Vi, Judy, and Doralee demonstrate the Hollywood assumption that women are stupid, and that stupid women are funny. When Judy tangles with the Xerox machine, spilling paper, lurching about to catch it, she behaves like a "typical woman who can't use a machine." What is not said is that the Xerox Corporation rents that model with the proviso that a company also take a full-time Xerox employee to operate it. All such people I have met have been men. That copier is a complex, highly sensitive device, and there is nothing at all funny about an untrained person trying to cope with it.
The film offers a running joke about Vi's inability to distinguish sugar substitute from rat poison. Both come in yellow boxes. Several times it is pointed out that "the boxes look exactly alike, except that one has a skull on it." Not true: one also has a large picture of a rat on it! And as for transacting business, Vi acts content to take the word of somebody (probably a secretary in the New York office) that she cannot have access to important warehouse records for six weeks because of a computer changeover. Imagine what Hart would have done with that answer.
9 TO 5 also uses bondage as an audience grabber by making a joke out of it. While Judy, in white negligee, wrestles on a bed with a chained-up Hart, the script leeringly calls the activity "M&M's" (another brand name). This episode is preceded by the shot earlier described, in which Judy stands in the doorway, her legs showing through the silk. The film defuses its visually disturbing material with a laugh, but its suggestion about dictatorial, dangerous women remains. The audience is supposed to be sophisticated enough to know that the bondage items Doralee buys in a pet shop are also sold in sex shops. 9 TO 5 titillates the viewers with the promise that something kinky is yet to come. And the gear also is illustrating the prophecy that women will take over, enslave men, and roast them alive. Additionally, by not understanding the term "S&M," Judy is made to look both wholesome and stupid. The film offers S&M suggestions to us both ways — as titillating and "OK" because defused.
9 TO 5 has a zippy credit sequence showing a series of anonymous women going to work. Running in high heels, one misses her bus. Another spills coffee on her feet while checking her watch. A third drops papers over the sidewalk and has to be helped by a man. Nothing that follows this sequence contradicts the idea that women who work are clumsy and that they need supervision. They cannot handle a crisis except by lucky accident, nor can they properly blackmail a villain caught red-handed. Only those who adopt masculine traits, become bullies, or resort to individual armed force will succeed. The rest will be doomed to stay secretaries forever. And those condemned to the typing pool for life, well, some day care and respect will keep them content with their low status.
9 TO 5 sells a bill of goods to working women in low-status jobs. It tells them that better conditions and consideration will improve their lives, and they should be happy either to take what is offered or get out. (Even Delgado, when she was fired, declared that she would be better off at home with her children, as if she did not really have to work.) Movies and television generally type secretaries as dowdy fussbudgets or jiggly and giggly sex objects. It has been twenty years since Hollywood dealt with office life in Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT. Why was 9 TO 5 made, and why at this time?
The 1980s will be a critical time for women in U.S. business. Secretaries are asking for professional status; they are joining unions all over the country. They are publicizing the complex and demanding nature of the work they do. It is not "respect" that they want, but status and pay appropriate to the job. The film disposes of the "professional" with one sweep: all three principals professionally scramble for the exit door as soon as it is opened. As for unions, the attitude of 9 TO 5 is unambiguous. Unions are ignored, except for two mentions. The first mention explains Roz' position as a spy (there must be something subversive she can listen for). The second is Vi's joke, reminding the audience that Jimmy Hoffa had connections to the criminal underworld (at a time when the Teamsters are actively organizing secretaries!). The audience knows that at the moment Vi makes this remark, the body of a gangland victim reposes in the trunk.
9 TO 5 ignores or distorts important facts about women's job conditions. "Equal pay for equal work" is not a whim of the Harts of middle management. It is the law. How the law is circumvented, and what "equal" means, are irrelevant to the film. The myth of the white-clad Chairman of the Board rapping out orders, canceling privileges, and rewarding the righteous overrides the real truth about violated rights. In 9 TO 5 the equal pay issue is a joke.
Concurrent with the rising demands of secretaries has come, for the first time in history, the technology to downgrade their work permanently. Computerized, electronic changes in office procedures are creating a massive restructuring of business practices with regard to clerical workers. Many offices today, corporate or not, and including departments of the Federal Government, have turned their word processing functions into a vast assembly line on which women perform deadening routines every day, subject to the same speedups, quality checks and overseeing as factory workers. It is doubtful whether most of these office workers know by sight the people whose words they are processing. These women are subject to physical and emotional hazards, many of which they are unaware of. Only recently have noise level hazards or the presence of carcinogens in copy machine chemicals been publicized. 9 TO 5 jokes that people have been deafened in the Xerox room. The audience laughs — how silly.
In addition, there is a resurgence of that old media caricature, the Corporate Mistress. Washington scandals and the gossipy inside stories have once more fostered the image of a private secretary as prostitute. This is partially because in companies where clerical functions have been made routine and those performing them downgraded, the only designated "secretaries" are those assigned to top executives as status symbols and ego boosters. If the word is "teamwork," no matter how hard working or how much of the actual and unpaid corporate thinking these women do, they are still relegated in the public mind to Pom Pom Girls. The character of Doralee supposedly refutes that stereotype. But Dolly Parton is consistently costumed as a sex object in tight sweaters, laces, and leather — even after Hart grabbed her and wrestled her to the floor. The film's visual image is stronger than the character's words.
To return to Vi's fantasy of the queen(s) liberating the peasant slaves, she of course does free Consolidated's workers from the more onerous aspects of their jobs. This point is attractive to many women who see the film. Their own lives would be much improved with a nice boss and flex-time. In the years before day care, Joe Hill called this Pie in the Sky, but in the United States today few have to wait until death. Little gifts from above have sustained the U.S. economy and held off any mass rising of workers in this country. The gut issue, summarized by the Chairman when he says, "That equal pay thing ... we don't need to keep priming the pump!" is that these workers will be content to accept low pay in exchange for small favors. Vi must act the way she does if she wants to get ahead, and we know that ambition rules her life even if she is a good mother.
Lynn Salvage, President of the Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School, in a recent Chicago Tribune interview, stated:
Of course, a worker like Vi who wants to be a manager must take low pay and abuse, anticipating that glorious ascension into the clouds. The most able will rise as always, and the others will be conned into thinking they are "part of management." 9 TO 5 reinforces this belief by showing Vi making it within the system and by giving Judy and Doralee "temporary" worker status. These two are filling the time until they are discovered — by a man, by a talent agent — stars between engagements. They do not even look or dress like the rest of the office staff.
When Jane Fonda as Judy picks up her gun and an annihilates the copiers and computers, the film misses its one moment to make a statement about these changes and contradictions. Judy did not aim at the repressive technology of the corporate state. As the craftily devised trailer for 9 TO 5 points out, her villain is merely shown as "that man."