Before becoming a father, I had assumptions about gender equality that have since been somewhat dashed. This first came about via an NCT class my wife and I enrolled in to prepare us for parenthood. It was a private class and in Nunhead, so I figured it would be a very upper-middle class gang of people who were on the liberal end of London society that we’d be learning beside. On that count, I was correct. But if this group of people represented that so-called liberal end of things, and I think they did, then relations between men and women still have a long way still to travel.
What amazed me most was how the women in the class were the ones in the relationship who were going to have to make all of the sacrifices in regards to their careers. The men’s vocational lives were going to carry on relatively uninterrupted. The two most interesting things about this for me were: one, the fact that this applied even when the woman made more money and was more objectively successful than the man in the relationship and two, the fact that this was the lie of the land had barely been discussed between any of the couples. It was taken as a matter of course.
Working Girl is a film released in 1988 starring Melanie Griffiths, Sigourney Weaver and Harrison Ford. It is an interesting display of the gender politics of its time, and its use of the American class system fairly indicative of a lot of the US cinema to this day. But the battle of the sexes is the more interesting aspect of the movie.
Melanie Griffiths portrays Tess, a woman in her early thirties from Staten Island, where she evidently grew up in a working class environment. She has pulled herself up to where she is at the start of the picture, a secretary on Wall Street, using a lot of brains and guts. However, she is surrounded by men who treat her as a sex object, something which constantly holds her career back. Her boss tells her that he has a friend who is interested in someone working for his firm in a low level executive position. Turns out it’s a setup in which the guy (played with brilliant slime by the then unknown Kevin Spacey) thinks that Tess is essentially a prostitute.
Her next job finds Tess working for a woman, who of course turns out to be a lying, manipulative bitch who cons Tess into thinking she is interested in her career development when really she just wants someone around whose ideas she can nick (this is Katherine, played superbly by Sigourney Weaver). Fate intervenes and Kate breaks her leg skiing, allowing Tess to both find out about her boss’ chicanery and to do something about it. Tess then poses as an executive, stealing Kate’s wardrobe in the process. She soon meets the alluring Jack Trainer, played by Harrison Ford with a coming-now-going East Coast accent that I don’t think was intentional. The two plot together, with Jack thinking Tess is a high roller.
Eventually, as in all American films, the lie is exposed and it seems the end of the road for our Tess. To make matters worse, she’s just spurned a proposal of marriage from her boyfriend, played by Alec Baldwin, after she caught him sleeping with another woman. Along the way, there are a lot of gratuitous shots of Griffiths in her underwear (at one point she is seen hoovering in her undies). This was presumably a throw to the boys who had been dragged to see a chick flick by their girlfriends.
But Harrison Ford, like a besuitted Han Solo, rides to the rescue. He brings Tess back into the deal and exposes Kate, who he has conveniently been dating and meaning to break up with for weeks, as the fraud that she is. Tess is offered a job by the rich bloke they have been trying to do the deal with the whole time, and gets that corner office she has been seeking throughout the film.
The role of the woman as damsel in distress in Working Girl goes beyond Ford’s character needing to save Tess, and that being her only route to salvation. It’s that the choice that she made, to reject marriage with the Baldwin character who had cheated on her, is only valid within the context of the film’s universe if Ford wants to be with her at the end. No one knows this better than the women who work under Kate, those who have befriended Tess. The pivotal moment for them is when Ford kisses her, signifying he still loves her. For them, it was all about whether Tess got the guy in the end and not much else. As it was meant to be for the audience of the time – had Jack Trainer not saved her, it is made obvious that Tess had few real options.
A year earlier, there was a film made starring Michael J Fox entitled The Secret of My Success (1987) that is essentially the same movie as Working Girl only made with a male lead. In his film, Fox’s character is from the Midwest as opposed to the Outer Boroughs, but it is pretty much the same plot. Poor outsider tries to make it in the world of New York finance by bending the rules, which involves mostly impersonating an insider. He is found out eventually, but the system is about those who dare and thus he is rewarded. But the difference made by transgendering the lead role is instructive.
There is, obviously, a love interest in The Secret of My Success. There are two actually, but one involves the Fox character’s aunt and is simply there as a comic sub-plot (because incest is hilarious). The central romantic lead is played by Helen Slater. She’s become a Wall Street exec the usual way, i.e stellar educational history followed by recruitment straight out of uni. Despite all this, she still is has to have an affair with the boss to get on in the firm; even when you play by the rules, as a woman you need to do a little extra, or so the film seems to be saying to us. She eventually finds big time boardroom success off the back of Fox’s various shenanigans. Even though Slater isn’t the protagonist, it doesn’t matter; as in Working Girl, the man is the one who decides, who puts things in action, who is the arbiter of the woman’s ultimate success or failure.
On the class front I mentioned near the top, Working Girl could never have been made in Britain, with London standing in for New York, for its treatment of class politics alone. The Staten Island neighbourhood Tess comes from is never seen as anything but a cesspool, and working class American life and the relationships it engenders are seen as awful prisons to be escaped from by anyone who can. This is nothing new in American film. Recall the ending of Saturday Night Fever (1977), when John Travolta is seen in a tiny, terrible Manhattan apartment, looking victorious. We understand why; the whole preceding film has been about how living in a broom closet in Manhattan is infinitely preferable to living in a mansion in Brooklyn, and it has been convincing in doing so. It’s because middle-class people are so much better to be around, less in need of “keeping you down”, than those in what is perceived to be the bottom of society, according to the class politics of most American films.
In Working Girl, working class life only wants to tie Tess down to the misery of being with a man who will never respect her career ambitions, and will want her to be at home with the kids while he’s out shagging the neighbourhood. The class element of any British film would by necessity be more subtlety handled. In Working Girl, it is a mere plot device.
So coming back my experience with the Nunhead NCT class, if Working Girl were made today, in America, would it’s gender politics be substantially different? I doubt it. In fact, other than the fashion sense, very little about the film would have to be reshaped for the 21st century. What I really learned in Nunhead a few years back is that the work of feminism remains more unfinished than I ever would have thought. Films like Working Girl act as a handy reminder of that fact.