Why ‘9 to 5’ Is Still Radical Today
It’s been over three decades since the release of 9 to 5, the cult comedy that brought together Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin with Dolly Parton in her film debut as Miss Doralee Rhodes, a kind-hearted secretary who fantasizes about lassoing her “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss and roasting him on a spit.
Tomlin stars as Violet Newstead, a working widow and mother of four who’s passed over for promotions despite her obvious qualifications. The project was conceived of by Jane Fonda, who was inspired by the work of Karen Nussbaum, an old friend from the anti-war movement and founder of 9to5, an organization still in the business of advocating for working women. Fonda cast herself as the uncharacteristically mousy Judy Bernly, a nervous divorcee who can’t figure out who she is, never mind how to run the copy machine. Sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot boss Franklin Hart Jr. is played to smarmy mustachioed perfection by Dabney Coleman.
The plot of 9 to 5 feels nothing short of radical, even (and perhaps especially) today. Mr. Hart spends his days harassing Doralee by telling her she’s much more to him than “just a dumb secretary.” He lies about sleeping with her, and purposefully knocks pencils on the floor so she’ll lean over and pick them up. He insults Judy, and bullies Violet by demanding she fix his coffee. After learning she lost out on a promotion to a man she trained, Violet confronts Mr. Hart. “Spare me the women’s lib crap,” he replies.
Mr. Hart is soon made to pay. After a coworker gets canned for comparing salaries — technically a protected activity since the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 — Violet, Judy and Dolly head to the bar to drown their sorrows in birdbath-sized martinis, smoke a joint and spin revenge fantasies about their boss. The next day, Violet accidentally stirs rat poison into Mr. Hart’s coffee. Hijinks ensue, and eventually they kidnap him.
In order to hide the fact that they’re holding their boss hostage, the women have to run the business as best they can, which, it turns out, is much better than Mr. Hart. They implement flexible schedules and a job-sharing program, set up a daycare center and ensure equal pay.
These themes were all very timely in 1980, the same year the EEOC issued guidelines clarifying that sexual harassment is unlawful under Title VII (though it didn’t become a nationally discussed issue until the Anita Hill hearings a decade later). But the thing about watching 9 to 5 today is that you realize the American workplace of 2015 is nowhere near as progressive as Miss Doralee Rhodes and company were way back in 1980.
The gender pay gap was nearly the same in 1980 as it was in 1960. The gap narrowed in the Nineties, then stalled. If progress continues at the current rate, American women won’t achieve pay equity until 2059. This is the only advanced nation in the world that doesn’t provide paid parental leave. The annual cost of putting a baby in daycare typically costs more than a year’s tuition in state college, one of many factors driving women out of the workforce.
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