image credit: 20th Century Fox

Five Lessons from Nine to Five (1980)

Aside from providing us with one heck of an ear worm, Nine to Five remains equally relevant forty-three years after it hit movie screens. Well, maybe not as relevant in regards to the sheer volume of perms, but we forgive the Eighties. (Banner image credit: 20th Century Fox)

So much could be said about the enormous talent of the actresses leading the ensemble. Lily Tomlin is so good at doing that thing where she looks harmless while murdering you. Jane Fonda’s physical comedy gets me cackling every time. And Dolly Parton. Oh, Dolly, Dolly, Dolly… The word effervescent was surely coined to describe the way she fizzles like the inch of air above a fresh pour of Coke.

The three of them together are so talented. There’s no excuse for the volume of entirely un-feminist thoughts I have in their direction. But I am basically a useless sapphic who will find excuses to praise any cast led by women (I’m just being honest here), so what really gets me revved over Nine to Five is the politics. Those juicy, delicious politics.

You could only get such a powerful, radical message befitting THE Jane Fonda if you drape it in enough silliness to pass muster. Like Chaucer, Nine to Five is here to show us a thing or two while having fun. Labor reform driven by the working class has never been such a hoot.


1. Don’t believe the lies that divide us.

At first, Parton’s character is isolated by rumors she’s mistress to the boss. It’s easy to believe a woman so beautiful is easy, right? That lie is spread by her boss, who likes the appearance of masculine virility and doesn’t give a crap about a married working woman’s reputation, much less her dignity.

Doralee is being predated by Hart, but he’s stripped her of any protection she might enjoy from coworkers. It’s a shame because Violet also rankles at his harassment. Only once they let the walls down and realize they’re on the same team can they get up to the good shenanigans.


2. Bravery is contagious.

Nobody likes working in a miserable place, afraid of being noticed by the boss, constantly on edge in fear of a verbal dressing-down. Small missteps can mean major upheaval, like losing one’s entire job for holding the wrong conversation. On a day-to-day basis, everyone is just trying to get along and pay the bills.

Yet as soon as one person throws down with the boss, she meets another willing to do the same, and another. Our three heroines can be braver after seeing the bravery of one another. And they’re admired by other coworkers for this, too.

The instant they connect and start talking, they get stronger.


3. Women (and labor) should stand in solidarity.

Every woman in the movie is pretty rad, aside from the pick-me Roz, who commits a mortal sin: she is not on Team Women. She is the eyes, ears, nose, and throat of The Boss. Like Marthas and Aunts, she serves to enforce an abusive status quo, hoping it will earn her favor.

Roz busts the faintest hints of a union by getting a woman fired for discussing salaries in the bathroom. She also reports our heroines to the boss. Still, the worst the other women do to Roz is help her get a French lesson.

You can learn a thing or two about narrative approval from this. The screenplay itself totally lacks misogyny. Hart’s wife is a genuinely nice person who has her whole heart in an undeserving place. She praises Doralee’s beauty and expresses such gratitude for the flowers. Too bad Doralee seems to stay with her husband because I was feeling the vibes between the two of them.


4. A more livable workplace benefits everybody.

The movie wasn’t spinning tall tales with those memos showing the many benefits of workplace support, like day cares. Accommodations for flexible schedules make it easier for people with disabilities, families, or a life outside work (the audacity) to contribute productively. And yeah, this kind of thing shoots productivity through the roof, which businesses should love.

A world where people have jobs that respect their humanity is beneficial to the people and the jobs.

Yet the bosses in this movie rankle against such measures. Clearly it’s not statistics they’re worried about. They like having the power.


5. Cruelty isn’t the entire point, but it’s a lot.

Getting to act cruel is one of the rewards of a system that provides few pleasures. Does Hart really seem happy to you? Has all that money left him contented? I mean, does a happy man have reason to dread his wife, assault his secretary, and plan his schedule to avoid his life outside work? No, Hart has leapfrogged up the hierarchy specifically because he likes the sadism. He is bettered by trying to make others worse.

Masculine power plays are razor-edged veils for deep insufficiency.

You’ve probably seen a boss act like that at some point in your life.

Beautifully, gorgeously, 9 to 5 also reminds us that punching up isn’t cruelty. Threatening the man who sexually assaults you with a gun isn’t cruelty. Hanging a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot from your garage door opener when he misbehaves isn’t cruelty. And that might be the greatest lesson of all.

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