Documentary Still Working 9 to 5, screening as part of the Doc Edge Festival, examines the history of the feminist classic starring Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin - through the lens of workplace inequality over 40 years.
Still Working 9 to 5 weaves the making of the 1980 hit film with the story of American women fighting for workplace equality and fair pay. While the oral history of the movie is as warm and funny as the original 9 to 5, the chronicling of the struggle for equal rights in the workplace is a grim reminder of how little progress has been made in the last 40 years.
The original premise for 9 to 5 came from Jane Fonda’s work with the grassroots women’s organisation of the same name, which fought for equality for women in the workplace – members of the collective also later participated in marketing focus groups for the movie.
The movie was originally conceived as a social drama before Fonda realised comedy was a better way to get women to unite behind the message, and she had hand-picked Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton as her co-stars before the script was even completed.
The movie made feminist icons of all three and a bipartisan friendship such as the one forged between activist Fonda and country singer Parton is such a rarity these days that seeing their friendship still going strong really warms the old cockles.
The making of the movie is as charming and engaging as the three leads. In snippets shown of the film, the chemistry between them still fizzles. Their hair and costumes are byzantine relics that should be studied by fashion scholars but never left near an open flame (Fonda’s hairstyles in media interviews for the film deserve their own coffee table book).
It was Dolly Parton’s first movie role and she is as dazzlingly beautiful and bubbly onscreen as she is wonderfully foul mouthed in the behind-the-scenes footage. Lily Tomlin as Violet brings the anger, and it’s easy to see how the rage can spill over into real life. In old footage, Tomlin is interviewed about the movie by a male host who informs her that the message of the movie is too heavy-handed, adding “and I’m a very active feminist”. Her withering glance of reply should have won an Emmy.
It also turns out that Dabney Coleman, who plays the lecherous boss, was actually the original woke bae. Uninterested in any ‘not all bosses’ rhetoric, Coleman tells an interviewer “anyone who would say, that’s not what all male bosses are like, they’re missing the point”. We love an ally!
While the making of the film is fun, by comparison, the scenes devoted to the women’s movement are a stark reminder of how many have fought and for so little gain. There is endless footage of protests. Zoe Nicholson talks about going on hunger strikes to have the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) ratified, and there are interviews with Lilly Ledbetter and Karen Nussbaum. They all give off a strong “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit” vibe that you really can’t argue with.
As Nicholson points out, without the ERA, women are not even in the American constitution, and it remains unratified close to 100 years after it was first proposed. And although the Benny Hill-esque chasing of secretaries around the boss’s desk is apparently a thing of the past, a monstrously creepy cameo from Harvey Weinstein reminds us just how common workplace harassment remains.
On first watch, the documentary doesn’t appear to offer a solution or a way forward to advance women in the workplace. On closer viewing though, the film is tapping out a message like acrylic nails on a keyboard: unionise, share your salary with your colleagues.
These two ideas are constantly referred to by the activists in the documentary and it’s an appropriate grassroots message – the original film was a small snapshot of life for working women blown up to Hollywood proportions by the talent of the stars.
The ERA remains unratified in the US, and despite the Equal Pay Act being law in New Zealand for 50 years, the gender pay gap remains at 9%. This is likely to have gotten worse due to the pressures placed on women during Covid.
With that in mind, let’s pour ourselves a cup of ambition and do what we can to make a change!
Still Working 9 to 5 has its Asia Pacific premiere on Saturday, June 25 at 4pm at The Civic, as part of the Doc Edge Film Festival (buy tickets here). There will be a live Zoom Q&A session with filmmakers Camila Hardman, Gary and Larry Lane after the screening. That’s followed by other screenings of the film in Christchurch, Wellington and a ‘virtual cinema’.