by Jan Bottiglieri
I was about 26—only a few years younger than Melanie Griffith’s titular character Tess McGill—when I hung a framed poster for Working Girl in my first real office. I loved the movie because at the time I saw a bit of myself in Tess: a young woman who wanted a chance to do her best, to be trusted to handle more than answering the phones and sorting the mail, to not be constrained by the impediment of my unfortunate gender. My own little office meant that I’d moved up from “Publications Assistant” to “Assistant Editor.” All I had to do now was wait for Harrison Ford to show up and respect my intelligence.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: A young woman from Staten Island has a job in New York City. She wants a better job, so she goes to night school and earns a degree and has ideas about things and tells people her ideas. That doesn’t seem to work, because sexism and classism and hairstyles. She figures out another way to shoot her shot, career-wise. There are consequences.
More than the fashions, Working Girl captures what it felt like in 1988. I’d almost forgotten how rigid the rules seemed, how high the walls between genders and classes. The movie doesn’t hammer at its feminist messages, like 1980’s 9 to 5; Tess lives those messages as part of her larger life. Her line “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life working my ass off and getting nowhere just because I followed rules I had nothing to do with setting up” isn’t shouted from the top of her desk. Tess says it in frustration to her best friend Cynthia, who is warning Tess that she’s ruining her life by pushing some boundaries to achieve her dream of career advancement. Cyn is frustrated and hurt that what’s good enough for her—marriage, kids, a low-level job – is somehow not enough for Tess.
Yes, the plot revolves around deception, but notice that Tess never really lies (unlike many of the men around her.) Her ideas and acumen are all her own. She never gives a false name or title. She doesn’t pretend to be someone else, exactly; she merely “pretends” that she has the right to be “in the room when it happens” and to be her best self: the hard-working, educated, determined young woman she sees in the mirror, not the Staten Island secretary everyone else sees. “I have a head for business and a bod for sin,” Tess tells a handsome broker (Harrison Ford as Jack Trainer) she meets at a corporate party. “Is there anything wrong with that?”
Fast forward a bit, and Jack and Tess are sweetly sharing a piece of toast as he packs her a lunch for her first day at a new job. When she gets there, she’s delighted to learn she finally has her own office. Then the camera pulls back from that tiny office window… pulls back to show more windows, stacked row upon row, then back further… there are walls of windows, giant buildings made of windows, Carly Simon singing on the soundtrack about “the New Jerusalem” as the camera pulls farther away and Tess’s tiny office window becomes one of ten thousand. “It’s like the ending of Raiders,” I said to my husband, watching Tess and her triumph being warehoused into anonymity.
That’s something else that Working Girl captures about 1988: the underlying sadness of the corporate mentality that had been dominating America’s social imagination since the beginning of the decade. By 1988, the big screen was already leaning toward stories that pushed back against that narrative; Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko had gotten his comeuppance the year before, and on Saturday we’ll see what John Carpenter had to say about corporate dominance in They Live.