Is 9 to 5 still relevant as a feminist film?

by | Dec 20, 2018

Can we enjoy 9 to 5 as a feminist film?

This feminist film might be 38 years old, but 9 to 5 tackles issues of workplace harassment and sexism that are still commonplace today.

This autumn the British Film Institute re-released the film 9 to 5 as a ‘feminist classic’. It sends the message that in the wake of #Metoo, it is clear that the fight against sexual harassment in the workplace is far from over.

If you haven’t seen it, 9 to 5, which came out in 1980, tells the story of three secretaries, played by Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin. They are fed up of the sexist and tyrannical behaviour of their chauvinistic boss. The girls join up to take him down and take over the company.

The British Film Institute re-released the film as part of the ‘Comedy Genius’ film season. Despite its important themes, the film is a comedy that organisers hope can provide a moment of light relief in a tense Britain.

feminist film

The #Metoo movement shows that workplace harassment is still a big problem today

What seems clear from the re-screening of this film is that we are still battling with many of the same sexist issues and workplace harassment that women faced then.

Jane Fonda, expressed her disappointment over the fact that almost 40 years on, the workplace issues in the film are still relevant for many women today. The film tackled topics such as wage inequality, blocked opportunities, lack of promotion and recognition, "broppriation,"  bullying, gas lighting via gossiping, day-care challenges and not just every day sexual harassment. Fonda said: “We still have a long way to go before we achieve real equality in the workplace.

When the lead trio in the movie accidentally poison their boss, they are forced to run the business. They set up flex working, job sharing, childcare and equal pay! Together they did a better job of running the business.

Around this time last year, the Harvey Weinstein scandal provoked the beginnings of the #Metoo movement and torrents of personal harassment stories from women globally. Since then we have seen a rise in victims speaking out and consequences for the mis-conduct of males who have abused their positions of power.

#Metoo has served as an international awakening to the idea that perhaps things aren’t quite as peachy as many of us thought across many professional sectors. Re-releasing 9 to 5 helps continue that discussion.

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Is 9 to 5 really that feminist?

However, there is some controversy about whether the, somewhat dated, 9 to 5 film can really be heralded as feminist in this day and age.

The Guardian published an article negating the film’s claim to being feminist at all. The questionable camera shots and cartoony approach, were claimed to reduce real issues of workplace harassment.  It went on to say that the film ‘bears the same relationship to feminism that Jurassic Park does to palaeontology’.

And examining at the film there are certainly some conflicting aspects. If we look at some of the lingering shots of Dolly Parton’s body, are they unnecessarily perpetuating the very misogynistic views they are claiming to criticise? The women are also often portrayed in a caricature-like way, for example the scene where Fonda struggles to use the copier to eventually have Dabney Coleman walk over and simply press the off button. This reduces the impact of the feminist message by still pertaining to the female stereotypes of being ditzy, professionally incapable, and in need of men’s help.

But is it a fair analysis to say the film isn’t feminist? The film was markedly ahead of its time when it was released in the 1980s and still packs a feminist punch today. The overriding intentions are clear, so what’s the issue with a few problematic aspects, right?

Well, maybe. But as public views and values change, non-pc aspects in entertainment become harder to ignore. Perhaps it has become impossible not to analyse old material through our new ‘woke’ lens.

So, can we still enjoy non-pc films with a clear conscience?

The BFI’s comedy season hoped to spark debate on this topic. Heather Stewart, creative director of the BFI, said “In a divided Britain, in a world where we may be uncertain about what we’re allowed to find funny anymore, we need a laugh more than ever.”

So opening the debate to all tv shows and movies, the question is, if something is now seen as sexist, racist or offensive to people, should we still be laughing it?

On the one hand, it would be a shame to lose great art from the past, and surely we can appreciate great entertainment for being just that. Entertainment.

But on the other hand, should we be propagating material that perpetuates or normalises outdated or offensive views?

Perhaps as individuals it is our duty to approach every piece of work with care. Rather than boycott all past films, we should challenge any difficult views they portray and use them to open up discussions on problematic topics.

But the 9 to 5 film isn’t quite finished fighting yet

So 9 to 5 has already sparked various discussions on the topic of workplace harassment. But the film isn’t quite finished with its feminist fight.

A sequel with a modern twist is due to come out, bringing the trio of actresses back together. Fonda and Tomlin will also be collaborating on the film as executive producers and writers.

The film will tackle the on-going issues of gender-balance and harassment in the workplace. But it will also address how office dynamics have been complicated by technology and the modern age.

I certainly look forward to seeing what the sequel will bring. Its timely release gives us hope that the movement to tackle harassment started from #Metoo is far from over.

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Hanna Greeman Contributor
Hanna is a languages and logistics specialist. She is currently living in Australia working as a freelance writer.

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