Thus, the heroine of this movie is Tess McGill who is not simply one of the tired, poor, and huddled masses, we see on the Staten Island Ferry in the opening scenes of the movie. “I am not steak,” she insists. “You can’t just order me.” Tess is intelligent, plucky, and, in the parlance of 1980’s Wall Street, “hungry.” She sets her sights on the firm’s entry-level program, but it is restricted to Ivy Leaguers who don’t need the money. Tess, who looks, talks and walks like a blue-collar Staten Islander, initially doesn’t fit the bill. Once she is unceremoniously fired from her job working for a pompous executive, who sexually harasses her, Tess seeks a secretarial position under Katharine Parker, an uptown rich girl currently navigating a successful ascent on Wall Street. Katherine is a woman of almost exactly Tess’s age, but with a different set of accessories. For example, she talks in a low, modulated voice, and wears more businesslike clothes, and has serious hair. “If you want to get ahead in business,” Tess muses, “you’ve got to have serious hair.” Tess gets along fine with Katherine at first. Katherine plays a game of just-us-girls and pretends to help Tess. She says “Bring me your ideas and we’ll see what we can make happen.” She serves as a role model for Tess, who takes off her tricolour eye shadow. junk jewellery and patterned hose in favour of a more businesslike look. However, despite Katherine’s encouragement to make business suggestions so that Tess can get on, Tess is restricted to running the errands and pouring the coffee. “I’d love to help you, but you can’t busy the quarterback with passing out the Gatorade,” Katharine says.
Katherine goes on a skiing holiday and breaks her leg and is supposed to be in traction for six weeks. She asks Tess to look after things, giving her access to her closet, her computer and her business associates. Then Tess accidentally sees a file in her boss’s computer and finds that Katherine was about to steal one of Tess’s brilliant suggestions and claim it as her own. This makes her fighting mad, and so she begins an elaborate deception in which she masquerades as an executive at the firm, and figures out a way to meet a guy named Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford), who is the right guy at another firm to make the deal happen.
Necessarily, the film concludes with Tess owning up to her deception and exposing Katharine’s fraud. But the question of how far she has come remains. She is rewarded with an office and an “assistant” at the end of the film. Thus, the film’s conclusion, framing Tess in the window of her new office and then against the vast, impersonal skyline of New York, can be read either as a realization of her professional aspirations or as the completion of her transformation from working girl to career woman (Goldsmith, 2006).
According to Corliss (1988), Working Girl is a fond anthology of old Hollywood’s romantic comedies. He says the film’s plot may parse like All About Eve from the scheming Eve’s point of view, but its heart is with every ’30s heroine who must conquer class prejudice — with wit, charm, bravado and a little larceny — before she can win the nice guy away from the mapcap heiress. Other critics tend to agree. Kempley (1988) says Working Girl is a ‘delectable reworking of the ultimate girl’s myth, a corporate Cinderella story’. Yet she points out that it is much more demanding if it is to be a fairy tale heroine these days, compared to the heroines of 1930’s movies. She says ‘happily ever after is hard as hell’. This is especially so in relation to three factors highlighted in the movie. These are:
- Class Distinctions in the Work Place
- The Historical and Cultural
- Context Ownership of Ideas
Each of these will now be examined in more detail:
CLASS DISTINCTIONS IN THE WORK PLACE
Working Girl is a sharp edged comedy about an important, often slighted subject during the 1980’s: the invisible class barriers in the United States. It shows that in the upper echelons of business (in this case a Wall Street, Ivy-league brokerage banking house), colour and religion are no longer barriers as insuperable as they once were, if the individual has the right sort of education and breeding. However, someone without the right sort of education, without style, still has a tough time in those businesses, irrespective of ability (Kauffmann, 1989). Ebert (1988) succinctly describes the situation Tess faces :
‘The problem with working your way up the ladder of life is that sometimes you can’t get there from here. People look at you and make a judgment call, and then, try as you might, you’re only spinning your wheels.’
That’s how Tess McGill feels in the opening scenes of Working Girl. She is intelligent and aggressive, and she has a lot of good ideas about how to make money in the big leagues of high finance. But she is a secretary. A secretary with too much hair. A secretary who rides the Staten Island ferry to work. It seems there is no way anybody is ever going to take her seriously. She says ‘you can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you’re trying to get there. And if you’re someone like me, you can’t get there without bending the rules’. Thus, to get ahead she must become Katherine. Now when Tess talks, everybody listens.
HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL CONTEXT
Working Girl is set at a time when women were beginning to make a voice for themselves in the workplace. Despite significant barriers, women everywhere were beginning to demand more and more. Kempley (1988) animatedly described the situation as thus:
‘The divorce rate being what it is, Prince Charming just isn’t the answer anymore. Today’s Cinderella first sets her sights on a career, and if the prince is part of the package, so much the better. Girls in glass slippers want car phones, briefcases, seats on the stock exchange. And, fairy godmother, make that pumpkin a leveraged buy-out.’
Kempley (1988) points out that the Statue of Liberty is the frequent focus of the film, that fecund symbol of the opportunity that nearly eludes Tess. Capitalism proves to be a girl’s best friend and thus, capitalism is the ultimate Cinderella story (Kempley, 1988).
However, at this time (the late 1980’s) it is well documented that women still earned less than men. The figure at the end of 1989 was that the median income for women was sixty eight per cent of the earnings for men. This earnings gap had been relatively constant over the previous fifty years. In 1939, women who were employed full time, year round earned 63.6 per cent of the wages of men who were similarly employed and this figure remained above sixty three per cent during the middle of the 1950’s. In 1972, the earnings of women as a percentage of men’s fell to a record low of 56.6, and by 1981 the figure had risen only to 59.2 per cent (Boatright, 2003). The difference between the jobs of men and women are a recurring theme of Working Girl. It is hardly surprising that when Tess meets her new boss, Katherine, she says ‘I’ve never worked for a woman before’. Similarly, scenes from the movie show all the lower paid administration jobs in the large open planned offices filled by women, yet when Tess twice presents her proposal to management they are all men. When women do hold higher paid management roles, like Katherine, they are Ivy-league educated and have a reputation for being tough and imitating their male colleagues. Jack at the party is surprised to see Tess dressed so femininely. He says ‘you’re the first woman I’ve seen in one of these things that dresses like a woman, not like a woman thinks a man would dress if he was a woman’.
Apart from the issue of pay and job discrimination, Working Girl also highlights the sexual harassment women have to endure in the workplace. One scene involves Tess going for a ‘meeting’ with a male superior about a supposed promotion. However, it turns out that this is not what the meeting was all about at all but had more sleazy intentions behind it. Tess, clearly angry with this situation, retaliates but is fired from her job. She is given no support from management. This highlights the fact that improper sexual conduct in the workplace has long been a problem for women. It also highlights the fact all too often, such matters are regarded by employers as a personal matter beyond their control or as an unavoidable part of male-female relations (Boatright, 2003).
OWNERSHIP OF IDEAS
Another issue raised in this movie is the ownership of ideas. Katherine steals Tess’s business proposal and passes it off as her own. The ownership of ideas is an area which is subject to much debate, precisely because the contributions of employers and employees are so difficult to disentangle. Ideas are different to inventions or discoveries which, of course, can be protected by intellectual property law. Ideas, however, do not enjoy such protection. The law in the United States has tended to favour the more powerful party, namely, employers. Thus, the triumph of the employee, Tess in Working Girl, would seem to be one of the few cases in which this has occurred. Contracts or other agreements that spell out in detail the rights of employers and employees are clearly preferable to acrimonious disputes that end up in court. Indeed, today many companies attempt to clarify the ownership of ideas by requiring employees to sign an agreement turning over all rights to the employer (Boatright, 2003). Such agreements are morally objectionable, however, when they give companies a claim on ideas that are outside the scope of an employee’s responsibilities (as was the case in Working Girl) and/or make no use of the employer’s facilities and resources (Michael, 1983).
Thus, these arrangements must be fair to all concerned. Companies benefit, of course, in the long run from new ideas, but by treating employees fairly they can motivate and retain the employees that came up with the ideas. Granting employees a greater share of the rewards might be one solution (Boatright, 2003). Another would be, as in Working Girl, the promotion of employees to management. As Boatright (2003) points out, when such issues are taken to court in the United States, the courts have often invalidated agreements that force employees to give up the rights to ideas or inventions that properly belong to them. The laws in most of the other industrialised countries of the world provide for sharing the rights to employee ideas or giving additional compensation to employees especially for highly profitable ideas (Lieberstein, 1979).
Working Girl is truly an inspirational movie. Its tagline is ‘For anyone who’s ever won. For anyone who’s ever lost. And for everyone who’s still in there trying’.
It shows that, with the right attitude, a girl from Staten Island can overcome prejudices relating to gender, education and class. Tess says poignantly ‘I’m not gonna spend the rest of my life working my ass off and getting nowhere just because I followed rules that I had nothing to do with setting up’.
Working Girl comes in at eighty-seventh on the American Film Institute’s list of the “100 Most Inspiring Movies of All Time” (Goldsmith, 2006). Thus, Tess McGill became an icon, or at the time a woman of the future. Working Girl deals with many of the 21st century challenges that faced America at the end of the 80’s. At this time many questions were asked. How will the working class be educated to survive and thrive in the computer age? And also, the focus of this movie, what role will women play in the computer age? This intoxicating movie provides the answer.