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'9 to 5' Is the Feminist Pro-Union Movie We Still Need Today

"9 to 5" is a remarkable tale of women who’d had enough—who unionized in solidarity, and made the necessary changes to improve the lives of workers.

by Noa Azulai
Jul 27 2018, 3:30pm

Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox

I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never seen 9 to 5 before this week. When Dolly Parton announced earlier this week that the movie will get a sequel, I knew it was time to watch the classic 80s film starring Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin as three secretaries battling their sexist and abusive boss. The plot is extremely up my alley: the trio get super high one night, fantasize about killing their evil boss, kidnap him, and take over the company. This movie is a beacon of hope for all the women who, in their spare time, plot resistance movements against offensive and oppressive male bosses and the institutions enabling them.

The nearly 30-year-old movie opens to the sound of Dolly Parton’s original hit song, “9 to 5,” which became a No. 1 hit and an anthem for women’s and workers’ rights. With lyrics like, “They just use your mind and never give you credit,” and, “You’re just a step on the boss man’s ladder,” it’s not hard to see why.

Slime seems to drip off Franklin Hart Jr’s body as he stands to meet the women in his office. Violet (Tomlin), the senior office supervisor, tells new-girl Judy (Fonda) that she’s the one who trained him—yet he was the one promoted to VP. He talks at the women about business and teamwork, and wonders aloud how they could ever succeed without having played football or baseball.

Big surprise here: This man is also a sexual predator. He routinely calls his personal secretary Doralee (Parton) to his office to harass her, despite her clear protests. He accidentally-on-purpose pushes pens off his desk in order to stare at her cleavage as she picks them up. He refuses to let go of Doralee’s hand, even when she politely says, “Sir, I’m married.” To top it all off, he tells his coworkers that he’s having an affair with her, so her colleagues dislike her because they think she’s sleeping with the boss.

Meanwhile, Violet is robbed of a long-overdue promotion because the boss claims clients “just want a man in the room.” Once again, her male trainee emerges on top, though the company would fall apart without Violet's work. The boss fires a woman for discussing pay, refuses to tolerate unions, and violates the personal autonomy and space of the people in his office. This “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” as Judy calls him, represents the broader workplace environment in which powerful men are emboldened to abuse those unlucky enough to be around them.

Judy, Doralee, and Violet get fed up and hatch a plan. They kidnap and tie up their boss at his home, and then the women transform their workplace. They bring life to the office, painting the gray walls a brighter orange and allowing personal items on desks. They institute a flexible work hour policy, maximum paid leave, in-house daycare, substance abuse and addiction counseling, and make new hires that are diverse in race, gender, and physical ability. The company is recognized by the president of the board for increasing productivity by huge margins in only six weeks—the time it took for women to take over and establish fair labor practices.

“The biggest point that ends up getting made is that when your workers are happy and feel cared for, they like coming to work and they’re gonna do their job better,” Natalie Brant, reference librarian and union steward for the State Library of Oregon, tells Broadly. “The healthier the staff, the happier they’re going to be. They’re not stressed out about finding daycare or getting to work at exactly 9 a.m.”

She adds, “It’s not like it's some female utopia. The entire company is more efficient when the ladies implement the new labor practices.”

This movie, which had me laughing at my desk, is also profoundly upsetting—even more so when we consider how much this toxic workplace culture hasn’t changed. I’ve felt these women’s same violation when a man entitles themselves to touch my body, and the exasperation when others take credit for my work. I’ve also experienced the comfort of sitting around a table of women, sharing the tragic similarities of our daily experience.

At the 2017 Emmys, the three stars of 9 to 5 presented an award together, and used that platform to take a moment to insist that they would not be controlled by another “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” in town: Donald Trump. Now, as she prepares for the creation of another 9 to 5, Fonda affirms that she hasn’t seen much progress with workplace harassment since 1980. “I’m sorry to say the situation is worse today,” she told reporters at a Television Critics Association press tour this week.

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9 to 5 is a remarkable tale of women who’d had enough—who unionized in solidarity, and made the necessary changes to improve the lives of workers. It’s a model of intersectionality, inclusivity, and organizing. Honestly, I’m blown away by the poignant social commentary demonstrated in this film. I’m ready for a sequel, which I hope will shine a light on activists working with labor movements, #MeToo, and #BlackLivesMatter to chip away at the violent power structures that keep many trapped and powerless.

“It would be really great to address ageist hiring practices,” Brant says of what she hopes to see in the sequel. “Obviously, [the women] are older, and are probably still working. Ageism is a big issue that doesn’t get a lot of attention among discriminatory practices. It would really speak to where the women are now.”

“But,” she says, laughing, “I also would kind of want it to be another #MeToo: Destroy the man, and take over.” I agree.