Brought to the world in 1988, Mike Nichols’ film WORKING GIRL portrays the struggle of working-class Staten Island native Tess McGill to break into the corporate world of Manhattan. She faces the schemes of her well-to-do female boss Katharine Parker, the (not unwelcome) advances of Jack Trainer, and the (very unwelcome) harassment from various other male workers. This film has been a feminist classic since its release, and for good reason. On the surface, it’s the story of how one woman’s hard work and determination helped her succeed in a male-dominated world.
However, if we dig a little deeper, we find a much more interesting and powerful message about women and class. Corporate success is a poor stand-in for gender equality, it turns out, because it’s almost impossible for working class women to achieve. Only by challenging and changing the corporate system can Tess even begin to uplift other women like herself.
You see, we have this narrative in the public sphere that if you work hard enough, you can earn anything you could possibly dream of. However, this mindset ignores rampant discrimination (in this case, on the basis of class) that prevents people like Tess from being rewarded for their efforts. Tess is the pinnacle of “personal responsibility,” constantly taking classes to improve herself, but she still cannot get promoted above her secretarial position. In the beginning of the film, we learn Tess has been trying to enter the “entree program” – likely some kind of business mentorship. However, her boss tells her she has been turned down again, reminding her, “You have to remember, you’re up against Harvard and Wharton graduates, whadda you got, some night school, some secretarial time on your sheet?” Despite Tess’s ambition, her hard work is not enough to make up for her lack of prestigious background.
These problems do not go away when Tess is transferred to Katharine Parker’s office. Katharine does not sympathize with Tess’s struggle, and in fact takes advantage of her labor just like her male bosses did. Katherine is everything Tess isn’t. She’s poised fashionable, and well-educated. She’s even younger than Tess; Katharine, in less time than Tess, has gone much further in her career. This isn’t because Katharine has worked harder than Tess. It’s because Katharine has had access to resources that Tess could never obtain. Working Girl has gotten flack recently for pitting Tess and Katharine against each other, advancing the idea that there can only be one woman in the office, but this actually central to the film’s criticism of the corporate hierarchy. By definition, there is not room for everyone at the table; competition—and exploitation—is required to climb the corporate ladder. Katharine being a woman does not make her want to help Tess succeed, because Tess could be a threat to her corporate power.
The real problem with Katharine is that she has the audacity to convince Tess that she alone holds the keys to her success, while Katherine herself is taking credit for Tess’s radio idea. This is the perfect analogy for the problems with initiatives like Lean In or #Girlboss—they convince struggling women that they are the cause of their own suffering, which is absolutely not true. Sitting above Tess while the secretary laces her ski boots, Katherine says, “Tess. Tess! Look at me. Who makes it happen?” to which a slightly confused Tess responds, “…I do.” As if speaking to a child, Katharine asks again, “Who does?” to which Tess responds insistently, “I do, I make it happen.” Katharine’s affirmation is a clever foreshadowing of the main plot of the film: “That’s right. Only then do we get what we deserve.” Only when Tess recognizes Katharine’s dishonesty does she truly take Katharine’s advice to heart. Within the corporate feminist schema, working class women can’t just “make it happen” themselves unless they break the rules and lie, because the system is built against them.
When Tess realizes Katharine stole her idea, she uses Katharine’s prolonged absence due to a skiing accident to steal her life. Using the upper-class credibility afforded by Katharine’s accent, clothes, and name, Tess takes back her radio idea and pitches it on her own. Some viewers might be uncomfortable with this turn of events because Tess lies to get ahead instead of relying on her merits. But, once again, that’s the whole point! I think Tess put it best when her best friend Cynthia told Tess she was ruining her life: “No, I’m trying to make it better. 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, okay?”
At the end of the movie, Tess has succeeded. She finally becomes the boss and begins to change the corporate system. With a new job at Trask Industries, she has her own secretary. Knowing how it feels to be on the other side of the desk, Tess forges a much more egalitarian relationship with her secretary than other bosses, insisting her secretary, or “assistant” as the woman likes to be called, only get her coffee if she’s getting some for herself. As the camera pans out to a broader view of the building and the cityscape, we are left with the impression that this is the beginning of the new era, when workers will be more highly respected in the workplace regardless of their backgrounds.
None of us is free until we are all free. Working Girl reminds us that a feminism without class consciousness leaves a lot of people out. Only by challenging the powers that keep lower-class women down can we all get a little closer to gender equality.
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