Workin’ It: Women and Film in the 1980s

Paper by Juno Azuz Zacher.

In an iconic scene from the film 9 to 5 (Colin Higgins 1980), three women are sitting around a table, stoned, taking turns imagining what they would do to their sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot boss Mr. Hart (Dabney Coleman). It’s Doralee’s (Dolly Parton) turn. We see her riding in dressed as a cowgirl on a horse in a Wild West setting, and go into an office assuming the role of the boss. Doralee then tells Mr. Hart (now the secretary but her boss in real life), “Hey hot stuff, grab your pad and pencil and get your buns in here.” She then goes on to tell Hart to turn around so she can look at his butt, compliment his cologne, order him to take off his tie because she doesn’t like it, to unbotton his shirt, gift him a scarf and make him uncomfortable, squish his face into her breasts, and try to have sex with him. All of this Mr. Hart had done to Doralee. Then, as Hart tries to leave, the cowgirl traps him with her lasso, ties him up, and the scene cuts to her roasting him over a fire. This scene clearly portrays the stereotypes that women were up against in this time, and ties into feminist ideas of destroying the patriarchy.

The 80s was a time of advances for women and feminism, but also a time of great backlash against feminism, and the two films 9 to 5 (Colin Higgins 1980) and Baby Boom (Charles Shyer 1987) show both. From policies passed during Ronald Reagan’s presidency to the husbands who just didn’t want their women to leave the house to the women behind them, retaliation came from everywhere. But women were still banding and fighting together. While the film industry, they soaked this all up. These themes resonate today as feminists continue to fight for equality in the workplace.

By 1980, many things had already begun to improve for women in US society. In 1973, it is was declared that the Constitution protects women’s legal rights to an abortion ( Editors). In 1974 and 1978, laws were made to help pregnant women- the Supreme Court ruled that pregnant women could not be forced to take maternity leave on the assumption that they were incapable of working, and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act banned employement discrimination against pregnant women- and in 1975 states were denied the right to exclude women from juries.

But more change came flooding in during the 80s. Many women were seen rising to positions of power in the United States; Paula Hawkins was the first woman to be elected in 1980 into the Senate without following her husband or father while Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court in 1981. Furthermore, Sally Ride was the first American woman in space in 1983, and in 1986 the United States Supreme Court decided that if a business is discriminatory based on sex, then it can be declared a hostile or abusive work environment (which was very helpful for sexual harassment cases) (Milligan).
But with these steps forward came retaliation. The 1980s was a time of great backlash against feminism. From 1981 to 1989, Ronald Reagan was president, and he had a very anti-femenist agenda, which made many women very concerned when he was elected. Jon Lewis explains in his book American Film: A History, Second Edition that Reagan’s presidency made the rich richer and the poor poorer, which actually helped the big Hollywood studios thrive (358). But Reagan far from helped women. In 1981, a conservative budget was made that mostly attacked social programs that helped single mothers and poor minority women out a lot. Because of this, by the end of 1984, these types of social programs had had their budgets cut on average by 25%, the number of children that were living in poverty had started increasing for the first time since the sixties, and around a million people that had previously had help from the government lost their benefits (Coste).

Also, women made up only eight percent of Reagan’s appointees to federal positions, and these women were usually only appointed to fields that were children and family related. “Wage disparity” was also not a concept Reagan and his advisors wanted to use. They recognized that there was indeed a pay gap between men and women, but they did not agree with feminists that it was due to gender discrimination. The pay gap was simply explained by different experience levels, as they put it (Coste). The Government did not want to see that women were just as capable as men.
Of course, Reagan wasn’t doing all of the work to put women down. Susan Faludi states in her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women that
“Reagan spokeswoman Faith Whittlesey declared feminism a ‘straight jacket’ for women. As a California sheriff explained it to the press, ‘Women are enjoying a lot more freedom now, and as a result, they are committing more crimes.’ The US Attorney General’s Commision on Pornography even proposed that women’s proffestional advancement might be responsible for rising rape rates. With more women in college and at work now, women just have more opportunities to be raped (4).”

Everything that was going on politically in the 80’s affected what was coming out in films. There were many women working in the film industry until the late 1920s. Then in 1960-1990 there was an increase of women again. The greatest period of change was in the 80s and 90s, when independent films offered women, along with other minority groups, a chance to tell their stories (Lewis 358). Linda Ruth Williams notes that before the 70s, there were only two ways that women could become directors in Hollywood: by first becoming an actress or a secretary/ production assistant and then working your way up the ladder. Only very recently have women been picked up in Hollywood as directors for their independent films (Williams 300).

Linda Ruth Williams explains that during the 80’s and 90’s, more and more women started to take the route from a writer to a director. This includes the famous Nora Ephron, who took this route in the late 1980s and wrote and directed many popular chick flicks such as Sleepless in Seattle (1993). Many female actresses were also very annoyed with the limited roles they were given, and went on to establish themselves as producers and directors (Williams 303). The women seen in films and television shows in the 80s were very rarely strong and independent women. Then when they were strong and independent, they also had to be evil or neurotic, or without human feelings (History 111 On-line Modern US History). For example, the film Working Girl (Mike Nichols 1988) shows a strong business woman, but she is without feelings and is very uncaring. Some notable women that made the change from actor to director include Judie Foster, Penny Marshall, and Diane Keaton (Williams 310).

In 1985, women only represented 4% of directors in the Director’s Guild of America, which is very low. If you look at what IMDb says for who the top ten directors were in the 1980’s, all ten of them were male. The men who were in film were getting all the attention. So when Barbara Streisand (a very successful female recording artist) became the first woman to direct, produce, co-write, and star in a Hollywood film in 1983 (Yentl), she got way less attention than she would have if she were a different sex(Lewis ).

Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin- three wonderful actors starring in the one of a kind film 9 to 5. The 1980 film follows three women, Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda), Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin), and Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton), who get together one night and imagine what they would do to get revenge on their sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot boss Mr. Hart (Dabney Coleman). But the next day it seems that Violet might have accidentally killed their boss, and the three try to clear up the mess before getting caught, one thing leading to another. As Simran Hans notes in the article “In Praise of 9 to 5 and the 80s Career Woman”, along with many other comedies about white white-collar women employees, 9 to 5 was a direct response to the women’s liberation movement in the 70s. As women started to master their new freedoms, filmmakers began to explore their professional anxieties, oppressions, and desires (Hans). Simran Hans argues, “What really distinguishes 9 to 5 from later films like Baby Boom or Working Girl is its politics. With its prankish anarchy, sisterly solidarity and unionisation of the workforce, 9 to 5 is a utopian socialist feminist fantasy. Even Parton’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics serve as a playful backslap of anti-capitalist solidarity.”

The film shows how women can come together to solve things and help each other up, unlike other later 80s films like Working Girl , where women are shown to only succeed when they bring another woman down. 9 to 5 very explicitly also shows mens’ backlash against feminism. The boss, Mr. Hart, is shown as everything the women say he is: sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical, and a bigot. At one point in the beginning ofthe film, as Hart is meeting the new employee, Judy, he states that he is glad Judy is a pretty one, for there have been some real prunes in the office. In another scene, Mr. Hart purposefully drops his pencils on the floor so that Doralee will pick them up and he can look down her blouse. During that same scene, Hart also tries to get Doralee to have sex with him, while both of them are married. Even more, the boss decides to give a promotion to a man instead of Violet simply because he is a man.

Hart isn’t the only sexist man in the movie. During the very beginning of the story, a man justifies to Hart why they need to hire Judy by saying, “She needs the job, she’s recently divorced,” Inferring that women are very vulnerable and cannot take care of themselves without a husband. Then, at the very end of the movie, Mr. Hart’s boss comes into the office. He is amazed at all the great changes that Hart had made (though of course the changes were actually made by Judy, Violet, and Doralee and Hart had taken the ideas for his own), like making a daycare center and flexible hours, except for the one that gave women and men equal pay, that one had to go.

There weren’t just pro feminist movies that came out in the 80s, though. Plenty of anti-feminist backlash movies were released as well, and the film Baby Boom is one of them. The story is about a work-is-life woman, J.C. (Diane Keaton), who just wants to move up the ladder. But then one day she suddenly inherits the baby of a cousin she had only met once when she was young, and her life is turned upside down. In the very first scene of the film, the image cuts to different women going to work around New York, with a background voice explaining that “As little girls they were told to grow up and marry doctors and lawyers. Instead they grew up and became doctors and lawyers.

They moved out of the ‘pink ghetto’ and into the executive suite.” Baby Boom starts out pretty pro-femenist, but then as the story progresses, some problems occur.
A big theme in Shyer’s film is that women cannot have a job while also having a child. During the beginning of the film, J.C.’s boss explains to her that if she wants a promotion then she won’t be able to have a family. Then once the work-is-life girl gets that baby, she loses her job because her boss thinks she can’t handle anything now. It’s like having a child makes you more of a woman in the boss’s eyes, and if you don’t have kids then you fit in better with all the other men in the office. So then J.C. moves out to the country with her new baby. She is able to start a baby food company, which is great, but it sends the message that women should only do baby and family related jobs.

As of 2019, barely any women work on films behind the scenes. An article from “Women and Hollywood” states that women only represent 10.7% of directors (which is not the biggest number but is still better than 1985’s 4%), 19.4% of writers, 24.3% of producers, and 70.4% of casting directors in the top 100 grossing films. Even more, only two women have ever won the Academy Award for Best Director, which are Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (2008) and Chloé Zhao for Nomadland (2020) . But the many ideas of women in the workplace, like that women cannot work when they have children or are not as smart as men, have diminished from many more minds. There are still many of the same problems from the 80s today, though- equal pay, women in government. There is still a long way to go for women and film. But things are still changing, even if slowly. Women are fighting for their place in the world and in film as we speak.

Works Cited Editors. “Women’s History Milestones: A Timeline.”, A&E Television Networks, 26 Feb.2019, .
Milligan, Susan. “Timeline: The Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S. | the Report | US News.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 20 Jan. 2017, 1:54 pm, .
Lewis, Jon. American Film: A History, Second Edition. 2nd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.
Coste, Françoise. “‘Women, Ladies, Girls, Gals…”: Ronald Reagan and the Evolution of Gender Roles in
the United States.” Miranda. Revue Pluridisciplinaire Du Monde Anglophone / Multidisciplinary Peer-Reviewed Journal on the English-Speaking World, Université Toulouse 2 – Le Mirail, 24 Feb. 2016, .
Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Crown Publishing Group, 1991. Hans, Simran. “In Praise of 9 to 5 and the ’80s Career Woman.” Little White Lies, 3 Mar. 2017, .
“Women In Recent US Cinema.” Contemporary American Cinema, by Linda Ruth Williams, Open
University Press, 2006, pp. 299–313.
“Statistics.” Women and Hollywood, . “History 111 On-Line Modern US History.” Into the 21st CENTURY: Issues and Problems, .

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