What was initially conceived as a drama of three working women overthrowing their company’s “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” of a boss became, against all attempts to keep it from being “too much of a feminist line,” a hectic outgrowth of the second-wave feminist movement. Nine to Five landed in American cinemas in 1980 as a mainstream comedy feature and went down as one of America’s highest-grossing comedies, helped by Jane Fonda’s spark of an idea, Lily Tomlin’s deadpan sarcasm. and Dolly Parton’s emphatic charm, for whom it was the established country musician’s first acting role.
From Tomlin’s opening lines, the screenplay feels sparse and refined, setting the film up as a sharp office satire in a vein similar to the now-ubiquitous Office Space (1999), except with more pronounced sexist undertones lacing the conversations of the predominantly-female workers, whose two-faced, passive-aggressive commentary gives the workplace an undercurrent of stereotypically catty distaste.
As the film goes on, however, the screenplay delves further away from its clean, albeit quietly sexist and stereotypical opening, at one point devolving into an over-the-top stoner flick. The formal boundaries of Nine to Five’s three leading ladies are broken down as their murderous fantasies against their boss, Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman), are enacted on screen, and the script soon unravels into pure, chaotic nonsense, with the body-stealing sequence and subsequent morning-after capture and imprisonment of Hart encapsulating a small, darker thriller in the midst of a ridiculous screwball comedy.
The over-the-top nature of the film culminates in a final, overwhelmingly positive happy ending for the leading ladies, and by this point, the feminist undertones are blaring out in full force, a battle cry calling out in support of the second-wave feminist movement that swept the United States from the early sixties leading up to the late eighties. The ladies’ one lost battle against unequal pay seems insignificantly thrown into the mix, as if this one failure on the part of the victorious female leads is supposed to undercut the overwhelming feminist ideal of the film – to keep it from being “too preachy,” as Fonda puts it in a Lifestyle magazine interview.
This strange, happy-go-lucky ending highlights the dichotomy of farce and social commentary in Nine to Five and, with the screenplay’s many shifting faces from satire to stoner flick to thriller and physical humor, makes it difficult to appreciate the film as anything more than a fun, female-driven screwball comedy. It may, in fact, encapsulate some of the issues regarding the second-wave feminist movement in a time where mainstream portrayals of women in the office still revolved around the ditzy, passive-aggressive stereotypes found in television, film, and novella.
Given a closer reading of what passes off as normal and uninteresting in the world of Nine to Five, the film’s extroverted feminist message runs contrary to its portrayal of the woman in the post-industrial society. The film’s opening montage depicts the modern working lady as dopey and clumsy, struggling with a morning routine that involves such difficulties as catching a bus, using a Xerox machine, and keeping coffee inside of your cup. When introduced to the modern working environment, we find an office filled with assumptive, passive-aggressive women, whose poison-laced conversations, underhanded gossip and judgmental hatred pits them against each other in a way that the patriarchal boss couldn’t hope to achieve through any liberal smattering of sexual behavior and harassment.
In these less pronounced details, without the context and conditioning of the outspoken feminist movement of the sixties and seventies to guide the audience towards the central battle between Hart and the hard-working leading ladies, a differing, accidental feminist message runs parallel to the film’s aggressive affront. Perhaps the lesson to take away from Nine to Five relates to its stereotypical portrayal of the working lady and the social rules of female-to-female interactions, and the trio’s subsequent ability to triumph over the patriarchal workplace by encouraging a more honest, open, and team-oriented environment that welcomes men and women of all races, ethnicities, disabilities, and backgrounds – an ideal much more in line with modern third-wave feminism.
While the ridiculous farce of Nine to Five ultimately undermines Fonda’s attempt at meaningful labour and gender commentary and derails it into brainless feminist propaganda, we may still find insights into modern feminist ideals from its more restrained features.