Women have borne it, bear it, helping themselves in part—a part difficult to measure—with fantasies. It is difficult to know at the moment to what extent fantasies help us to bear our difference when we find ourselves exposed to the exhibitions of the male sex. Usually one finds out when it is too late, when, that is, the power to fantasize diminishes. Then the female mind surrenders and falls into that state which psychologists call depression.
—Sexual Difference: A Theory of Social-Symbolic Practice, Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective, 1992
There is an image in Nine to Five in which the three stars (Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda) appear as magical fairies overlooking their kingdom where they have just freed the workers from their shackles. Wearing yellow, pink and blue, respectively, they resemble the macaron-colored fairies of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. This scene is a cornerstone for the film, in which fantasy is presented not just as catharsis, but as a necessary tool for empowerment and social change. When patriarchal culture has dominated under the guise of “neutrality” for thousands of years, true alternatives can only be found with the wildest of imaginations.
In fairytale terms, many films in the Vengeance is Hers series could be described as variations on the witch’s revenge: they deal with the curse of power in a male-dominated world. Yet this brief scene in Nine to Five assures us that this film is not about one woman against the world, but a group of three women with three different strengths. Rather than focus on the dialectic of power or lack of power, their power is not in question. Their unity emphasizes their differences.
This fairytale scene is the Tomlin character’s stoned-out fantasy of how she would off their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” of a boss. She, Fonda, and Parton have left work early and headed to a bar after their boss (Dabney Coleman, delightfully unctuous and dim) fires a coworker unfairly. “Let’s revolt,” jokes the blowzy office drunk.
After drinks and a joint, the ditzy divorceé Fonda confesses that her fantasy of revenge against their boss is a sepia-toned vigilante scene. For married Parton, it’s a sexy western, where she’ll lasso her boss and molest him as much as he does her. And Tomlin says hers is fairy tale. “You know,” she says, “gruesome, horrible and real gory, but kind of cute.”
The first step for progress is to reappropriate the stories, the cinema itself.
Their fantasies begin to come true when Tomlin finds that she’s subconsciously acted out the details of her fantasy by replacing “Skinny & Sweet” with rat poison in her boss’s coffee. Whoops. The other two women also seem to have predicted their futures through active fantasy. Fonda ends up in a standoff with a pistol, and Parton ties up their boss with telephone wire. The choice of weapons is appropriate and welcome after so many phallic daggers and .45s elsewhere in the series.
The film is satisfactorily directed by Colin Higgins, and driven by the pounding bass piano in the theme song and the constant incantation of “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” until the words, and those actions, become a joke. The real auteur of this film is the producer, Jane Fonda. Rather than make films to fund her political activities, as she usually did, here she attempts to fuse her politics with money-making popular entertainment, and succeeds.
The genesis of the film was Fonda’s tour of six American cities where she urged female clerical workers to unite and organize. She then hired screenwriter Patricia Resnick (the uncredited writer of Robert Altman’s 3 Women) to go undercover as a secretary in a large insurance firm and write the script. Resnick’s script was rewritten by Higgins, but there are interesting parallels between this and the Altman film. In both, three women join together in a familiar but fantastical world. But 3 Women is dystopian, and Nine to Five utopian.
While their boss (Mr. F. Hart) is held in a semi-complicated kidnapping plot, the women find his absence at work is hardly noticed. They sign memos to introduce job sharing, a day care center, and general improvements to productivity and quality of life. But even in this fantasy, equal pay seemed like too much.
Fonda’s feminism was always more continental than homegrown, and it’s interesting that at the time this was released, in the early ’80s, strides were being made in Italy to reconcile feminism with socialism. Multipolarity implied that, as Lidia Menapace stated in 1983, “A gradualist strategy—first we’ll construct socialism, then we’ll take women’s liberation into account, and then the survival of the planet—is no longer tenable.”
To modern audiences, the title alone is a fantasy. The idea that working nine to five was once possible, instead of eight to eight, or a freelancer’s twenty-four-hours-a-day, may be in itself inspiration to revolt and organize.
If you like this article, please subscribe to n+1.